Mano a mano at the card table

Over the weekend I got to play a decent amount of online poker.   I played a 180 person sit n’ go and placed 24th, which wasn’t bad.  I imploded at the end, trying to bluff a better player.  Shouldn’t have done that.

I also played several 2 person matches, also known as "heads up" matches.  In a heads up match you and another player sit down with an equal number of chips and face off.  The blind bets (forced bets) increase as the game continues until one person has all the chips.

This is a very hard form of poker.   The weird dynamics of you playing alone with one other person can really warp your mindset.  You don’t have any perspective.  Because there’s only two of you, "high card" wins a lot of pots when nobody even makes a pair.  So you start playing lots of hands.  That makes it really hard to figure out what the other person has as well.  Since they’re playing 80-100% of the hands they’re dealt, they could have anything.  If poker is considered difficult because it’s a "incomplete information problem", heads up poker encompasses all the difficulties that description implies.

Heads up poker has been realtively obscure until last year, when NBC produced a heads up poker championship with the greats of the poker world and a few of the Hollywood crossover types.  Now, online, you can play against anyone by simply joining an empty "heads up" tournament table and waiting for the next person to come along.  It usually takes about 30 seconds and then poof, you’re playing someone, somewhere else in the world that you’ve never met.

Even knowing the player isn’t usually sufficient, as people tend to play differently heads up than they do at a table with lots of other players.

Knowing I needed to practice my heads-up skills, and not having time to wait for another big 180-person tournament to start, I put myself into the queue four times on Saturday to play heads up on the microstakes tables at Pokerstars.  For $5 each, I and another stranger matched wits.  I won 2 of my games and lost 2.  On Sunday I did it again, but played four person matches this time.   Four people each pay $5, and you square off against one opponent.  The winners of each match play each other, and the winner of that match takes the $20 prize.  There are no prizes for second place.  I won both of those.

Here are some important tips I learned through experience (my favorite method of learning poker skills).  However no book will really help you much in a heads up duel.  More than anywhere else, you have to play the player.  Watch how they bet.  They will show you their vulnerabilities, if you just pay attention.

It’s not the last hand, but the crippling hand you are looking for.
This was a lesson I both dished out and learned the hard way.  You’re not really trying to win the last chip in the other guy’s stack immediately.  To get there, you need to cripple them, to force them to play with so few chips that they start making bad decisions.  Once you’ve crippled them, and your stacks are unequal, you can start raising even your poor hands before the flop, as well as betting out on the flop when you think both of you have missed it.  In time you’ll simply grind them down, if they don’t just toss in their money on a bad hand out of frustration.

Try playing passive against the aggressive, and aggressive against the passive.
Two notable matches I played produced two wildly different styles of play.  One guy rarely ever raised and called repeatedly before the flop and then folded to a bet if he missed it.  Realizing he was calling too much and folding too quick, I started raising lots of hands, but especially any two cards over 10.  I bet the flop regardless, sometimes calling him down to the river if he woke up with a hand and I had some good cards.  Over time, the number of hands he played before the flop for raises that he folded whittled away his stack.  Also, because he so rarely raised before the flop I was able to catch a lot of hands cheaply and backed into a lot of good pots.

For my final match I squared off against a guy that had a bad habit of raising wildly before the flop (I guess he thought I was passive) and also making "too large" bets at the pot on the turn when I checked the flop.

To address the first problem I started making up random reasons to raise.  I’d say to myself, "If I get a spade, I’m raising before the flop".  Random techniques like this made it impossible for him to figure out what I had and caused him to raise less.

After a while I started to notice his second problem, of making bluffs at small pots $120 with large bets ($600).  I exploited this technique twice to cripple him and then finish him off.  It wasn’t that hard.  I played any two cards (like J2o) for a raise, since I’d slowed his preflop raising down and one of them was a random suit I had fixated on.   Then I hit the flop hard (224) but checked the flop to induce a bluff.  The turn came a 3 and I checked again.  He had caught a 3, and bet about half his chips at the pot to try and steal it.  I comfortably called here, and he turned over 53o.  He had a few outs, but didn’t hit them and so I took most of his chips.  I repeated the same technique a few minutes later to finish him off.