I played my first real heads-up no-limit cash games yesterday. I’ve played heads-up in tournament situations before but I’ve never played a pure heads-up game. I’ve been hearing so much about all the heads-up nosebleed action through Twoplustwo (Isildur, Durrrr, Jungleman, PA, and all those guys) that I got a little intrigued. I felt that working on heads-up would definitely improve my game.
Heads-up is obviously a very different beast than any other format. I won’t go into any of the tremendous strategy differences here; you could fill several books with strategy talk, and I’m not the person to do it. I will just talk a little about some of the interesting psychological and tactical considerations that occurred to me as I was playing and learning yesterday. Some of this will probably be old hat for experienced online and heads-up people, but you might find it interesting if you’re like me and new to these concepts.
I was only playing 50 cent-1 dollar blinds, which is a $100 max buy-in on PokerStars (I don’t know if they have other, deeper tables available.) I played with one main player; a purported woman from Texas. We played for probably 2.5 hours. I played with maybe 3 other players, but several of them hit-and-ran me for a few bucks as soon as they were up a little.
Caution in the Beginning Stages of the Game
That’s always a big consideration when you’re playing online; how long do you think this person is in it for? Are they going to leave if they win a few bucks? Are they going to leave if they lose a few bucks? Are they tied on until one of you cries mercy? This consideration leads me to play much more cautiously in the beginning stages of a heads-up game than I usually would.
If I could be 100% certain that a player was going to be sticking around no matter what, I’d feel much more comfortable coming aggressive from the start, and making aggressive semi-bluffs, overbets, and all-ins. I might lose a buy-in immediately, and that would be okay to me, because a lot of my play would be meta-game, long-term considerations. But without knowing that a player’s gonna stay, I don’t want to just toss him chips on a big bluff and have him disappear.
You run the risk of having a guy in a multi-player game walk off with your chips, too, but at least you’ve got observers for your meta-game moves in that case.
So, to me, the heads-up games that I played were a very interesting dance. Feeling out the other player, seeing how they acted when they were up, seeing how they acted when they were down. How long have we been playing? An hour – that’s probably a good indicator that they’re willing to play this for a while. Do they re-buy immediately if they drop below the minimum buy-in?
Once I became confident that the Texan player was sticking around for the long haul, I started feeling more comfortable being aggressive. She was very aggressive from the start; obviously pretty decent. She raised her button probably 90% of the time, and three-bet me around 15% of the time. (I don’t have a HUD installed so these are just my approximations.) I had to raise my aggression to match her aggression, 3-betting more than I felt comfortable with at first, and then finally escalating to a couple defensive 4-bets just so she knew she couldn’t run over me. Her raise amounts were always the same; very orchestrated and precise, very quick and confident. All-in-all, I was quite happy to beat her for a buy-in. Not a significant amount, by any means, but the important thing was that I felt that I was holding my own quite nicely.
Less to Lose = More Aggression
I thought the other interesting psychological consideration is in how people play when they’re around the minimum buy-in amount. I think it’s probably true that if a player is up a significant amount and then drops down to near the buy-in level, those players are going to be playing much more aggressive and reckless than they otherwise would. This is because once they get within spitting distance of the minimum buy-in, they know that they don’t have a good chip stack to protect, and they know that if they do get caught short, they can just re-buy again to where they just were.
Basically, it’s just an inverse of how good players play more cautiously and more thoughtfully when they’ve got a dominant position than when they’ve got nothing to protect. This definitely came into play during the game yesterday. She had auto-rebuy on (your stack is replenished to the min buy-in amount automatically if you dip below) and I had to take into consideration that once she dropped down to near $100 she was going to increase her aggression level. So I saw this coming and countered by raising pre-flop less, and letting her come to me more.
All-in-all, a good first outing into the world of heads-up play. I’ll be doing more of it.