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Heads-up early stage strategy

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Possibly the biggest mistake most players make when playing heads-up poker is that they entirely skip the testing and learning phase and attempt to jump directly into the execution phase without any knowledge of how their opponent will play. This is bad heads-up strategy.

How to play the early stage of heads-up poker match

The first thing you want to do is put your opponent to the test when you're the small blind. If you're a good post-flop player limping from the small blind occasionally is fine, as long as you don't get into the habit of doing it with a particular type of hand strength. If you want to limp, do it with a variety of hands.

If you get into the habit of always limping with weak hands you're giving your opponent too much information.

If you only limp when you have a big starting hand, your opponents will likely pick up on this as well. So, if you're going to do some limping be sure to mix it up.

In general it's best to raise from the small blind.

In heads-up play most hands your opponent will be dealt will be hands he'd rather not call a raise with. By raising from the small blind you will normally pick up a lot of small pots pre-flop. If your opponent has typically been folding to your pre-flop raises it's more likely that he holds a decent hand when he calls or reraises.

In general, if you're going to limp it's best to do it from the big blind, and either raise or fold from the small blind. Although you don't want to fold too often from the small blind, there isn't too much to lose in the early stages of the game while the blinds are small.

Raising from the small blind

When raising from the small blind, there's no need to overbet. A raise of 2.5-3 times the big blind is usually enough to get your opponent to fold 2 rags. If he flat calls your raise, it often means he has a medium strength hand or something like suited connectors. If he raises (and doesn't do this consistently), it's likely that he holds a fairly strong hand.

If he reraises, it's more likely that he holds 2 big cards or a pocket pair of possibly any size. By forcing your opponents to respond to what you are doing, you gain the benefit of picking up information on his possible starting hands. At the same time, your opponent will get used to you raising with a wide variety of hands making it harder for him to figure out your possible hand strength. Now let's talk about post-flop action.

Post flop action

Although it's possible to win by just jumping in and playing, without doing some testing to feel out your opponent players open themselves up to more risk without much to gain.

When your opponent holds two rags that don't connect on the flop, they may be very willing to fold for a minimum bet. However, if you are betting 3 times the minimum, you're committing 3 times the number of chips for the same amount of information. If you're opponent picks up a hand, you now have 3 times as many chips to lose if he beats you.

Consequently, if your opponent flat calls your flop bet, you must make a much larger bet after the turn if you want to take another shot at the pot. For example: You hold Qd 6d, your opponent holds Kh 7s. The flop comes Kd, 6h, 10s. Suppose that the blinds are 10/20, and there's a total of 40 chips in the pot pre-flop.

If you come out firing 60 chips into a pot of 40, it's reasonable to say that you're going to get called 100% of the time when your opponent holds top pair. Now there are 160 chips in the pot. It's also very reasonable that your opponent may not raise in this situation, hoping you'll fire again after the turn. So, the turn comes and it's a blank, not a card that either of you fear. You decide to fire again to try to take down the pot. With 160 chips in the middle, you decide a bet of 120 which is reasonable.

At this point, most opponents are satisified that they accomplished their goal of extracting more chips from you and will raise so they aren't giving you a free card on the river. They make a big raise, and since you really have no qualified information about how this player plays, you're faced with a tough decision. For one thing, you have 200 chips committed to the pot that you really don't want to give away. Second, your opponent flat called your flop bet meaning that you really can't say for sure if you're beat or not. You may think he's firing at a missed straight draw or think that you can get him off of second pair.

Now let's say that you have been spending the first 15-25 hands testing out your opponent. Every time you make a minimum bet and your opponent holds nothing, he folds. When he calls, he usually has something or at least a decent draw. So you come out with your standard minimum bet which is 20 chips. If you bet 20 at the pot your opponent who is holding top pair is at the very least going to flat call you. Now there is 80 in the pot. Then the turn comes a blank and you decide to fire again. This time you fire out a reasonable 3/4 of the pot, for a bet of 60.

At this point it's unlikely your opponent will want to give you another free card and he'll most likely come back at you with a sizeable raise. If you've already done phase one, you'll have a good idea that you're beat and can make an easy fold while only losing a total of 100 chips. In scenario two you lost 1/2 of the chips as you did in scenario one, and you can make a confident fold. So, lets get deeper into talking about phase one, testing an learning.

Testing and learning

When heads-up play starts and the blinds are cheap, you want to gain as much information about your opponent as possible. If you lose a number of pots early on, they'll likely be for very few chips. Invest in the match early to gain the edge later when the blinds and stakes are much higher.

First, make a lot of minimum bets and see what you opponent will do. If they won't ever fold, try betting a little more and find out what amount it takes to get them to fold unmade hands. Most players are unaware that they will consistently fold for X number of chips when they hold unmade hands, very weak hands and weak drawing hands.

If you do enough testing, you can often learn more about their game than they know themselves. The next thing you need to do is to see if they are bluffing you often or not. If they always come out firing in first position after the flop you can't simply let them win over and over again, you must make some raises and represent a strong hand.

These raises will often cause a constant bluffer to stop bluffing so often, putting the ball back into your court. Another way to test your opponents hand is to check-raise them. Although the power of the check-raise has been diluted over the last few years, it's still a very powerful tool in heads-up play.

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