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Heads Up!

by Todd Arnold |  Published: Jan 01, 2006

It's truly a thing of beauty when you completely induce

your opponent's actions through psychology.

Heads-up play is an art form. As with all stages of a poker tournament, varying your play and psychology are crucial aspects. I speak a lot about not playing your cards, psychology, misrepresentation, the concept of likelihood, and varying your play. When you get shorthanded and heads up, you must be reading your opponents very well and be as unreadable as possible to them. And it is here that the above aspects are crucial.

Varying your moves during heads-up play will help you to confuse your opponent. You will be difficult to read and that will make it easier for you to read your opponent. You may be very good at varying your play and misrepresenting hands throughout a tournament, but it becomes much more apparent to your opponent when heads up as the action is happening quickly and you are the only one he is watching now. There are many different plays you can make when heads up. Limp from the small blind, raise different amounts from the small blind, fold to the big blind, limp from the small blind, and, when the big blind raises, you reraise him, reraise from the big blind, fold the big blind when raised, raise the big blind when the small blind limps, fire out at flops, check flops, check-raise flops, and all to varying amounts, etc. The reason I listed these is important. I want you to be conscious of what you have and have not done recently. For example, you just limped twice in a row from the small blind and he raised from the big blind both times and you only called. Well, now reraise or fold one when he does that or raise or fold first rather than even limp. It doesn't matter what cards you have. Just keep mixing up your play to get into his head. Allow him to think he can do certain things and can't do others until you know what he is thinking. I like to play a lot of flops and seldom raise very big preflop. I also seldom call large raises preflop. But I am always varying my plays. I am constantly asking myself what haven't I done lately and what message would it give him if I did such and such a play? Mix it up.

The psychology involved in doing this is important for you to recognize, as well. Is he getting frustrated because you are letting him win only small pots? Is he raising large now because he is afraid to play you on the flop? Is he getting impatient because you have just been picking away at him? Do you know that he has no idea what cards you have because you showed him both A-A and 7-2 after limping from the small blind and how does he react when he is lost or confused? Make sure you are aware of his mindset and if he has grown tired of you making him willing to gamble at any moment. If you are paying attention to what plays you are making and what you would think of someone that was playing you that way, you will have a good understanding of his mindset and be able to play accordingly. Get into his head and oftentimes you will know what his next move is going to be even before he makes it. It's comical, actually. At times, I have known 100 percent that, based on my previous actions, my opponent is about to reraise me or go all in or try to trap me or whatever. It's truly a thing of beauty when you completely induce your opponent's actions through psychology.

Patience is critical during heads-up play. Keep telling yourself that he will grow impatient long before you do. Pick away at him little by little. Vary your play. Frustrate him. Give him only small pots while you take larger ones. Inevitably, you will see him start pushing a little harder and then just pick your spot to take him out. And, if you miss, go back to the same plan until you have the lead again and take your next shot.

When shorthanded or heads up, the concept of likelihood is very apparent. The likelihood of him holding a dominating hand or hitting his flop is low. Remember though, he is not going to believe you have much either. But, if you are varying your play, and, for example, you haven't raised big yet or in a very long time, and suddenly do so, you will probably make him doubt his hand enough to fold. It's all about rhythm. Make things stick out to him. Varying your play to the point where you make a move that is new will make him jump back and say, "Gee, I haven't seen that from him before, I'll wait for a better spot." And because of the concept of likelihood, he most likely does not have a good enough hand to call a confusing, new, or surprising play.

So, mix up your plays constantly, be aware of what he is thinking, stay very patient, don't force things, and be aware of the concept of likelihood enabling you to make him doubt his hand. Here's a little exercise you can try to illustrate what I am talking about (and this will probably get some mixed opinions as some people believe that heads up is all about the cards). Go into a low-dollar heads-up match online and play blind for a while. Do a bunch of these like this. Put a piece of paper or something over your screen so you can't see your cards. Just start making different plays until you see how he is playing. You may find him to be tight and folding to most of your raises, or he may be raising you often and heavily. Either way, try not to look at your cards unless he either makes a very large raise (four to five times the big blind) or you have seen the turn card.

Try all kinds of plays: call his flop bet only to lead out on the turn (blind); limp, fold, raise, reraise, call, etc. Just constantly tell yourself what move you are doing next. Make up a hand for yourself, if you want, and act on it. If you believe that's the hand you have, it's easier to make him believe it. It's fun and informative. I have done this in more than 50 heads-up matches and have won many. It usually ends the same, where I have been picking away at him with little moves here and there, he gets impatient, starts pushing with his short stack, I look at my cards (because it was a big bet relative to the blind), and when I have the hand I want to take a shot with, I call. I have even done this with one of my players who I coach online. We got down to heads up in a sit-and-go and I told him not to tell me his cards anymore. I just started doing different plays through the flop (if it got that far) until I could understand his opponent's mindset and knew what he was feeling. When I felt the opponent was getting annoyed or desperate and started pushing, we just picked a hand to call him with. It was especially funny this way, because after I said what to do and the hand was over, I would ask him what we had. He couldn't stop laughing because we were winning pots with 8-3 offsuit and a K-Q-10 board when we raised his flop bet. We even folded aces preflop from the small blind without any action just because I felt it was time to make him think we were playing solid hands and not over-aggressing. (laughing) Long story short, we destroyed the opponent. One thing is for sure, if you don't know what cards you have, there is no way your opponent can know.

I am sure some of you are laughing at my retarded exercise or even just flat out disagree with it. But, trust me, it will give you a whole new perspective on heads-up play and poker in general. Open your mind and stop worrying about your cards so damn much. Even if you don't win those blind matches, you will see certain trends and reactions from your opponents without being clouded by what cards you hold. When you play your next real heads-up match after the exercise, you'll feel like you are cheating by being able to see your cards. (laughing) Your thought process will be much more open and you will see the rhythm much clearer. Last point I want to make clear. Do not go into them thinking about being super-aggressive or raising often; just create an image and vary your play. This may mean you fold four small blinds in a row. Just keep doing different things. Another example: You fold four small blinds in a row, he raises three times the big blind from the small blind, and you suddenly reraise him big. What do you think he will think there?

Good luck and have fun mixing it up!

Todd Arnold is the trainer and co-creator of Visit the site or e-mail Todd at