Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


Heads-Up Headaches

by David Downing |  Published: Apr 06, 2009


Heads-Up HeadachesThey say one of the strengths of a poker player is to be able to play any game. In this way, you can play in the most profitable games, and not just the only game you know how to play. I started playing poker, over a decade ago now, and then the only game for the beginner to easily get access to in the UK was pot-limit hold'em, played in tournaments.

In some respects, this is a strange game for anyone to start off with, as the skill differential is quite sharp and although tournaments naturally contain huge chunks of luck built into them, which is good for beginners, the fact that you often have to play through all the streets puts a lot of pressure on the neophyte rounder. I then got into cash games and these were often played dealer's choice. Within a year I had played pot-limit Omaha, London lowball, pot-limit draw, high-low games with a declare, and such peculiarities as Killer (five-card stud, low only) and Shifting Sands (seven-stud, with your lowest card in the hole wild).

I even played a fair amount of what has now been termed Badugi, but was then pronounced Padouki. Unfortunately the rules of the game have been changed crossing the Atlantic which make the big bet version of the game much poorer. It is also amusing that U.S. poker historians seem determined to place the game into some kind of far eastern context, even though I was regularly playing the game in the mid-90s in Bradford, Yorkshire, before anyone in the U.S. even drew a card at A-2-3-4.

One of the things I never really had to play, or even had a desire to get good at, was heads-up tournament poker. The dynamic in the games I played was quite peculiar. Although the final table was nine or 10 players, only the top three got paid in a then typical 50/30/20 ratio, or even sometimes 65/25/10.

Because blinds were often high at this stage, and of the regularity of the same players on a small "circuit" of venues, deal-making became the norm. In actual fact, deal-making probably became a better skill than being able to play to the finish, and getting to the final table with a big stack so you could dictate the terms of such a deal was equally vital. There was a very nuanced strategy about the play and the deals as the final table progressed. For example, if you were the big stack, it was often counter-productive to offer a "saver" where the places that would not normally get paid would now get a nominal amount of money.

This made players who were sweating and squeaking to get into the top three places into a completely different mind-set altogether. In their own minds, their buy-ins would now be covered and they could gamble up this small profit into the big money through aggressive play. Weak-tighties suddenly became maniacs.

I once refused a nine-way split, even though I was the lowest stack. The chip leader hadn't ever won before and wanted to secure his win by ending the tournament. I felt I was much the better player of those remaining and wanted to see what happened. In another seemingly counter-intuitive example, as the chip leader in one final table, five-handed, I asked for more than first place, and eventually got only a fraction less than I would have got by winning the whole thing. The other four players were clearly desperate to make some money, and they took the deal gladly.

In such an environment, playing it out heads up was almost seen as rude. Unless you had a massive chip lead, why take the variance of high blinds and fateful cards, especially when your opponent was likely to be a familiar face and might do you a favour at some point in the near future. Of course these unofficial arrangements were often the bones of contention of fall outs and card throwing. It was rare that there were explicit partnerships, but if you gave a soft deal it was considered "good form" for the benefactor to reciprocate.

So, having played tournament poker for several years, I almost never played to the death of a heads-up conflict.

So why am I now playing heads-up sit-and-gos as a significant compliment to my poker playing?

The most important reason, as always, is profit. The main advantage of heads-up sit-and-gos is that they provide a healthy profit, without the variance of playing cash-style heads-up no-limit poker. Cash heads up is a game of massive variance, especially as the style necessitated is one of bluff and counter-bluff and exploiting thin edges. This, coupled with the ever present danger of tilt, makes the whole exercise very profitable but with the potential for eye-watering swings.

Sit-and-gos avoid this. If you make a bad decision, the worst you can lose is the tournament, which is a discrete, fixed amount of cash. Furthermore, tilt is mitigated as, if you lose one, you are right back to where you started, often with a different opponent. This is opposed to a cash game, where you are facing a villain licking his chops, hoping you are steaming and sitting on a big pile of your cash already.

It's a case of so far, so good, and it is certainly fun playing these all or nothing, ten minute or less, exercises in pure poker.

David has played poker all over the UK for the better part of a decade. Originally a tournament player, now focused on cash play and almost entirely on the Internet for the last three years, he makes a healthy second income playing a wide range of games. David is also an Omaha instructor for, a leading source of online poker instructional videos.