Heads-up Poker: Playing the positional advantages

Annie Duke on smarter Heads Up Poker Play

Heads-up poker play presents an interesting twist versus ring-game poker because you know exactly how often you will be playing out of position. In a ring game, there is only one position at the table where you know that if you choose to enter a pot you will be acting first for the rest of the hand, and that’s the small blind. You could end up acting from the button if everyone folds behind you; or even from the big blind if everyone folds to the small blind.

In heads-up poker, however, you’ll end up having to act first for the whole hand exactly half of the time. That means you’ll be acting at a big disadvantage 50% of the time in heads-up play. Now, don’t despair – because that also means you will be acting with an advantage 50% of the time as well. It’s how you manage your pots under each of these circumstances that will determine whether you win or lose heads-up.

We know for sure that hands are much more difficult to play out of position since it’s much more difficult to win the pot without improvement – to bluff – when we have to act first. And, when we do bluff, the line of play, well the effective line of play anyway, involves committing more chips to the bluff than we would have to if we were in position. Whenever we have to commit more chips, our success rate on the play has to be higher for the play to be profitable and our risk of ruin also goes up – two very undesirable things.

We also know that the flip side of bluffing is also true: Not only is bluffing harder to accomplish out of position, but getting paid on your hands is also more difficult. The check-raise with big hands often causes your opponent to fold. Just check-calling and playing the hand cagily makes you dependent on your opponent betting for you and increases the probability that you will get sucked out on. That kind of passive play, while more likely to induce bluffs, also increases your variance considerably in the already high-variance situation of heads-up poker.

Now, when you’re on the button, of course, everything flips in your favour. You’re going to be much more likely to win when your hand does not improve. Your bluffs are going to be cheaper, and they are going to be higher percentage and executed with more information since you can see what your opponent does in front of you before you decide how to play the hand. Not only that but when you do make a big hand, it’s going to be much easier to extract value when you get to act last. All of this comes together to tell us that acting in position is a huge advantage.

Heads up pokerSo, how do you come out a winner in a game where you are at a big disadvantage half the time, but a big advantage the other half of the time? Well, it has to do with controlling the pot. The most obvious way we can counteract our 50/50 disadvantage is by keeping our posts small under these circumstances. This means that if a player limps on the button against me, I am very likely to just go ahead and check the big blind heads-up; because if he wants to keep my pot small when I have to act at a disadvantage that is good for me, and I will oblige. The only type of opponent I would raise a lot there is one who had shown me that when he limps that he tends to fold to a raise. Obviously in that spot I will just try to pick up the pot early and not have to play it out with a positional disadvantage. I will also raise with hands that have a big enough advantage that they compensate for the positional issues… in other words if I had a hand I know is the best hand I will often raise after a limp – a hand like A-A comes to mind but not A-J. But outside that narrow range of circumstances, I will do what I can to keep the pot smaller when I am out of position than when I am in position.

Basically the idea is this: Get your opponent to put in lots of money when it is advantage you and little money when it is advantage him. When he limps the button, it is advantage him, but he is allowing you to get by for free. This of course brings us to the other piece of the puzzle: When you’re on the button, you should be making the pots bigger (by raising), especially against an opponent who folds or calls in the big blind all the time. As long as your opponent is not putting a lot of pressure back on you every time you raise, you should be raising a lot.

Play online pokerWhen you think about the match in this way, what happens is that you make sure that 50% of the time you’re at a big advantage over your opponent (when you’re on the button) that the money you churn through the game is much higher than the 50% of the time you are at a disadvantage. And that fact alone will take you a long way to being a winning heads-up poker player.

Higher churn when it is advantage you. Remember that.

Annie Duke

Annie Duke is the sister of famous poker professional Howard Lederer and one of the best known female poker professionals in the world. Interestingly, she has been known to speak up against women’s only tournaments, arguing that poker is one of the games where women and men could compete from absolutely equal footings.

>>For more tips and insight from professional poker players check out the pro tips directory at PokerLabRat.com

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Allen Cunningham on Stealing the Blinds

Tips from Professional Poker Players

The middle stages of a poker tournament can be a tortuous and tedious experience for even the most seasoned pro. The long trek toward the money, combined with a variety of potentially tricky scenarios you may face along the way, make it difficult to come up with one sure-fire strategy to help you through. That said, one aspect of mid-tourney play that’s extremely important is picking up pots pre-flop.

If you’ve been card dead in the first few levels you may only have as many chips as what you started with, or you may have been lucky enough to double or triple up early on. You may be minutes or hours away from making the money, depending on the number of entrants, and the average chip stack may be 20, 30 or even 40BB, based on the structure.

No matter what the situation is, however, it’s important to remember that once the blinds start to represent a decent percentage of your stack, you want to steal as much as possible. Raising the blinds a fair amount also balances your play and gets your big hands paid off more often. You’ll lose a few of your raises with speculative hands when people come over the top of you or call, but you’ll win a few as well, and raising will convince people to play back at you on those times when you happen to have big hands.

Bear in mind it’s still important to pick your spots. Continue to play tight from early position – stick to big pairs and AK – but from late position, start to attack the blinds with a variety of playable hands. At this stage of the tournament, if you’re going to play a hand, you should be coming into the pot with a raise every single time.

From the cutoff or hijack, for example, I’m going to open with hands like 9Ts, any Ax suited, all pairs, two picture cards, and even looser hands than that from the button. If I’m in late position and facing a raise, I’m either going to want to smooth-call with a really good hand or re-raise bluff them to pick up the pot pre-flop.

If somebody makes a pre-flop raise that’s more than 10% of my stack and I have a hand I want to play, I’ll consider moving all-in over the top of them. Any smaller re-raise commits me to the hand and flat-calling gives me no idea of where I’m at. If I smooth-call, my opponent is likely to bet first after the flop and without top pair or an over-pair, I’m going to be forced to either fold the best hand or, possibly, move all-in with the worst hand.

For example, let’s say somebody opens in mid-to-late position for 300 and you’re on the button with T-T and 2,000 in chips. In this situation, I would assume the raiser is opening with any two picture cards, any pair or suited Aces, so a hand like T-T is definitely strong enough to play against their range.

I think the best play here is to move all-in. This will put some pressure on your opponent if they don’t have a very good hand and they’ll be likely to fold. This move also helps you avoid the trouble you might face if you just smooth-call the raise and over-cards come on the flop. If you’re holding T-T and the flop comes Jack or King high, you really have no idea what your opponent has if they lead out, which means you will probably have to fold.

I’d recommend moving all-in with 8-8 or 9-9 in this situation too because you’ll get more action pre-flop and maximize the value from your coin flips. If someone raises pre-flop with A-Q and you elect to just call with a mid-pocket pair, they’re likely to miss the flop and check-fold. However, if you go all-in over the top and they call, you have a good chance to take their whole stack and set yourself up for the rest of the tournament.

By moving all-in with hands like A-K, A-Q, 9-9 and T-T in these situations, you’re giving yourself more opportunities to win pots by either getting your opponents to lay down marginal hands, or to make calls that put them in coin-flip situations. By mixing up your game a little and making these moves with monsters every once in awhile, you can also get your opponents to make some calls where they’re huge dogs.

Remember, the first goal of tournament poker is to make it into the money. By aggressively attacking blinds and antes when you think you’re likely to be a favorite in the hand, you can build a stack that will help carry you through the tough patches you may face in the middle stages, and put you in position to play for the win once the bubble bursts.

tickyNicknamed “Clever Piggy”, Allen has won 5 WSOP Bracelets. He finished fourth at the 2006 WSOP Main Event and was named 2005 WSOP Player of the Year.

tickyHaving played at bet365 Poker for years we really enjoy and recommend them highly. bet365 is the lead member of the Playtech iPoker Network.


Poker Reality Check: Mike Caro on Going Pro

Considering quitting your job or dropping out of school to play poker full time? Fine. Players approach me frequently to share that dream. “Will you train me?” “I can’t really pay your fees right now, but I’ll give you 20% of everything I win forever…” “If you stake me, you’ll never regret it.”

Mike Caro on being a poker professionalThe appeal of playing poker for a living is powerful. The romanticized vision of what it’s like being a pro is compelling. The satisfaction of making your own hours and always having pockets full of cash is irresistible.

Plus, when you play poker professionally, you’re a free spirit. You have no obligations to anyone but yourself. You answer only to yourself. You depend only on yourself. You’re a renegade, a bigger-than-life cowboy of the felt. Sure. But for most people it doesn’t turn out that way!

I’m not here to harm your hopes or damage your dreams. But, before you quit work or college, here’s a word of caution: BULLSHIT !!


Here’s how it is for most players. You’ve heard about going to bed when you want and sleeping till noon. OK, you’ll sleep until noon alright – but often as not it’s because you’re escaping from a huge loss and just don’t want to wake and face reality.

Over the years you’ll lose your perspective about money. You won’t be able to separate the cash that comes and goes in great tides during the course of a single poker session from the reality of everyday budget. You’ll carry around wads of cash when your bankroll is bulging and feel exhilarated by the knowledge you can buy 3 of everything you see in the electronics store – and all you’ll need to do is to win again that night and not even notice the expense. You’ll head straight for the poker tables after your new acquisitions, expecting to repair the damage.

Sometimes that won’t happen. The magic is missing and you gouge deep wounds in your money reserves. You play until it seems hopeless. And then you slink from the table (or sign-off), and sleep off the hurt. Long sleep, deep dreams. Except the hurt is still there when you awaken.

Maybe this stuff doesn’t apply to everyone, but be advised that it applies to MOST players. Sometimes it applied to me, so I’m speaking from experience. And I know it applied to the majority of aspiring pros I befriended during my poker career.

You’ll decide to play tournaments and the first times you enter you’ll imagine yourself winning. But you won’t. After 5 years and over 100 tournaments you’ll realize that no matter how well you play, you’re probably going to lose your buy-in today. And tomorrow. It sucks so bad, but you’ll get used to it. And then one day you’ll be in the money or even win 1st place and you’ll be inspired. If you’re really good, over the years you’ll make a profit playing tournaments, but you’ll feel futility doing it, with only 1 in 10 players making any money for a given event – and everyone else going broke.


And at the regular games, you’ll see players who can’t possibly have a winning expectation cashing out racks of chips. And you’ll wonder about the fairness of random events. And sometimes you wish there was a video of what happened to you tonight, just so you could prove you really do have the worst luck in the history of the game. Then there will be times when the cards connect hand after hand, and for those brief periods you’ll believe there’s justice in the poker universe.

You absolutely won’t keep a big enough bankroll to ensure survival in the games you play. So, sometimes you’ll find yourself broke and begging, even though you’re actually winning overall. You’ll regret not having kept more of your winnings tied securely to your bankroll. And you’ll return to the tables playing more cautiously for smaller stakes. And you’ll feel mildly embarrassed. But you won’t show it.

On nights when everything goes downhill, friends and family will ask you why you didn’t quit when you were $500 ahead toward the beginning. And this scrutiny will annoy you. You’ll reflect that when you win $10K, these same people never ask why you didn’t quit when you were $500 ahead.

And mostly, you won’t have the luxury and security of a regular pay check. Assuming your good enough and disciplined enough, money will come in waves. For months, you might be paying out with nothing coming in, or worse. You’ll never, ever be able to budget your life based on predictable income.

Girlfriends (or boyfriends) will leave you. Bankers will shun you. Relatives will demand to know why you’re not doing something more productive with your life. And you’ll only feel truly comfortable among a tiny circle of people who understand.

What about me? Didn’t I make a consistent living playing poker? Well, yes. But even with everything I know, it was a roller-coaster ride. It was a recipe requiring the ingredients of great joy and stunning victories, peppered with hard luck and crushing defeats. It was a life of chaos and exhilaration that only calmed when I decided I could make even more money sharing my research and selling books.

Now that’s the truth. So, if you still want to play poker full time, OK. Good luck on your great poker adventure!

Mike Caro

tickyThere’s lots of choice when it comes to poker networks including the iPoker Network, Microgaming Poker, Chico Poker and WPN Poker Networks. Check out the latest poker room reviews before you decide where to play your next hand of poker.

Mike Caro: A tip for destroying an unsuspecting heads-up hold’em foe

Chat and play with Mike Caro online at Doyles Room






It’s a really powerful concept for those of you who play shorthanded or heads-up hold’em. And for players in full-handed games, it will help explain how to play a recurring situation, too. I’m talking about the small blind, my friends.

Get ready, because this advice is hot and it’s coming right at you … Here’s one of the areas of poker where I believe even strong players falter. Let’s say that you’re playing limit hold’em, just you and one opponent. Picture that. Now, erase that picture. We’ll get back to it in a minute. Picture that same opponent, but this time you’re in a regular ring game. Well, when you’re in a full-handed game, you realize that if everyone folds and you’re in the small blind, you don’t really need a lot of strength to call or raise the big blind.

Should you usually stay in with 10-8 offsuit? You bet – either raise or just call. But you shouldn’t fold often. Repeating: Raise or call most of the time. What about 9-5 offsuit? Well, that’s a little trickier. Against many aggressive and sensible opponents, you’ll probably lose money playing that hand, but it’s close.

Why is it close? Because, let’s say that it’s a $100-$200 game. The blinds then are $50 small, $100 large. This means that you can just call for $50 and get 3-to-1 money odds at this point (subject to adjustment), provided that your opponent doesn’t raise. In a sense, you’re getting a 50 percent discount over what it would cost if you had to call that $100 cold. Without being too picky about how we analyze it, that means that if this play wouldn’t lose $50 if you called cold, you probably should call for $50. And guess what? That 9-5 doesn’t lose $50 if you call cold against many opponents with random hands.

So, what’s the problem with calling? A couple of big ones:

1. You might get raised because the big blind is live.

2. Your opponent in the big blind has position over you and will be acting last on every future betting round. This turns out to be a pretty big issue, and people who think position doesn’t much matter heads up are quite wrong. But, despite this positional disadvantage on all future rounds of betting, it’s often worth calling. And you might even raise, hoping that your opponent will fold his big blind. In fact, you should raise frequently against too conservative foes. Opponents who don’t defend their big blinds are good targets to put on your left. Generally, players on your left have a positional advantage and you’ll lose money to them forever. Unless there is a great difference, favoring you, between your skill and theirs, you probably will lose money against players on your left for your lifetime. There’s nothing much you can do about it, except to minimize the advantage with prudent decisions. But don’t despair. If you’re a skillful player, you’ll make much more than enough money from players to your right to cover this misfortune.

Neutralizing the Disadvantage But when you have a player to your left who inadequately defends the big blind, you can go a long way toward neutralizing this overall positional disadvantage. So, in addition to other seating factors that we’ve talked about in the past, consider changing to a seat where a player who doesn’t defend the blind often enough sits to your left. This will allow you to make money with weak hands that you otherwise would have thrown away. And many of the hands that you normally would play will be more profitable, because you sometimes will win the blind without a contest – and the amount of the blind usually surpasses the profit that you could expect against an active opponent.

But where was I? Oh – what can we play in the small blind against the big blind after everyone else has folded? Our conclusion is that – depending on the opponent, our image, and other factors – 10-8 offsuit is very likely playable in the small blind, and 9-5 offsuit might be. Hands such as 7-3 offsuit, 9-4 offsuit, and 7-2 offsuit, or even suited, often shouldn’t be played.

Now, here’s the deal. All that was about what you should do in a full-handed hold’em game when you’re the small blind vs. a big blind. But, suppose instead that the game is two-handed from the get-go. Now what?

I’ll tell you now what! Now, by convention, the blinds are reversed. Except on the first round of betting, the small blind is in the dealing position and will act last. The big blind, except for the first betting round, will act first. How does this change things? Monumentally! I’ve been able to consistently route opponents who don’t adjust correctly. You don’t need anywhere near as powerful hands now to raise or call the big blind as you did in the full-handed game after everyone else folded.

Huh? But, Mad Genius of Poker, you just said that you didn’t even need very much to call or raise previously. That’s right. And now you often don’t need anything at all. In some games against overly cautious opponents, you don’t need anything specific to play. Absolutely everything will do!

The Reasons Why Why is that? Two reasons:

1. There’s something I call the “bunching factor.” This means that when players voluntarily fold, it tends to imply that better-than-average cards remain among the players yet to act. This is logical when you think about it, because opponents are more likely to fold bad cards than good cards. And this means that when everyone folds before you raise that big blind, well … that big blind is more likely to hold a strong hand than he would if he were starting with a random deal. So, raising the big blind from the small-blind position in a full-handed game after everyone folds is not quite as good a deal as you might think (but usually it’s good enough). Raising the big blind from the small-blind position in a heads-up game is better than you might think.

2. Heads up, you’re going to be able to act last on the second, third, and fourth (final) hold’em betting rounds. This positional advantage can make up a lot of ground. This reversal of position when heads up also means that you usually should be defensive with medium-strong hands from the big-blind position and aggressive with them from the small-blind position. In other words, in a heads-up game in the big-blind position, you shouldn’t three-bet against a raise as often as you would in a full-handed game if everyone folded and then the small blind raised. You also should fold more hands in the big blind than you would in a ring game when the small blind raises.

Think about what I’ve said, and if you ever get the opportunity to destroy an unsuspecting heads-up hold’em foe – well, who am I to hold you back?

This article first appeared in CardPlayerMagazine.

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Professional Poker Tips: You have to be good with more than just cards to compete

Poker Professional Gus Hansen announced he was part card player, part businessman and part degenerate gambler – about 60/30/10. In this blog posting, Paul Waskica reckons this resonates with him, right down to the percentages…


Paul Wasicka Professional Poker Player and member of Team FullTilt

Competing as a poker professional - more than just cards


Unlike athletes and celebrities, poker players have to risk their own money to make money. In cash games they can only win what they put out there.



It’s a little different with tournaments, but tournaments require a lot more luck since one misstep and their run can be done. This high degree of risk makes diversifying really important, if they can swing it. I know my primary job, the thing I’m best at, is playing poker. But I have other interests that help balance out the emotional and financial swings inherent in the game.

I’ve locked most of my money up, where even I can’t get to it. But I’ve also put energy, and in some cases money, into an endorsement deal, a poker school, a book project, real estate, the stock market and, yes, a little sports betting.

As I’ve branched out, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make sure I’m part of that first group, the group that invested wisely, not the group that fell from grace in extraordinary fashion.

The hard part is knowing when to keep a hands on approach and when to let professionals handle some of it. In general I believe you should know as much as possible about what you’re getting into. The more you know about taxes, the better conversation you can have in April.

I also believe the absolute most important thing you can do is surround yourself with good people, people you absolutely trust. In addition to trusted family members and friends, it’s crucial to have a good lawyer, accountant and financial adviser. Scrimp on these and your decision might bite you hand. Just ask Martha Stewart.

The other thing that’s held me in good stead is instinct. I’ve made some mistakes, but generally when something feels like a bad idea, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly what the concern is. You should probably walk away. I’ve had guys come to me with deals that have to be done immediately or the “opportunity” would disappear. I decided a long time ago never to allow myself to be pressured into making a financial move, and that has saved me money more times than I care to count.

As for the degenerate gambler part, I’ll never get the feeling of wanting that rush completely out of my system. The key is to keep it under control. But as my life changes, I don’t ever want to lose that 10%. After all, that’s what got me here in the first place.

Paul Wasicka

a5_wFor other poker tips and advice, including more from Paul Wasicka, check out the PokerLabRat.com archive of Tips from Professional Poker Players

2h_wIf you’re USA-based, like Paul, play and chat with top professionals online at Bookmaker Poker or BetOnline Poker.

Learning poker from the professionals

Elite Poker Professional Gus Hansen shares an amazing hand from his Aussie Millions play.  How would you have played this one? An interesting read.

Gus Hansen - photo courtesy of FullTiltPoker.comHand 133 – Crucial hand 7 – Biggest Hand So Far – Busting the Defending Champ

Blinds: 4000/8000/1000, My position: SB, My hand: Ac Qs, My Chip Stack: 389,000

Defending champ Lee Nelson has been moved to the table. He opens in middle position for 24,000 and I decide to just call with my Ac Qs in the SB. The BB folds. The flop comes:

Qh Qc 4c

I think it is fair to call it an above average flop!

I check and as expected Lee bets 44,000 into a 64,000 pot. Having flopped three Queens with top kicker, or as some would say “a Monster”, I have a couple of different options:

Calling, trying to trap Mr. Nelson would be more tempting with no flush draw on the board. Another draw-back is that calling simply fails to put more money in the pot. For it to be a real trap, I would have to check the turn as well and could thereby easily give Mr. Nelson two free cards. I don’t like it!
The mini-raise – doubling his 44,000 bet to about 100,000. Trying to keep Lee in the loop but forcing him to put a little more money in the pot. It might also be interpreted as a cheap steal-attempt thereby inducing Mr. Nelson to make a move. I like it!
Standard raise – to about 150,000. Put even more money in the pot but might force Lee out of some marginal hands. Has some merit!
As you can see I prefer the mini-raise.

After some deliberation I make it 100k. Now it is Lee’s turn to think. Surprisingly fast he goes all-in putting a total of 326,000 towards the middle. Pretty happy about the development I don’t hesitate to call. After all – I am holding the third nuts – or more likely “the nuts” since Lee would have played it a little slower if he was holding either Q4 or 44.

There is now 716,000 in the pot, so the next two cards are very crucial for the outcome of this tournament. The defending champ is all-in and I am left with less than 50,000 in front of me. Whoever wins this pot will be well on the way to the final table and the other guy headed – or more or less headed – to the sideline.

Lee: Kc 9c
Me: Ac Qs

Winning percentage before the turn:
Lee: 23.1 %
Me: 76.9 %

Turn: Jh

No club but now he has a gut-shot as well. His winning percentage stays the same.

River: 3h

Nice – I win the 700,000+ pot.

So what really happened here? How did we get 700k in the middle at this stage at the tournament?
Let us take it from the top:
Lee’s opening raise from middle position with Kc 9c – a play that has my utmost sympathy.
My call in the blind with AQo is definitely not mandatory and I would generally lean towards the re-raise. Being out of position, facing a tough opponent with a big chip-stack, I opted for the more conservative call.
Checking the flop – Very straight forward as Lee will most likely take a stab with any two cards.
Flop bet by Lee – Good solid play! Continuation bets is a big part of winning tournament strategy and should be performed a very high percentage of the time – especially this time where he actually has a flush draw to back it up!
My mini-raise – described earlier in the hand.
Lee’s all-in move – OOPS. I do not agree with this play.

A much better option would be to just call and see what develops. Lee is in position and has the luxury of awaiting my next move. If I had an air ball there is a very good chance that I would give up and he would be able to take it away with a medium-sized bet on the turn. On the other hand if I had a Queen I would probably move all in on the turn and Lee would be able to get away from the hand without losing all his money. Not to forget, if a club comes on the turn we would get all the money in with me having the drawing hand.

As you can see Lee would have gained a lot of information by flat-calling. Not only would he have a better idea about the strength of my hand but he would also get to see whether a club showed up or not!

Furthermore, contrary to what people think I am actually a very tight player :-). At least in some situations… Very rarely do I check-raise a big stack on the flop with absolutely nothing. I was in a comfortable position and not especially looking for a spot to pull off a big bluff. Analyzing the hand again and again I have come to the conclusion that my most likely holding is a random Queen, with the Ace high flush draw next in line. None of which the Kc 9c fare well against.

I am not quite sure why Lee opted to move all-in but I have a strong feeling that my reputation played a big part in his decision-making.

tickyHere’s a link to the latest Online Poker Room Review Directory from the crew down the road at Gooners Guide to Gambling. (PS: A Gooner is an Arsenal Football Club supporter… derived from “Gunner”, but these guys are really just online gambling fans with a minor bias towards the red and white).