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

>> If you’re looking for a new online poker room, check out the latest poker room reviews and ratings at GoonersGuide.com

Poker Pro: Flat call the raise or re-raise with a hand like 10-10?

Annie Duke Professional Poker Player

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is about how to play hands like middle pairs against a raise. This comes up when someone raises in front of you and you have the choice of flat calling the raise or re-raising with a hand like 10-10 (this comes up whether or not there are any callers in between you and the raiser).

There are arguments for playing it both slow and fast: Some players prefer the call and some prefer the raise. The justifications I hear have to do with risk and trapping and small-pot poker and the like; but in the end, the decision on whether to raise or not really comes down to math and decision making. I personally have no predetermined preference for either play. Instead I look at the specific situation I am in to determine which play is likely to be more profitable and give me fewer headaches – and that’s the choice I make.

Poker professionalSo, let’s look at how you make the most profitable mathematical and game-theoretical choice. Suppose you have a single raiser in front of you and you are playing $10/$20 blinds, the raiser makes it $60 to go and you look down at 10-10. You must analyse the math of the call versus the raise. Basically calling will create some problems. Assuming you are against a reasonably aggressive player, you can suppose the player is going to bet at nearly all the flops. Over 50% of the time, the flop is going to have an overcard in it. Now you have gotten yourself into a guessing situation: You aren’t sure whether your 10-10 is good in the face of the jack, queen, king or ace that just fell on the board.

Even worse, if the board does come all undercards to 10-10, you are still in a guessing situation if your opponent puts any amount of pressure on you. You are likely to end up committing a lot of chips in that kind of spot. The only card you can be really happy to see on the flop is a ten – and you are 7.5 to 1 dog to flop a set. Since you are only against one guy at this point, he is going to have to sail off to you for 7.5 times your initial call or $420 bucks just for you to break even to the original call, assuming you break even to all other boards – which might be stretching it since you don’t have the lead.

The take away is that in poker, it is generally a good idea to avoid situations that are likely to present you with headaches down the road. When the overcard flops to your 10-10, you are scratching your head wondering why you played the hand so soft. When the board comes up nine-high and your opponent puts pressure on you, you’re left wondering what on Earth you can beat besides a complete bluff and are in danger of either folding to the worst hand or losing your stack to the best one. Trouble.

But that does not mean that raising is always correct, because raising is not always the most profitable choice. When is it correct? When you believe that you will win the pot over 50% of the time from the moment of the raise. Why? Because in order to justify putting in the extra chips beyond the call, those chips have to be earning and serving a real and describable purpose. Let’s looks at the earn first.

You know that at a minimum you’re going to call with the 10-10. That means that the $60 call is already part of the pot. But now you are considering a raise, trying to decide whether putting the extra chips in the pot will do something good for you. The price you get on the raise will be about even money. With blinds of $10 and $20, the original raise of $60, and your call of $60, you should be raising the pot, which is $150. That means you will be putting in a total of $210 or so ($150 beyond the $60 call you were going to make anyway). So you are risking an extra $150 to win $150. That means your break even point on the raise is 50/50. If you think there is a greater than 50/50 chance that you will win the pot by raising, either right there or down the road, then you should go ahead and make the raise. Mathematically, 50/50 is going to be your break even point (this holds true even if there are other callers in the hand, since you will be raising the pot then as well).

But there are also compelling decision-making and game-theory reasons for choosing the raise instead of the call. First, you can knock out the rest of the field even if your original raiser doesn’t fold. And with a hand like 10-10, which you would really like to win without improvement, narrowing the field is super important. Second, you can take the lead away from the raiser so, when the overcards come, your decision becomes less difficult; since your opponent will check you, you can bet and find out right there where your hand is (you will usually just win it right there). Third, when the raiser does call, you can determine a very, very narrow range of hands he can have. You have much more information about his holdings and that will help you make better decisions after the flop.

Most importantly though, you are avoiding the tougher decisions you will be put to when you leave the lead to the other guy. This means that if you conclude the raise will be profitable, you should generally take that choice to make things easier on yourself. The reason I have no overall preference on the play is that there are lots of games where the raise doesn’t really buy you anything. It doesn’t increase your chances of winning enough. When your opponents are playing loose, they are going to call with too many hands, so you don’t really buy any information. And they are not laying down when they catch part of the flop, so you aren’t buying much of a lead. This kind of game comes up a lot in the early stages of online poker tournaments, for example. In those kinds of games I strongly lead towards the flat call.

Poker is totally situational. Once you understand the implications of the choice you make, like raising or calling, you can adjust your choices effortlessly to the type of game you are in.

For more poker tips from professional players

Comapre US friendly online poker sitesCompare the latest online poker rooms rated for USA residents


Pro Poker Tips: Those Tricky Middle Pair Choices

Professional Poker tips and startegy

Recently a couple of better players (that I was filming a poker show with) made the mistake of playing a middle pair out of position, and I realized that if these skilled and successful players make these kinds of mistakes, then the situation warrants shedding some light on to plug what could be a hole in many players’ games.

So what’s the mistake?

In both cases the players held a middle pair; in the first it was 9-9 and the second, 10-10. In both cases the players were small blind. And in both cases they were against an early-position opener in a six-handed SNG. Facing an early-position raise, there are a few options. Certainly they don’t want to fold, so throw that one out. The other 3 choices are to flat call, raise small or raise big (meaning the pot). Both players chose to raise small – the worst choice of the 3.

Why is that the worst decision? Because of the positional disadvantage in the hand.

Here’s the problem: You’re out of position with a hand that will flop an overcard to your pair more than 50% of the time. By raising small, you are making 2 errors. The first is that the original opener is obligated to call because he is priced in. Remember that when you choose to put money in the pot, the money needs to serve a purpose. When you raise with your middle pair out of position, there must be a purpose for putting money in above and beyond a flat call. Raising minimum serves no purpose: you aren’t protecting your hand, because the other player has no fold. You aren’t getting any new information from the other player since any hand he initially raised with he will call with as well. So you have not narrowed his range with the raise. Basically, by raising the minimum, you’re accomplishing the same thing as if you’d called – except you are committing more money to a pot for which you have a big positional disadvantage. Whether you call or raise the minimum, you learn the same amount about the other player’s hand (nothing new), so why make that minimum raise? Just to play a bigger pot when your opponent has the advantage?

The second problem with the minimum raise is that you are opening the action back up to your opponent. If you’re going to open the action back up, then the extra money you put in the pot better damned well be accomplishing something – either giving you some strong folding equity so you can win the pot right there without seeing the flop, or at least telling you something new about your opponent’s hand when he does call. The minimum raise accomplishes neither of these 2 things. The ONLY thing the minimum raise does is open you up to a move in – possibly causing you to fold the best hand.

Obviously the better choices are either just to flat call and play the pot small, not giving anything away about your hand and keeping the pot small when you are at a disadvantage; or raising big to pick up the folding equity and learn a lot about your opponent’s hand when he does call. Raising big actually allows you to take a nice lead on the pot. Since there are valid arguments for both calling and raising big, I would never fault anyone for taking either of these 2 choices – both are fine.

So what happened to the players who raised the minimum with 9-9 and 10-10? Well, the 9-9 player got moved in on by A-J and folded, demonstrating quite nicely why opening the action up to your opponent might not be such a good thing. The 10-10 player was called pre-flop by A-6 and then got bluffed off his hand after the flop, demonstrating why juicing up the pot when you’re at a positional disadvantage might also not be a good thing.

So – when you’re out of position, you must make a clear choice: Choose to play a small pot when you are at a big disadvantage or play the hand strong enough to get your opponent to fold. Do not make the non-choice – the completely non-committal play of raising but not raising enough to accomplish anything except the possibility of you being bluffed.
tickyFor more tops and poker strategy from professional players check out Pro Tips Directory at PokerLabRat.com

tickyFor the latest on how the top online poker sites rate and compare, here’s a link to the Poker Room Review Directory.

Is There Really Any Luck in Poker?

This poker blog post is based on discussions between Annie Duke and her brother and poker mentor, Howard Lederer.

Annie Duke professional poker playerNow anyone who has sat in at a poker table knows there is skill in poker, but the general consensus has been that there is a preponderance of skill, not that poker is a game that is all skill. Arguments for this have centered on the fact that good players, in the long run will come out winners, but in the short run, anyone can win.

So the argument has been that poker is a game with a significant luck factor, but over the long run the law of large numbers will play out and the better players will win. But is this really true?  Howard has come up with a very compelling argument that the answer to this is actually NO!

Say we program a machine so it knows the rules of Texas Holdem Poker. It knows that you’re dealt 2 cards. It knows that a flop, a turn, and a river comprise the community cards. It knows that you can check, bet, call, or raise on any given street. It knows the rules and mechanics of the game. But let’s also say that we programme the machine to play with no skill at all. This means the machine will randomly choose an action at any given decision point. Now, remember that on any given street there are up to 5 possible decisions (a bet and four raises) and our machine will behave randomly – how do your think the machine would do? Terribly, obviously!

If you put our machine into a short even like a sit-n-go, against 8 skilled players, it would lose every time. The skilled players would quickly come up with the most effective strategy against the machine, which would be to raise the minimum against the machine every time. This would always put the decision back on the machine for the lowest risk; 1/3 of the time the machine will fold, 1/3 of the time it will call and 1/3 of the time it will raise. And the machine will do this regardless of its hand. It will be as likely to fold aces-full as it will to fold nine-high. It will be as likely to call with top pair as it will be to call with five-high. You can see pretty quickly that our unskilled machine would never win, even in the short run.

Howard’s argument shows that poker players tend to drastically overestimate the luck factor in poker, mainly because, in general, we are playing against very skilled players and whenever we close the skill gap between opponents in a skill game, it appears that there is more luck involved.

Take baseball as an example. No one argues baseball is not a game of skill. And the same thing happens in baseball when we narrow the skill gap. If we take the Yankees and pit them against a Little League team, then the Yankees will win every time. But pit them against an equally skilled major league team, say the Red Sox, now luck appears to play a much larger role. But it is actually factors like injuries and the weather that become a more important part in determining the outcome of a game. While the better team will win over a series of games, the outcomes of a single game will appear to be determined by luck, but is actually due to factors outside the direct control of the teams.

And poker is no different. Good poker players will overestimate the luck factor in poker because they forget exactly how skilled their opponents are. The fact is that most players are very skilled at hand selection and betting theory, even in the smallest games, compared to the totally unskilled player – like our machine.  As in baseball, the more skilled your opponents are, the more it appears that luck determines the outcome in the short run.

To take that baseball analogy further, if we stick the very best poker professional in a $0.50/$1 NL game, that player will crush the game just as the Yankees will crush the Little League team. If we pit that same player against other top pros, the best player will win in the long run, although the short run outcome may be determined largely by factors outside the player’s control.

The interesting thing is if we took the same unskilled machine and programmed it to know the rules of lottery, it would perform the same as a human being. This is because there is no skill to the lottery. Once you know to fill out the appropriate number of numbers on the slip, and pay the attendant – you’re good to go. There is nothing more to the game – and yet lotteries are excluded from the current [US] anti gambling legislation, and poker is at risk. Seems illogical to me.

pro poker tipsPoker is a game of skill. It is a game in which the outcome is determined by skill as much as baseball is. Once we understand this, it is clear that poker should be set aside from gambling legislation that deals with games of chance since it clearly is not a game of chance. It is just a matter of getting people to truly and deeply understand the difference between games of skill and games of luck.

Annie Duke

USOK_1TOP POKER ROOMS FOR USA RESIDENTS – Safe, reputable poker rooms that welcome American players

Tilting is for losers!

Annie Duke professional poker player
Tilting in poker is for losers. So how can you stop tilting?

Tilting in poker is your biggest enemy. You can be a crack pot odds calculator. You can be the best in the world at reading people. You can know opponents’ betting strategies as if they were your own. But if you don’t have your emotions under control, whether you’re playing in-the-flesh or online, you will go broke.

You’re A-game can be one of the best in the world, but if you tilt regularly that will not matter, because if you are a tilter, you are not playing you’re A-game a good portion of the time.

Poker is a game of cold, calculating decision making. Every time the action is to you, you have to make a decision. If you make better decisions than your opponents, you will win. Simple.

Everyone knows you should never make an important decision when you are emotional. We make poor decisions when we are angry or hurt or sad. When you are emotional at the poker table, the same thing holds. We make rash decisions there too. When we are tilting, the chances that our opponents are making better decisions than we are is much greater. And when we are making worse decisions that our opponents, we lose. It doesn’t matter how great you’re a-game is if you are playing your C-game a significant portion of the time.

So how can you stop tilting? I mean your aces lost again, right? For the fifth time in one session, some bozo called you as a 5:1 dog and you lost. Who wouldn’t tilt under those circumstances? The answer should be YOU.

You need to look at poker as one long game spanning your whole playing career. In the long run we all get dealt the same cards. The people who play those cards best win in the long term. The people who don’t play those cards the best lose in the long term. In the short term, a bad player might suck out on you five hands in one session, but it’s those very suckouts that make them losing players. If you are in a game where people are consistently getting their money in bad, while you are getting your money in good, it doesn’t matter whether you are losing some of those situations; you are the favorite in the game – and the game is good.

The next time someone calls your all-in with 7-4 and cracks your aces, instead of getting angry and dejected, rejoice! If no one ever sucked out on you, it would mean that you’re not playing in a good game. Rejoice that opponents are willing to get their money in so bad against you. That is what makes poker a game you can win at. That is what makes you better than other players.

Focus on what suckouts mean for the quality of the game you are in, and bad beats will seem less like emotionally-charged disasters and more like bright neon sign flashing “Great Game” and with an arrow pointing to your table.

Another pro tip from the renowned poker professional, Annie Duke.

You can play against top professional online players (great to learn, great for the ego and potentially excellent for the bankroll) at these two great poker rooms:

bol50perBetOnline Poker (Chico Poker Network – Boutique-style poker – very stylish with some great play features. Players from around the world including most USA residents welcome)

bet365_90x60UKbet365 Poker (a member of Europe’s biggest poker network, iPoker, no US players, but heaps of international currencies accepted with squizillions of payment methods)

Check out the latest poker site reviews:

>> BetOnline Poker Review
>> bet365 Poker Review


Number One Tip for New Poker Players

Professional poker player Annie Duke

Pro poker tipI’m often asked “what is the biggest tip I can give new poker players?” Easy. My number one tip is always to play tight. Rom my experience, most new players play about 80% of the hands they are dealt in Texas Hold’em. In fact, the reverse should be the case: they should only play about 20% of them!

This probably isn’t earth-shattering news to anyone who has played a reasonable amount of poker. But it remains a deep concept that is worth deeply understanding.

The concept of playing tight actually only applies to the overall percentage of hands you play. When you are first to act or under the gun, you should play so tight that you only play around 5% of the hands you’re dealt; while in other positions, like the button or the big blind, you can drastically expand that percentage. It is only the average that should be around 20%. Up front, almost no hand should look good to you unless it is A-Q or better or at least 6-6 or better.

But why so tight?

There are many reasons to play super tight up front, but the one I want to focus on has to do with a decision making disadvantage.

Professional Player poker tipWhen we play poker, we never want to lose sight of the fact that it is a game of decision making. If you’re better at making those decisions than your opponents, you will win lots of money. The road to becoming the better decision maker is to bring to bear the maximum amount of information available to you. In poker this means using the information available to you to narrow down the holdings of your opponents. And therein lies the problem with playing loose up front. You will always be acting with the least info available because you do not know what your opponents are going to do after you. They, however, will always know what your action is when they get to act. They will have been able to watch you look at your cards. They will have been able to study your face, your body posture, the way you threw the chips in the pot when you acted. But you? You have none of that info.

Poker is just like this: if you’re second to act, you can really loosen up. You can call raises with hands you would never raise with in the first position, because you know you will be acting second throughout the rest of the decision making process – acting with maximum information. You will be able to limp in with a much wider range of hands when people have limped in front of you, because the dangers of getting raised behind you are smaller when only the blinds are left to act. And when the action gets to the button and everyone has folded in front of you, you can raise with 70 to 80% of the hands you are dealt; because everyone knows you will act last for the rest of the hand.

The poor guy under the gun? Well, for him the opposite is always true. He can’t limp in because the danger of being raised is too high – he has no idea what the nine people left to act are going to do. For the rest of the hand, he knows he will have to act early in the decision making process. Having no idea of the quality of his nine opponent’s holdings, he has to be more choosy about the hands he raises with, since the chances of someone waking up with a much better hand are so high.

Being the first to act in poker is like being handcuffed to the decision making process. SO play tight up front!

a5_wCheck out the latest poker room reviews and ratings (what’s hot and not). Where does your site rate?

2h_wRead more tips from professional poker players

Check Your Ego: You Can’t Play if You Don’t Know the Rules

Annie Duke professional poker player

I noticed a very interesting fact at this year’s WSOP. While the No Limit Hold’em tournaments have gotten much much tougher, the Limit tournaments seem much softer than they have been in the past. I have been at several starting tables where I wondered if some of the players had even played the game we were playing. My brother (Howard Lederer) was at a Stud 8 or Better table with someone who did not know the rules. This was a $2,500 buy-in tournament and that player did not even know the rules of the game!

I find it fascinating that people would be willing to pony up that much money to play a game they do not know. Now I have no doubt that many of the people are very good at another discipline of poker. I was at a Razz table where there were a couple of players who were very poor at Razz, but I was thinking that I would not want to be at a No Limit Hold’em table with them. The reason they were playing Razz poorly was because they were using the No Limit Hold’em strategies in the Razz game. Now they were applying those strategies very well, trying to put pressure on their opponents, making interesting later-street plays. The problem is that those strategies are inappropriate for Razz. So while I could see they would be very tough opponents in No Limit Hold’em, I was happy to have them at my Razz table.

Years ago when I was first starting out, I played Limit Hold’em as my cash game. I also played No Limit Hold’em, but that was only in tournament settings since it wasn’t spread much in live action. But the key here is that I was a Hold’em player and I was a good one, willing to sit in on the biggest Hold’em games that were spread, ones that could get as high as 400-800 during the WSOP. But my usual game was 75-150 Hold’em, which was the biggest Hold’em-only game that happened on a regular basis in Vegas.

At that point, the mixed games started getting really popular and those were soft games that played much bigger. The usual mixed game was 200-400, a much better opportunity to make money if you knew what you were doing… that is if you had good control of all the games in the mix. The problem for me was that I was a Hold’em player and didn’t have a grasp of the other games.

Professional poker tipsBut each game has subtleties that take practice and dedication to learn and master; and without mastery of those concepts you will play that game poorly even if you are an awesome player in another game. For example, since pots are often split in Eight or Better games, there are strategy consequences that just don’t apply to single-winner games like Hold’em and Stud. If you try to apply one-winner game strategies to split games, you will be a losing player in the long run. And even if you are the best Hold’em player in the world, you will be the big fish in the mixed games if you haven’t mastered the other games you are playing. To be a successful mixed player you can’t have a weak game.
So when I was eyeing these juicy mixed games years ago, my brother urged me to play low limit Stud before jumping into the mixed games. I had played a lot of Omaha Eight or Better by that point, but I had never played Stud before and he forbid me to get in those mixed games until I  understood Stud. So I started playing the $5-10 Stud games, and over the course of 6 months or so worked my way up till I was a winning 75-100 Stud Player. A lot of people made comments that I must have gone broke when they saw me playing $5-10 instead of the big Hold’em games. But I checked my ego at the door and just bore down to learn how to play so I could get into the mixed games. By the end of that year I was playing 200-400 HORSE and doing very well – because I understood all the games by then.

Poker tips and adviceIn actuality, stepping down in limits can be a decision that can keep players from going broke. I had my brother to guide me; otherwise I might have fallen into this trap as well.

So back  to the WSOP: I am seeing excellent players of one game, like Hold’em, jump into high buy-in tournaments for games they have no mastery of, thinking that it is all just poker. Well, that kind of thinking creates a big equity and bankroll mistake. Get each speciality under your belt. If you think about how long it took for you to become a truly good Hold’em player, you might realise that you can’t just sit down and play a game like Stud Eight or Better and assume you’ll know what you’re doing. Put in the work first!



bet365_90x60UKHaving played at bet365 Poker for years we really enjoy and recommend them highly. bet365 is the lead member of the Playtech iPoker Network.