I had the opportunity to play in my first heads-up no limit Texas holdem tournament this past week, and it was an interesting experience. This type of structure is fairly new in comparison to multi table Texas holdem tournaments, but has been around for a few years. Many of the same skills that are necessary to win multi table tournaments are required, but many things are also different.
The similarities start with the fact that one bad play or unlucky hand can end your tournament. Though it may not always be this way, the tournament I played in started with a large number of chips each round, so the blinds were never a huge factor. This allows skilled players to have a distinct advantage over less skilled opponents, as they are able to wait for situations where they are a clear favorite.
The biggest change is the inability to build a large stack and coast into the money rounds. Each round you either win or lose, and everyone starts each round with the same number of chips. Most players are not experienced in heads-up tournament play, and greatly misjudge the starting hand values.
The best strategy tends to be an aggressive one. Many opponents will fold far too many hands to aggression, and unlike full tables, many hands will win without improving by the river. I won showdowns with Ace high more than once and King high on another occasion. You should see almost every flop and should bet most flops until your opponent stops folding to your bets. Once you have them “trained” not to fold, then you can wait for a strong hand to capitalize on.
Continuing with the same idea, the biggest mistake you can make is folding too much. If you let your opponent run over you, it will be a short game. When I face an opponent who is hyper-aggressive, I quickly choose a decent starting hand and move all in over the top of his or her raise before the flop. Most hyper-aggressive players don’t want to play for all of their chips pre flop and this can sometimes slow them down a little. In addition, unless they have you completely dominated, which will not often be the case, you have a good chance to win with hands as poor as JTs or K9 when playing heads up.
Heads up play is about aggression and countering aggression. Like all forms of poker, take some time to practice your heads up play and before you know it, you will be in the money. Until next week, good luck at the tables!