The heads-up poker format has long persisted as perhaps the ultimate test of a poker player’s skill. The bygone poker boom era of the 2000s left us with memories of epic heads-up matches involving Tom Dwan, Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, and other top players of the era.
Heads-up No-Limit Hold’em (HUNL) still produces plenty of marquee matchups. Phil Hellmuth recently went on an astounding run on PokerGO’s High Stakes Duel, with the poker tournament legend surprising many in the poker community with his run of high-stakes wins over some of his highly-regarded contemporaries.
Success at the highest levels of heads-up poker requires a commitment to studying poker strategy that’s perhaps more intense than any other poker format.
Upswing Poker presents its list of the top five best heads-up poker players of all time. This list is by no means exhaustive, but does include five players that stand the test of time as the top HU players the game has ever seen.
5. Dan ‘Jungleman’ Cates
One of the most enigmatic and accomplished players in the game, Dan ‘Jungleman’ Cates holds a well-earned reputation as one of the best all-around poker players in the world.
Jungleman won back-to-back titles in the $50,000 Poker Players Championship at the World Series of Poker in 2021 and 2022. While the game mix in that tournament doesn’t include heads-up No-Limit Hold’em, Cates has certainly proven himself as one of the toughest HUNL players over the course of his 15-year career.
Cates is one of the only players willing to step up to the heads-up challenge issued by Doug Polk in 2022. Cates and Polk renewed their rivalry in a highly entertaining match at the Lodge Card Club in June 2022, with Polk getting a $53,000 win after a six-hour battle at $200/$400 stakes.
While the latest chapter between Cates and Polk had a lighthearted feel (and played very much as an old-school “Texas Hold’em match), the two players often battled among a shortlist of poker’s top players in the online poker games of the 2010s.
Cates took on Tom Dwan in what turned out to be the last installment of the “Durrrr Challenge” series, which pitted Dwan against various challengers in heads-up cash games on the Full Tilt poker site.
The matches were meant to go 50,000 hands at $200/$400 stakes. After playing through about 20,000 hands, Cates held a more than $1.2 million lead over Dwan.
While rumors persisted for years over the potential completion of the matchup (and the status of Dwan’s penalty payments to Cates for not playing out the challenge), the Cates-Dwan match remains unfinished.
Nonetheless, Cates’ reputation as one of the best players in the game persists, and he certainly has plenty of heads-up No-Limit Hold’em experience to back that up.
4. Ben ‘Sauce123’ Sulsky
Much like the other players on this list, Ben Sulsky is a threat at many different variants of poker. Sulsky owns deep tournament runs in NLH, PLO, and of course heads-up NLH formats.
Sulsky was at the top of the HUNL economy in the early-to-mid 2010s, earning a reputation as one of the top heads-up players in the world.
When Doug Polk rose through the heads-up ranks in 2013, Sulsky was one of the only players willing to step up to the challenge of taking on Polk. Polk and Sulsky engaged in one of the most legendary heads-up matches in poker history.
Sulsky played HUNL matches at nosebleed stakes against Viktor ‘Isildur1’, Phil Galfond, Alex ‘Kanu7’ Millar, and Isaac Haxton, among others. Some of those matches played out at $500/$1000 stakes, and included both NLH and Pot-Limit Omaha.
‘Sauce’ is still active in the online poker streets, most recently as an Elite Pro on Galfond’s now-defunct Run It Once poker site.
3. Henri ‘buttonclickr’ Puustinen
The online legend known as “buttonclickr’ told PokerNews that he doesn’t consider himself to be the world’s top heads-up No-Limit Hold’em player, ceding that honor to Linus ‘LLinusLLove’ Loeliger (who you’ll also find on our list).
The player behind that screen name, Henri Puustinen, does put himself in the top three, however. The Finnish poker prodigy is still just in his 20s, but is already considered by his peers as one of the top overall players in the game.
While HUNL is Puustinen’s specialty, he also regularly plays high-stakes six-max NLH games and pot-limit Omaha games online. ‘Buttonclickr” also recently began appearing in televised live poker high roller cash games in the U.S.
Puustinen played a role in Doug Polk’s victory over Daniel Negreanu in the highly-publicized High Stakes Feud HUNL match between the two poker legends. Puustinen was one of the HUNL coaches employed by Polk during the challenge, which in itself is one of the biggest indicators of just how good ‘buttonclickr’ is at heads-up hold’em.
In addition to an unknown but likely very large sum of money won in the online poker streets, Puustinen also finished third in the $25,000 No-Limit Hold’em Heads-Up Championship at the 2021 WSOP.
2. Linus ‘LLinusLLove’ Loeliger
Perhaps the top all-around poker player in the game, Linus ‘LLinusLLove’ Loeliger crushes the toughest online poker games in world. Playing at the highest stakes and against the most respected players in the poker community, ‘LLinusLLove’ is always among the most feared players at any poker table in which he sits.
Carrying on a tradition established by Tom Dwan in the poker boom era on Full Tilt Poker, Loeliger often takes on the challenge of high stakes heads-up matches against the top players in the game. Analysis of some of his biggest pots in the HUNL streets can be found on many a YouTube channel in the poker realm.
Some of Loeliger’s heads-up opponents have included Wiktor ‘Limitless’ Malinowski, Stefan ‘Stefan11222’ Burakov, ‘Berri Sweet’, and Timofey ‘Trueteller’ Kuznetsov. Another of Loeliger’s frequent opponents, Henri ‘buttonclickr’ Puustinen, considers Loeliger as the world’s top heads-up player.
You can check out Upswing Poker’s analysis of a heads-up hand between Loeliger and ‘Berri Sweet’ here.
While it’s impossible to track just how much the Swiss poker pro has won at HUNL, Loeliger routinely finds himself in six and seven-figure pots online.
The #1 player on our list might not be able to beat Linus head to head in 2023 (though they’ve never played), but his incredible list of accomplishments earned him the top spot.
1. Doug Polk
Upswing Poker founder Doug Polk undoubtedly sits among the world’s best No-Limit Hold’em players in almost any format. Polk built his legend, however, in the heads-up streets.
Polk began his poker journey in the online micro stakes in 2009 (under the PokerStars screen name ‘WCGRider’), and in the early 2010s began to focus on heads-up NLHE play. By 2013, Polk was widely considered to be the best heads-up poker player in the world, to the point where no one even wanted to play him at HUNL.
One of the biggest heads-up matchups in poker history played out in 2013, with Polk taking on Ben ‘Sauce123’ Sulsky in heads-up NLH at $100/$200 stakes. Sulsky was one of the most feared heads-up players in the world at that time, and was one of the few willing to take on Polk at the high-stakes HU tables.
Polk took $750,000 off Sulsky over 15,000 hands, and won an additional $100,000 side bet.
Never one to shy away from a heads-up challenge, Polk’s resume includes high-stakes heads-up matches against Dan ‘Jungleman’ Cates, Victor ‘Isildur1” Blom, Alex ‘Kanu” Millar, and poker legend Daniel Negreanu.
The matchup against Negreanu played out in late 2020 and early 2021, and the match dominated poker news headlines throughout that period. Polk and Negreanu engaged in 25,000 hands of heads-up play at $200/$400 stakes, and Polk came away with more than $1.2 million in winnings against his longtime foe Negreanu.
While Polk briefly retired from poker in 2018, the match against Negreanu seemed to reignite his interest in the game. Polk issued an open heads-up challenge to the world in 2023, and anyone willing to take him on at $200/$400 stakes can step up to the plate:
Some of Polk’s challengers at the Lodge so far have included billionaire Cates, Bill Perkins, and poker pros Scott Ball and Kevin Rabichow.
Polk’s poker resume includes millions of dollars in winnings across multiple formats, including multi-table tournaments, online poker cash games, and live cash games.
A three-time WSOP bracelet winner at the time of this writing, Polk almost claimed a fourth WSOP championship in 2023. Polk came in second in the $25,000 No-Limit Hold’em Heads-Up Championship, and at this point a HUNL bracelet might be the only major accomplishment that still eludes the poker superstar.
Check out this analysis of five high-stakes HUNL hands from Upswing Poker coach Dan ‘DougieDan’ McAualay: