Heads-up poker is a whole new ball game.
As there are only two players, ranges are dramatically wider in every situation.
Quickly and efficiently adjusting your strategy to counter your opponent is crucial in heads-up no limit, moreso than any other game. If you use easily exploitable strategies at the wrong time, you will often find yourself bleeding away buy-in after buy-in.
By contrast, if you are able to identify weaknesses in your opponent’s game, you might end up with sessions like this:
In this article, I’ll explain how to approach the most common decision in heads-up: opening from the button.
The button in heads-up has a few defining characteristics that make it unlike any other position in poker:
- The button also posts the small blind.
- The button acts first pre-flop and last post-flop.
- Pot odds to call from the button are 3-to-1. (But you shouldn’t call. More on that shortly.)
All of these incentivize you to play a very wide range of hands (70%+) from the button.
So, what specific hands should you play? And how should you play them?
Let’s start with what you shouldn’t do.
Prefer watching to reading? Scroll to the bottom to watch the video version of this article
Why You Shouldn’t Limp from the Button (with Deep Stacks)
Limping from the small blind has become popular in recent years, but it should never be done in heads-up games (when deeper than 40BB) for a number of reasons:
- You can’t win the pot by limping.
Limping gives the big blind the opportunity to check and see a free flop with 100% of their range. This allows them to realize more equity with all of their hands, including some that would have folded to a raise.
- Limping makes the big blind’s life easy.
Unlike limping, raising forces the big blind to play larger pots with a positional disadvantage. A very compromising position.
- Limping is nearly impossible to balance
From a theoretical perspective, it is important to have a well-balanced strategy that is tough to exploit.
If you limp with only weak hands that want to see a cheap flop, the big blind can exploit you by turning up the aggression in limped pots (both pre-flop and post-flop).
What’s the solution? Limp some strong hands as well in order to protect the weak ones. If you show down AK in a limped pot, the big blind will think twice before attacking your limp…
…but there’s a glaring problem with this solution. You’re now taking some of your strongest hands- the ones you want to play huge pots with- and you’re limping with them. Do you really want to play a 2BB pot when you have AK? I sure hope not.
Using a well-balanced limping strategy does have an upside. It allows you to see a cheap flop with some weak hands that you would otherwise fold. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the downside of losing value with some of your biggest hands.
Now that I’ve lectured you on the dangers of limping, let’s talk open sizing.
(Note: Do you play 6-Max or live cash games and want to improve your HU and shorthanded play? Discover Doug Polk’s secrets in his new advanced heads-up training course. Click HERE or below to learn more.)
Sizing Up Your Button Opens in Heads-Up No Limit
Heads-up no limit is a reactionary game, so it should be no surprise to learn that the optimal open-raise size depends on how the big blind plays. Specifically, how often do they fold to steal and how often do they 3-bet.
(Other factors matter too, such as their post-flop tendencies, but let’s learn to crawl before we try to walk.)
Considering the Big Blind’s Fold to Steal Percentage
The first stat to look at when playing heads-up is your opponent’s fold to steal percentage.
If the big blind frequently folds to your steals, use a small open-raise size (2x-2.25x). Small sizes give you a better price to steal the pot, which allows you to open a wider range of hands and really take advantage of the big blind’s weak play.
If the big blind frequently defends against your steals, use a larger open-raise size (2.5x-3x) and tighten your range. This forces the big blind into larger pots against a stronger range while out of position. Not a favorable situation to say the least.
Considering the Big Blind’s 3-Bet Percentage
3-betting is the only way the big blind can force the button off of it’s equity pre-flop, which is why 3-bet percentage is a crucial factor to consider when sizing opens in heads-up no limit.
Versus an aggressive 3-betting strategy, tighten up your opening ranges so you will be able to defend a larger portion of your range against 3-bets. Opening too many hands that can’t continue against a 3-bet is a sure fire way to spew chips in heads-up no limit.
Conversely, you can open a wide range of hands against a player with a conservative 3-betting strategy because they are unlikely to blow you off of your equity.
Opening Ranges in Heads-Up No Limit
In heads-up no limit, every single time you fold your opponent wins the pot. This is why you must be willing to play a much wider range of hands than you would in any other game type.
If you decide to use a small open-raise size, you should open a huge majority (usually 90%+) of all starting hands. Here’s a 91% range to give you an idea of just how wide that is:
If you are using a more middling size, such as 2.5x, you should usually open between 80% and 90%. Here is an 82.5% opening range:
If you are opening to a larger size (3x) versus a loose opponent, it is usually best to open somewhere between 70% and 80% of hands.
As you may have noticed, even a ‘tight’ heads-up opening range is wide compared to the typical 6-max button opening range (usually around 50%).
Try not to be afraid of playing such a wide range of hands, even if you aren’t used to it yet. After all, heads-up is all about fighting for every pot possible. If that makes you uncomfortable, maybe try a different game.
Readless Button Play and Wrap-Up
When determining your button strategy in heads-up no limit, the most important factor to consider will be the big blind’s tendencies.
Of course, sometimes you won’t have any information on the big blind. When that’s the case, I default to a 2.5x open size with about 85% of hands.
As the match progresses, I tweak that default strategy to counter the tendencies of my opponent.
(Note: Doug Polk’s advanced HUNL training course is not just for Heads-Up players because understanding wide-range situations applies to all forms of poker. Click HERE or below to learn more.)
How to Play Heads-Up from the Button:
More poker strategy from UpswingPoker:
- Doug Polk breaks down when and how to use a GTO strategy vs an exploitative strategy (see: GTO vs Exploitative Play: Which is the Better Strategy?)
- Craving more heads-up info? Learn how to put the button to the test with How to 3-Bet in Heads-Up No Limit.
- Overbetting, check/raising and donk bets, oh my! Learn about them all in 3 Poker Concepts Every Aspiring Pro Needs to Know.
I’m a professional poker player and one of the pros here on UpswingPoker.com.
I’m a WSOP Bracelet winner, LAPT (Latin American Poker Tour) tournament winner and a multi-million dollar winner of live & online tournaments.