heads up poker rules

3 Heads-Up Rules Drawn from a $20,000 Buy-In Match

Let’s talk heads-up poker!

Today we’ll dive into a $100/$200 cash game match between Doug Polk and Ben ‘Sauce123’ Sulsky – world-class heads-up players who have faced off many times. 

Doug recorded the match and analyzed notable hands in an 11-part video series for his advanced heads-up training courseI’ve watched the first few parts of the series, and put together 3 heads-up “rules” that will help you dominate opponents.

Note that these rules assume a 100 big blind effective stack, and are less applicable when playing shorter stacked.

1. Tailor your open-raise size to your range

Some heads-up players choose to open-raise to 2x on the button; others 2.5x, or 3x, or somewhere in between. All of these sizes are fine to use with the right range.

Generally speaking, large open-raise sizes are accompanied by tighter ranges, and small open-raise sizes are accompanied by looser ranges. The optimal open-raise size depends on how the player in the big blind plays. Here are a couple examples:

  • If the big blind frequently folds to pre-flop raises, we should open to a small size (2x–2.25x) with a very wide range.
  • If the big blind rarely folds to pre-flop raises, we should open to a large size (2.5x–3x) with a tighter range.

We should also consider the big blind’s 3-bet percentage and post-flop tendencies when choosing our range and size. Now, accounting for every relevant stat is beyond the scope of this article. The main point to remember is that as an opponent’s stats get tighter, we can open more hands.

Doug recommends open-raising to 2.5x as a default. This middling sizing allows us to comfortably raise 80–90% of hands. We can adjust from there if our opponent is playing tighter or looser than average.

Watch a Sneak Peek of the Doug’s $100/$200 Analysis from Advanced Heads-Up Mastery

Double click to full screen

Join Doug as he shows you his shorthanded secrets >>

For more on this topic, check out The Beginner’s Guide to Opening the Button in Heads-Up No Limit.

2. Balance really matters

When playing tournaments, many players advocate a more exploitative style. This is acceptable when you only play with that specific player every now and again, or even just that one time. But when playing heads-up, you’ll likely come across the same scenario against the same opponent multiple times, and so balance matters much more.

Think about it: If Doug had consistently taken exploitative lines in his match, Sauce could have noticed over a large enough sample and employed a profitable counter strategy.

The closer we get to a balanced strategy, the more difficult it is for our opponents to exploit us in any way. Doug’s course goes into great detail about how we divide up our bluffs into each line, and how to properly balance our bluffs with our value range.

Read this if you want to discover how to play a balanced strategy.

3. Lean toward a polarized 3-betting strategy

There are two sides to 3-betting in poker:

  1. A polarized range consists of strong value hands, and is balanced with bluffs.
  2. A merged range consists of only value hands, including both strong hands and medium-strength hands with high playability (e.g., suited connectors).

When playing heads-up, it’s usually best to use a polarized strategy. However, if your opponent has an extremely low fold-to-3-bet frequency, then you should cut out the bluffs and 3-bet strictly value. On the other hand, you can 3-bet even more bluffs if your opponent has a high fold-to-3-bet frequency.

What should these ranges look like, exactly? Well, Doug provides his specific ranges in Advanced Heads-Up Mastery, but those are far too valuable to give away for free!

I can, however, show you this helpful screenshot from the course:

3-betting versus a min-raise. Note that our pot odds versus a min-raise are so good, we can profitably continue with almost all, if not all hands.

Let me decipher these colors for you:

  • Highlighted in blue = Hands we should always 3-bet
  • Highlighted in yellow = Hands we should 3-bet against certain opponents
  • Outlined in red = “Bluff” hands we can 3-bet as part of a polarized strategy
  • Outlined in green = “Value” hands we can 3-bet as part of a merged strategy

Note that “value” and “bluff” are in quotes because these two concepts don’t strictly apply pre-flop, when equities run so closely together. 

Now, let’s consider two very idealized opponent types and how to 3-bet them (assuming they both min-raise):

  • Versus an opponent who raises 100% of hands and folds to 3-bet frequently – 3-bet with the blue and red hands; call with the green hands.
  • Versus an opponent who raises 80% of hands and rarely folds to 3-bet – 3-bet with the blue and green hands; call with all but the weakest red hands.

If our opponent uses a larger raise size, we should obviously respond by playing tighter than the chart above.

When sizing your 3-bets, a good starting point is to re-raise pot plus a big blind or two. Here are some examples of reasonable 3-bet sizes against various opens:

  • Vs Min Raise: 3-bet to 8BB
  • Vs 2.5x Raise: 3-bet to 9BB
  • Vs 3x Raise: 3-bet to 10BB

As we get deeper than 100BBs, we should increase our 3-bet size. As we get shorter than 100BBs, we should decrease our 3-bet size.

Heads-Up Wrap-Up

Drawing insights from a heads-up match between two of the best players in the world is invaluable. The 3 rules we discussed today are just a small bit of what Doug covers in his Advanced Heads-Up Mastery Course, and so I encourage you to check it out!

Until next time!

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Ryan Jensen

Ryan Jensen

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