Starting Hands in Heads-Up Poker

Starting hand selection is one of the first things most poker players learn to practice strategically. Proper hand selection involves adjusting which hands you play based on your position and the number of players at the table. The closer to the button you’re sitting the weaker the hand you could play. The fewer number of players at the table, the wider your starting hand selection can be.

In heads-up play the number of players at the table is as small as it can be, and starting hand strategy takes on an entirely different model. Heads-up play is an aggressive game that requires you give value to hands that would not warrant value in most games. There are only four cards in play, so the chance of your opponent having a good hand is slim. That’s why playing with aggression is successful, players don’t like to call raises with rag cards. But in a heads-up situation you have to play what you are dealt more often because big hands that you can win with will not occur often enough to make up for the blinds you’re giving away.

In a setting where big stealing is the name of the game, raising pre-flop with any Ace, King, Face/kicker, mid-high suited connectors and pocket pairs is imperative to your long term success. Letting opponents see flops for free when you have these hands is a bad idea because you’re not getting value for your hand, which is likely in the lead at this point in the hand. If you don’t hit the flop, you’re at the mercy of your opponent’s aggression. Most flops are missed by both players, and if you make a continuation bet after raising pre-flop it will usually pick up the pot.

Premium starting hands can be slow-played pre-flop if your opponent is aggressive. Because head-up play is so aggressive, it’s usually the best play to let your opponent bet into you once or twice before making your move. Ideally you want an opponent to hit top pair, and be willing to call a good size raise late in the hand. If your opponent seems to be strong, and makes a sizable raise pre-flop, your premium hand can be played aggressively if you think you’ll get action on it.

Even junk hands can be played for a raise if you think your opponent is weak. If you’re in the big blind and your opponent just limps in, making a raise with anything in your hand can be a high-percentage play; especially if that opponent has shown a history of folding to raises.

Try to get a read on whether your opponent is strong or weak, and use that information to put the heat on them when the opportunity presents itself. Balance the hands that you’ll play based on the size of the pre-flop raise you’re facing. Don’t get pushed around and raise your good hands for value.

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