Strategy: Playing Heads Up Hold ‘Em Poker

Heads-up poker, particularly in lower-stakes, pot-limit games is a great way for an aggressive player to build their bankroll quickly, but it does require more than just guts to get ahead when playing one-on-one against someone who likely has the same agenda as you. Some of the basics of the game as played with multiple opponents still apply, but they’ll need to be modified for the duel.


In heads-up games, you’re dealing with a greater variety of cards in play at any given time, simply because there’s only two players with a deck of 52 cards, meaning that there are 1326 different pocket card combinations for each of you. If you put aside suits, there are 169 starting hands, 13 of which are pairs, 78 are suited unpaired cards (8d9d, for instance) and the remaining 78 pocket card combinations are unsuited, unpaired cards. There is a greater chance that your opponent will hit cards that are of the same or greater value than yours, simply because more “high value” cards are in play, but this chart can give you a good breakdown of what cards are worth:

AA wins 84.93% of the games where they’re played.
KK wins 82.12%
QQ wins 79.63%
JJ wins 77.15%
AK (suited) wins 64.47%
KQ (not suited) wins 60.43%
J10 (suited) wins 56.15%
K4 (not suited) wins 50.23%

Hands below K-4 (including tempting ones like Q7) are not recommended unless you’re feeling very confident in your opponent’s inability to make a hand. Frankly, I toss any unpaired hand below J10 aside just as a matter of course if I don’t make anything on the flop, and sometimes before then, even in heads-up games. I will occasionally play 88, 99 or TT but those still win less than half the time in heads-up games and that’s purely based on gut instinct.


Believe it or not, position is still a factor, even when they’re just two of you at a table. In full ring games, holding the dealer button only conveys part of the advantage that it does in heads-up games. If you’re playing in a full-ring game you hold the button but the raiser is to your immediate right with other players acting behind you, then much of the button advantage has gone. The difference in a heads-up poker match is that acting last means exactly that — you always act after your opponent.

What is the advantage of being last to act after the flop and how should this be used? Because of the greater number of cards in play, most heads-up hands are going to completely miss the flop. When you play in the second position, you are able to gather information on the strength of your single opponent’s hand before you have to act and are able to focus on that instead of sorting through noise.

In heads up poker there is a smaller chance that your one opponent is holding a pair and thus any pair you hold goes up in value before the flop. When there are multiple opponents, each one has a chance of holding a pair higher than yours while the odds of this happening against a single opponent are smaller, particularly if you hold a medium-to-high pair yourself.