It's difficult to find innovation in the poker world. The online world has added alternate games including Razz, 2-7 Triple Draw, Five Card Draw, and Ultimate Bet's Crazy Pineapple. H-O-R-S-E and other mixed games have been added as well, tapping into the intrigue around the Big Games of Bobby's Room at the Bellagio as well as the WSOP $50k HORSE event won by Chip Reese. The most recent innovation from Full Tilt Poker is a variation on a theme, one you really can't find at casinos unless it's for very large stakes. This is Heads-Up play, mano a mano poker.
Heads-Up play came into the American poker consciousness after NBC aired their Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2005. In the first two events, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson was runner-up to Phil Hellmuth in 2005 and Ted Forrest in 2006. Full Tilt now brings the excitement and intrigue of heads-up play to all of us.
Full Tilt Poker offers a wide array of HU games at all levels of stakes. LHE is offered from $2/4 up to $1k/2k, while NLHE can be found from $1/2 up to $300/600. Omaha H/L ranges from $2/4 to $1k/2k, while Omaha can be found in Pot-Limit form from $1/2 to $200/400. You'll find similar games for Stud, Stud H/L, and Razz. You can also battle in HORSE and other mixed games ranging from $2/4 up to $1k/2k.
For a brick-and-mortar card room, heads-up play at lower stakes is too resource intensive. To provide dealers and tables for $2/4 LHE HU would be cost prohibitive. In the online world, those costs are irrelevant. The only real issue for online poker rooms is revenue avoidance through cannibalization. In simple terms, if I am playing HU, I am not playing more lucrative raked games.
Players head to HU play for a variety of reasons. There are the players who focus in this area as a new pond to fish in, playing as many as four HU matches at a time. You'll find top players taking a shot at one another as Jason "strassa2" Strasser did vs. John D'Agostino in $25/50 NLHE earlier this week. Other pros you'll regularly find playing HU include Phil Ivey, Mike Matusow, and Richard Brodie.
HU play can be a place to burn off steam and get a ton of action in a short amount of time. With many decisions to make each minute, it is an involved game with some inherent dangers to be aware of.
Watch for big swings. You will be playing significantly more hands than you would in a full ring game or a 6-max; therefore, normal variance will lead to some significant runs either up or down regardless of how you play. You'll need to be sure and play at stakes that are well within your bankroll or face the prospect of quick ruin.
HU can cause full tilt. You will lose too many hands that you normally would not lose to. This is caused primarily by the significant advantage of positional play in HU. The button has a huge advantage in HU play, and many players will raise with virtually any two cards pre-flop. For the inexperienced player, this will lead to good hands getting cracked by seemingly poor starting hands. Throw in the aforementioned big swings that are inevitable, and HU play can lead to tilt even from the most level-headed pros.
HU can lead to bankroll ruin. Tilt can lead to chip spewage, especially due to the testosterone laden motivations that losing can bring out in HU play. Your opponent takes down you for all your stack, you rebuy and it happens again. Your manhood (or womanhood) is being questioned, so of course the first thought is to reload again to show them you're no quitter.
HU can lead to game collapse. Nowhere can your game start unraveling quicker than in heads-up play. Q-7o is known as the computer hand as it is the statistical mean for starting hands in holdem. In HU play, this is still true but may not appear that way. With your opponent normally playing a wider range of hands than this, you'll lose in showdowns to poor hands which can quickly lead to both calling down losing hands as well as folding winning hands. It is a slippery slope, and one to jump from when you're in the midst of it. Call it zigging when you should zag or bobbing when you should weave, but if it's happening it's best to look for another game.
As in all poker, Limit is very different than No-Limit. Both of these games are difficult to master, but LHE limits the downside more than NLHE. A normal starting chip size for $2/4 HU LHE is $40, whereas the $1/2 NLHE game has a max buy-in of $200 and a minimum of $40 with a recommended minimum of $80. An aggressive player will be unyielding in either game, but it is magnified in NLHE.
Having said all of this, HU play can be an invigorating part of your poker portfolio. It is all consuming, requiring the utmost focus. It sharpens your post-flop play as you play significantly more hands than you normally would. A pair is good most of the time, and you'll even win the random hand when your 6 kicker plays. It is a great place to bring about more aggression in your play as your raise percentage should increase 2-4x. You should be bluffing and semi-bluffing more than normal, which will refine these parts of your game. And just as HU can be swingy for the bad, you can experience some big wins in a very short amount of time. Since HU play is fairly new on FullTilt, many of the players are inexperienced, yet play at stakes in their normal comfort zone. You'll see $2/4 HU NLHE play from players who would normally play 6-max or full ring games at this level. While they may be multi-tabling sharks, they may overestimate their expertise in what is essentially a different game.
To maximize your winnings, you'll need to utilize all aspects of poker strategy. Aggression is a big key to HU play, so embrace it and make it your friend. Value bets are absolutely essential to increasing your ROI on games. A broader range of hands are going to call river bets as more hands will be good than normal, so failing to extract value when you're ahead will cost you in the long run. In LHE, this includes utilizing check/raising to get more bets into the pot. Pot odds are as important in HU as in 6-max or full ring games, but you should look more at your implied odds that aggression will lead to a fold or winning hand more than looking at the pot odds for a call.
Because you are playing so many hands with the same player, a sharp player can pick up tells that can lead to stronger results. It is also very important to work on your own tells including how you play starting hands, how you bet your draws, how you play your bluffs, and how you play everything out of position. Play your big hands aggressively one time then trap with them the next. The more varied your play, the more difficult you become.
Not for the weak of heart, Heads-Up play can be a reinvigorating part of your game. Jump in if you dare.