Heads Up Poker vs. Nine-Handed Poker

Heads up poker matches require a unique skill set that is totally different from winning strategy at 9 or 10 handed poker tables. There are a lot of differences in how the two games are set up, and those differences require a different style of play. This article will look at structural and psychological differences between heads up poker and full 9 handed poker, as well as how players adjust to be successful at the heads up poker tables:

Structural Differences

The main and most obvious reason heads up play is different is because of the game's structure. Obviously there are only two players at the table, and this causes a bunch of issues. First of all, when you're at a heads up table you're in the blinds every single hand. Also, only two sets of hole cards are dealt out each hand, which changes relative hand strength. And finally, your position becomes extremely important because you're either in the best possible position or in the worst possible position at the table.

Blinds Every Hand

The first difference we'll discuss is the fact that at a heads up table, you're always forced to put money in the pot preflop. You'll either be the small blind or the big blind every hand. This is drastically different from a ring game where you're only in the blinds 2/9 or 2/10 times, depending on if you play at 9 or 10 handed tables.

The main adjustment you'll have to make is to simply play far more of your hands. Since you're going to have money in every pot, you may as well see the majority of the flops so you aren't just forfeiting money. We recommend playing any reasonable hand preflop, which includes any suited connectors, any decent connecting cards, any pocket pair, any big cards - basically anything that has a reasonable chance of making a decent hand.

Relative Hand Strength

This one is pretty obvious. If you deal out nine hands, then deal the board, odds are the best hand will be pretty solid (at least a big pair). However, if you deal out two hands, then deal the board, odds are the best hand will be a weak pair or maybe even just a high card. Because of this, your relative hand strength in heads up poker is much different than at a nine handed table.

For example, if you have A7 with an Ace on the board, it is probably no good at a nine-handed table, but at a heads up table you have a really strong hand and should value bet. Also, this is the reason you should value bet hands like middle pair or two pair on a tough board, because it's likely your hand is better than your opponent's.


Position becomes even more of a factor in heads up poker than it is at nine-handed tables. Since there are only two players at the table, you're either in the best position (dealer/small blind) or in the worst position (big blind). Because of this you should play aggressively preflop when you're dealer, and passively when you're the big blind.

In dealer position I like to raise around 50% of the time, and will raise anything from suited connectors to pocket pairs to two big cards. When I'm the big blind I'll almost always check if the dealer limps in, and will only call a dealers' raise if I have a solid hand.

Psychological Differences

Besides just structural differences, there are also a few psychological differences between the two games. First of all, you're only playing one player as opposed to eight or nine, so there's much more opportunity to get inside each other's head, as well as pick up their playing tendencies and weaknesses.

As a result of this, I like to switch up my heads up game often to avoid giving away my standard plays. For example, I'll raise as the dealer quite often, then I'll back off and switch gears to avoid keeping the same table image the entire game. Also, if you take a bad beat heads up the other player can really get you tilting if they start chatting with you and haggling you. To learn how to handle that, read about avoiding poker tilt.

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