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Gary Trask

Gary  Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's Editor in Chief and has worked as a writer and editor more than 25 years. The Boston native was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's inaugural Media Committee.

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Top-10 heads-up poker strategy tips from Mike Sexton

22 Feb 2010

By Gary Trask

The NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship begins next weekend (March 4-7) at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. So as we prepare for one of the most popular events on the poker calendar each year, we thought we would get you in the mood for some "one-and-done" style of poker by talking heads-up strategy with the "Ambassador of Poker," Mike Sexton.

Sexton, who was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame last summer, will be making his third appearance in the NBC Heads-Up event next week and told us he is very much looking forward to the challenge.

"It's a great event because it's always fun and always a great challenge to go head-to-head with some of the best players in the world," said Sexton, who made it to the final eight of the event in 2005, but was bounced in the first round last year when his pocket Queens were cracked by Phil Hellmuth's Ace-Jack.


Mike Sexton says that sizing up your opponent and being aggressive are two keys to being an effective heads-up player. (photo by Vin Narayanan/Casino City)

Sexton, who, along with the rest of the 64-player field, will find out his seeding at the annual Draw Party at PURE nightclub at Caesars next Thursday night, says there are certain things you must adhere to when you sit down for a heads-up match.

Here are 10 of the items Sexton told us about that you should keep in mind the next time you play a little one-on-one poker.

10. Size up your opponent and his or her stack
The first thing Sexton says that you need to do when you get in a heads-up battle is to honestly assess your chances.

"The most important factor is to take a look at where you stand as far as the chip count is concerned and the quality of the opponent," Sexton says. "Because this is going to help you decide what kind of strategy you're going to use. But, like I said, you've got to be honest with yourself. Don't over or underestimate your chances."

9. Have a plan and then execute it
Once you have decided where you stand in the tale of the tape, it will determine how you will go forward.

"If you're the underdog, it's plain and simple, you want to shorten the match," Sexton says. "Play big pots when the opportunity is there and try to flip the odds, so to speak. You don't want to be sitting there trying to outplay someone who is better than you."

8. Lengthen the match if you're the favorite
Conversely, if you have deemed yourself the favorite, go ahead and play a little "four corners" to steal a college basketball phrase.

"If you're the better player, the longer the match goes, the better it is for you," Sexton says. "Play a lot of small pots and don't get in too many race situations. Be patient and you should prevail."

7. Play your position
There are only two positions you are going to be in when playing heads-up – on the button (in position) or the big blind (out of position). As far as Sexton is concerned, there is no such thing as an "unplayable" hand when you are in position.

"Most hands are going to be favorable when you are in position because you already have a small and big blind out there, so you are getting 3-to-1 odds on your money," he explains. "You can play a much wider range of hands when you're on the button."

6. Don't get pushed around when out of position
Because the player on the button has a big edge, the player out of position can sometimes get pushed around. Sexton warns not to let this happen.

"If the guy on the button is raising every time, you've got to come over the top at some point," he says. "You can't just release your blind every time. You've got to see a flop or two, because if you don't you're just going to get run over. Make a stand and hopefully it will slow that player down."


5. Switch gears
You can't be predictable when playing heads up. Don't raise it every time you're in position (like the example provided above), and don't fold every time you're the big blind when you don't have a favorable hand.

"You simply have to keep your opponent on his heels," adds Sexton. "Let's face it: it's a heck of a lot easier to read a player when it's just the two of you sitting there. Don't fall into the trap of always playing predictably. Don't be afraid to bluff so you can see a flop and don't be afraid to slow-play a good hand."

4. Realize it's a battle of unpaired hands
Sexton points out that at a full table, you are only going to get a pair once every 17 hands. With that said, in heads-up poker most of the time both players are going to be playing unpaired hands.

"That's why it's so important to play the hand correctly and remember your position," he says. "Because more often than not it comes down to who outplays who."

3. Pairs are powerful
Since it's going to be rare to get a pocket pair dealt to you, make sure you don't hesitate when you do look down at a pair of any kind.

"A pair of threes may not look so good in the middle levels of a tournament when you're sitting at a full table," Sexton says. "But in heads-up, any pair is a great hand. And, also unlike when playing at a full table, any hand that has an Ace in it, is a powerful hand. Don't fail to recognize that."

2. Don't be afraid to gamble
The all-in call is always tough to make, especially when it's just two people sitting at the table. Sexton points out that while sometimes it's difficult to push all of your chips into the middle of the table and put yourself at risk, sometimes you simply have to gamble.

"You've got to make the call if you're getting the right pot odds, it's as simple as that," he says. "Carefully look at what's going on and then make your decision. But don't be scared to gamble. That's why you're sitting at the table. If you make the right call and you lose – like I did last year against Hellmuth – you aren't going to walk away from the table second-guessing yourself. That's just how it goes sometimes."

1. Be aggressive
Sexton reminds us that when playing Hold'em you are going to miss the flop 70 percent of the time. So when you do hit the flop, seize the opportunity and don't pull any punches in doing so.

"In heads-up poker, the more aggressive player has the advantage and will win the majority of the time," Sexton says. "Notice I didn't say the most reckless player. I said the most aggressive. Being aggressive at the poker table can be a powerful thing. Once you understand that you're going to win a lot more heads-up matches than you're going to lose."

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