Most poker tournaments end the same way, with two players heads-up for the first place spot. Usually, the first place money is a large jump from second place, so if you find yourself with more second place finishes than first place finishes, it may be time to retool your heads up game.
About five years ago, I was obsessed with heads up play. I was playing heads up tournaments fairly regularly online, and had found a groove, when I stumbled upon my own theory of heads up play: The Inverse Theory of Aggression in Heads-Up Poker. Today, I share that theory with you.
The Inverse Theory is not a particularly complicated theory, but it may be counterintuitive. Essentially, the theory states that when playing heads up poker, you should (a) be very aggressive when the chip stacks are almost equal, (b) be less aggressive (or tight) when you or your opponent has a considerable lead, and © should return to very aggressive play when either you or your opponent has an overwhelming chip lead.
When I originally wrote about it on High On Poker in 2006, I explained it thusly: “The closer you are to even in chips, the more aggressive you should play. The more disparity in chip stacks, in either direction, the tighter you should play. The sole exception of the rule is when you are in desperation mode, with less than 10x the Big Blind. In those cases, push away, my friend, as you are already on your last legs”.
At first glance the Inverse Theory of Aggression may be counter-intuitive. After all, most would think that when you are even in chips, you should be less aggressive, lest you risk too much and end up as the shortstack or even busto. Those same people may think that once you are ahead in chips, you should increase your aggression, under the belief that, with the lead, you can risk a coinflip to knock out your opponent.
Now, let’s look at the situation from the opposite perspective. When it comes to heads-up play, my number one goal is to have the chip lead. Once you have the chip lead, you can end the tournament in one fateful hand, if the right situation comes together. Conversely, you can avoid the more serious negative aspects of luck. As we all know by now, every individual hand of poker involves a substantial amount of chance (aka luck), you can do everything right in a hand and still lose. By keeping the chip lead, though, you can avoid one hand destroying your tournament. Even if you AA falls to 27o, you will still have chips to play, and as we all know from Jack “Treetop” Strauss, all you need is a chip and a chair.
So the question becomes, how can I obtain a chip lead, and once I have it, how can I maintain it? And the answer is: The Inverse Theory of Aggression, of course!
The best way of explaining the Inverse Theory in action is to look at how it will play out during a typical heads up match. Let’s start with...
Both you and your opponent have even stacks 1000 apiece (for our example). Your goal is to get the chip lead. So, how do you do it? Through aggression!
Statistically, when you are playing heads-up, you are going to have a better pre-flop hand than your opponent roughly 50% of the time. Even more importantly, more often than not, your opponent will have weak cards and/or will not connect with the flop.
By raising preflop (i.e. aggressive play when stacks are even), you will likely pick up a decent amount of uncontested pots. By continuation betting consistently, you will also likely pick up a decent number of sweetened pots. Picking up blinds or small pots during heads-up play may not seem like a lot of chips, but if you can pull this off enough, you can both build your lead on your opponent and force your opponent into trap mode (i.e., he will wait for a good hand to trap you, while you keep stealing his blinds).
It’s worth noting that the Ebb and Flow of a poker game is a key component to the Inverse Theory. In any poker game, there is a natural ebb and flow to the game, where players will fall into patterns. By playing aggressive early, your opponent will likely go into fold/trap mode, folding every hand as you raise every hand, because they foolishly believe that once they get a monster, they will take a big pot off of you. For this reason, even though you may be aggressive at first, be wary of situations when your opponent is representing a strong hand. Aggression is key, but blind aggression is just stupid.
After a while, you will hopefully find yourself with a considerable chip lead (for guidance, in our 2000 chips scenario, a 1400 to 600 or a 1300 to 700 chip lead). If the conditions are right (i.e., your opponent is still folding), you can continue with your aggression. But be ready to change gears, because hopefully, all of your aggression is about to pay off.
Even the most patient player will eventually get frustrated and widen their hand ranges as they get tired of your constant bets and raises. Ironically, now that they are willing to fight back, they are actually doing so at a disadvantage, chip-wise. It’s now time to tighten up.
Why? Simple. You do not want to give your opponent any more chips than you have to, and you are looking for situations where you can set your own trap. Folding will actually help this, because he’ll get comfortable with raising with less-than-optimal hands. When you get that big hand, you can re-raise, hopefully not too large, since you want to take the lead and keep the fish on the hook. Regardless, the key is to not give any extra chips away while you fold BB and SB, building your opponent’s false confidence while keeping your significant lead.
Once you are dominating, say at 1600 to 400, you may be tempted to loosen up once again. After all, if you push and lose, he’ll only have 800 to your 1200. It is certainly an okay move, but it requires us to rely on luck when we would rather rely on skill. Even worse, it can often embolden our opponent. After all, watching one’s stack shrink from 1000 to 400 can cause a player to tilt; and watching one’s stack grow from 400 to 800 can actually give the same player renewed confidence. By remaining tight, you will keep control of the game, keep your opponent in a desperate position (mentally and chip-wise) and hopefully widen your lead even further, setting up your deathblow.
Naturally, if you get a monster hand at any point in the tournament and the conditions are right, you should go for the kill. But often times, heads-up poker ends in death by a thousand paper cuts (i.e., the accumulation of a bunch of small losses). Phase III deals with the point in the tournament when you are so ahead, that aggression is once again recommended.
Once you hit a dominating position, like 1800 to 200, it is okay to gamble and play with extra aggression. Q7o is statistically the middle hand in poker, so any hand over Q7o is push-worthy. Even if your opponent wins the hand, you will still have a dominant 1600 to 400 lead, so risk is okay. Otherwise, you will find yourself giving free chips in the form of blinds to an opponent who is likely playing desperate and willing to go all in with weak cards.
Of course, this is not an infallible system, and you may find yourself as the shortstack heads up. The Inverse Theory still applies.
If you are aggressive when the stacks are 1000 to 1000 but find your stack dwindling to 800 (to his 1200), tightening up may be a good thing. You are moving away from even, and you really need to get back there. Loosening up will only give the big stack an opportunity to put pressure on you with a re-raise.
As you get closer to 400/1600 (i.e., you are well dominated) then aggression is once again recommended. Go buck wild, because it’s either double-up or go home. As a caveat, if blinds are small enough (under 20/40), you can actually continue tight play. But once you are under 10 times the BB, its really over unless you can double-up or steal a bucket load of blinds.
In the end, if one were to chart the Inverse Theory of Aggression, it would look like a rollercoaster. At either extreme (1800/200 or 200/1800), your aggression should be high. As you get to that middle zone (1400/600 or 600/1400), you should tighten up and fight your way slowly and carefully to a super dominant position or back to even. As you are even, you want to be aggressive and start pushing your opponent to a weaker footing.
Try it out yourself and see if it works. Just remember though, it is all a theory (albeit one based on sound principles). In the end, you have to play your game and your opponent, and a one-size-fits-all strategy is impossible.