7 Card Stud Heads Up Poker Strategy
Playing any heads up poker game is a huge challenge, and is a completely different animal compared to a regular full table or even short handed play. I personally love playing heads up at AbsolutePoker.com where the population in the 7 Card Stud tables let me really get to know most of the players. Another great site for heads up 7 card stud is FullTiltPoker.com, since they have heads up table where only two player can sit. I've shared some heads up tips below that have worked for me quite well in low limit 7 card stud ($1/$2 through $5/$10). The most important thing to do when playing heads up is to immediately begin figuring out what type of player you are against in terms of loose/tight and passive/aggressive. How you play each and if you play at all, depends on where they fall in those scales.
Getting to know you...
As noted in the introduction, you'll want to concentrate entirely on this player as the heads up session begins. If you have other rooms open, it's advisable to sit out, stop browsing poker forums, etc. You have got to peg this player's personality quickly in order to figure out how to take his roll.
My standard rule of thumb when just starting a session heads up against a player I have never met is to complete the bring in bet with any ace or king door card, and anytime I have 2 cards higher than his upcard. If I have forced bring in, I always bring in for the minimum, and call if he completes when I have two overcards to his upcard, and limp raise if I have a pair.
By following that rule of thumb, it just takes a few hands for me to answer the following questions: Is he loose and calls every time I complete his bring in? Is he tight and generally folds to my completed bet? Is he passive and mainly just checks / calls / folds when I bet? Or is he aggressive, completing my bring in's, 3 betting when I limp raise, limp raising himself, etc.? Answering these questions is most important, as it will guide how you play him the rest of the way.
The Loose/Passive Fishy
This is who you love to have sit down with you. Typically this player will call my completed bets when he has bringin, and he'll call every time I have the forced bet. He does NOT complete my bring in's often, if at all, and he doesn't notice he even has a fold button until at least 5th street.
How to adjust: I still like to complete his bringin with two overcards to his up card, and of course pairs. However, I slack off the aggressiveness just a tad bit, because I can afford to wait on better hands to push, knowing he will pay them off. So raise with 2 overs if you think it's the best hand, but then consider checking 4th if you don't improve. Once you improve, get aggressive again. With pairs, just bet, bet, bet. Small and medium pairs, slow down if you haven't improved by 5th or 6th and he's catching higher cards. With big pairs and when you improve, just stay aggressive and let him pay you. If the typically loose/passive fish all of a sudden goes aggressive, watch out! It probably means a huge hand, trips or better. Unless you've got a great hand yourself, dump it.
With drawing hands or just one over, I'll call his bring in. In fact, I'll call with just about any reasonable hand because I know he won't be putting in bets or raises, so I can wait for the reasonable hand to improve to start betting, or we'll just check it on down and let the dealer decide who wins.
Forget limp raises, slow playing and the like. Just bet your good hands and let him pay you off. He will pay over and over again till he leaves or busts.
Loose/Passive till 5th Street.
Another similar player to the one mentioned above is the player who calls with any 3 cards, but folds on 5th if he has not improved to at least a pair or draw. Again, this player is not aggressive unless he gets a great hand.
How to adjust: If you're blessed with this player's presence, you could theoretically complete with any 3 cards and bet through 5th street. If he calls 5th, just check it down unless you're betting with a good hand. You'll pick up one small bet on 3rd and 4th street every hand, and that'll more than make up for any losses when he calls 5th street and you check it down with nothing. However, I don't like to complete his bring in with any 3, because first, I don't want him to leave because I'm a "bully", and secondly I definitely don't want him to catch on to the fact that I know he calls with any 3 till 5th and then folds!
When I have forced bring in, I'll bringin the minimum, bet 4th if I get a good scare card, but generally just check and then bet 5th if his porch hasn't made a pair and he hasn't got aggressive himself. You've got to be right on your read of him as a "fold on 5th" type player because you're making a double bet on 5th to take down a pot that only includes antes and 2x bringin bets. So it has to be successful a lot to make up for when he calls with a decent hand and you lose in showdown. If your read is correct and he's folding almost every hand on 5th, you'll be able to profit easily enough.
Mr. "can't let go of a pair" is a profitable opponent for you. He's similar to loose passive players, but he just has a little better starting hand requirements. His weakness is he just can't drop those low and medium pairs or weak draws when you've obviously got him bested. He'll fold lots of antes to you and is not very aggressive himself, but once he's in the hand with a pair or draw, he'll see showdown.
How to adjust: Complete most of his bring ins. He should fold quite a few, and you'll show profit off this play. When he does call your completed bet, understand that he has a pair or maybe even a 3 flush or 3 straight to start. Slow down unless you have a real hand. If you've got that real hand that you are pretty sure is in the lead, just bet away and let him pay you. If he plays back at you, fold unless you have a very good hand yourself. When you have bring in, you should be getting many of those back as he should be folding a good bit. If he calls your bring in, understand he has a decent hand, and if he raises, put him on a strong hand and play accordingly.
Tight passive players are often referred to as weak tight or rocks. They never steal your bring in, and they fold to your aggressive bets unless they have a truly good hand. Playing heads up against a weak tight player is pretty straightforward, but not extremely profitable since you'll rarely ever win more than antes and bring in each hand.
How to adjust: Complete almost all of his bring ins, no matter what your cards. I say "almost" because if you let him have a few back you'll have a better chance of him sticking around so you can continue stealing from him. When you have bring in, you'll almost always get it back + his ante because he'll be folding 80% of his hands. If he completes, fold immediately unless you've got a premium pair hidden that is higher than the pair he is representing. If that's the case you can limp raise and probably lead bet the entire way and he'll pay it off. Weak tight players play so few hands that when they DO play, they usually want to see showdown. Always keep in mind that if they are in the hand past 5th street, it's probably a strong hand or very strong draw, so don't toss in too many chips if you don't have a solid holding yourself.
To conclude, steal, steal, steal, but when the weak tight player plays back at you, bail unless you have a very strong hand yourself. Your profit is going to come from your ante steals, not from showdowns against this player. Fold and go back to stealing next hand.
If the player sits down and generally completes every time you have bring in and bets most every time you check, you're dealing with loose aggressive player. Before we go any further, you need to ask yourself if you are ok with large variance or swings in your bankroll. You can stack up a ton of chips quickly heads up against a LAG player, but you can lose a lot fast too.
First, you need to figure out what he does when you play back at him with a good hand. What you want, in this case, is a player who is loose aggressive early on, but if you play back he slows down and becomes loose passive (does not fold even when you play back!).
How to adjust: I generally let this kind of player have many of my bring ins. I'll call his completed bet if I have two overcards and limp raise when I'm dealt a pair. When he brings it in, I'll call or raise with two overs and raise with pairs. What I am looking to do is use his aggressiveness against him. Let him steal a few bring ins, and then limp raise and check raise him into oblivion when I have a hand. If dealt a very good hand like aces or kings hidden, or if I improve to aces with one hidden on 4th, I'll check raise on 5th street when the bets double.
The loose aggressive player is a big fish at a full table, but heads up they are often winners because they steal so many antes and bring ins. Their big weakness is their inability to let go of weak or marginal hands when you play back at them, and they are very susceptible to limp raises and check raises, which feeds more chips into your stack. Don't bother trying to out-aggressive them or bluff them. Just pick your spots and make a huge pot with your limp and check raises. He'll pay back those stolen antes with interest.
This player is super loose aggressive. Again, you'll need to ask yourself if you really want to bother. This player completes every bring in, limp raises if you complete his. If you limp raise he three bets. He'll cap with any three cards. If you're prepared to call down with hands like Ace/King high, and go on a wild variance ride, here are some tips.
How to adjust: Super aggressive with big cards and pairs. Draws aren't really good hands heads up anyway, but you definitely won't be getting good odds to play them against the maniac. Cap it with just about any pair and three overcards to his upcard. Be prepared to go to the river and call a bet on the river if you can beat his porch. Use his aggressiveness against him every chance you get, preferring to check raise as opposed to raise. The super loose aggressive player will cap it many times, almost saying "how dare you raise me!".
Heads up, Mr. Maniac's style works quite well. It can be super frustrating for you because you will never know where you are in the hand unless you have a monster. At the same time you can't sit back and wait on premium hands because he'll rob you blind in the meantime. It wouldn't hurt to just sit out when a Maniac wants to go at it heads up. I wouldn't suggest playing a true maniac until you are at least comfortable and profitable against a regular loose aggressive player.
If you're profitable at poker, you're probably tight aggressive or semi-tight aggressive yourself. When two tight aggressive players who know how to adjust for heads up and short handed play sit down, only the house wins. Unless you're just wanting to get experience or learn from the other player, sit out and wait on a weak player.
How do you know it's a solid tight aggressive player with good heads up skills? He'll be completing lots of your bring ins, but when you play back at him he folds. He's limp raising you on some of your steal attempts, and when hands go to showdown his play makes sense, but at the same time he disguises hands well enough that it's hard to figure out exactly what he has for sure.
How to Adjust: Sit out. Why play when the only winner is the house? The sea is full of fish. No sense in battling with another shark.
Mr. In Between'er
This player isn't any of the extremes. He's probably decent, especially at a full table. He plays a little too tight maybe or a little bit too passive or maybe he leans a bit towards "can't let go of a pair/draw once he's in", but nothing that just stands out. Your goal is to tilt him by your own aggression, and see if he'll move to one of those profitable extremes, preferably loose/passive.
How to adjust: Steal, steal, steal. I like to just take a stretch where I complete every bring in. I want him to peg me as a thief, get a little aggravated and started playing more hands and calling me down to see what I have. I might even show him some of my hands where I complete with garbage and he folds. Whatever it takes to move him into a corner that I can work with. If he moves to loose passive, that's wonderful. I'll slow down a bit and bet pairs and big cards and let him pay me off. If he goes loose aggressive, I'll slow down and trap him for some big pots. If he notices I've changed gears and reverts back to his in between style, it's time to go aggressive again and tilt him back to an extreme.
You're not going to profit much off a decent player like this unless you can tilt him. If you don't want to take the time or if you can't seem to get him off his game, then it might be worth sitting out and looking for another player to go against.
A few "moves" you can make...
Just like most other forms of poker at low limits, the best move is to generally play straightforward poker and take the chips. These are a few things I like to do when playing heads up that at least give some deception to my game
Ok, I was stealing. Bet and take it if you want it...
This works well against a decent player or even a somewhat tight player who has noticed you are stealing lots of his antes. He brings it in, I complete with a good pair and he calls with a small or medium pair, figuring I'm stealing again. Instead of betting out on 4th, check, expecting him to bet and you check raise. You might even check/call and then check raise on 5th. A lot of times they'll slow down too though, so I really prefer to do the check raise on 4th to get it in when I can. In essence you are saying with your completed bet and then check that "you caught me stealing, I've got nothing" and he'll go ahead and bet his smaller pair that he was dealt. The check raise will tie them in to the end many times, because now they're a bit aggravated and want to see what you have. It also can help tilt a player, and tilted players bleed money.
Steal, Steal, Steal...Trap
This move borrows a page from successful loose aggressive players. You've been aggressively taking antes for awhile, and now you're dealt a high pair or maybe even a small set. Lo' and behold, the other player is playing at you aggressively! Slow down and let him bet the worst hand. Wait till 5th or 6th to either check raise or bet out yourself. Your opponent won't be able to resist seeing showdown as much as you've been stealing, and his frustration might even lead him to cap some of the big bet streets when you've got him buried
Give 'em enough rope to hang themselves...
This works well against loose aggressive players that are not total maniacs. Against total maniacs, there is no point in slow playing since they'll gladly cap with the worst hand. But against a player who is loose aggressive but slows down a bit if you play back, it's not a bad play to let him bet 3rd and 4th and save your check raise till 5th when the bets double. A bit risky because you're taking the chance that he'll catch up, but since he'll probably see showdown anyway, you might as well get your check raise in on a more expensive street. You need to be against a player you are quite sure will always bet if you check, through at least 5th street. You'll also want a big pair that has a good shot at winning showdown by itself like aces, kings or queens, and you don't want to see overcards falling on his porch. If you have QQx and he catches a king on 4th, don't hesitate to raise to see if your queens are good, or if in fact he 3 bets, stating that he does indeed have kings.
Getting in their head...
Heads up poker is more about psychology and knowing your opponent than it is about simple card strength. Stay one step ahead. Figure out what kind of player they are and manipulate them based on what you learn. Here's an example. Say you're initially against a decent player who has figured out that your completed bets are many times just steals so he starts calling. You make the move of completing with the premium pair and then check raising 4th using the "ok I was stealing" move mentioned above, and he sees your cards at showdown. Now next time you check raise 4th, he folds. Wonderful! You don't need to wait on a premium pair to make this move again. With any big card up, you can complete, then go for a check raise on 4th and expect him to fold, whether you have the big pair or not. Maybe he's started calling your 3rd street completed bet, but he'll go ahead and fold on 4th when you bet, figuring you actually have it. You know what to do now! Complete and then make sure to bet 4th as your default stealing move.
Some players never learn, and never consider what you are doing. In many cases though, your opponent will be thinking at least a little. They'll learn some things, but what they don't realize is you know they've learned it and are going to use the knowledge against them. Get in their head and stay one step ahead. You'll clean them out.
Ready to take the plunge and start working on your heads up game? Try these sites:
- Full Tilt Poker - Large site with 2 man, heads up tables.
- Absolute Poker - Smaller population, but plenty of low limit games.
- Poker Stars - Largest poker site in the world means lots of 7 card stud games.