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Inverse Aggression - A Thought on Heads Up Play

I was playing a Heads Up SNG last night (I ultimately lost...stupid read), when I stumbled upon a concept that may be new or odd to some of you. To others, you may disagree wholeheartedly, but here at High On Poker, we value critical thinking and strive to challenge the conventional wisdom of poker. Or maybe what I'm about to expound on is just plain obvious. We'll see...

I was playing heads up, and my opponent and I were both on the ropes for periods of time before returning to a nuetral 1000/1000 stance. At those moments, when blinds were still 15/30, I found myself raising preflop with J7o, 25d, K4o. As is customary with heads up play, the main ingredient is aggression. Half of the time, your opponent will have a worse hand than you. Logic dictates that most of the time, they will also fold to a raise, since their hand is likely not worth calling with.

As the sizes of our stacks shifted, and I found myself with the upper hand, my steals continued. However, they slowly decreased, to the point that I was willing to actually fold a small blind. This is part of the natural Ebb and Flow of heads up poker, and, in fact, is part of my Ebb and Flow strategy, discussed many months ago. Eventually, the tides changed, due in some part to a loose call on my part (its vague in my head, but the scars are still there).

While I found myself with less chips than my opponent, I still made a conscious effort to keep the aggression on. If I can steal enough blinds or steal hands on the flop after my preflop bet is called, I could work my way back to even and then take the upper hand. In fact, I did work my way back to even, but this was a long game, and we already know the conclusion.

Finally, down to my last 400 chips, I tightened up. When I got down to my last 200, I went back to wild and loose. After all, I was on my last legs, so anything would have to do.

Where is the epiphany, you ask? It is this: 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.

When the idea came to me, I thought that it was immediately counterintuitive. Logic would dictate that when you are even, you should be most cautious. You could potentially lose it all on one hand from a position of nuetrality if you overplay or misplay. You are also looking to gain that little edge over your opponent, that crack in which you can thrust your poker Jaws-of-Life. Likewise, when you are dominating your opponent, take those coinflips weighted in your opponent's favor, since you are giving yourself a 40% chance to win it straight out, but if you lose you will still dominate.

Now flip it. To me, the most important part of HU play is to keep the chip lead. When you are even, that chip lead, albeit even if only by 30 out of 2000 chips on the table, is crucial. It provides a mental edge, a feeling of dominance, and a small safety net (more emotional than logical) from going broke. Aggression is key. Take those small pots. It may not seem like the 30 will matter, but its part of asserting your own rhythm to the game. You want to be in Flow mode, where the bets just keep on coming and your opponent, thinking he is clever, is folding away and waiting for his spot to re-raise you with a monster hand (at which point, you will cleverly fold). I am not talking about huge raises here either. 3x the BB is more than enough at this point. Most players play tighter, because they feel like they are starting from scratch. Assert yourself, let them play tighter, and start to open up that lead.

As you feel yourself pulling away with your lead, you may feel tempted to keep pushing your luck. Go right ahead if the flow is right, but be ready to change gears and play tighter. Hopefully, your opponent has gotten fed up by now and will begin reraising with KJ and QT. Hence, some tighter play will get you far. You don't want to give up that chip edge that you have. Rather, you want to slowly chip away at your opponent's stack until he is at the point of desperation. 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. I give you 1400/600 or even 1300/700 as a benchmark for this kind of thiking.

Once you are dominating, say 1600/400, you may be tempted once again to loosen up. After all, if you push and lose, he'll only have 800 to your 1200. It is certainly an okay move. But I think that we all too often rely on luck once we have a large lead. If you were to continue playing tight, you may be able to find yourself with a dominating position over your shortstacked competitor once all the chips go in. It's an obvious thing, but something we often forget in the heat of battle. Ironically, tightening up makes sense when you are the dominant leader, since you are looking for the death blow, and not just a cointoss to win the whole shebang. Admittedly, this is probably one of my weaknesses. I will add, however, that the second exception to the rule of HU Inverse Aggression, is where you are exceedingly dominating. When it is 1800/200, just go ahead and push with any two over Q7o (the statistical middle value hand in NLHE). At that point, you can afford to gamble, since if you lose, you'll still have a commanding 1600/400 lead.

Now, let's go the other way. You are even, and playing aggressively, but he has you beat, either through aggression or his hands. You are now on a shorter stack. At 800/1200, tighening 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 reraise. As you get closer to 400/1600, though, all bets are off. Go buck wild, because its 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, I guess the chart would look something like a rollercoaster of aggression. 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 trudge your way 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.

Of course, this is all just theory. It's the pontifications of a late-night HU player, one that lost, nonetheless. But there is something there, something worth thinking about, processing, and even exploiting. Don't be surprised if you see me later tonight at a HU table. Until then, make mine poker!

posted by Jordan @ 8:55 AM,


At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Usually while im reading this blog, im sludging thru nonsense theory and self pity.

I have to say....this is probably the only strategy of yours that I fully agree with.

- Anonymous King

At 11:33 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

That's two satisfied customers! I'll take it. Hey AK, why do you still read, though? I suppose it is the Howard Stern effect, where if you like me, you'll read me, and if you hate me, you'll read me anyway so you can find more things to hate. I think that if you went into the archives, you'd see a whole lot of gems. Contrary to AK's beliefs, I don't, in fact, suck, and my recent downswing may had looked like a pity party here at HoP, but I can do no less than to discuss what is actually happening with me. So, whether you read HoP because you like what I have to say or you read it because you are looking for things to disagree with, thanks for reading and I'm glad you both enjoyed this last post.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger MrGoss said...

I have been playing some HU lately for the sole purpose of WINNING a tourney if I get to that point. I managed to make it to HU last year in a 30 man live tourney and blew the win, so it jolted me a bit.

Any hoo, I have found that the passive player for the first three levels or so tends to be the one that gets the edge. I like a lot of smooth calls and checking the pre-flop. Not sure why this works, but without considering it too much I feel like it ties-in with your theory somehow. This is mainly because I like to switch gears once the blinds get to be around the 30/60 or better mark. It also tends to lull the opponent into thinking you are a weak player.

I like the write up and how you quantified a common playing pattern for more advanced play in the HU situation.

My .02 cents worth.


At 2:54 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Hey MrGross. Take a look at the green link to my Ebb & Flow post. I go into more detail about my approach to HU games. I think it is more in tune with what you are talking about. By playing weak early on, you establish an ebbing pattern, where you are the weak player and the other guy is the aggressive one. When you switch it, you are actually hoping to trap him at first, or otherwise to take him off of his game by switching to a flowing bet/raise-heavy stance when the blinds matter. By playing weak early on, you can get away with this more, since your opponent will think that you would only start betting if you were catching cards.

All this talk is making me salivate for some HU action. If anyone is on tonight and see me on yahoo IM (highonpokr) and feels up for some HU, I'm taking all comers.

At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the line in which you say "Loosening up will only give the big stack an opportunity to put pressure on you with a reraise" in regards to the 800/1200 scenario is the best part of your post, because I find often that most players I play HU get more aggressive when they have a slight lead like this. The reraises come fast and furious from the other side of the table, because they are in a better position to put pressure on you and your shorter stack.

Good stuff J, well written.

At 5:25 PM, Blogger slb159 said...

Game on, Jordan!


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