Heads Up Variance and Competition

Heads up cash games are perhaps the most double sided game in all of online poker. On one hand, good players are able to make an absolute killing in heads up play. On the other hand, however, a weak player will deplete their bankroll rather quickly if heads up cash is their game of choice. There are some players who are closer to break even rather than big winners or big losers, but this group is certainly an exception to the rule.

Heads up cash games are very vicious, especially when you move out of the micro stakes levels. Many of the best players in the world focus almost exclusively on heads up online action, and it is because they know it is where they have the biggest edge. There are many inherent qualities that a winning heads up player must both have and not have. If you aren’t cut out to play heads up, you shouldn’t try too hard to force yourself into that mindset. Heads up poker is largely a game where you either have it or you don’t, and much of that stems from the mental aspect. Skill sets, tools, and your overall strategy can be modified, but your mental approach to the game is often times difficult to adjust.


As mentioned before, the competition in heads up games is bar none. With that said, you will also be playing in some of the easiest games that you could ever hope for. The reason for this should be completely obvious. While most heads up specialists are incredibly skilled at what they do, some heads up players are nothing more than total action junkies. Needless to say, your goal as a heads up player should be to get as little action as possible with the specialists but as much action as possible with the gamblers.

In the world of heads up poker, players who sit around and wait for “fish” only are known as bum hunters. These players are called bum hunters because they are said to only play the bums in heads up games, and are too afraid or scared to play anyone with actual skill. If you sit down at a handful of heads up tables, the odds are that you will get a number of players who leave the game before you actually find someone who is willing to play. This is why many poker room lobbies have so many tables that are occupied with the same handful of players sitting at a number of different tables. Many of these bum hunters won’t end up playing more than a few hours per day at the absolute maximum. If you are able to get action from a bum hunter, you should probably take advantage of it. Players who stick to bum hunting and bum hunting alone tend to do it because they don’t feel like they have a real edge over a decent player. If a known bum hunter is quick to accept you as competition, however, you should probably start to rethink your game.

There is nothing technically wrong with bum hunting, and the reality is that most online players don’t have a real issue with it. It is hard to call bum hunting table selection, but there is no doubt that any good heads up player will carefully pick out who they are playing against. Once you start to get a bit of experience under your belt, you are going to run into the same opponents over and over again. Eventually you will figure out who you have an edge on, who beats you on a consistent basis, and who doesn’t want to play you. It is those names which you don’t recognize that will offer the greatest potential for profit. Always shop around for the best table before hopping into the action. There is no point in playing a winning regular if a massive fish is just waiting for you to challenge them at another table. Game and table selection is something that you should concentrate on each and every time that you play.

The real competition is found once you hit the upper echelon of the micro stakes and the lower limits of the small stakes. Players at 50NL and 100NL can make quite a bit of money simply through effective game selection and a somewhat basic strategy that can be applied over and over again. Once you enter the $1/$2 games and higher, though, you are going to run into some very, very tough opponents. If you don’t have a sizable sample size to prove that you are a winner in smaller games, don’t even waste your time trying to beat these players. Yes, there are the occasional whales who come by and dump their money in higher limit games, but they are much more elusive than the donators in the micro stakes.


Variance is the biggest and most defined difference between heads up and 6-max or full ring games. In a heads up battle, even the worst player in the world can take you for a number of buy-ins if they are able to go on a quick little run. Aside from this, the extreme variance in heads up poker is also the main reason that so many players tilt. One of the primary and initial points in this article was that emotional control is a major player in the success of heads up regulars. The swings, both up and down, are nothing like you will experience in any other form of poker. The benefit of this, though, is that you will profit greatly in the end from all of your positive swings.

Variance in heads up games can include regular 10 and even 20 buy-in swings. And no, these aren’t swings that happen over days or weeks, but in as little as one individual session. As a result, any serious heads up player will need to carry 100 or more buy-ins at all times. The variance is such that a few crippling sessions could be enough to wipe out an entire bankroll with relative ease.

Small micro stakes games allow for the biggest one on one edge in heads up poker. You can make pre-flop and post-flop plays that you won’t get away with in higher limit games. Players in the micro stakes tend to get beaten by things as elementary as extreme aggression. A lot of people are sitting in these games with scared money, or they might just not have a clue as to what they are doing in the first place. For a 6-max or full ring player, the idea of 4 betting with AJ or ATss is just ridiculous. In a heads up game, though, this is incredibly standard. You need to have both the bankroll and the guts to make plays that would rack the nerves of a regular casual player. When your plays don’t work, or you get a bit unlucky, tilt is going to be your number one enemy. If you decide that you think you have what it takes to beat heads up cash games, enter with caution, be patient, and always maintain a willingness to get better and improve your game.