Chris Ferguson's Heads Up Strategy

Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson is no stranger to success at the heads up poker tables, twice runner up in the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship competing against the worlds best poker players. Ferguson, who holds a PhD in Computer Science, came to prominence in the poker world by winning the World Series Main Event in 2000. His relative lack of experience was more than compensated for by his advanced understanding of poker mathematics and game theory.


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While Chris Ferguson recommends an aggressive playing style, designed to put maximum pressure on his opponents, he is also capable of adapting to more passive play when the situation (and opponent tendencies) dictate. In addition bankroll management plays a critical role in Ferguson’s overall poker strategy. The importance of this was demonstrated by turning just $1 into $20,000 online at the cash game tables.

Game theory is a mathematical model which calculates the ‘optimal’ strategy for beating opponents in many competitive situations. In poker this can take many forms, the simplest use being to calculate the distribution of cards dealt based on mathematics.

An example of this that could be used at a heads-up table is that you ‘know’ your opponent would only put in a 3rd raise with 3 hands – Aces, Kings or Ace-King. If you hold Queens then knowing the relative probability of each can help you make the right decision at the table. Here there are 6 ways of being dealt Aces, 6 of being dealt Kings and 16 of being dealt Ace-King. The ratio of hands is thus 3 to 4 in favor of the non-pair. Combining these probabilities with the pot odds on offer will often lead to a clear decision on whether to call – where guess-work would not.

The ability to use aggressive moves while heads-up in combination with knowing your opponents tendencies was demonstrated in the following hand in the final of the NBC Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2005 – Ferguson’s opponent was the eventual winner Phil Hellmuth Jr. Holding Jack-10 off-suit Ferguson took the lead in the betting throughout the hand, betting progressively more on the flop and turn. By the end of the hand the board read A-8-7-6-K with 3 diamonds. Knowing that his opponent was capable

of ‘big lay-downs’ Ferguson continued his aggression on the river with a huge bet – getting Hellmuth to lay down a pair of Jacks – the best holding throughout the hand!

In an online heads-up match this may not be the optimal strategy, especially at the lower limits where opponents are less likely to fold. However it clearly demonstrates that an aggressive strategy, in combination with knowing your opponent, can be rewarded.

A more passive style of play is recommended by Ferguson when you are in a situation where you are either well ahead in the hand or well behind. The style of checking and calling your opponents bets, for example heads-up with bottom pair, will allow you to control the size of the pot. By giving your opponent the opportunity to bluff you will win the maximum from your opponent’s busted draws – yet lose the least when you are behind.

Finally the importance of discipline and good bankroll management is a key part of Chris Ferguson’s strategy. Building a single dollar to $20,000 involved the discipline to move down levels when a run of bad cards reduced his bankroll. Moving up was accomplished only when 20 buy-ins for the next level was reached. Following this strategy in your heads-up play will ensure that the natural variance of the game does not decimate your bankroll.