Phil Hellmuth's Heads Up Strategy

With a record breaking 11 World Series Bracelets to his name Phil Hellmuth is undoubtedly one of the poker greats. His skill is based on reading opponents and he is capable of making both ‘big lay-downs’ and ‘Big Calls’ based on these skills. Hellmuth is no stranger to Heads-Up Poker success – winning the inaugural NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2005 by defeating Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson. There are several important aspects of Phil Hellmuth’s heads-up poker strategy.

The first thing to note is that Phil Hellmuth aware that he is far more skilled than most opponents and will lay down hands that risk his entire stack early in a tournament. The most famous example of this is folding a straight flush draw on the flop in the early stages of a World Series main event. His reasoning here was that there would be plenty of better opportunities later that do not involve risking his entire stack – and so the ‘gamble’ was not worth it even with the correct pot odds being offered.


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This strategic advice is useful however your skill level compares to the opposition in a heads-up poker match. If you are less skilled than your opponent a big bet may be just what is required to get them to fold. If you are more skilled then try to avoid small edges early on if these will risk your entire match. Declining a good bet today may lead to a situation where you can take an even bigger edge tomorrow.

Instincts like Hellmuth’s are difficult to teach, by closely following betting patterns and combining this with finely tuned instincts Hellmuth was able to make a big call with nothing but King High wile heads-up on his way to winning the $2,500 buy-in Limit Holdem event at the 2003 World Series. Despite being raised before the flop, check raised on a ragged 2-4-7 flop and bet to when the river completed a possible flush, Hellmuth was so sure that his opponent (Young Phan) held only a busted straight that he made the heads-up call. He was right – won the hand and went on to take the title and the bracelet.

Things did not work out quite so well in the second of the 3 match final of the NBC National Heads-Up Championship against Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson. Calling a pre-flop raise with Ace-Three off suit and a large bet with only a gut-shot straight on the flop, Hellmuth hit his hand on the turn. Becoming the aggressor Hellmuth lead out with a relatively small bet and was duly re-raised all in. A great play with exactly the hoped for result was soon to turn sour when Ferguson spiked a 4-out Full House on the river to level the final at 1 game each.

This hand gives us further insight into Hellmuth’s heads-up strategy. Firstly that he is happy to call raises before the flop with small aces – understanding well the relative strength of hands changes considerably in Heads-Up Poker. Secondly, his read on Ferguson was good enough to realize that the weak looking turn bet was likely to be re-raised. This type of play involves study of your opponents betting patterns and tendencies and highlights how important adapting to the individual opponent you are facing is when playing heads-up poker.