Is Heads Up Poker Profitable or Just Luck?


Many consider Heads-Up poker as the biggest showcase if you have a skill advantage over your opponent. The nature of the game is that everyone can beat anyone on a single given day. But long term better player will always come ahead of an inferior opponent. It can be heartbreaking when you keep losing to a player who seems to play way worse than you, and you might start to question this game format.

Heads up poker is a very profitable type of poker. Of course, luck has some part of it when it comes to a single session of heads up play. But longterm, a better player will continuously create more profitable scenarios and in the end, always come ahead of the weaker opponents. Being more skilled is just one of the factors that determine who will win.

You can’t keep hitting the best hand all the time. And so can’t your opponent. It’s important to focus on playing your best at all times.

For a single session, it also matters a lot if you are experiencing the positive or negative side of the variance. As we know, poker is a game of odds, and we do not influence how cards roll out. But it is on us to make a correct decision based on math and information we have, every time. It is crucial to maintain our mental focus at the time of playing. Being tired or annoyed will, for sure, hurt our decision-making process. And one of the most significant factors, if we will win or not still, is on us. It is called tilt.

What is Tilt?

Tilt means making suboptimal, rashed decisions that end us costing a lot of money. Professional poker players work on their mental preparation outside of poker games. There are many mental coaches, which train poker players to tilt less and how to recognize the tilt is creeping up in them. This is all to be prepared next time when you are running bad at the tables. So you know when to close the tables, if you can’t avoid tilt or take proper steps and not start tilting and keep playing your optimal A-game, despite running bad. At the end of the day, heads up poker should be the most profitable cash game option.

Why is Heads Up Poker so Profitable? With Winrate Example

In heads up poker, you get to play only against a single opponent. This means every single hand you can exploit opponent weaknesses. If you have a significant skill advantage over him, this is the best thing that you could wish for in poker and the opponent tilting, of course.

It is not uncommon that poker pros have double or more the winrate when playing HU compared to 6max or full-ring. You get to play almost every hand in the small blind and quite some in the BB. Compare this to 6max, where an average pro will play somewhere around 22-26% of hands. So you get to play three times as many hands. And all of those hands are played with you having the skill advantage over the player on the other side.

Result of me playing HU for a month. My main game is 6max, but my winrate on HU is usually almost double compared to my 6max. Graph has ups and downs, but HU games are nicely profitable.

Sometimes poker pros would intentionally sit down against another poker pro, believing they have an edge. It often comes down to ego. To show your superiority or falsely believing you are better than your opponent. You should avoid these ego battles at all costs. They just cost you money. You sit into a table to teach an opponent a lesson, but instead, you get crushed and start tilting. Play only when you are focused and leave your ego outside of the table. Stay humble and focus on your plays and do your best to recognize the opponent’s errors.

On a rare occasion, poker pro would knowingly sit and play against a better player. This is a strategic move and gives the weaker player a chance to learn something out of a better one. In poker, making a better decision often comes in the form of making the mistakes first and then learning from it. It is how I was learning until I discovered a far more efficient way to improve my game, that cost me far less money. By joining instructional poker coaching sites likes PokerStrategy or UpswingPoker.

The far more common scenario you can encounter nowadays if you have a glance at the poker lobbies is noticing a bunch of Heads up tables being occupied by a player and waiting for someone to sit-in. Usually, the person that waits is a regular, often a poker pro, especially at higher limits. And the person who joins him is just a regular Joe wanting some action and enjoy a game of HU. I encourage you to do the same as the pros do. Sit on an empty table and wait for someone else joins you. This should increase your chances of playing against a weaker opponent.

Example of HU poker pro

To get a perspective of how profitable HU(heads up) poker can be, let me show you a YouTube video of famous HU poker player and nowadays a YouTuber, Doug Polk.

Poker pro showing his profit/loss graph.

Around a 2 minute mark, he shows his graph. He played over 330 thousand hands, and his profits are consistently going up. Even for a great player like him, it’s impossible to escape the variance, though. At one point, he was breakeven for over 50 thousand hands! Let me demonstrate to you how many hours that are. Playing one table of Hu poker online usually gives you around 200 hands per hour. So it means he didn’t win for 250 hours! That means two months of playing for a poker pro and could easily be half a year to a year for a recreational player, if not more! This shows the poker variance and how, in the long run, a better player will always win. Over 330 thousand hands, his green line (profits) looks extremely smooth and continuously going up. His winnings are over $3.4 million during this time. He is earning over $10 per hand. Winrate of over ten big blinds per hundred hands (10bb/100) isn’t the best if he would be playing low stakes. You can and definitely should do better. But for his nosebleeds (highest stakes poker games), that is spectacular. He would not be able to achieve that on 6max or full-ring games.

HU vs. 6max comparison – Which is easier to play

Your winrate is indeed higher if you play HU poker. But which one is more profitable?

When playing heads up, you generally play one or max two tables. Anything more than that and you start playing like a robot. Compared to 6max where it is not uncommon to play 4-6 tables and still have a pretty good idea of how everyone plays.

Heads up:

  • Most regs play 1 to 2 tables at a time. Anything more than that and you start playing like a robot. It becomes much harder to follow the action and get solid reads on your opponent
  • Playing more than 65% of hands is common
  • Getting around 200 hands per hour per table
  • Can make detailed notes
  • Involved in hands all the time
  • Need to focus always as there is no off time
  • It is harder to grind for hours together
  • Gets to play against weaker opponent all for yourself
  • Need to wait for action, unless sitting down and playing against a good player

6max:

  • Most regs play 4-6 tables
  • 60-80 hands per hour on a single table
  • Playing 22-26% of hands
  • Can make detailed notes. But you could miss a detail or two if you weren’t involved in the hand and were focused on other tables.
  • Have some time off when not involved in hands. This is due to playing fewer hands in 6max and having some time off to observe other tables in the meantime.
  • Quite easy to play 2-3h together
  • Can play immediately but tables aren’t as soft as in HU

The list above comes from my personal experience. I played both formats. While it is true I played way more of 6max than HU, I still have put in around 100 thousand hands of HU in my poker career. 

For me playing 6max was easier. I was able to make longer sessions, and 100% focus wasn’t required every second when I was playing. When HU, my brain was tired after 2h of playing. And playing HU for a living, I was able to put in fewer hours of a grind than in 6max. I know of some poker pros that prefer to sit on empty tables and often wait 1 or 2 hours that someone even sits in on their table. But I am willing to give away the chance to play against very weak opponents all for myself. Sitting down and start playing immediately, even though with less knowledgable players and sharing them with other poker pros, is more important to me.

All of this information leaves you well equipped to make a decision on your own which format of poker you prefer. 

Maybe you like to battle it up against another player constantly, and your main goal is not to make money in poker but to have fun. Then definitely just sitting down on random poker heads up table and start playing will give you the thrill you wanted. If not, then follow my advice above, and surely you will see for yourself that heads up poker is very profitable.

Good luck at the tables!

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