Limit Hold’em Heads-Up Tournament Strategy


To mix things up a bit, I spent one evening playing limit hold’em heads-up tournaments on PokerStars. Like many of us, who started poker at the beginning of the 2000s, I have some history with limit hold’em. In the old days Limit Hold’em was the game of choice, and No-Limit was an upcoming game. I used to multi-table 9-max limit hold’em and make a rather steady income. I still play limit hold’em tournaments whenever there are games available. At least during the WCOOP, SCOOP, and MicroMillions there are limit hold’em tournaments available.

Limit stands for fixed bet sizes and a fixed number of bets.

My first idea was to spend the whole evening playing limit hold’em heads-up tournaments on various stakes. But the problem was that there wasn’t much action going on on Tuesday evening in PokerStars.

heads-up limit holdem games in pokerstars

Fixed Limit Heads-Up Strategy

My strategy was to open close to 80% of hands from the button and call quite liberally from the small blind. In limit hold’em, you basically always get the pot odds to call a bet. Fixed limit games have two bet sizes, the small bet and the big bet. The small bet is used before and on the flop. On the turn and river, the bet size is double.

Therefore you get 1:3 odds to call a bet from the button (big blind). You need only 33% of equity to make a profitable call. For example, AK is only 67% favorite to win 72, that’s why we can call basically with every hand. In practice, it is not advisable because you’re not able to realize your equity and it would be impossible to play the part of the range profitable post-flop. This is the reason why we should fold the bottom of our range, for example, 72 offsuit.

I noticed that being heads-up in full-ring limit hold’em is quite different from playing heads-up in a “heads-up tournament”. The reason is the betting order. In full ring heads-up situation, the small blind acts first and will NOT have the possibility to act from the position. In a heads-up limit tournament, the small blind HAS the position and possibility to act last. This changes the dynamics of the game and we have to adjust our standard fixed limit strategy. For example, in full-ring I often check-raise all kinds of backdoor draws, like gutshots, backdoor flush draws, but in heads-up I was making more donk-bets because of the betting order.

In heads-up limit hold’em most important decisions are made on the flop. We should have a good basic understanding of which hands we should check-raise and which hands are good for calling on multiple streets. It might not be a surprise, but aggression is a key element in this format. One common mistake is to call until the end, every time you have some kind of a hand (for example 4th pair). Although the fixed limit favors merged raising range, with value hands, I like to have some low suited connectors or suited one-cappers in my raising range.

5 important tips to success in Limit Texas Hold’em Heads-Up

  • Play a lot of hands from the button, I would advise close 80%.
  • Play straight forward and fast. When you have a good hand you should bet and continue betting to protect your hand.
  • Calculate pot odds; you need to have a clear understanding of how to calculate odds. There are a lot of No-Limit players who have the ability to play winning poker with their experience and without calculating. In limit poker that is not possible.
  • Play a lot of weak hands from the big blind, because you get 1:3 pot odds.

Getting The Nuts on Every Hand

I soon found out that there weren’t many games going on Tuesday evening. Finally, I spotted a fixed limit regular (yes, there is one) in several micro and low-stakes tables and I decided to challenge him. The match went back and forth but I think in the end I got a small edge when the blinds were higher with aggression. The tournament was a Turbo and it still lasted 23 minutes.

One hand from the match: the blinds are 25/50 and I have $1195 and the villain has $1805. The villain bets from the button and I raise with K♥A♦. The villain calls my raise and the flop lands 3♣9♠5♠. The flop doesn’t hit villain’s bet-call range so I decide to make a continuation bet. The villain calls and the turn is J♣. I bet the second time to get value from draws and weaker Aces and KQ type of hands.

The river is 7♣ and a couple of straight draws complete (T8, 68 and 46), but they all are very unlikely because the villain did raise before the flop. Also, backdoor flush draw completes but it seems very unlikely. All things considered, I think you can go both ways here. Check-call is reasonable and raise-call is okay. In my opinion, check-fold is the biggest mistake you can make in this spot. I bet third time on the river and the villain folds.

limit holdem outcome

I was able to play another tournament as well. It lasted only 11 minutes and I was in total god-mode. To be honest I don’t remember running this good in years. Too bad it happened in $3,5 fixed limit heads-up match and not in a high-roller. Regardeless, I absolutely crushed my enemy and I hit every possible backdoor draw that has ever been invented.

limit hold'em heads-up tournament graph

Is Limit Heads-Up Solved?

An interesting fact about fixed limit heads-up is that it was defined as the first essentially solved game of poker. Cepheus was the first program that could play limit heads-up in such manner, that there is only an extremely small margin by which, in theory, the computer might be beaten by skill. Cepheus strategy was very close to the Nash Equilibrium strategy for fixed limit heads-up. You can still play against Cepheus on the University of Alberta website.

A new computer algorithm can play one of the most popular variants of poker essentially perfectly. Its creators say that it is virtually “incapable of losing against any opponent in a fair game”. Philip Ball, 2015

Final Thoughts on Heads-Up Limit Hold’em

First of all, it was very fun to play heads-up fixed limit tournaments on PokerStars. While playing fixed limit, you don’t feel the same kind of pressure as in the no-limit games. I also liked that fixed limit is more math-based and you actually need to calculate pot odds and your equity to make profit.

The biggest downside was that there weren’t many games going on and the fixed limit seems to be halfway dead poker variant at the moment. One thing that will keep limit hold’em relevant in the future, is mixed games. Fixed limit hold’em is in the rotation of 8-game and HORSE. Players who want to succeed in the two abovementioned games, need to know fixed-limit hold’em as well. I also praise the WSOP that they have kept the $1500, $3000 (short-handed) and $10 000 limit hold’em tournaments in their schedule.

When it comes to the PokerStars’ sit and go tournaments, I think the biggest downside was the structure at the beginning of the tournament, even though it was a turbo. In my opinion, the stack sizes were too big (or blinds too small) for quite a while in the beginning, and when the blinds started to rise I thought that the structure was way too fast.

PS. I strongly advise using a heads-up display while you are playing fixed-limit hold’em. It gives you a better picture of what kind of 3bet/limp/bet ranges villains have.

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