Much of the material I ask Mike about in building this column comes from his free MCU library at Poker1. That's where I found a fitting topic for today's lesson.
Ever wondered what is the appropriate time to bet or check, whenever you're holding medium cards in a heads-up game? Mike says it's precisely the hands that are about medium for the situation that drive players nuts. They just can't figure out whether to be timid or aggressive - whether to bet or to check. Let's clear it up. When you're first to act in a heads-up game, Mike suggests you should check most of the seemingly close-decision hands. When you're first to act in any poker game, whether it's nine handed, six handed, short-handed, or heads-up, you're at a distinct disadvantage. Everyone is going to act after you do and if you're holding a marginal hand and you bet, you have many challengers behind you waiting to act. Of those, there is often someone holding a better hand. If so, betting is usually not a wise move. Your opponents have the upper hand - literally - and they are able to act after you do. But, beyond then, checking provides your weaker opponents with an opportunity to make mistakes.
When you're last to act, you should also often check hands that seem approximately what Mike calls "borderline." Those are the ones that would be reasonable either to check or bet. But Mike recommends checking a whole lot of these, too - just as he recommends checking more often than you'd think when you act first. If you have catching up to do, meaning your hand isn't yet made, you can easily check and take the advantage of seeing the free card. That free card could win the pot for you, but if you bet and get raised, you may fold and never find out. Also, keep in mind that free means free. You're getting to see the next card for nothing, and when you're already trailing, that's a good deal that you pass up by betting.
Another consideration on being first to act: Mike believes you should check more frequently than you bet; in fact, he suggests checking twice as often as you'd bet when you're heads-up in first position.
Disagreeing with a belief. Mike writes that the most commonly published belief when playing heads-up is that you should bet assertively when you're first to act. He disagrees. If your hand is medium, only rarely would you bet when you're first to act. If you're playing someone who has a tendency to fold frequently, then betting would be your wiser move. If your opponent bluffs a lot then you want to check and call. Let him hang himself. Feel the need. If you're holding a marginal hand and feel the need to bet, you should be more willing to do that if you're last to act. Then, Mike says, it's permissible to bet substantially in no-limit. Although you must vary your play (for purposes of deception) by sometimes betting marginal hands when you're either first or last, he stresses that it's very important that you not choose either of these options too often. Medium-hands - the ones that make you wonder - call for checking more often than betting, whether you're acting first heads-up or last.
Especially remember: If you're holding a tentative hand and you're last to act, you should probably only check. Take the opportunity to see the free card.
So, to sum it up, when you're holding a minimal hand and you're heads-up and the first one to act, you should seriously consider checking. That way you stay out of trouble and give your opponents an opportunity to make a betting error. When you're acting second heads-up, check often also, thus taking advantage of seeing the free card. In short, checking with marginal hands in a heads-up game is usually the smart thing to do.