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The Art of Heads-Up Poker

Hooray, it's time for the NCAA basketball tournament!

Well, the poker world conducts a similar tournament that will hit the airwaves in April, NBC's 2011 National Heads-Up Poker Championship, a $25,000 buy-in event that features one-on-one match-ups between the world's best poker players.

The format is unique to poker. Players compete in an NCAA-like one-and-done elimination tournament where the losers go home. The excitement builds as the brackets reveal the Sweet 16, the Elite 8, and the Final 4. Nearly every one of the best professional players in the world will participate including some of Hollywood's best-known poker playing celebrities.

Now, for those of you who have never played in a heads-up no-limit Texas hold'em tournament, beware, this game is a very different from normal Texas hold'em. The ability to get a read on your opponent is of utmost importance. Also, because you'll be expose d to a variety of playing styles, heads-up matches will often result in stunning and monumental clashes of power, skill, and determination.

Back in 2005, I drew legendary pro Men "The Master" Nguyen as my first round opponent. Poker veterans knew it would be a tough match but some of the young guns assumed that I would win easily. The old boys knew what they were talking about; you simply cannot look past Men Nguyen.

He had won five World Series of Poker bracelets, had been named Player of the Year several times, and was generally recognized as one of the toughest poker players on the face of the earth.

Anyway, my strategy was straightforward. I would let Men dictate the pace of play and then, hopefully, would try to find a way to take advantage of any apparent weaknesses in his game. If he chose to play aggressively by raising a lot of pots, I'd sit back and let him do my bidding when I was strong. If he folded on a regular basis, I'd bluff a b it more often.

Mainly, though, I would trust my reading abilities. If I sensed that he was strong in a particular hand, I'd fold, or at least choose to play a smaller pot against him. But if I felt that he was weak, I'd try to build a big pot against him in that hand.

Men and I battled back and forth throughout the match with neither of us raising pots up too much before the flop, and that's just how I like to play against the best players in the world heads-up.

One interesting hand came up when I held 7h-6d against Men's 5c-5h.

I called pre-flop and Men checked. The flop came 9-8-4 and we both checked. The turn card was the 5s -- my dream card! The five completed my straight and gave Men a set.

I bet $800 into the $1,600 pot. Unbelievably, Men just called!

The river card was a deuce and Men checked again. This time, I shoved $2,500 into the $3,200 pot. Men studied the situation, and amazingly, once again jus t called.

I've got to hand it to The Master for losing the absolute minimum amount on this hand. No other player in the world would have shown such discipline by not raising the pot at some point with a set of fives.

What can I say but, "Well played, Men."

In our final hand, Men raised the pot to $6,000 to go with As-6c and I moved him all-in for his last $8,000 with A-Q. I was a 2 1/2-to-one favorite and won the hand when the final board showed 5-5-4-8-10.

Oh, by the way, I went on to win the tournament, beating Chris "Jesus" Ferguson in the final match.


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