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Levels of poker thinking

Why is it important to understand levels of poker thinking ? We can not play properly  without this information.  How can we decide what is our best strategy ?  First we need to determine who is our opponent. Is he a nit playing only nuts and folding the rest ?  Maniac raising every hand and going all in with weak hands? Is he a tight aggressive regular ? A weak tight player playing passively whole way ?

Lets divide opponents by Levels of poker thinking :

  1. What is my hand ?
  2. What is my opponent hand ?
  3. What does my opponent think is my hand ?
  4. What does my opponent think I think is his hand ?
  5. What does my opponent think I think he thinks is my hand ?

While level 4 and 5 sound fun and interesting from theory perspective we do not need to understand complicated leveling wars right now. Lets focus on first 3 levels and see how can we determine levels of poker thinking from out opponents and outplay them.


Levels of poker thinking – what is my hand?

Player on level 1 skill level is understanding his hole cards and the board. Many weak tight beginners or players who play only occasionally for fun are on this level. So for example if he has QQ and board is AKJJ3 he can easily call bets on all streets because he has 2 Queens. He learned that QQ is a good hand and he is not thinking that his opponent can easily have a A, K or a J. So how can we outplay this player ?

We need to think one level above him. If we think on level 2 we will determine his possible holding by his tendencies through the hand and act accordingly. We will not try to bluff him since he is not folding but we will value bet him relentlessly. Checking back out of fear we are beat is a terrible strategy against level 1 villain. If we have a decent hand we should value bet as much as we can since our opponent will rarely fold.

Levels of poker thinking – what is my opponent hand?

What about level 2 opponent ? Many nits and regs in the micros are on this levels of poker thinking. When they have A5 on the AKJ board they do not think only : “I have a top pair”. They realize someone can also have 2 pair, straight or a set. Maybe they read some or an article and determine starting hands and learned to read the board. Some maniacs can also be on this levels ( and some are on level 1). They will have excuse to bluff very often as the board develops and they can represent different holdings. So how can we beat level 2 players ? Well playing on level 3 of course.

Levels of poker thinking – what my opponent think is my hand?

On this level of thinking are already very decent players. Many mid stakes regs playing tag or lag style are on this level. Players on this level understand if the level 2 player raised and they called, it will be hard to represent big pocket pair or AK later in the hand. They are already sophisticated enough to know that their opponent expect them to reraise with those holding.

Level 3 players will easily outplay level 2 players by bluffing them as the opportunity arises and also calling them down when they bluff. They will understand that their hand is perceived by all their actions in the hand. In other words their “story will make sense”. If on the other side level 2 opponent try to bluff level 3 opponents he will often chose wrong spots. They will bluff if the river is K and their opponent can rarely have a K but they will not ask themself  : “Can I have a K in this situation?”.

Outplaying ourself

So ok we now understand that if we are one level above we can easily outplay our opponent. What happens when level 3 player is facing a level 1 player ? Now the fun part comes. Level 1 player is destroying level 3 player 😀 How is that possible ? Well our advanced level 3 thinking player realizes this is a great spot to bluff and that opponent had never a strong holding and what happens ? He gets stacked and than he is shocked, angry and confuse and blames his opponent for calling him down with his bad hand.

Lets have an example. Level 3 player opens the pot with 55 level 1 reraise level 3 calls. Board is T87 level 1 bets the flop. At this point since level 1 players are so face up our sophisticated player realize that his opponent probably have AK or a big pocket pair. He calls one bet. Turn is 9. Board is now T879 and level 1 player checks. Now our advanced thinking player realizes this is a great opportunity to bluff since there are 4 cards to the straight. He bets the turn and gets a call. He shoves the river and gets snap call from QQ. What just happened? Our level 3 player outplayed himself!

What can we do ?

His advanced thinking did not work on his opponent because level 1 did not think at all about possible holdings of other player he only looked at his hand. His level of thought was : “I have 2 Queens I call”.

So how can now our level 3 player beat his opponent ? HE NEEDS TO GO DOWN TO LEVEL 2. Only way he can beat his weak opponent is by thinking 1 level above him not 2 levels. This is a very common mistake. I saw it everywhere. On tournaments, on cash games, on live games. So many times I saw a “good player” making a “good play” against terrible opponent. Like Doyle Brunson famously said in his book “Super System” : “Poker is a game of people”. You need to know your opponent and pay attention it will pay you in the end.


Final thoughts

Pay attention who are you playing against. Do not play on auto pilot. Do not pull your solver approved play by default. If you play live study your opponent. How is he dressed? How is he acting ? Is he drinking coffee or whiskey ? How will he most likely play ? If you play online look closely to your HUD stats. Make notes about villains and play your opponent.

If you wish to read more start learning poker positions and starting hands.

I wish you good luck in your progress.



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