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Understanding the Levels of Poker Thought
One of the great aspects of playing poker is that even though everyone is playing at the same table, not everyone at the table is playing the same game. Some of the players will be playing a game of cards, while others will be playing a game of people playing with cards - a difference worth pondering over.
Once you have mastered the basic elements of poker like odds and outs, you should start working on the meta-game portion by learning to out-think your opponents. One of the best ways to do this is to first understand the different levels of poker thought that occur at the poker table.
Upon becoming familiar with these levels of poker thought, your job will be to start categorizing each one of your opponents and assigning them to a specific level. After this is done you can then adapt your own play to one level above that and exploit them.
The Different Levels of Poker Thought
Although not every player will always fit neatly into a particular level, these levels are extremely helpful and accurate:
Level 0: This is the realm of the utterly clueless. We are talking about your basic 'ground zero' for poker ignorance and stupidity.
Example: For a prime example of level 0 thinking, cast your mind back to one of the opening scenes in the movie Ocean's 11 where we are first introduced to Brad Pitt's character as he is trying to teach a hopeless bunch of 'Teen Beat' heart throbs how to play poker. After painstakingly explaining to these guys how to intelligently play the game, Topher Grace's character proceeds to turn over "5 Reds" and starts giving and receiving high fives all around the table for making this 'crushing hand.' This is level 0 thinking in action.
Play vs. Level 0 Thinking: Depending on your stakes, level 0 is common at the micro levels online and you find it even more in home games. Do not try to get fancy versus a level 0 thinker - they have no idea what you are doing or what your moves represent. Just keep it simple when you have a hand like top or middle pair and bet for value.
Level 1: This player is utterly consumed by what cards (or card) he has in his hand. Wondering what you and the rest of the table may have is a thought that will rarely enter into the level 1 thinker's mind, let alone keep him from drawing to his gutshot straight.
Example: A classic example of level 1 thinking is your typical calling station. This myopic player has never met an ace he did not like and has no understanding of or appreciation for pot odds. Issues like what you might be holding, board texture or kicker strength are alien concepts to the level 1 thinker. These players are basically playing bingo at the poker table; they just keep calling hoping to hit their ace.
Play vs. Level 1 Thinking: Do not employ bluffs versus a level 1 thinker. A bluff can only succeed against a player who is willing to consider what you might be holding, and that is not in the level 1 thinker's repertoire. If you can beat top pair weak kicker then you will want to bet for value.
WARNING! Level 1 thinkers tend to be very passive. If a scare card hits the board and a level one thinker becomes aggressive, give them credit for having made their hand and get out of the way without the nuts.
Level 2: This is the point where a player begins to start thinking about what you are likely to be holding, and not just what they have in their own hand. Level 2 players are some of the more common players at the low stakes levels online.
Example: A common type of level 2 thinker is the 'fit or fold' player - he knows that his hand missed the flop and he is worried about the fact that you might have hit it or that you already have a made hand. Level 2 thinkers may be slight losers or break even players but they do not embrace the meta-game by making plays like trying to represent a hand when a scare card hits.
Play vs. Level 2 Thinking: This type of player can often be pushed around. They fold easily to blind steal attempts and are prime candidates to isolate pre-flop and continuation bet into on the flop. Level 2 players do not bluff much so if they bet on multiple streets you should get out of the way without a strong hand.
Level 3: At this level players think about what they have, what you have, and what you think they have. Level 3 players tend to turn a consistent profit at the micro and small stakes levels and are the players that blind steal from and continuation bet into the level 2 players.
Example: One example of a level 3 player is the typical Loose-Aggressive player. Although his play is highly exploitable, the LAG tends to do very well over the short term, often completely steam rolling over passive tables. Any two cards may be good enough for the LAG to raise with, especially when you have shown a willingness to fold.
If you are the type of person who tends to see monsters under the bed and believes that every scare card hit your opponent then the typical level 3 player will do everything in his power to accommodate your beliefs and kindly relieve you of the pot at every available opportunity.
Play vs. Level 3 Thinking: Because strategic bluffs and semi-bluffs are common tools for the level 3 thinker, they also in turn tend to be susceptible to bluffs, steals and re-steals. Beating the level 3 thinker is where the artistic and creative side of poker starts to manifest itself. If you like playing 'chicken' then you may have the knack to fight successfully with people utilizing this level of thought.
Level 4: Play at this level can get very complicated, very quickly. Playing at the 4th level of thought generally involves asking the question: "What does my opponent think that I think that they think that I am holding?" Sound complicated? It is. But generally you do not need to be operating at this level of thought with any significant frequency at the micro and low stakes levels.
WARNING! It is possible to outplay yourself by over-thinking the action. Just because thinking 1 level above your opponent is good, it does not mean that thinking 2 or more levels above your opponent is even better. If you are not careful you can easily over-think the situation and wind up coming to some wildly erroneous and very costly conclusions.
Remember: The spoils of victory do not necessarily go to the person who can think at the highest level. The winner is usually the player thinking at the right level of sophistication, which is exactly one level above that of their opponents.