When I refer to levels of thinking about poker Level-Headed Thinking

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Level-Headed Thinking

An important aspect of winning poker is adapting to the level on which your opponent is thinking. Most serious poker players understand that this is theoretically true but have trouble putting it into practice. This month, I want to talk about what these levels of thinking are and how they should influence your play.


When I refer to levels of thinking about poker, I mean the depth with which a player is thinking about a given situation and the factors he is considering. These levels can be broken down as follows:

Level 1- What do I have? This player thinks about absolute rather than relative hand strengths. He bets, calls, folds or raises based solely on where his holding falls on the scale of poker hands without regard for situational factors such as what hands are possible, what his opponent might have, or what he has represented. The sizing of his bets and timing of his decisions also tend to be commensurate with his hand strength. Only the absolute worst players are pure Level 1 thinkers, though many poor players revert to this thinking in certain situations.

Level 2- What does he have? This player tries to get a read on his opponentӳ holding and then plays his own hand accordingly. If he bluffs, it is because he knows he suspects is beat and not because he has consistently represented a strong holding on earlier streets. When he bets for value on the river, it is because his hand is strong relative to the board and to his opponentӳ range of hands rather than relative to the range he has himself represented. Most players think on Level 2 most of the time.

Level 3- What does he think I have? These players are conscious not only of what they have but of what they have represented. They think dynamically about your hand range based on how you have played in light of the information they know they have given you about their own hand. They will recognize, for instance, that you failed to bet or raise when there were many possible draws on the board, and therefore give you less credit for a big hand. They will also make thin value bets when they know they have shown a lot of weakness and bluff when they have shown a lot of strength earlier in the hand. Most mid-stakes winning players are primarily Level 3 thinkers.

Level 4- What does he think I think he has? The Level 4 thinker is a truly tricky opponent who gets inside your head and thinks about his play in light of the information you have about him and his hand and also the information that you know you have given him about your hand. The best example I can think of for this is a player who folds a pair to your river bet after you checked and called the flop and turn and all the obvious draws missed on the river. If his reasoning is that you think he will think you are bluffing and therefore would not bluff but would make a thin value bet, then he is employing Level 4 thinking.

You can imagine the progression from here and how intricate the mind games can get between two top-notch players. However, few players successfully employ Level 4 and above thinking regularly, in part because it is not often necessary.


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