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Now let’s see what happens when I try to apply Level 3 thinking to a Level 1 thinker. This hand is also from a $3/$6 heads up match with $600 effective stacks, but against a much weaker opponent.
I raised to $18 with 8c 7h on my button, and my opponent made a re-raise to $36, which I called. The flop came 7s 5s 5d. He checked, and I checked as well, a bit suspicious of his tiny re-raise pre-flop.
The turn was the 8h. He bet $45, and I called. The river was the 9d, and he bet $120 into a pot of about $162.
At this point, I made two flawed assumptions about my opponent. The first was that my his tiny pre-flop re-raise would almost always come from high cards such as a big pair or a big Ace. Thus, I wasn't particularly concerned about my opponent having a 5, 6, or 9 in his hand. The second was that his sizable river bet would be either a big hand, probably trips or better, or a bluff, but that it would be not a medium-strength hand such as an overpair. I called and lost to 9c 3c. Against a Level 2 thinker, the above assumptions would be reasonable. But here, I now believe my opponent was operating on Level 1, at least on the river- I have no idea what he was thinking pre-flop. He bet hard because he had top pair, and he gave no consideration to what kind of hand he had represented, what was possible on this board, or what I might have or call him with.
Because I overthought the situation, however, he achieved the same result as a tricky Level 4 player. He found a good spot to make a thin value bet representing a bluff when he had in fact made top pair, an implausible hand given his actions on previous streets.
Conclusion I chose to focus this article on river decisions because they eliminate the added complexity of implied odds, reverse implied odds, semi-bluffing, pot control, and hand protecting that factor into the action on earlier streets. River play is a pure mind game where you need to figure out the thought process behind an opponent’s bluffs, calls, and value bets.
I stated earlier that few players regularly employ Level 4 and higher thinking, and this is in part because it isn’t often necessary. Your objective should be to think one and only one level beyond the level at which your opponent is thinking. Better players will adapt more quickly to you, but if you haven’t got him figured out right, then a weaker opponent can be just as tricky. If you’re a level behind, then you’re getting outsmarted. But if you’re more than one level ahead, then you’re giving your opponent too much credit and overthinking certain situations.
Since there are many more bad players than good players out there, the latter is a more common problem. It is also, thankfully, a much easier problem to fix.