Levels of Thinking
We’ve all heard the cliché “Play the man and not the cards.” This of course means that if you can determine what your opponent is likely to be holding based on their mannerisms, tendencies, or a tell, the cards you are holding are less important. Making a decision based on what you think your opponent is holding is 2nd level thinking. A lot of money can be made without going further than 2nd level thinking, but making the really big bucks requires at least 3rd level thinking and on occasion 4th level thinking. 5th level thinking and higher is almost always unnecessary.
You always want to be thinking exactly 1 level higher than your opponent. If your opponent is thinking on the 2nd level, you want to be thinking on level 3, not level 4. This concept along with a description of each level is shared below.
Leveling, Levels of Thinking in Poker
A player is thinking on level 1 if they are focused entirely on their own cards. Even very bad players will occasionally stray into level 2 and make plays based on what they believe their opponents to be holding. However, some players play a great deal of poker on the first level. This isn’t always a bad thing, and if you endeavor to play 10+ tables simultaneously, you will spend most of your time worried about your own two cards.
However, if you are aware that a player is overly concerned with his own two cards you can take advantage of him. Look for scary turn cards to raise him off his hand. If he calls a 4-bet preflop you can safely put him on a strong hand. Don’t get involved with him in this situation unless you hit a monster. Etc.
In fact, if you notice a player is playing very slowly, you can do a player search to see if he is playing a dozen tables. If he is, you can look for spots to take advantage of him. Mass-multi-tablers and tight fish are typically not going to go out of their way to defend a marginal hand.
Level’s 2 and 3 is where most serious players do the majority of their thinking at the poker table. Level 2 is achieved when a player gives consideration to his own hand as well as to the likely hand of his opponent. A player may narrow down his opponent’s likely holding based on his opponent’s emotional state, general play style, a poker tell, or a specific line of play in a given hand.
Based on how likely it is your opponent has certain holdings, your perceived win-rate against those holdings, and your perceived win-rate if a bluff is attempted, you can get an idea of what your best course of action is. Check, Call, Fold, or Raise.
Whatever level you believe your opponent to be on during a hand, you should be on the next level. This is one of the more important concepts to understand. Level 2 is most profitable if your opponent is on level 1. That is to say if your opponent is a weak player, a multi-tabler, or otherwise distracted, then level 2 is your best bet.
You are thinking on level 3 if you give consideration to your own hand, your opponent’s range of hands, and what you believe your opponent thinks you are holding (whether in general terms i.e. your image, or in specific terms, what you’re holding in a specific situation).
Level 3 is handy after you lose a large pot. This is because if you lose a large pot, you may be able to sell the notion that you are on tilt. If you pick up a large hand following a loss, you may be able to get extra action if you play the hand in a “splashy” or “tilted” manner.
More generally however, Level 3 is the perfect place to be if you think your opponent is a competent and focused player.
Level 4 should be avoided unless you are playing a particularly strong opponent at small stakes NLHE or higher. Level 4 is almost completely unnecessary in micro stakes games.
Level 4 means that you are considering all of the factors mentioned in level 3, and you are giving additional consideration to the fact that your opponent may be altering his play decisions based on your understanding of your own cards, his cards, and his image. Essentially, Level 4 means that you are giving your opponent credit for level 3 awareness.
Level 4 is only necessary if you think your opponent may be factoring your image into his decision making process. Basically, if you have been playing a lot of hands and you have reason to believe your opponent is playing back at you precisely because you have been playing a lot of hands, then you may be more likely to call down with a medium holding, or come back over the top of him. If in this instance it turns out your opponent actually has a strong hand, then you run the risk of “leveling yourself,” and losing all of your chips.
The above video is a classic case of Leveling by Phil Ivey and his opponent. Phil Ivey Arguably goes to level 6 in the below video, but it is also possible that he just had a very solid read on his opponent and decided to stick to his guns (which could be considered level 4).
Level 5 is just giving your opponent credit for level 4 awareness. This just means that you think he knows that you are capable of adjusting your play based on what you think he thinks your image is (or likely holding is). As you can see things begin to get complicated at Level 4 and especially Level 5. For the most part, Level 5 is completely useless and more likely to get you into trouble than anything else.
If you are considering making a decision based on level 5 thinking, ask yourself if you are over thinking things.