I often wonder what people are thinking about when playing poker. What exactly goes through their mind to make them play the hand they have the way they play it? Are they even thinking at all? Last night everyone was at the table, but the Minnesota – Green Bay game was on the TV, and most of them were paying more attention to Brett Favre than they were to the poker game. I think it is probably the same way for those playing online too. Between the spouse, the kids, the TV, or surfing the internet between hands; I am pretty sure that their concentration on the actual poker game is minimal at best.
Most new people are what are known as Level 0 when it comes to what they are thinking about during a hand. In other words, they look at the two cards they are holding, and act strictly off of that. They pay no mind to what anyone else might have in their hand. For example, the hand is limped around to them in the big blind, and they have 5-8 of Hearts, so they check to see what might come. The flop them comes two random Hearts, so they check and call a bet in the hopes of hitting the flush. Then the flush comes on the river, and they are ready to commit all of their chips in the hope that their flush is the only one out there.
They call this Level 0 thinking, because it really doesn’t deserve a number. It is the most basic thought process in the game, and really requires nothing more than eyesight to practice. It is also the most dangerous thought process, because it allows more experienced players to draw to winning hands that are far better than an 8 high flush.
Try this scenario: A Level 0 player looks down to Ad-Ah in his hand, and raises when it is his turn. He gets one caller, and the flop comes Js-10s-10c. Now, where is he in the hand? To be perfectly honest, neither he nor you know at this point. And to be even more honest, a Level 0 thinker won’t care where he is. He has Pocket Aces, and he is either going to double up or bust out with his hand. The other player now checks, and the Pocket Aces bets out….and gets another call.
Then turn is then dealt, and it reveals the 9s. Another check, and another bet from the Pocket Aces. And of course, another call.
A player who is thinking beyond Level 0 would certainly be concerned at this point. There is a flush on the board, and a full house, as well as a straight. The Level 0 thinker doesn’t see any of that though. They only see the two red Aces in their hand. If the other player bets out at this point, it is almost guaranteed that a Level 0 thinker would make the call. In fact, many Level 0 thinkers would reraise or shove all in at this point. A-A is the best starting hand in Hold ‘Em, so there is simply no way that the other person has a hand that can beat them. A Level 0 player might even say, before making the call or shoving, “You better not have a ten in your hand”, as if that is the only hand in the deck that could beat them at this point. So even though they have it in their mind that the other person might have a better hand, they still haven’t progress beyond Level 0 to such a degree that they actually care.
I don’t think we really need to take this hand to its obvious conclusion to illustrate the point any further. Most of you, having played enough poker in your life, already know how it is going to end. And if you don’t know how it is going to end, then you are probably a Level 0 thinker.
So what is Level 1? A Level 1 player thinks about what the other players might be holding to keep them in the hand when they call or raise. They not only think about it, they take it into strong consideration as they decide what their next move should be. In the above example, I can assure you, by the actions of the other player, that the other player is at least a Level 1 thinker. He probably realizes that the other player is holding either K-K or A-A at this point, and he is playing the hand extremely well because of this.
Level 2 takes it to the next logical step. Level 2 thinkers are considering what the other player thinks the Level 2 player has. This allows a Level 2 thinker to bluff. Level 0 and 1 thinkers rarely do. If I am a Level 2 thinker, and I believe you think I have a flush in my hand, I can bet out knowing there is a strong possibility you will fold.
The continuing levels just continue to take it further and further. Kind of like Eddie Murphy in his Delirious movie, imitating Ralph Kramden: “Norton, I know that you know that I know…”
A Level 3 thinker considers what the other player thinks the Level 3 thinker thinks the other player has, and so on. All great poker players are at least a Level 3 thinker. It is what allows them to make sick bluffs, and even sicker calls.
The problems start when the advanced thinker gets ahead of the game. For example, a Level 2 thinker considers what the other player thinks the level 2 player has. But, what if the other player is a Level 0, and doesn’t have the slightest concern what the Level 2 player has? A bluff against this player, or an intricate play designed to confuse a good player, would simply go unnoticed by a Level 0 thinker.
I was involved in a hand like this one time. A player limped in, I raised with A-K, and they simply called. The flop came 6c-5-5c and I thought it was the perfect time to get tricky and play as if I had hit trips with the 5. So I bet out, and was immediately called. The turn was another 6, and now it was time to play my fake full house. I again bet out, and was called. The river was a 2c, and I made one last attempt at taking down the pot with a large bet. Now, I could have a full house. I could have a straight. I could have a flush. What the other person called me with was Pocket 10’s. I don’t think they ever even looked at the board, other than to see that their pocket pair was higher than any card on the board, so they called.
After that hand, I asked the guy why he wasn’t concerned with any of the possible winning hands I might have been holding. His answer: “I didn’t even realize they were a possibility”. I used Level 2 techniques against a Level 0 player. Had I known the other player was a Level 0, I would have played the hand completely different.
So this week’s lesson is simple: Become a deeper thinker yourself, and then recognize what level of a thinker you are up against. I guarantee you that your results will improve with these two changes to your game.
Remember, poker is not a card game played by people; it is a people game played with cards. An even shorter way of saying that is “Play the person, not the cards”.
Comment on this article
Jim’s poker blog this time around is right on the money. Being (I hope) a level 3 player myself I most fear the level 0 player. Why? Because you can’t “play poker” with this type of player. They either have a great hand and no idea of what you might have or they have nothing and lay it down. I love playing against good players. If you work hard at setting up a scenario and play to that scenario, a good player can be counted on to do the right thing. If, after you’ve set up your play and make that play and the good player comes over the top, you can count on his having a strong hand or you’ve wandered into his scenario. Either way it’s a lot more fun and entertaining. I play a small tournament regularly where there are all kinds and levels of players each time out. The level 0 players never seem to learn and the level 3 players nod knowingly at each other at the beginning of the tournament. The level 1 and 2 players are constantly trying to get better and that’s fun to watch as well. Keep up the good work Jim.
Colorado State Director
Poker Players Alliance
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