What Level?

When we discuss the play of poker hands a great deal of the discussion revolves around the mental aspect of the game. The game is fundamentally a game of psychological warfare. The level at which you think about the game and finally the level at which you are able to play the game determine how well you play.

The level one player plays based upon the strength of his hand without regard for what anyone else has. This is the most basic level at which the game can be played. You understand the ranking of the hands and you know the value of your hand and you play strictly based upon the value of the hand you have. I would suppose there is a level zero where you don’t even understand the basics of the game and do not know which hands beat which. Of course there are a few players that sit in a game with this very limited understanding of poker.

The classic level one hand that I remember is from the Peppermill Tournament. Stuart, a good friend of mine, made the trip with Paul and I to play in the tournament in Reno. Stuart entered a $200 buy-in tournament. After about two hours I noticed Stuart was walking around the room already eliminated from the tournament. Stuart limped in with A9 and called a raise pre-flop. The flop was AK9 and Stuart was locked into the hand that would ruin him. The Ace on the turn made the board AK9A and Stuart had Aces full of nines. Of course Stuart went broke without ever considering what hand his opponent might have. I remember Stuart telling the story and saying at least twenty times that he had a full house. Stuart knew he had a very strong hand but he never considered what his opponent could have. This is a classic example of level one thinking.

The hand described above lends itself very well to the most basic of level two thinking. A player that raises before the flop usually has a strong hand. When that player is willing to raise on a flop of AK9, the thought process should lead you to put him on a range of hands. The range of possible hands could be AA, KK, 99, AK, AQ. When the Ace comes on the turn and the player is still raising the hands start to look like AK or KK. When the player is willing to go all-in you have to imagine he could have AK. Holding A9 Stuart just could not put his opponent on AK, the only hand that beats him. Why? Because he never considered what his opponent could have.

When you advance to level two plays, you begin to play your hand based upon what your opponent is holding. If you know the opponent raises pre-flop with only pocket aces and pocket kings and never gets away from aces you might consider seeing the flop with pocket jacks and if you make a set on the flop you will get paid off and if you miss the flop it is an easy fold.

A second example is if you believe your opponent is on a flush draw and on the river you see that the flush did not get there, so you go ahead and bluff to pick up the pot based upon the fact that you know he missed his hand. The strength of your own hand does not matter when you know he missed.

The next concept is to play your hand based on what your opponent believes you have. What you truly hold doesn’t matter, it is what your opponent believes you have that counts. This line of thinking only works against thinking players. Many players will call you even if they believe they are beat. These players may be fooled by level two moves, but they refuse to fold the hand so a level two bluff has no value.

There is another way to look at the hand. A decent opponent knows that you bet the flop when you flop a pair and when you check it means you missed the flop. He simply folds when you bet and bets when you check. He is playing his hand based upon your actions. You need to recognize this and begin to mix up your play. You can make plays to get him to react to your actions. When you check and he bets he expects you to fold exactly the way you have so many times before. Rather than fold, you should try to call or even raise once in a while. If you are going to check raise as a defense against a player that bets every time you check you need to check raise with big hands from time to time to make the play seem plausible.

As the levels of sophistication increase it becomes more difficult to describe the action that is taking place in the minds of the players. I once made a four-bet bluff on the river in a limit hold’em game and had my opponent fold the best hand. The opponent was a particularly aware player that could give me credit for a check raise bluff. The river card brought a third heart on the board and I held the ace of hearts so I knew I could represent the nut flush. I went for a check raise bluff on the river. My opponent knew that I was capable of such a play and made a three-bet value bet as a test of whether I actually held the hand thinking I would throw away my bluff. I realized he was capable of such a move and suspected I may be faced with an advanced play by a tricky player and I made the four-bet bluff which absolutely convinced him I had the nut flush. This player knew I was capable of a check raise bluff but had never seen me make it four bets with anything other than the absolute nuts. This is a level of thinking that only happens with very aware tricky players who have played many hands with one another.

As you sit at the table playing hand after hand in a mechanical fashion you should ask yourself what level you are playing at and make sure you are playing one level higher than your opponents. The art of the game is to keep yourself only one level above the other players and not fall into the fancy play syndrome where you make great plays and yet they have no chance of working because your opponents are totally unaware of what has happened.

What level of thinking are you capable of? What level of thinking is appropriate for the game you are in?

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