The Multiple Levels of Thinking in Poker


Every seasoned poker player is aware of the mathematical aspect of the game and the gambit of variance. But a well-rounded player knows it has more to do than just the math and that’s where the psychology comes into play. Outsmarting your opponents, getting into their head, what are they thinking, what are they holding are all questions that form an essential part of multiple level thinking, a crucial part of poker psychology.

Survival is all about staying ahead of the game. Whenever you grace the poker felts, you got be a step ahead to outsmart your opponents. Being able to work out why your opponent is playing in a certain manner and pinning him/her on their cards is an essential skill for winning poker players. In addition, keeping a calm mind and having the ability to clearly read these situations and act upon them in the most optimum manner will certainly help bring you laurels on the felts.

Fret not if you are a pro or an amateur, this read has something for everyone to learn. Here’s a look at the multiple levels of thinking when it comes to a game of poker.

Ground 0 – No Thinking

Like the name suggest, it doesn’t qualify so much for a level. But let’s not eliminate the possibility of facing this level with your opponents. Chances are your opponent is new and probably has no idea of the rules of the felts or is playing under the influence. Either way, we suggest not indulging in a game if this is the level of thinking, because lets face it, we’ve moved on from poker being associated with the G word. This is why its called a game of skill.

Level 1 – What cards do I have?

This level is probably the most nascent one in poker. It’s the level of thinking for all those who just started out and have just got a grip of the rules and are aware of the different hand ranks. Players with this level of thinking are majorly focusing their time trying to figure out how strong their hands is and if they have an opportunity to win the hand. Bluffing certainly doesn’t suit this level of thinking because players will be bluffing regardless of what their opponents are holding and that we all know by now is a bluff gone wrong!

Level 2 – What do my opponents have?

A few bad beats down and Level 2 is will be the natural progression and the category that most poker players fall into. At this stage most players would have gained some experience of the game, but aren’t necessarily winning players. If first level play is the elementary process of considering the strength of your hand, and your hand only, the second level involves thinking about what your opponent might be holding. Players at this stage will consider what their opponents are holding, but may not be equipped with enough knowledge to be making the right decision based on mathematics or the right strategy required for the situation.

Level 3 – What do my opponents think I have?

This is an interesting level of play. Players who’ve reached this stage are certainly doing some thinking and are most often winning players. They are always actively thinking about the thoughts of other players around them and are also aware of the optimum decisions to make in these situations. Their bluffs are better calculated and they’ve certainly reached a stage of value betting.

This level is all about story telling, painting a picture! Supposing both players are at the same level of play the idea would be to plant a seed in the opponent’s mind of a very different hand and then play into the psyche of the hand he/she thinks you hold, the actual hand you hold becomes of less importance.

Level 4 – What do they think I think they have?

This is where things start to get tricky, experienced players are able to get a grasp of these thought processes at this level and will use it to their advantage. However, thinking at this level, doesn’t mean you will be able to use it and more there aren’t too many players who will be able to think at the same level.

Level 5 – And you can go on and on

If you are on a table and able to identify a player at this level or who can think even deeper, our suggestion would be to scoot!

Putting it to play

The different levels of thinking are an integral part of playing poker and one can certainly save himself/herself from playing incorrectly against different types of players. Adjusting your game to the players and their level of thinking is crucial! There is no point playing at level 3 if your opponent is playing at level 1 because there is no need to consider what your opponent thinks you have if they are focused only on what they are holding.

For example, Level 1 players think only about their cards and will raise before the flop with JJ, QQ, KK, AA as well as AK, AQ, KQ. Being at a higher level and aware of his hand range, its best you fold your hand if they don’t slot into the top half of his probable holdings. The Level 1 player will also probably check his weaker hands and fold when you bet, now that is a huge advantage you have playing one level above him/her.

Another example would be if you knew your opponent is playing a higher pocket pair. Supposing you’ve been dealt pocket 4s and he/she has pockets Aces. You will certainly ending up folding if your hand doesn’t improve on the flop, most often. But on a flop like 9s, 4d, 2c, they are bound to bet, hoping for a fold. But at a deeper level you know your opponent is not thinking of what you possibly have and is probably playing his pair of aces for its intrinsic value. With another advantage in your hand, you could be taking all his chips and well, isn’t that what poker is all about!

When you hit the felts there’s always an overwhelming amount to grasp. As a beginner, take your time and don’t try absorbing it all. Just being aware of the concept of the multiple levels of thinking in poker is a big plus starting off. Don’t let yourself be the target for exploitation by playing predictable poker. Stay one level ahead!