If you are reading this article, I’m sure you have at least some understanding of multiple level thinking in poker. Even so, since it’s such an abstract concept, just understanding how it works, may not help us play better. My intention is to help simplify how we categorize the poker thinking levels, or thought process, of opponents with the goal of optimizing how to maximize our profit versus them.
Our prevailing ambition in poker should be to maximize our earn on every single hand we play. The key to do this is to set ourselves up for profitable situations while, at the same time, avoiding unprofitable spots. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as it sounds.
There’s a lot more to it than just opening a particular range, 3-betting certain hands, or c-betting with an appropriate frequency. It’s great to have a solid base strategy, but it should only be relied on in a complete vacuum spot. Most of the time we will have some kind of read to work with, even if it’s only something superficial like someone’s appearance (for you live players), their chosen starting stack size, or even their chosen avatar (for you online players).
Any little bit of information we gather can help us deduce how our opponents think, and thus, improve the quality of our decisions versus them. Through experience and study, you will find that there are patterns to be had in those clues that can be used to pigeonhole opponents into succinct categories. Once this is done, you can standardize play against each one.
However, before we to start attempting to learn how to exploit particular players in particular ways, it helps to acknowledge that there are different ways of thinking about the game which can, in rudimentary terms, be broken down into differing levels. Basically, it all comes down to what a player is considering during a hand. The more complex a players thought process and awareness of what everyone else is doing, the higher level he or she is thinking on. But before we get too complicated here, let’s talk about the mainstream understanding of the levels of thought in poker.
Table of Contents
Traditional Levels Of Poker Thought
- Level 0- Playing with no strategy.
- Level 1- We cards do I have?
- Level 2- What cards does my opponent have?
- Level 3- What cards does my opponent think I have?
- Level 4- What cards does my opponent think that I think he has?
- Level 5- What cards does my opponent think that I think he thinks that I have?
You get the idea. This can theoretically continue on infinitely but even two super geniuses can only take it so far. In order for us mere mortals to use this information practically, it is helpful to define how a player on, up to a certain number of reasonable levels, typically thinks about the game.
First off, let’s forget about including any levels above a certain point. From my experience, there is almost never a time that we need to play above level 4. For the most part, level 3 is as high as anyone would ever need to go in order to outwit most everyone else on the planet. In fact, if we are being forced to spend a lot of time doing level 4 or higher thinking, based on the traditional model, we definitely need to get better at site and/or table selection!
With that in mind, I have revamped how the leveling system operates, to (hopefully) make it more easy to digest and implement. To that end, I created the following list.
A More Effective Poker Thinking Levels System
- Level 0: Clueless Players
These are complete novices. They have no idea what they are doing, much less what other players are doing.
- Level 1: Self-Engrossed Players
Their entire strategy is based on the cards in front of them but they only understand hand rankings and basic strategy. They are aware that other players have cards but have no clue what they could be nor do they typically care. If a level 1 player connects with the board, he or she will bet or call; if the board is missed, they will fold unless they noticed that they have some kind of a weak draw or something. Expect this type of player tends to frequently complain about “bad beats” or have a belief that big pairs should never lose.
- Level 2: The Observers
A level two player thinks about an opponent’s cards and what he or she could be doing based on pre-flop actions and certain board textures. This is the category that the vast majority of regular players will fall into at the micros. This is also generally the lowest level that has any chance of winning money at the game. However, over an entire career without some serious table selection, this style will likely be a net loser in the modern game.
- Level 3: The Pompous Crowd
I use the term “pompous” affectionately since many players on this level take themselves way too seriously. Often, their contempt for the “common player” is obvious in their body language. Even so, most reasonably good players play on level three. They think about their image and consider that their opponents not only have ranges but also realize that they are possibly considering what we have as well. They use lines to represent certain ranges to gain value from strong hands and to effectively bluff weak ones.
- Level 4: Enlightenment
You probably would never know if you have played against an opponent on this level since they understand that image is everything and they tend to project what they want you to think of them. They consider not only what their opponents think they are doing but how this affects the entire dynamic of every situation. For players at this level, there is almost never too much information. And, the more history a level 4 player gets, the more effectively he or she will pick apart the table. Nowadays, the biggest winners all play at this level.
To Counter An Opponent, Think One Level Higher
At the risk of oversimplifying how we should form our lines against particular opponents, we generally want to form our tactics to be one level above whomever we are in the hand with. If our opponent is a level one player who only considers his own cards, to play “perfectly” we should play on level two against him. We know what he has and he has no clue what we are doing, so we profit.
Suppose we instead used level three thinking against the same level player and tried creating elaborate bluffs on a board that we thought connected with our range. Doing so would be a complete waste of time since he is not thinking about what we have anyway. Nothing we do is going to change the way he thinks about his cards and how they connect with the particular board. Instead, we should make our decisions versus him based solely on our equity.
How Do I Tell What Level My Opponent Is On?
To many, this may sound a bit complicated. However, in time, we can learn which plays and lines are most profitable versus a variety of player types. But first, we have to learn to identify those players.
With experience, you will be able to get a good relative idea of what your opponent is thinking about just by glancing at their HUD. However, live players will have to go by actions. Indeed, observing hands will also give you many clues as to what other players are doing at the table.
Identifying Level 0 Opponents
A true level 0 player will have little or no strategy when playing. They will often appear confused and will seemingly be no rhyme or reason to any of their actions. If it looks like they are being fairly selective with their cards, and understand a basic card strategy, they are probably level 1.
In live play, it’s much easier to spot a level 0 player than it is in online play. In fact, experienced players can generally spot a very weak player just by observing a few hands. Bad players tend to reach for their chips while their opponents are betting, or pick up their cards and get ready to fold. Additionally, when action is on them they may not realize it’s their turn to act, or they may act completely out of turn. Verbally, a newbie might say something like “does a straight beat a flush?”, or, ask about hand rankings. They also might turn over a weird hand at showdown, such as calling with a junk hand or even thinking they had won when they hadn’t.
Online, all we have to rely on is the actions our opponents have taken. The best indicator of a level 0 player will be that they almost always limp or call nearly every hand they play. Also, they will almost always play a ton of hands, typically having 80%+ VPIP. And, unless it’s for nearly all or all of their chips, they often will refuse to fold pre-flop. The limp-call will seem to be their bread and butter play and they will generally live to see showdowns. With any piece of the board, they tend to call down like it’s it’s their job.
Identifying Level 1 Opponents
Level 1 players are also much easier to spot live rather than online. While they come in many different forms, they tend to either like to discuss what they are doing openly or be chronic complainers when they lose. Indeed, these player types tend to crack me up with the comments they make, and often seem to have anger management issues. They may say things like, “I hate pocket Aces, I always lose with them,” or, they may complain about getting bluffed. Their attitude seems to be that big pairs, straights, flushes, trips, or any strong hand should never lose.
Indeed, their entire game usually revolves around playing a strong range and hitting hands. This typically has to be the case with level 1 players, since, in order to bluff, you have to be thinking about your opponent’s cards. Overall, these players tend to be much tighter than any other level player. This also makes them fairly easy to spot online. Level 0 players will almost always have very nitty stats and will have a VPIP somewhere south of 14 in 6-max and 12 in full ring. They also tend to open raise a bit bigger than other players since they are trying to “protect” their strong hand and fear getting sucked out on.
Identifying Level 2 Opponents
In my opinion, this is the lowest level where someone can be considered a poker player, in the truest sense of the word, since they think about what their opponents are doing. They are able to recognize when their opponents are playing loose or tight and will adjust their strategy accordingly even if they typically do so in a flawed or rudimentary fashion.
The inherent flaw of level two players is that they approach hands based on everyone the notion that everyone else is just playing their cards. They focus on what their opponents have and can actually be pretty good at extracting value from weaker players. However, they invariably tend to give too much (or not enough) credit to their opponents.
Spotting these players is not always easy since they will obviously not be fish and may have stats similar to stronger players. Often, they may be following hand charts and have likely read a basic poker book or two. As a side note, a large percentage of “good” tournament players are level two players who have read Harrington On Hold’em.
Personally, if I see an opponent who has reg stats or tendencies, I will typically assume he or she is level two until proven otherwise. I will also look closely at a couple of key stats, once a sufficient hand sample has been obtained. If their resteal stat is below 8%, they typically are less-experienced regs and maybe level two. However, an even better stat to look at is how often they fold to c-bets. If they fold often to continuation bets more than 70% they are likely giving too much credit to other regs and are probably a level two or weak level three player.
Identifying Level 3 Opponents
Most break even to winning players with LAG stats will fall into this category. In fact, some of the best players at any stake will be level 3. However, they are often so worried more about balance and playing unexploitable GTO poker, that they miss obvious exploitative lines against a weak player. Even so, they tend to employ a thoughtful, creative bet sizing and make an effort to maximize profit based on what they deduce their opponents’ perceptions to be.
In other words, level three players try to play every pot through the eyes of their opponent. If they are weak, they will take lines their opponents likely perceive to be strong. If they are strong, they do the opposite. They are also good at recognizing good spots to polarize their bet sizing. Overall, they tend to play an overall “stabby” type of game, since they understand the value of picking up dead money and fold equity.
Identifying a level three opponent takes time and a bit of history before you can be fairly sure they are thinking on this level. However, here are a few traits that can give away a level three player.
- A hyper-aggressive stealing strategy
- They leverage position constantly
- Putting a lot of thought into decisions, even pre-flop folds
- Lots of resteals
- Large isolation raises after weak players have limped
Identifying Level 4 Opponents
Level four players do everything that level three players do, in fact, they tend to think identically when it comes to the nuances of strategy and tactics. What separates them, is their ability to plan before the action even begins. They are masters of deciphering dynamics and putting themselves in the most profitable situations possible. They realize that so-called perfect play is actually less important than finding the most profitable situations. Indeed, a focus on dynamics leads to better table selection, and more hands played against inferior players; the true source of profit in poker.
Now that we have defined a way of categorizing players by their level of thinking, let’s discuss a general strategy against each of those levels.
How To Play Against Level 0 Opponents
If you are using pretty much any coherent strategy, you will crush these players. Therefore, I do not really need to insult your intelligence by teaching you some elaborate strategy for beating non-thinking players. However, I will let you know my thought process the infrequent times that I am blessed to be on the same table with one of these escaped lobotomy patients.
Since level 0 players are playing a high percentage of hands and not folding often, there are two things I keep in mind while facing these opponents. First, I loosen up my requirements for entering pots with them. Since it is so rare to play opponents who are just giving their money away, you are missing a golden opportunity if you mistakenly try to tighten up when they are on the table. Since they will usually bust really quickly, get in there and mix it up now! Secondly, I refrain from bluffing them and rather value bet much thinner. Basically, if you just treat them like the most extreme calling stations possible, and you will be okay.
How To Play Against Level 1 Opponents
You will also want to play a lot of pots with level 1 players since they tend to play their hands face up. And, since they tend to be fit or fold players, you will typically also want to have a nearly 100% c-bet percentage against them. However, once they call or raise, look out. Generally, once a level 1 player calls a bet, he or she is never folding. Therefore, when faced with a stubborn level one player, you will only want to continue investing money in a pot with high equity holdings.
My general strategy against first level thinkers is to see flops with a variety of holdings that can make disguised nut hands. Since level 1 players tend to have a very strong pre-flop range and an unwillingness to fold a medium to strong hand after the flops, they tend to be POWs (pay off wizards.) Just be ready to receive a tongue lashing from them should you crack their big pair with a hand they deem inferior. In fact, if you make two-pair or a flush with a hand like 74s, and they may hold a grudge against you for life. I’m okay with this since, in my opinion, a fatter wallet is a good trade for a lack of popularity.
How To Play Against Level Two Opponents
Players at this level can be big winners in soft games, whether live or online. However, in today’s tougher playing environments, they tend to get crushed, even in online micro-stakes games, on all but the softest poker sites. These are the players that may have once been big winners, but now often can’t even make it as Rakeback Pros.
It’s really easy to beat them since a level two player almost always tends to have multiple extreme tendencies that can be exploited. This is because their pre-flop ranges tend to be static and their post-flop strategy is almost never very creative. Nowadays, your average reg now reads these players like a book and exploits their obvious weaknesses. To outplay them, just target those weaknesses and plan accordingly.
How To Play Against Level Three Opponents
Good level three players are a bit of a pain to play against and you should not be actively looking to get into wars with them. While they can be managed and are often somewhat vulnerable to exploitation don’t expect these players to be a source of long-term profit. Most of the time they will be fairly leak free.
2 Tips For Managing Level Three Players
- Do The Opposite
Level three players are tricky. Any bet, or even a check or call, from a level three player tends to mean the opposite of what they look like. Therefore, my advice is to play a counter-punching type of game against them to avoid getting run over. Play passive with your mid-strength hands to realize equity and aggressively fight back with your draws. It’s all about an equity war against these players, you must fight for your share.
- Pick Your Spots
Keep most pots small with most marginal holdings and mix in well-timed raises against obvious stabs or spots where he’s not repping much. Don’t get too crazy here, but a well-timed river raise can be especially effective since they are capable of both thin value and 2-3 barrel bluffs.
How To Play Against Level Four Opponents
Get out while you can!
Joking aside, you will probably never know if a level four player is on your table. Since they are considering things from a perspective that’s difficult to decipher, it probably isn’t worth your effort to try and figure out if an opponent is level four. Furthermore, since you are having to use all of your attention to focus on the dynamic from your own seat, it would take away valuable brain power to try and do so.
One suggestion is that you just look through your long-term database and find the biggest winners. Once you recognize a strong player, try to find out what their weaknesses are, just like any other player. Then, make some notes to help you during your session.
I know it’s impossible to avoid strong players altogether so my biggest advice is to avoid playing unclear spots against them and focus your attention on weaker opponents. Your best bet is to play ABC against them and not get too tricky. If unsure, you can even just play like a level 1 player and try to let them level themselves.
For those of you that relish big challenges, I do realize that getting into leveling battles may be a lot of fun. If that is your thing, more power to you. However, if your goal is to maximize profit, you should instead shift your focus to seeking out softer spots.
Instead of getting caught up in this leveling business, the main thing I’d like you to take away from this information is how weaker and stronger players think differently about the game. Our method of attacking them, especially post-flop, should be contingent on their level of thought, but typically should not be our entire focus when assessing a table.
In other words, don’t rack your brain on this stuff, just be aware of poker thinking levels, mostly when forming post-flop lines. Pre-flop, it’s mostly about the reg/fish dynamic, and tailoring your plans accordingly. Otherwise, profit in poker is all about mastering the common traits that lead to success.
Keep in mind that there is a wide variation of abilities within each level of thought. There are good level two players and really bad level three players. A level two player who plays, for the most part, “mistake-free” poker might enjoy a higher win-rate than a player who thinks on a higher level due to a number of factors. Maybe he or she has better control of tilt or maybe the level 3 player has flawed tactics, poorly using the information gathered.
My advice is to strive to always exploitative poker and just adjust constantly. Assess and reassess the dynamic and always have a clear plan before entering pots. Figuring out how to attack your table dynamic is the most important thing we can do. A player with weaker technical skills can beat a mathematical master in the long term, just by finding more profitable situations more often.
The end game of poker, once you learn all the basics, is the figure out how to create profit for yourself. You must play to your strengths and attack the weaknesses of each table. To that end, you need a consistent and reliable plan on how to tackle every dynamic you could ever face. And, through practice, you will learn how to adjust those tactics on the fly, based on any contingency you might face. If you do that, you will automatically be playing on level four.
Jim is the author of the best-selling book called Automatic Poker. He has been playing professionally for over 15 years and has helped countless people become winning poker players. Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, Jim has helped demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold’em.