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Multi-Level Thinking

by Ed Miller |  Published: Nov 26, 2014

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Ed MillerMost people are familiar with the concepts of “leveled” thinking in poker. The level of thinking you are on represents the amount of strategizing and counter-strategizing going on between you and your opponents.

As a quick summary of the concept, the zeroth level of thinking is pure card strength. Flushes are good, bottom pairs are not. The first level is what most people think of as basic hand reading. Your opponent bets. He likely has top pair or a set.

The second level is where the mind games begin. On this level, you are thinking about what your opponent reads you for. You bet. Therefore, your opponent thinks you likely have a top pair or a set. And so you try to have something else to surprise him.

The third level is where you are considering what your opponent thinks you read him for. He bet, so he assumes you will read him for top pair or a set, and therefore, he will likely have some other hand to try to surprise you. So you expect the surprise.

And so on. These levels can continue indefinitely, with each higher order level consisting of your thoughts about what might be going on at the lower levels.

In this article, I offer you my thoughts about how to apply this concept of leveled thinking to a small stakes live no-limit game.

Don’t Out-Level Yourself

The primary danger when you’re playing $1-$2 through $2-$5 no-limit hold’em is out-leveling yourself. That’s when you convince yourself that your opponents are being sneakier than they actually are.

For instance, say your opponent makes a small bet on the turn. The first-level interpretation of a small bet is that your opponent has a relatively weak or marginal hand. With a stronger hand, he might have bet a larger amount.

Moving up to the third level, however, you get a different story. Now you suppose that your opponent assumes you would read the small bet for weakness. Therefore, he has sprung a trap, and, if you raise, he plans to reraise either as an elaborate bluff or with a strong hand.

You are generally, lacking strong evidence to the contrary, best served sticking to the lowest level available in a typical small stakes game. So when you see that small, weak-looking turn bet, you should assume that the bet is indeed weak.

It’s not that your opponents are too naïve to think deeply about the game, though there may be a dash of truth to that idea. My explanation is based on probabilities. The first level interpretation of any action is the most likely. The reason we assume small bets represent weakness in the first place is because, if you took a survey of 1,000 small bets made at $1-$2 and $2-$5 over the course of a month, you’d see that most of them are made with relatively weak hands.

Therefore, going with a first-level interpretation of the situation is the same as going with the odds. You’re betting on the favorite.

Conversely, if you move to the higher level in your thinking, you are implicitly betting the dog. And you aren’t getting any handicap for doing so. If you blindly bet dogs instead of favorites without the compensation of improved odds, you will lose.

This is equally true in small stakes no-limit hold‘em. You want to go with the high percentage interpretation as often as you can. That means not jumping to the higher levels very often.

In fact, it is precisely in the decisions that small stakes players tend to out-level themselves the most where doing so is most dubious. Say you bet the river for $200 in a $2-$5 game, and your opponent raises you all-in for $350 more. This is the sort of situation many players will begin to allow their imaginations to run. “Maybe he’s raising because he interpreted my bet as weakness? Perhaps I’ve underrepresented my hand by just calling the flop, and now he’s misreading my river bet.”

No, no, and no. If you were to watch a small stakes game for a month and count every single river bluff-raise like this one, you would find that overwhelmingly, they are not bluffs. They are strong-to-monster hands. If you begin to play the level game in this situation, you will find yourself not just an underdog to be correct, but a huge underdog.

Just let it go.

When To Level

If what I say is true, then it begs a question: If going to higher levels usually means betting the dog, then should you ever think this way at all? Is it better just to take people’s actions at face value?

My answer is no, you shouldn’t just take people’s actions at face value. There is a time to play the leveling game, even at $1-$2 and $2-$5. Determining when to do it, however, is a little complicated. It involves a small dose of Bayesian statistics.

If you’ve been reading my articles for a while, you may recall a three-part series I authored about how to use Bayesian statistics in poker. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it, because I believe the ideas in those articles apply universally to poker decisions. I’ll summarize the thinking briefly.

Say you raise preflop, and an opponent reraises you. You want to determine how likely he is to be bluffing. If he’s unlikely to be bluffing, you plan to fold. If he’s fairly likely, you play to call or reraise.

To estimate the likelihood that your opponent is bluffing, first you should consider how often people in general bluff reraise in your game. Next, you should consider as many pieces of information as you can identify that may affect that likelihood in this specific case.

In general, in a $2-$5 game in Las Vegas, people don’t bluff reraise very often. That’s the first level interpretation. If you go with that, you should give all reraises credit. But consider this scenario:

Two players limp, and you raise the button to $30. The small blind calls, and then the big blind, a young man with long blond hair and a Swedish accent, reraises to $130. Are there pieces of information here that would cause you to revise your estimates? The specific details I chose each make it more likely he’s bluffing. The action—reraising a button raise and call—makes bluffing attractive. The player also has physical characteristics more common among bluffers.

In this case, I might jump to the third level. He likely thinks I’m stealing with the bluff-raise, so he’s likely to choose this spot to bluff. I might reraise bluff him even if I’ve never seen him play a hand before.

Final Thoughts

While leveled thinking is a big part of the fun of poker, use it very carefully at small stakes. The smartest play is almost always to bet the favorite. Most often, what you see is what you get. Next time you out-level yourself, remember this article and pledge, without strong evidence to the contrary, to go with the obvious read. ♠

Ed’s newest book, Poker’s 1%: The One Big Secret That Keeps Elite Players On Top is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the brand new site redchippoker.com.