From the outside looking in, poker can seem like a pretty one dimensional game: you learn the rules, memorize hand rankings, take a seat in a game and pray Lady Luck is feeling disposed in your favour. However, the truth is a far cry from this basic (and reductive) picture – that is if you want to play to win. Poker is actually a game of multi-level thinking. Sure, you can play with only a rudimentary working knowledge of the game, but you can’t expect to win long-term. This is why multi-level thinking is so important, and why you should know about it so your game (and your bankroll) can grow. It can take some time to gauge where, exactly, you sit on the spectrum, but once you do, it will save you a ton of energy and make you a butt-load of money. Why? Because you’ll be playing within your current skill-set and playing to your audience.
Here’s what I mean...
Think of poker as an art-form, like story-telling. Stories have a beginning, middle and end, but if you want to make it as a professional novelist, sticking to that basic level of story-telling is not going to cut it. You have to know how to manipulate your audience, create tension, and lead them to believe what you want them to believe. You have to know who you are writing for, and what you are trying to achieve. Same goes for poker. You have to know who you are playing against and what you are trying to do to know how you are going to play. This is the fundamental part of understanding multi-level thinking. It’s a progression. As you become more skilled, you will up the proverbial ante and progress through the levels. This is when it becomes an art-form. This is where the magic happens.
This said, knowing how to maneuver in the advanced levels doesn’t mean you’ll always have to use this knowledge.
How Multi-Level Thinking Works
It’s great to beef up your knowledge base so that you can do everything to crush the competition, but it’s important to realize that some of your tricks aren’t going to be understood by some of your opponents, and as a result, they aren’t going to work. As a professional poker player, you must know how to choose the appropriate tool for the task. For example, if you’re playing against someone who never folds – ever - then the best strategy for beating them will not involve bluffing. It doesn’t matter how awesome your bluff is or how many high-level concepts it incorporates, if this opponent just doesn’t fold, no bluff is going to be a winning play.
As you progress in your poker life, you will make leaps and bounds in regards to how you think about the game. This growth will greatly influence how well you play and, as a result, how often you win. You can see this clearly demonstrated in the many levels of poker thinking.
The Levels of Thinking in Poker
Level 0 – I don’t know anything about poker.
Level 1 – What are my cards? Are they similar to the ones on the board?
Level 2 – What cards does my opponent have? Could I get them to fold with the right bet?
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 I have?
It doesn’t end here. The levels go on and on, and are only limited by your desire to take it to the next echelon.
The most profitable approach regarding multi-level thinking is to be one level ahead of your opponent. If you know how they’re thinking about the game, then you know how you can manipulate whatever information they are trying to interpret to make their decision. You know what they’re paying attention to, and your strategy for winning should revolve around that. Likewise, if you don’t know your opponents level of thinking, it’s going to be hard for you to interpret the reasoning and intention behind any bet they make. Hint: they probably aren’t making that bet for the same reason you would, because they’re probably not on your level. If you’re on a level below your opponents, they’re probably going to be getting the best of you. Conversely, if you’re too many levels ahead, you’ll be making plays based on factors that simply don’t come into their decision making processes and they won’t react the way you’d expect them to react. A large part of multi-level thinking involves knowing how to read your opponents move between the levels accordingly.
There’s simply no need to use advanced strategy in a basic or beginner environment. It’s not required for winning. All that’s required is playing fundamentally well and allowing your opponents to make mistakes. It may not be as glamorous as making big fancy plays, but it makes money, and that’s what the game is all about.
Multi-level thinking is a complex spectrum and one that can really only be mastered through experience, awareness and constant, in-depth education. If you really want to improve your game, you can learn more about how to use multi-level thinking (and much more) in my Cash Game Crash Course book.