Multiple Level Thinking: Where Do You Rank?

What is multiple level thinking in poker? How do you think like a professional poker player?

How many times per week do you ask yourself “what were they thinking” when playing poker? Five times? Ten times? The answer is probably several times per session if you’re being honest.

Those of you frequenting lower stakes will be used to opponents calling with all sorts of hands. They chase draws with incorrect odds. They’ll call you with bottom pair when you’ve fired on all three streets. It is frustrating and it is down to multiple level thinking.

Multiple Level Thinking by David Sklansky and Ed Miller

David Sklansky and Ed Miller first touched upon multiple level thinking in his book No Limit Hold’em: Theory and Practice. There are six levels to a typical poker player’s thinking, according to Skalnsky and Miller. Bizarrely, it starts at level zero.

Level 0 is reserved for absolute amateur players who know, literally, nothing about poker. This level is players who have never played a hand of poker before. They don’t even know the hand rankings for Hold’em. We’d love to play poker against them, but it is rare to come across them in the online poker world.

Think of Level 1 as the base level of thinking for a typical poker player. It is a very basic level of thinking, essentially knowing what their hand is. Players adopting Level 1 thinking don’t last very long in cash games or tournaments. That is unless they somehow find themselves with Level 0 and fellow Level 1 thinkers.

You should never, ever bluff a Level 0 or Level 1 thinking player. They simply lack the knowledge to understand what you’re attempting to achieve.

Level 2 is next up and this is where matters start to become interesting. A number of poker players fall into this category. They’re aware of their own hand strength and they begin thinking about possible hands their opponents hold.

A large section of low stakes poker players are Level 2 thinkers. Most are losing players because this level of thinking isn’t complex enough to beat stronger players in the long run. Don’t worry if you’re a Level 2 thinker because you’re on the correct path. Just keep thinking a little deeper.

Level 3 Thinking Leads to Being Profitable

The next stage is Level 3 thinking. These players tend to be more situationally aware and can make life at the tables tough. Level 3s think about their hand, their opponents’ hands, and what they think their opponents think they hold!

It sounds complicated, but it isn’t in reality, it’s just a bit of a mouthful.

This player can be dangerous because they have started to represent certain hands. They will bluff-raise flops, fire continuation bets on ace-high flops, and more. The slight improvement of a Level 2 to Level 3 can be the difference between being a winning or losing player.

Now things start to become very complicated, so bear with us. Level 4 thinking is reserved for very deep thinkers and you’ll rarely come across this type of player. The exact definition is “what does my opponent think that I think he has?”

You can see immediately that this level of thinking probably isn’t needed to beat most poker games.

Level 5 is something else and only used in very specific situations by the game’s elite players. “What does my opponent think that I think he thinks I have?” Yes, it sounds utterly ridiculous, we agree. Yet this level of thinking goes on in the Super High Rollers around the world. This type of player is from a completely different realm to us mere mortals!

Don’t Out Level Yourself!

You can use multiple level thinking to your advantage at the tables. First, figure out what level thinker your opponent is. You can then devise a strategy to extract the most value from them.

Don’t fall into the trap of making things too complicated. For example, don’t employ Level 4 thinking at your home game full of Level 1 players. One of two levels above the skills of your opponents is more than sufficient to get the job done.

Matthew Pitt

If it’s something you can play online for real money, chances are Matthew knows a bit about it. He’s been writing about slots, craps and poker for the better part of the last decade. He’s written for PokerNews, PartyPoker and many other respected online gambling websites during the last nine years.


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