Putting the concept of poker levels into practise

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Jeffrey | Poker Articles, Poker Strategy, Poker Tournament

Submitted by McTap, this article belongs to the Poker Tournament series.

McTap is a poker player who is working hard to continously improve every aspect of his game. I found this article about poker levels on his blog Blind vs. Blind and really enjoyed the way he used a specific tournament situation to reflect over his own game and discover new aspects of poker.

There is something about playing live that helps you analyze your game a little more. Maybe it has to do with the amount of time you have after playing before starting another game, where you can sit and think about your play. Case in point, after getting busted out of the tournament I played at Turning Stone Casino over the weekend, I had several hours to think about my play. If I had been playing online, I would have just dismissed my lose and started another game, but here, while I was waiting to start the next tournament, I had plenty of time to reflect on the few hands that I had played before getting knocked out. Through this analysis and further thinking about it over the next couple of days, I discovered what I’m calling my “Second Major Leak” in my game. For those of you interested, here’s what my first major leak was. I say was, because I feel I’ve adjusted my game to the point where this issue does not come up as often as it use to, so I don’t consider it a major leak, only a minor leak in my game.

So here is what it is: playing predictable level 1 poker and not venturing off to level 2 or 3 poker.

For those who don’t know the poker thinking levels, here’s a breakdown taken from Phil Gordon’s article on thinking and playing.

Level 1: “What hand do I have?”

Level 2: “What hand does my opponent have?”

Level 3: “What hand does my opponent think I have?”

Level 4: “What does my opponent think that I think they have?”

Keep in mind that if you play low buy-in games online, you will mostly find level 1 players, with a few level 2 players mixed in. When I say low buy-in, I’m referring to games that require less than $20 to get into, whether it be a cash game or a tournament. For live games, I would consider anything under $50 for tournaments, and cash games that run $1-$2 blind levels. After these levels, you will see more level 2 players and start to see some level 3 players, all the while still seeing plenty of level 1 players. The reason I say this is because at these lower live games, most players are still considered recreational or just cutting their teeth before become better players, and are willing to gamble (making them level 1 thinkers). Don’t get me wrong, you will occasionally find some level 3 players coming down to the lower buy-in games, as they feel they can dominate and win plenty, but they run the risk of playing against a level 1 player who won’t lay down 2nd or 3rd pair to their bluff and lose the pot.

Now that I have revealed my Second Major Leak in my game, let me tell you how I came about discovering it.

After being knocked out of the tournament at Turning Stone over the past weekend, I really started thinking about a hand that really hurt my chip stack. With the blinds at 100-200 and I’m sitting in CO+1 with about 5500 chips, I pick up ATs. After MP1 limped into the pot and the next 3 players folded, I decided to try and steal the pot with a 4x BB raise (800). Everybody after me folds, but the MP1 limper calls and then says “I check in the dark.” The flop comes 7 5 4 rainbow and I decide to test the strength of my hand with a 1k bet into a 1900 pot. MP1 thinks for a second and then re-raise me to 4k. I immediately put him on a pair higher than 7 and folded.

This hand kinda bugged me after I played it (wondering if I made the right move laying down) but I let it go until after I was knocked out of the tournament. A few days later, I came across Short Stack Shamus‘ blog about thinking levels in poker, which then lead me to Phil Gordon’s article. Using this new found logic, I started wondering about the hand I just described above. Did he really have a made hand, or was he just playing my cards against me? Was I solely playing my cards (level 1), or was I thinking about his cards as well (level 2). Had I thought 1 level farther (level 3), would I still have made the same decision? What about level 4? This all led me to discovering that since I don’t think like this while playing, it should be considered a major leak in my game that definitely needs to be fixed.

Now thinking back about this hand I came to realize that my play had become predictable. If I raised pre-flop I had always continuation bet the flop no matter what hit. Another thing was that I had not gone to showdown with less than premium hands, so laying down hands was not that difficult for me. So knowing this now, and applying the 4 thinking levels to the action, here are some thoughts that should have come up during the play.

1. (pre-flop)MP1 hadn’t shown any hands down, and had been playing a fairly tight game, so what hands would he be limping with?
2. (pre-flop)looking down at ATs from a late position, I feel my raise here was justified. (level 1 thinking) I had been playing pretty tight and had not shown down any weak hands.
3. (pre-flop)what new range of hands does MP1 have to limp and then call a raise with? (level 2 thinking) I would have to think a small to mid pocket pair. Although many people tend to play the small to mid pocket pairs strong to take down the pot pre-fop, I tend to just limp in hopes of hitting a set and then getting paid off. (level 3 thinking)Since I was a tight player (or so I thought) he had to put me on a strong hand like AK/Q/J/T or a pair of 9s or higher.
4. (flop)since he checked in the dark, he then handed control of the pot to me. (level 1 thinking) I have 2 overs to a low board that probably didn’t hit a hand that would call a PFR. (level 2 thinking)why would he check in the dark knowing that I would c-bet. was his hand better than what was on the flop, possibly 1 of the following 99->33 as 88 and 33 would give him a gut shot and 66 would give him an OESD. If he made his set then betting to not allow someone to make their straight would be advised. (level 3 thinking)If he put me on a big Ace, or pair higher than the board, he knew I would put the pressure on him with a c-bet as I had done in all my previous hands.
5. (flop)I c-bet 1k figuring he didn’t hit the board and my hand is probably stronger than his (level 1 & level 2 thinking).
6. (flop)MP1 then re-raises me to 4k, which essentially puts me all in. (level 1 thinking) my hand is no good so fold. (level 2 thinking) he has made his hand so fold. (level 3 thinking) if he thinks I had an A and I didn’t hit the flop with my other card, then maybe he can steal this pot from me. If he thinks I have a bigger pair than what is on the board, he has to feel confident that I will lay it down or that his hand can win going to a showdown as I would be all-in if I called. (level 4 thinking) if he thinks that I think he made his hand, then a bet here will surely get me to fold anything other than AA, KK, or QQ and odds are in his favor that I’m not holding 1 of those hands.

All of this is enough to give you a headache, but it is something the great players do each and every hand. Now I’m not expecting to be able to think like this each hand I play, but the more I can do it, the easier it will become.

Getting back to my hand, here is what I should have done. Since I had been predictably c-betting the flops that I raised, changing my tactics and checking the flop would have made him wonder a little, plus I would have seen a free turn card. I then could have re-evaluated the situation and played according to what came next (which I will never know) and possibly saving me 1k in chips. I think no matter how many levels I try to think about the flop action, I think I still fold there as there isn’t too much that I beat after he has shown strength. Had he bet instead of checking the flop, I may have been able to get to level 3 or 4 thinking and put the pressure on him with a re-raise.

Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson and I can put my new found knowledge to good use.

Good luck at the tables.


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4 Comments to Putting the concept of poker levels into practise

January 16, 2009

Great stuff Mctap. The whole poker levels way of thinking has really been an eye opener for me when it comes to low limit tournament play.
It confirms what I have been thinking for some time now: there is no need to apply level 3 and 4 thinking in the early stages of low limit online tournaments. Save your fancy plays for later.

Mark’s last blog post..Putting the concept of poker levels into practise

July 17, 2009

The poker thinking level shows me how poker can be a mind game. I’ve been wondering how the pros played this mind game, and what levels they use against each other.

Jerrod’s last blog post..Dice Instincts, The Come and Don’t Come Bets

MY leaks? playing small pocket pairs too aggressively and limping with a weak ace out of position.

Plus, I share the 1st leak acting too soon! but I’m getting better taking my time with big decisions.


July 24, 2009

Hi Andy

Thanks for sharing your leaks. I will keep them in mind if I ever have the opportunity to play against you at the Fox and Hound.


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