Out-Level the Villain—Not Yourself

The concept of leveling, and how it applies to hand reading

[Note: this is an excerpt from my upcoming book on poker hand reading.]

“When the opponent expands, I contract; and when he contracts, I expand.” —Bruce Lee

Most good poker players understand the adage that to win at poker you have to “play the player” and not just your own cards. They also understand that you can’t bluff a bad player.

To make another player fold a better hand than yours, the villain first has to be aware that they might be beaten. This means that they actually have to be putting you on a hand range themselves, or they will be oblivious to your bluff and can/will blithely call you down with weak made hands. This is why value betting is so important at the low-stakes games; the opponents at these stakes are typically playing only the absolute strength of their own cards, and are unaware of what cards their opponents are holding. Trying to convince them that they’re beaten with a bluff bet is usually fruitless—and costly.

The same type of logic applies to hand reading.

There is no need for you to worry about what hand range a villain is putting us on, or how that might affect his or her play (and therefore their range) if that villain is not actually hand reading themselves. In fact, it’s counterproductive to do so. Let’s see why this is so…

Levels of Poker Thought

There are a variety of ways to classify your opponents in poker, but a key aspect is to determine how deeply they think about the relative strength of their hand. We typically sort players into so-called “levels of thought” in poker:

  • Level-0 Thinking: “I Barely Understand The Mechanics Of The Game” — A Level-0 player is typically new to the game and is still unsure of very basic things like whether a flush beats a straight or not. They are not really thinking about the strength of their hand, nor are they considering what their opponents cards are. These are obviously the easiest opponents to play against. Simply wait for good cards and then bet strongly and extract maximum value.
  • Level-1 Thought: “What Do I Have?” — These types of players are focused primarily on the absolute strength of their own cards. For instance, when they have a pair of Aces, they tend to get excited and want to get as much money as possible into the pot. There could be heavy betting and raising with multiple players on a very scary board of 9-8-7-6 with two suits, but they don’t care. They only consider their own cards in determining their course of action in a hand. The best strategy to use against an L1 player is to simply put them on a range and then act accordingly; I.e., bet strongly if you think your hand is better than theirs, and check or fold if you don’t.
  • Level-2 Thought: “What Does The Other Guy Have?” — Level-2 players are those that actively read and put their opponents on hand ranges. They then take that information to estimate the relative strength of their own hand against that range. In the example above in the previous bullet point, a Level-2 player would quickly realize that it’s very possible that another player involved in the hand has at least two pair or a made straight on the 9-8-7-6 two-tone board. Folding AA would be the safe, obvious, and correct play to make. Against a solid L2 player, you must elevate your own thinking to L3, actively putting them on not only their range, but also your perceived range, and then react accordingly.
  • Level-3 Thought: “What Does The Other Guy Think I Have?” — As you progress up in stakes and play against stronger and stronger opponents, you’ll quickly realize that the villains you face are operating on Level-2. I.e. they’re putting other players on hand ranges, including you. Level-3 poker is the counter strategy to use against these players. If you can understand what ranges your opponents are putting you on, you can act in a way to confuse and negate their reads. At medium and higher stakes games, you will need to operate on Level-3 thinking or above if you want to win. If you’re up against an L3 player, things get much harder, but you can still beat them if you can get inside their heads and understand not only their range and what your perceived range is, but also what their perceived range is from your point of view.
  • Level-4+ Thought: “What Do They Think I Think That They Have?” — At the very high “nosebleed” stakes, against very strong professional players, you will often encounter Level-4 or higher thought in action. Some of the so-called “leveling wars” at these stakes can get outrageously complicated and difficult, with players thinking “I know that he knows that I know I saw him do X five hands ago, so I can now represent Y in this situation because he knows that I know…” To beat these kinds of players is much, much harder, but really falls into the same basic methodology—try to elevate your own thinking to a level above theirs. And good luck!

At the lower stakes games, rarely do you encounter an opponent who is operating above Level-2. In fact, most of the players you’ll go up against are operating at Level-1, and are rarely, if ever, considering anyone else’s cards.  At best, they’ll be in some weird middle-ground between L1 and L2 (call it Level-1.5) where they are mostly focused on their own cards but are also aware of things like scary-looking flops and very obvious strong actions from their opponents.

The key thing to remember is that you need to determine what level of thought your opponent is operating at, and then elevate your own thinking to the next higher level. If an opponent is a beginning L1 player, for instance, you have to think at Level-2, actively putting him or her on a hand range and then comparing your own card strength against that range.

If, however, an opponent is playing at L2, then you have to elevate your own game to L3 poker, in which you not only put the villain on their hand range but also determine what hand range they’re putting you on.  And so on.

Finally, it’s important to never elevate your own thinking too high above that of your opponent. A fundamental rule in poker is to play at one level of thought—and no more than one level of thought—above your opponent. Playing at the same level as them, or more than one level of thought higher than them is costly and counterproductive. If a villain is a basic L-1 player, then you’re not only wasting your time trying to determine the range he is putting you on (I.e., he’s not) but you can end up making expensive non-optimal decisions.

As you progress from small stakes to mid-stakes and beyond, the skill of your opponents will correspondingly increase. In poker terminology, we say that better opponents operate at “higher levels of thought.” This graphic illustrates what is meant by this phrase.

Playing Against Bad Players

If your opponent is a beginning player who is playing level-1 poker, then your hand reading task is relatively straightforward. Just focus on putting them on a preflop range based on the standard things like their player profile, past showdown cards, and betting actions, and proceed from there. Don’t spend much if any time or mental effort worrying about things like your own table image or the range your opponent is placing you on—because they’re not. Worse, trying to conjure up a non-existence villain read of you and your range can lead you to incorrect decisions in the hand.

For example, let’s assume you’re in a low-stakes $1/$2 live cash game. You pick up cowboys (KK) in late position. A bad beginning player in middle position limps into the pot. The action folds to you, you raise, and the action then folds back to the original limping villain who calls.

You’re now heads-up on the flop, which comes out K-4-2 rainbow. Bingo! Top set on a very dry board! Even better, you’ve seen this opponent limp in, and then overplay, a lot of weak broadway cards and small-to-medium pocket pairs in this type of situation before. He also calls down very lightly post-flop with non-nut hands, chasing draws and hoping to get lucky on later streets. He could easily have something like a pair like sevens or sixes, or top-pair hands like KQ, KJ, KT, and K9s in this situation. He could also have A-x hands that he can get stubborn and chase with, hoping to hit an Ace on a later street.

Your opponent checks to you. Against an average “thinking” L2 opponent, who is putting other players (including you) on hand ranges, you might consider slowing down and checking back the flop, because betting might scare your opponent into folding. Having the villain muck here would be a disaster when you flop such a strong hand. Generally speaking, we don’t want to slow play our big hands, but sometimes we’re forced to, lest we fold out weaker hands held by stronger-thinking opponents who know they’re beaten. This is not one of those situations.

In this hand, against this type of Level-1 thinking opponent, checking back (or even betting a small “attractive” amount) is not advised. We’re giving up value. This kind of villain is mostly oblivious to what other players can have, so there is little danger in scaring him off his hand. The right play is to bet strongly (as much as a pot-sized bet or more) to build value in the pot and extract the maximum amount from the villain. Yes, there is a possibility he’ll fold, but given how we’ve seen him overplay weak hands and draws before, it’s more likely that he’ll call.

Against bad players who aren’t considering their opponents’ ranges, you should simply play very straightforwardly. Think one level above them (Level-2). Put them on a range. And then bet hard when you think your hand is better on average than their range, and fold when you don’t. Easy peasy.

Playing Against Good (and Great) Players

Against better, thinking players, you have to change your tactics. For instance, if your opponent is basing his play in part on the ranges he’s putting his opponents on (I.e., he’s playing Level-2 “I think I know what you have” poker), then you have to elevate your own hand reading game to the next level of thought higher than his. In this case, it should be level-3 “I know that you know what I have” poker.

Using our example above, if the opponent is thinking about hand ranges, we have to determine whether he thinks the rainbow flop of K-4-2 hit our range or not. There are a lot of Kings in our preflop range that we would have raised a middle position limper with, such as KK, AK, KQ, and maybe KJs. Unless his hand is stronger than ours, he has to be afraid. Further, there are a lot of other hands in our range that may not have improved on this flop but are still strong. These include AA, QQ, JJ, TT, and even 99, and 88. The only likely hands that we would have raised with preflop that didn’t improve are those like AQ, AJ, and ATs. In other words, this flop is more likely to have helped our hand than not. And, because we know that the L2 opponent knows this, we need to adjust our actions accordingly—i.e., consider checking back the flop to give the appearance that we have one of the AQ, AJ, or ATs-type hands.

Note that the analysis in the preceding paragraph is entirely based on us imagining what range the villain is putting us on preflop. In other words, this is the very definition of L3 poker; I.e., “what does he think I have?”

You can see how this battle for information at the table can escalate. If our opponent is aware that we’re operating at L2, he may himself then play at L3, which would then necessitate us playing at L4. And so on.

The best poker players in the world are masters at this game of hopscotching up and down the thought-level ladder, continually adjusting their tactics against each individual player at their table. Against the bad L1 players, the pros simply play L2 poker. Against L2 players, they shift to L3. And against other expert professionals—well, L5 and above is frequently possible.

The Bottom Line About Thought Levels

For us mere mortals, the key takeaway here is to literally not over think things at the poker table. If you’re playing against L0 and L1 players, you simply have to put them on a range and then act accordingly. Don’t worry about your own perceived range if the opponent isn’t reading you. Not only is this a waste of your thinking power, it can be counterproductive.

If you’re up against good, winning L2 players, then you have to not only put them on their range but you also have to deduce what range they’re putting you on—and then adjust accordingly. And so on.

That’s the bad news— you have to continually adjust. The good news is that the majority of players we face at the low-stakes games are rarely putting other players on hand ranges. Or, if they are, they’re doing a poor job of it. Said another way, most low- and mid-stakes poker players are bad at hand reading, which means you can focus your own attention on basic L2 poker reads.

Takeaway: Decide what level your opponent is operating on, and then elevate your own reading and thinking to the next level above that.

Exceptional Poker — Learn. Master. Crush.

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5 thoughts on “Out-Level the Villain—Not Yourself


  2. Hi mark.
    I pretty much made fair comment in my last e-mail that you pretty much have it nailed down as the starter player hungry for info, or on a par, up and coming intermediates, again wish i had this when i was 18 month, two years in, good stuff!!
    Sorry for your loss mark, also hope that your re-location goes smoothly, thank you for your time, and GL.