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What Level are You On?
Poker lessons abound in life – sometimes in places you don't expect them. Here's a lesson for players that have mastered the basics and are ready to advance their game a little. The interesting part is that the source of the lesson has nothing to do with poker at all, at least superficially.
Advanced players don't just study cards – they study humans. After all, poker is a game played against humans, and understanding people better will help you defeat those people just a little bit better next time. Here, an unlikely source gives you a lesson about poker psychology.
In the mid-seventies television game show Match Game, contestants won the game not by picking the best answer, but by picking the answer that most celebrity panelists had given. The show is long out of production, but the miracle of million-channel cable and satellite systems gives us the Game Show Network, and daily reruns of that disco-era classic show.
Host Gene Rayburn moderated a panel of six celebrity guests. Rayburn read a short story, and the key word of the story would be replaced with “blank.” The celebrities then took a few seconds to fill in the blank, writing their answers on a card invisible to the contestants.
The contestant who was up would make their own guess at the “blank,” with points and prizes going to the player who matched the most celebrities. Here is the poker lesson. The object of the game wasn't to come up with the cleverest, funniest, or most original fill in the blank answer. The object was to get inside the celebrities' heads – what answer were the witty, clever celebrities most likely to give?
In poker psychology, we often talk about levels. Advancing your level of thinking beyond the basics will make you a better poker player. Once you have mastered the basics of the game, you can start to improve your psychological approach. So what are the levels of poker thinking? Note that most poker players and poker authors skip the basic first level entirely, calling the “first level” the “zeroth level.” Here I will do the same. I also add a new level before the first level. I call it the “one-half” level.
Zero Level Thinking: What do I have? This one is easy. What are your hole cards and how do they fit with the board? If you are holding A - Spades 7 - Diamonds and the board reads A - ClubS, T - Clubs, 9 - Hearts, 7 - Clubs you have two pairs, aces and sevens.
One-Half Level Thinking: Thinking on this level is less prevalent than you think. How many players have you seen who would gladly bet and raise the hand in our example, thinking “I have two pairs!” Taking your psychology to this level means you are considering the board itself, what the best possible hands are, and how that relates to your holding. In our example, anybody with AA, AT, A9, A8, TT, 99, 88, 77, any jack, any six, or any club has us beat. Still want to bet and raise? Or now is it check and maybe call, depending on how many opponents are still in the hand? (For the record, it would be hard to find a call here, even with a single opponent, unless the pot was enormous).
First Level Thinking: What does my opponent have?
Second Level Thinking: What does my opponent think I have?
Third Level Thinking: What does he think I think he has?
Levels beyond the third start to get impractical, because you can reach a point where you over-analyze things. Although higher-level thinking exists, it is often done away from the poker table, in a learning situation.
One important caveat to second- and third- level thinking: your opponent must be at least decent. Against a total donk, these rules can break down completely.
You can develop your higher level thinking with this exercise. Take a hand history from a game of online poker you played where the hand went to showdown, preferably with several bets and raises. Now replay the hand several times putting yourself in your opponent's place. What were you both thinking at each step?
Match Game is seen on the Game Show Network, a channel familiar to most poker players as the home of High Stakes Poker. Winning contestants on that show often won by using multiple-level thinking. Look for poker lessons everywhere in life. Anything that helps you understand people better will help you understand poker better.
Try this strategy today on Carbon Poker!
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