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Understanding Levels of Thinking in Poker

Home » Guides » Understanding Levels of Thinking in Poker

Understanding Levels of Thinking in Poker

A person sits at a poker table holding their cards while looking at the table pensively.

There’s no doubt that poker has exploded in popularity over the last couple of decades, and while there are many poker books that can teach you to play the game, there aren’t that many that can help you elevate how you think about the game. One of the poker books that first got players to think about poker on a deeper level is “No Limit Hold’em: Theory and Practice” by David Sklansky and Ed Miller, one of the best resources on learning the concepts that drive success in Texas hold’em.

Read on to learn about multiple-level or multi-level thinking and how this idea changed how people think about poker, regardless of whether they play offline or online poker games.

What Is Multiple Level Thinking?

At its core, multiple-level thinking is simply the idea that different levels of thought exist in a particular field or activity, with higher levels of thought leading to greater success. You’ll find this concept in many areas of life, including business, science, and poker. 

The first poker players to bring this idea to the masses were David Sklasky and Ed Miller in their book “No Limit Hold’em: Theory and Practice.” Sklansky and Miller say in their book, “Multiple-level thinking is largely what separates professionals from amateurs, what separates players who win at the top levels from those who lose.”

More specifically, multiple levels of thinking look at how poker players think about the cards in the game, with increasing levels of thinking making you better at assessing what you might have to deal with. Once you have mastered the highest level of thinking, you’ll be able to ‘read’ the hands of other players by calculating their hand ranges. This is why, regardless of whether you’re learning how to play poker or have experience with the game, learning multiple-level thinking will make you a better player. 

The Different Levels of Thinking in Poker

Sklansky and Miller divide the different levels of thinking into six categories. These categories are:

Level Zero

The first and lowest level of thinking is level 0. This is when you have an understanding of the basic rules of the game. At this level, you know what cards you have in your hand and what they will win or lose against. This is considered shallow thinking by the authors since decision-making is simple.

Level One

A poker player lifts up their hole cards to look at them. They have a pair of aces.

At level one, you start to think about the game in the broader context by trying to estimate what your opponent has, but you’re still thinking about it in very simple terms. For example, if an opponent has raised, they likely have strong cards. This is again considered shallow thinking by the authors since your choices are relatively binary.

Level Two

At level two, you start to think about what your opponent thinks about the state of your hand and what cards you have. If your opponents are reasonably interested in winning, they won’t make decisions based only on the cards they have but also on the cards they think you have. For example, if there are three hearts on the flop and you go all in, your opponents are likely to believe you have two hearts for a flush. This is the first level of deeper thinking and is what you will start to find as players get more skilled at the game. 

Level Three

At level three, things go up a notch, and you start to think about what your opponent thinks you think they have. Put a little more simply, you’re thinking about what your opponent thinks about your thoughts on their hand. As Sklansky and Miller put it, “The third level is to think about how they might assume that you’ll interpret their actions.”

Level Four

At level four, your thinking deepens even further. At this level, you think about what your opponent thinks that you think that they think you might have. Again, to try and simplify this, you’re thinking about what your opponent might be thinking about your thoughts on their thoughts about your hand. 

Master How You Think About Poker to Win

While this may sound very confusing, you can simplify it by adjusting your level of thinking to how your opponent plays. For example, if they seem to be making decisions based on level 0 thinking, you’ll only need level one thinking to gain an edge on them. 

There’s also another major consideration to take into account when trying to apply this system: going beyond one level past your opponent’s level of thinking is actually detrimental to winning. Suppose you assume your opponent’s thinking goes beyond what they are actually considering. In that case, you’ll end up sabotaging yourself because you’ll be making decisions based on thoughts you think they have but that don’t exist. This will mislead you and result in poor decisions. 

More generally speaking, higher levels of thinking will only be necessary to deal with skilled players. In comparison, lower levels of thinking will be more than enough for you to win against players with poor or average poker skills.

This vital skill will benefit you when you’re learning to play online poker, as well as playing poker in person.

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To increase your chances of winning, you need to deepen your understanding of levels of thinking in poker. Learn more about this concept here.