Being able to think on multiple levels is a concept that every serious poker player needs to master. When playing deepstacked No Limit Hold'em your success depends greatly on this concept. The best chess players in the world get into the head of their opponents and think up to six steps ahead. These players are big and consistent winners. In poker this can also have a big impact on your success. You need to be able to get into your opponent's head and base your decisions on what he is thinking.
What is multiple level thinking?
Multiple level thinking (MLT) is a fundamental technique to read hands by getting into your opponent's head. What is he thinking, what does he think that I'm thinking, and so on. As the name suggests, there are numerous levels, the most important of which we will be discussing in this article.
Level 0: What hand do I have?
This is the level that every player can handle. Knowing what hand you are holding, what hands beat you and what hands you beat.
Example: If you have and the board is . You flopped an 8-high straight here. You beat every player with a pair, two pair or trip Jacks. You lose against a higher straight with T9, flushes, a full house, quads or a straight flush.
Level 1: What hand does my opponent have?
Many players are already familiar with this. He makes a big bet, so he is likely to have a strong hand, or he checks the turn and is probably holding a weak hand. You analyse your opponent's actions, establish his hand range and then see if you can beat his range.
Example: You are playing online at a full ring cash table and a supertight player raises to 4 big blinds in middle position preflop. Luckily you have PokerOffice or Poker Tracker installed on your computer, so you can see that this player only raises 3% of his hands preflop. This indicates that he is likely to be holding one of the following hands: JJ+, AQs+, AKo. You analysed his actions and now have a better idea about where you stand in the hand.
Level 2: What hand does my opponent think I have?
Here it already gets a little bit more complicated. Hopefully your opponent is also a thinking player. He is sitting there at the other side of the table thinking about the possible hands you could be holding. You need to pay close attention to this. It isn't important what you do, but what your opponents think you are doing. Look at your own actions and think about how your opponent could interpret these and how he is likely to react.
Example: You're a TAG player (tight-aggressive) and you are not likely to raise pots without a valid hand. Lets say you have been sitting at a 9-handed 100NL table for half an hour and you had a super-run of cards. You had AK twice, QQ twice, AA once and a couple of JJ's and AQ's. You took many pots down preflop after raising or postflop after making a big bet on the flop and you haven't seen a showdown yet. Of course you are playing just like you always do, you raise your strong hands and fold your rubbish, but your opponents who see you for the first time don't know this. They see you and see a maniac who raises almost every hand and keeps betting aggressively on the flop and turn. They haven't seen any of the hands you played so far and they have no reason not to believe that you are an aggressive maniac. Then you get dealt in late position and after everyone has folded towards you, you raise it to $4. Everyone folds apart from the big blind (who has been playing a solid game so far). He re-raises here to $12. Under normal circumstances, you would fold here against a large re-raise, but what is your opponent thinking here? He has seen you raise almost every hand so far in the past 30 minutes and is probably not giving your raise a lot of respect. He is tired of your aggressive play and has decided to teach you a lesson: You won't be stealing my big blind again!". While, under normal circumstances, you would fold your hand here because your opponent is likely to have AK or QQ+ and you are a great underdog, it is now completely OK to call. Your opponent might be making the re-raise with hands like ATo, QJs, 22 or even 57s. His range increases massively here because you know that he thinks you want to steal the pot. Therefore, your KQs is no longer an underdog against his range and you can call here.
Level 3: What hand does my opponent think that I think he has?
Okay, you might have to read that one a second time. It sounds complicated but its actually pretty simple. Your thinking opponents will think about how you interpret their actions and what hand you put them on. Third level thinking is about how your opponent thinks you are interpreting his actions.
Example: You are sitting relatively deep in a tournament and are one of the big stacks at your table. A good player is sitting in middle position with a short stack. Your opponent is a smart and good player who has gone all-in a couple of times before but wasn't called. He needs to get some chips fast or the blinds and antes will eat away at his stack. The blinds are 400/800 and he has a stack of 7,400. Everyone folds towards him in late position. He suddenly raises to 1,600. This is strange, he raises so little while before that, he went all-in. In addition, he is a shortstack, so he would normally push with a strong hand. Therefore we can assume that he really wants action on a hand like AA or KK and you are about to fold your . But wait a minute. Your opponent is not an idiot. This time he is only raising 2x the big blind and that seems strange to us. Our opponent is a good player, and he also knows that we think about our actions very thoroughly. He wants us to think that he has AA or KK and that's why he makes a minimum raise, pretending to desperately wait for a call. He is thinking on the second the level: "If I now make a minimum raise my opponent will think I have a monster and fold his hand and I pick up the blinds". We, however, are thinking on the third level: "My opponent thinks that we are going to think he has a monster after his min-raise and will fold our hand, so that he can pick up the pot". Again you are one step ahead of your opponent, and you re-raise him all-in. Your opponent gives you a staggering look and folds his hand.
And we can keep on going...
The 4th level would be: "What hand does my opponent think that I think that he thinks that I have". We can keep going like this, with level 5, level 6, and so on. The important thing is this: every level is thinking about how your opponent thinks on the previous level. So level three thinking is about how your opponent thinks on level 2. Its this manner of thinking that separates the top players from the rest.
When to think on what level?
In most situations it is enough to think on the 1st level. In small pots or routine decisions you often make the right move automatically. You know your own hand and you have an idea about what your opponent might have. This is often enough to play a standard hand. Thinking on lower levels is therefore sufficient when playing small pots or when playing against opponents who think very little or don't think at all. Sometimes you have the nuts and a player goes all-in against you, or you have 5 big blinds left in a tournament and get dealt . In these kind of situations you only need level 0 thinking. Many other decisions are made on the 1st level. Lets say you have on the button and UTG raised the pot. Firstly, you now need to look at your own hand, but your decision will surely also depend on what your opponent has, which would be level 1 thinking.
Sometimes the situation requires us to do a little more thinking. Especially when playing deepstacked No Limit this is important, because players will often make moves on the flop, turn and river. It is also important to know that you should always only think one level above the thinking-level of your opponent. If your opponent only thinks on level 0, then there is no point to think on level 2. This is because your opponent is only thinking about his own hand and not about your cards. So why would you be asking yourself what he thinks you are holding? As long as you can always think one level above your opponent, you should end up being the great winner at the table. But pay attention! If you are thinking on level 2 that a player is bluffing and you call, after which he shows the nuts, then you need to ask yourself if he wasn't a step ahead of you. You are thinking on level 2 that he is bluffing, but maybe he was thinking on level 3 and knows that you think that he is bluffing.
It really is an intense psychological war, and that's what makes deepstacked No Limit such a great game. You don't always have to think on level three. Just think a level higher than your opponent and you will have a great edge at your tables.
Illustration: Ivey vs Jackson battle
The YouTube clip at the bottom of the page shows a great thinking-battle between Phil Ivey and Paul Jackson. Ivey is about 4:1 favourite in terms of chip stacks. Ivey raises preflop with and Jackson calls with The flop comes . They both miss the flop completely, and this is what kicks off the battle for the pot.
Ivey bets the flop, a standard feeler-bet, to see if Jackson has something. Ivey is thinking on the 1st level here: "My opponent probably has nothing, so I'm going to bet". Jackson then raises because he is thinking: "Ivey knows I have nothing and that is why he bets out". He is already thinking on level 2. He is one step ahead of Ivey and raises his bet.
Now the action is on Ivey again. He re-raises. He is now thinking on level 3. Ivey is thinking: "Jackson knows that I know that he doesn't have anything, and that is why Jackson raised my bet". Now Jackson re-re-raises! Jackson is now thinking on level 4: "Ivey knows that I know that he knows that I have nothing".
This is followed by Ivey reaching the next thinking-level and going all-in. Ivey has Jackson crushed in this psychological game. I personally think that Ivey pushed here because Jackson's re-re-raise was very strange. If someone bets, you raise and he then re-raises, you usually go all-in immediately (especially when having such a small stack like Jackson did). If Jackson would have gone all-in after Ivey's re-raise he would have had a good chance to pick up the pot here, seeing as Ivey would have had a hard time calling with simply Q-high. In my opinion, Jackson's re-re-raise should have been an all-in. Ivey obviously picked up on this and moved all-in. A great battle between two outstanding players.
As you can see, MLT can lead to great situations in deepstacked poker games. It is important to fully understand your opponent's thinking processes in order to base your decisions on them. It is a psychological warfare and the player thinking the furthest will end up winning the war.