The various thought levels behind poker play

March 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Poker School

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Poker in general and Texas Holdem in particular are extremely easy to learn. Pick any guy who hasn’t even seen a playing card in his life, and you’ll have him playing poker in a matter of a few minutes. The rules themselves are extremely simple, the game as a whole is everything but.
I read it somewhere that poker takes only a few minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. For those without the right attitude towards improving, a lifetime may not even be enough.
Some people play for tens of years and they’re still amateurs with little hope of ever ascending to a level where they can actually make money playing.
In order to give yourself a shot at improvement, you need to adopt the attitude of an efficiency expert towards the game. You need to assess every tiny detail, every subtle aspect of the game as a whole and of play strategy, and then inform yourself about how you can improve in all those areas.
There are off-table edges in poker (like table selection, rakeback, game selection, etc) which have little to do with actual play strategy yet they’re extremely important parts of the big picture. It’s surprising that a huge number of players who consider themselves above average and even good players do not know about these edges. If you are among these people, you probably do not have the right attitude to ever leave the fist level of thought behind and ascend to the next.

The first level of poker thought is about your own hand and the board. Beginners, rookies, fish (call them whatever you want) are all on this level and some of them will never leave it behind. On this level of thought, a player is only concerned with his pocket hand and the way it matches up to the board. Any hand that he deems reasonably strong will see him put money into the pot. These players are often extremely frustrating for more skilled opponents as they’re oblivious to and thus immune from intricate strategy moves. When several such players play at a table, a phenomenon known as “schooling” occurs. Schooling consists of several first thought level players calling down a skilled opponent’s good hand with rags. The sheer volume of hands involved this way will seriously cut the good player’s odds.

On the second level of thought, players begin considering their opponents’ possible hands as well, and they become aware of the importance of board texturel. This is when players begin to make laydowns, and learn to give up hands they would’ve easily gone all-in on, had they still been on the first thought level. While it represents a huge step upward from the first level of thought, the second level is extremely tricky: this is where players’ gas-tanks fuelled with interest usually run dry. Many people get stuck on the second level of thought forever, although in order to call themselves true poker players, they need to ascend to the third level.
Even those who manage to hit the third level will often drift right back to the second or have one of their legs forever stuck there.

The third level of thought is the first one which takes the game’s focus off the cards played and puts it on the players behind those cards. The third level of thought is about considering what your opponents think about your hand. In order to ascend to this level, you need to be adept at reading your opponents, the board texture, and you need to know the betting story of a hand like the back of your hand.
The third level is the one which will make you understand where, when and how big a bluff you can make. This is where you’ll first become capable of bluffing really.

The fourth level of thought is about putting the reads you make on the third level to use. A player on the 4th level creates a table image and exploits that image by misrepresenting hands and sowing deceit in a variety of ways. This is also where the loop comes into the picture: hands which are suspiciously obviously represented are probably the exact opposite of what the tells make you think they are.
Many of the pros on TV are on the 4th level although definitely not all of them. This sort of skill level requires not just outstanding abilities but a little bit of talent on the side as well.