Stages of Poker Part 2: Levels of Thought 3-4

Daniel Negreanu
If you ever sit with Daniel Negreanu, trust me; he's thinking at a higher level than you.

In this, the second of a two-part article on levels of thought, we explain how familiarity with the different stages of poker cognition can help you progress.

Level 3 - Your Opponents' Read on You

This is when you start to consider what other players think you are holding. It is at this point in poker where the outcome of play becomes less dependent on your cards alone. Until this point, whether you won or lost at the table depended almost entirely on the cards you had been getting dealt.

To be fully into this level of thought, you have to be well-versed in reading the texture of the board and understanding the betting story of the hand. You're picking up tells and making reads. It is at this point you can truly start to see yourself as a poker player.

You're still not going to be dominating High Stakes Poker on GSN, but you should be able to beat your friends on a regular basis.

It is at this level of thought that you become capable of making bluffs. You are able to understand the way you have acted, and what you have indicated to the other players you have in your hand. You are able to take advantage of what you've made them believe you are holding.

It's true that people will make bluffs while they're still in the second or first level of thought. This happens for a few reasons:

  1. Lots of the time the player has seen people make bluffs on TV, so they want to make them as well. They perceive wielding bluffs as a sign of competence at poker.
  2. Everyone knows that you're supposed to bluff at poker; in fact it's pretty much the first thing people associate with poker. Poker is a game of just bluffing to most people. Therefore, newbies think that bluffing is an essential component of play.

Unlike bluffs by more crafty players, these bluffs are not calculated maneuvers with an expected high rate of success. They are stabs in the dark, actions performed based merely on a feeling (I'll talk more about poker feelings later).

You may remember this hand from part one of this series:

ft table example
Click to see the full view.

The scenario is the same, where Cow Girl has bluffed this river using the second level of thought, and Blondie has called while still thinking at Level 1.

If Cow Girl had been thinking and playing at the third level of thought, she would have understood that her opponent wasn't considering what she had in her hand at all. In other words, Cow Girl would have stuck to one of this author's golden rules of poker:

Never bluff a calling station.

We'll learn the rationale behind this rule in the "Your Stage vs. Their Stage" section below.

Level 4 - Deception and the Loop

Few poker players ever fully make it into this stage. All strong poker players have one foot in Level 4, but it's difficult to pull yourself the whole way up.


This is where you are purposely making plays to confuse your opponent. Advertising and angling are a few of the tools that are part of this stage. Many strategy articles focus on this aspect of this level of thought.

The Loop

The loop is one of the most advanced and most enjoyable parts of No-Limit poker.

If a strong player gives you indications that they have a big hand, but they're offering this information in a way that seems as if they are trying to manufacture that impression, usually that player will hold a weak hand. As Mike Caro can't stress enough:

Weak means strong, strong means weak

What if you are aware that the other player knows that you would understand this concept, that you would know he was pulling a Hollywood? Then they would know that their performance of having a strong hand actually gave me the impression that they have a strong hand.

So you see where it starts to loop. Does he have a strong hand, or not? How much credit is he giving me, and how many loops is he going to take it? Are they bluffing, or are they bluffing about bluffing? Or are they bluffing about bluffing about ... well, you get the idea.

Your Stage vs. Their Stage

You must change the way you play poker depending on the level of thought you are acting on, and more importantly, on your opponents' levels of thought.

If you never take the time to figure out what level the other players are operating on, then it's going to be next to impossible to figure out how they're trying to manipulate the game.

Every player is trying to manipulate the game and the odds in their favor. How they do this is directly correlated to the level of thought at which they are playing.

The biggest mistake in poker is trying to bluff a calling station. Some people simply will not fold, no matter how horrible a call it would seem they are making. Never attempt to bluff people like this.

Even though you're playing at a high level, that doesn't mean the other players are going to understand anything you do at the table. You have to play the game at the level they understand.

Mike Caro
Mike Caro, the Mad Genius himself.

If I played the exact same hand against two different players, I would play it differently in each case, depending on what level of thought I figured my opponent was operating at. The same move that I would make against a drunken John Doe is simply not going to work against Phil Ivey.

The quality professional players you'll face at the felt will be changing their game on the fly, just like you. You need to pick up on the fact that they're doing this. If you lapse into complacency and neglect to keep track of their constant adjustments, you're going to make mistakes as a result.

If another player gives you credit for being the caliber of player that you are, then the moves she puts on a fish are not going to be the same as the ones she puts on you.

The information you picked up from the previous hands she's been in will not be 100% applicable to the style she's going to play against you.

If after reading this article you are worried about the level of thought at which you're playing, remember this: all players start at Level 1, and have to move up one level at a time. Even the very best players were at one time in the same place as you.

The best thing you can do is be aware of where you are and where the other players are around you. The more you play, the quicker you will begin to move up and extend the scope and intricacy of your game.

More strategy articles from Sean Lind:

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