How to Think Your Way Through a Poker Hand

Phil Ivey
Phil Ivey plays on a level all his own.

Poker is an interesting game - especially Hold'em.

You can take a person who has never seen a playing card before in their life, and in a few minutes they'll be able to play the game.

It's a very easy game, yet at the same time one of the most complex pastimes on the planet. Even though you can start playing Hold'em without difficulty, you can play the game for 40 years and still be an amateur.

As you play, and study, the game, you will progress through different stages, or levels, of thought. It's not unlike learning anything else.

Take learning to play the guitar, for example. You start off having to stop and think about where to place every finger. After a bit of practice, you know how to finger the chords and you now have to think about how to switch from one chord to the next.

Once you learn how to do that, you have to start strumming the right strings, at the right times, for the right chords. Each time you progress to the next stage, you stop having to think about the previous stages.

Ground Zero for Proper Poker Thinking

Poker is not much different.

We start our level of thought at ground zero. This is where we all started - think back to the first time you ever sat down and decided to play Hold'em.

Level 1: Your Own Cards and the Board

At this level, the only thing on your mind is what you are currently holding in your hand.

You'll run into this type of player often enough playing live. Hold'em, every table has him and his brother. These are some of the greatest people you can encounter in your career as a poker player. At times, they're also the most frustrating.

Take this hand for example:

ft table example
Click to see the full view.

As you can see, the full board is out.

The whole hand, Cow Girl, playing in the second level of thought, is betting. She is getting called by Blondie, who is obviously playing poker for one of the very first times in her life.

On the river Cow Girl makes a final, sizable bet, and gets called by Blondie. Blondie turns over A 6.

Cow Girl, who was bluffing, is shocked that Blondie made the call.

Blondie called using the logic that she had a pair of aces, and as we all know aces are the highest cards in the deck.

Once you see enough hands of poker, odds are you'll move on to the next stage:

Level 2: Your Opponents' Cards

This is the point where you start thinking past what you are holding and start to make reads. You start to foresee your hand being beat and start to make lay-downs.

Using the previous example, if Blondie was in the second stage of thought, she simply could not have called any bet on the river. Any heart, any queen, any ace with a higher kicker, or any two pair or a set has her beat.

In fact, the only thing the new player can beat at this point is a bluff.

Most poker players never fully progress beyond this level of thought. Some players never stray from it at all their entire poker life. Although the majority of casual poker players move partially on to Level 3, they still don't really step clear of this stage.

In Stages of Poker Part 2 things get tricky: we'll look at Levels 3 and 4 of thought, and learn more about the dynamics of play among players who are at different levels.

More strategy articles from Sean Lind:

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John 2012-02-03 16:20:31

she can beat a heart, and she can beat a queen. also, against an ace with a higher kicker it would be a split pot.

who wrote this article? LOL

justme 2010-12-13 10:45:00

Any heart? I guess you meant any spade...


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