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How To Think On Another Level

It’s all about levels this poker business. That’s what makes it difficult and constantly challenging. Often you can’t produce a prescriptive recipe for how to play a hand because the key is not just reading your opponents hand but understanding how he’s thinking about it. And then your job is to exploit it by thinking a level above him. This is why you’ll often see two top players going to war in certain spots when, for example, neither believes the other has a hand but both know it looks like the other doesn’t have a hand….if you follow?! It’s all about levels.

I saw a great example of this recently at a recent live tournament. It’s a tournament hand but the concepts convert perfectly to a cash game. In fact I could have transposed it as a cash hand but I didn’t get where I am today (not that far) without being ludicrously lazy.

I was walking the floor doing my tour hosting duties (handing out snacks, counseling players on their relationship problems and so forth) when I saw a top cash player playing the event. Without naming him he plays seriously high stakes and was playing the tournament for recreation with some of his friends – he’s a proper player. I railed him for a while, after all learning from the best is always a good idea and was rewarded by seeing him put on a clinic in this hand.

An inexperienced player raised under the gun and the top cash player called on the button everyone else folded. The stacks aren’t too important to the river so let’s not worry about them right now. The flop came 5-4-2 rainbow. The preflop raiser bet and the cash player called. This didn’t tell me too much about their hands as the pre flop raiser could be c betting everything and the cash player was definitely floating on this flop a lot as well as slow playing his big hands.

The turn brought another 4 paring the board and bringing two hearts for a back door draw. The aggressor didn’t think too much before firing again. The good player thought for a bit and called. Now not having seen the pre flop raiser play I wasn’t sure if he was capable of double barreling his broadway type hands here ot not but I was sure the good player would know. I figured the good player’s call could be a number of things – a slow played monster occasionally, a small over pair, some kind of mediocre draw or a double float to try and win the pot on the river.

The river brought the Ace of diamonds. The guy with the lead sank into some thought for the first time in the hand and this in itself made it seemed like he wasn’t too sure about things. It’s very easy in holdem to let scare cards like Aces, Kings flush cards and so on to …well…scare you – the key to them not is to think through the hand in terms of how often it helps your opponent or changes what you and him can represent rather than dissolving into worry. Our man didn’t seem to be doing this, he thought and then put out a very defensive looking bet of about a third of the pot.

Now it was the good player’s turn to think. He checked and double checked his stack. Stared again at the 5-4-2-4-A hand. And then shoved. The raise was about a pot sized bet. This has just got interesting. I cycled through the possibilities for his hand and the first thing that should strike you is his river raise doesn’t represent very much. What can he possibly have got to the river with that he’s now shoving? It’s a very small range, consisting of pretty big hands and bluffs. He’s capable of value betting thin of course but there just aren’t many hands like that, for example those with Aces in, that make it to the river.

Our poor under pressure man suddenly looked like the most distressed man in Nottingham since Friar Tuck had his Meade supply cut off. He sighed, leaned back, sighed again, fiddled with his cards, checked and double checked them. To call would be over half his stack and he didn’t look like he wanted to do it . It wasn’t too much longer before he mucked. The cash player breathed a sigh of relief and flipped up 6-6 for his outplayed villan to admit he folded an overpair to the 6s.

The cash player had turned his hand into a bluff on the river and it worked like a charm. He knew not only exactly where his opponent was in the hand but also what his weak river bet meant and that he wasn’t going to get called light. He was thinking one level ahead. It was a fascinating hand not because it’s technically advanced but because it only happened because the good player was one step ahead the whole way. His river shove doesn’t represent much and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t make it against a good player. If only the other guy could have taken it one level further and thought how his river bluff looked weak and how often he was getting bluffed because of that. You see it’s all levels…if you’re always one level above you’re in poker’s penthouse behind a big pile of chips showing the world how smart you’ve been on the river. I moved on to rail elsewhere school was out.

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