The concept of Multiple Level Thinking was first introduced by David Sklansky in his book published in 2006 called No-Limit Hold’em Theory and Practice. When seated at a poker table, either live or online, successful players are always trying to out-think and stay a step ahead of their opponents. Determining why your opponent may be making a certain move or playing in a particular fashion is a vital skill for winning players. Those players with an ability to evaluate situations accurately and put their table rivals on a certain range of hands and anticipate likely moves will be the most profitable. Figuring out what opponents may be holding is not simple and requires your thought processes to be working on several different levels. In his book, Sklansky defines the various levels of thought used by poker players as follows:
Level 1: What do I have?
Level 2: What does my opponent have?
Level 3: What does my opponent think I have?
Level 4: What does my opponent think that I think they have?
Level 5: What does my opponent think that I think they think I have?
As is readily seen, inexperienced players will occupy level 1 and the more experienced or advanced players can be found playing at higher levels. Level 1 is your basic beginner who has learned the rules of the game and the hand rankings and is focused mainly on his own hole cards. You can expect Level 1 players to be unsuccessful with bluffing because their bluffs will be attempted without giving much forethought to the hole cards of their opponents.
The second level is where most poker players can be found. Level 2′s have a bit of experience playing, but are probably not consistent winning players. They typically consider the holdings of their opponents, but lack the requisite knowledge to make correct plays according to mathematics or the proper strategy in any given situation.
Level 3 poker players are actively engaged in getting inside the brain and thought processes of other players. Playing at this level allows for determining the optimum situations to make successful bluffs and semi-bluffs, as well as getting the most from value betting. Level 2 and level 3 players are normally the difference between a losing player and a winning one.
Level 4 gets a little dicey, as the thinking is much more advanced and is beyond the grasp of most players. But players who can employ the thought processes at this level will typically dominate Level 3 players, which is very good considering that Level 3′s are regarded as winning players.
At level 5, the thinking is ridiculously advanced, and I have no shame in admitting that it’s hard enough to write it down, let alone trying to think or comprehend at that level. If you happen to be seated at a table with a level 5 player, its likely in your best interests to select another table post-haste.
You may be wondering how the concept of multiple level thinking affects you. Well, the reason behind the concept is to avoid playing incorrectly versus the different levels. For instance, let’s assume you are a Level 3 player and find yourself in the fortunate situation of sitting down at a table with several Level 1 players. There will be no need to contemplate what your opponents think you have because they are too concerned with their own cards and their thought processes will be considerably inferior to yours. If you continue to play at Level 3 in such a situation, you will be overthinking, which will be a waste of both time and effort.
For that reason, you should play at only one level above the other players. It takes no more than that. Any more will require mental energy and effort and is not necessary to beat players whose level classification is lower than yours. As a matter of fact, thinking more than one level higher than your opponents can be detrimental. Making extravagant plays versus a thinker on the lower end of the level spectrum can backfire because they probably have no clue about what is actually taking place.
Therefore, just play one level above your opponents and your playing style should make you a successful and profitable player. The higher thought processes that you can actually employ, the better. Just remember to adapt and think on a lower level if need be to avoid overthinking certain hands or situations.
Of course, opposing players do not sit down and tell you their level of play, but a bit of analysis by watching what moves are made in various situations can allow you to make an educated guess on their levels of thinking. To be a winning player consistently, at least level 3 is required. However, don’t play at the third level if your opponents are thinking more along the lines of level 1. Change your levels of thought as is called for in various situations according to the levels of your opponents and you will achieve the greatest amount of profit and success.