Levels of Thinking in Poker (How to Outsmart Your Opponents)

How to Outsmart Your Opponents in Poker (Levels of Thinking)
This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Lars Kyhnau Hansen.

In recent years the big buzz word in poker has been “GTO” or Game Theory Optimal. 

But if you play online micro stakes games or low stakes live games, you should still be aiming at an exploitative strategy, and a lot of older poker concepts are still very helpful.

In this article I will illustrate how to use a concept originally described by David Sklansky to outsmart your opponents at the poker table.

Basically David Sklansky described the different levels of thinking in poker, and the idea is, that to win, you should always be thinking one level higher than your opponent.

Not two or three, just only one. Here are the levels:
  • Level 1: What do I have?
  • Level 2: What do they have?
  • Level 3: What do they think, I have?
  • Level 4: What do they think I think they have?
  • Level 5: What do they think I think they think I have?

Micro Stakes Poker Levels of Thinking

In micro stakes online games or low stakes live games most people will be playing on level 1 or 2, which means, you should be aiming at level 2 or 3 depending on the opponent.

Level 5 is already well into, what is sometimes called “levelling wars” and hardly relevant, unless you are a mid or high stakes player and play with the same people all the time.

This is something that I actually discussed in my latest video, as it is one of the biggest reasons why most people lose at poker.

Level 1 thinkers are the fish at the poker table. These are people who are new to poker and have studied little if any theory.

These are the types of players who won't fold any hand. Here is my complete guide on how to beat a poker fish who doesn't fold anything.

Now, they will usually be able to read the most obvious boards like 6♣K♣5♣ or A9♠9♣
and understand, that you could have a flush or 3 of a kind. But they are not able to do actual hand reading and put you on a range.

Most likely they don’t even know what a range is! They are also not thinking about their own hand in terms of ranges. They might call with any pair or draw, rather than selecting only the best.

Level 2 thinkers are the bad regs and even some of the better regs in online micro stakes games. They will be able to assign you a reasonable range based on both the board and your actions, but they often fail to think about, what their own hand looks like to you.

Part of this is because, they are usually playing a bunch of tables at the same time, so they are often running on auto-pilot for most of their decisions.

Micro Stakes Poker Hand Example #1 – QQ on Paired King High Flop

Pre-Flop: (1,5BB) Hero is MP+1 with Q♣ Q♠
3 players fold, Hero raises to 3BB, 1 fold, BTN calls 3BB, 1 fold, BB calls 2BB

Flop: (9,5BB) 3 3 K (3 players)
BB checks, Hero checks, BTN checks

Turn: (9,5BB) 6 (3 players)
BB checks, Hero bets 4,5BB, BU folds, BB raises to 14BB, Hero calls 9,5BB

River: (37,5BB) 3♣ (2 players)
BB bets 12,5BB, Hero calls 12,5BB

BB shows 5 A♠ (three of a kind, Threes)

MP+1 (Hero) shows Q♣ Q♠ (a full house, Threes full of Queens)

This hand is from 16NL full ring on PokerStars. I had QQ on a K33 flop in a 3-way pot and decided to not C-bet. When it checked to me on the turn, I decided to go for a delayed C-bet for value.

The player behind me folded, and now the player in the big blind, who was a semi-loose bad reg, decided to check-raise.

A drawback of my delayed C-bet is, that it turns my hand very face up to anyone, who can hand read. I rarely have anything stronger than a K with a bad kicker, because then I would have bet the flop, and it is very unlikely that the 6 on the turn helped me.

Also the player behind me was now out of the pot, so if the remaining opponent was thinking on level 2, he had a lot of incentive to try and bluff me off a hand exactly like the one, I had.

I also figured, he would probably lead the turn with a K, so I put him on a range consisting of a few monsters like trips or boats and a lot of bluffs and decided to call him down.

He was in fact bluffing with a very random hand, and his mistake was, that he failed to think about, what his hand looked like to me.

His story made little sense, and this is why, I was able to pick off his bluff by thinking on level 3, when he stayed on level 2. It also mattered, that it was a good river card for me, and he choose a very small sizing.

Micro Stakes Poker Hand Example #2 – Top Pair in 3-bet Pot

Pre-Flop: (1,5BB) Hero is BB with A♣ Q
1 fold, MP raises to 3BB, 1 fold, BTN calls 3BB, 1 fold, Hero 3-bets to 14BB, MP calls 11BB, 1 fold

Flop: (31,5BB) 9♣ 6♠ 8 (2 players)
Hero checks, MP checks

Turn: (31,5BB) A♠ (2 players)
Hero bets 15,5BB, MP raises to 47BB, Hero calls 31,5BB

River: (125,5BB) 3♣ (2 players)
Hero checks, MP bets 87BB (all-in), BB (Hero) folds

This hand is from 5NL SNAP on 888 Poker. I 3-bet AQ from the blinds, got called, missed on a low flop and decided to not C-bet. The opponent checked back.

This opponent was one of the better regs in the game, most likely a winning player. Turn was A♠ improving me to top pair, and as in the previous hand I went for a delayed C-bet and got raised.

This time however I decided to fold on the river, when he went all in. Now at first glance it might seem strange to call down in the previous hand with a pocket pair below top pair, and then fold top pair second kicker now. But while the two hands seem similar on the surface, there are some important differences.

First this pot was much bigger, because it was a 3-bet pot, and we were also a bit deep, as is often the case in fast forward games like Zoom poker or SNAP. He was the effective stack, so to call I would have had to put in almost a whole stack on the river, and I was not getting a good price.

But even more important my hand was also very face up to this opponent, and since it was so strong, he had little incentive to try and bluff me.

When I checked the flop, my hand looked like something, which missed, yet he decided to not bet and try to get me off my A high, K high etc. But then on the turn, when I bet on a card, that will often have given me a strong top pair, as in fact it did, now he decided to try to get me to fold.

This makes no sense, and since he was a good player, I found it much more likely, that he correctly read my hand, and that he was going for value with something stronger than top pair.

Most likely a flopped set or two pair, which he decided to slowplay on the flop to allow me a chance to catch up or bluff the turn. I will never know, if my read was correct, since I folded, but I still feel, that I made the right decision.

For the record I also think, my opponent played his hand well, if he did indeed have me beat.

Trying to stack people with top pair is a pretty big money maker in the micros, since a lot of players would not fold AK or AQ in a spot like this. Which is also why, bluffing with his line is not a good idea against most opponents.

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Micro Stakes Poker Hand Example #3 – Trying to Bluff a Fish

Pre-Flop: (1,5BB) Hero is MP with T♣ A♠
UTG calls 1BB, UTG+1 calls 1BB, Hero raises to 5,5BB, 3 players fold, SB calls 5BB, 2 players fold, UTG+1 calls 4,5BB

Flop: (18,5BB) 4♠ Q♠ J♠ (3 players)
SB checks, UTG+1 checks, Hero bets 9,2BB, SB folds, UTG+1 calls 9,2BB

Turn: (36,9BB) 3 (2 players)
UTG+1 checks, Hero bets 23,6BB, UTG+1 calls 23,6BB

River: (84,1BB) 8 (2 players)
UTG+1 checks, Hero bets 61,7BB (all-in), UTG+1 calls 61,7BB

MP (Hero) shows T♣ A♠ (high card, Ace)
UTG+1 shows 8♠ K (a pair of Eights)

This hand is from 10NL full ring on 888 Poker. In I isolated two limpers and got called by one limper and a player from the blinds.

I flopped an A high flushdraw on a monotone board and decided to barrel all the way down. The result speaks for itself. This hand is an example of, why you don’t want to think two or three levels higher than your opponent.

The opponent was clearly thinking on level 1, but I tried to apply an advanced poker concept like blockers to get him to fold a better hand on the river. I leveled myself.

A lot of people get angry, when something like this happen to them. They blame the opponent for making such a bad call in a situation, where he should have folded.

But this is not the right way to think about it. If you want to be a winning poker player, you want other people to play bad, and it is your job to create a strategy to beat them. And it is not exactly rocket science, how we beat a guy like this. We never try to run a big bluff, but we bet thinner for value.

And note that my bets on the flop and turn were not bluffs against this opponent. When he calls with any draw, I am doing totally fine against his range with my A high, and I also build the pot, so I can stack him, when we both make a flush.

The river bet however was a bluff, because while he might chase after any draw, he is not going to call a big river bet with a busted draw.

Final Thoughts

If you want to win in poker, you should always think one level higher than your opponent but not two or three levels.

This is also why, studying advanced poker concepts can sometimes do more harm than good to your results, when you are playing micro stakes online games or low stakes live games.

It simply isn't important to spend hours and hours doing solver work to figure out your perfectly balanced range for any situation, when you are playing against bad regs, who bluff with random air, or a fish who call you down with any pair.

Because often this level of thinking and strategy is far, far above their heads. You are simply going to "level yourself" as they say.

Make sure you download a copy of my free poker cheat to learn my entire strategy on how to crush today's micro stakes poker games.


This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Lars "fundiver199" Kyhnau Hansen. Lars is a part time online poker player from Denmark currently playing 10NL and 25NL. Lars excels at the math side of the game.

Let me know in the comments below what level of thinking you use in poker. Do you think this is a good way to outsmart your opponents at the poker table?

How to Outsmart Your Opponents in Poker (Levels of Thinking)


  1. very good info. also hats off to the author, good story line. lol

    1. Thanks for reading Al. And I agree, I think Lars does an excellent job of explaining levels of thinking in poker in this article. And his point about only being one level ahead (not two or three), is spot on.

  2. Good article really, it puts in words what I think and can't explain. I do suffer from outleveled myself sometimes, and it ends up with my stack delivered to my opponents . I would like if you could explore more this subject, level of thinking in poker, even though I will not applied that in microstakes.
    Best regards

    1. Thanks for reading Luis, glad this one helped you!

  3. How do you think the cash out feature on PS affect the micros? Are players more prone to go all in with mediocre hands?

    1. If you have the worst hand and cash out, you are going to lose money 100% off the time. So if anything there is less point in gambling with bad hands not more.

      I have noticed, that some bad players cash out, when they are behind. This mean, that rather than chipping up, reloading or leaving, they continue to hang on with a short stack.

      This is both good and bad. Its good, if it makes bad players play longer sessions, and maybe this is actually part of the reason, why PokerStars introduced the feature. Longer sessions means more rake. It is also bad however, because if bad players have a very short stack, there is less money for you to win, and less ways for them to make mistakes.

  4. I'd say that even regs sometimes go down to this level 1 thinking in certain spots.
    Your hand with AQ is actually a spot where I feel like most of the players just use this messed up logic "if I fold on an ace, why would I raise preflop? I HAVE TO CALL", even though it's clearly just a bluffcatcher.
    People are in general sooo sticky when they improve, that's insane.

    1. The worst thing about sticky players is that whenever I have something, they have absolute air... Meanwhile, everybody else at the table gets richer and richer..

  5. Great article. I've often heard complaints that fish are hard to beat because they are playing too bad. Now I know why :)

    1. Glad this one helped. It is over-thinking that is often the problem. Lars stated it very well.

  6. Very well written and very well explained. Thanks for sharing.

    About hand 3... How about check/calling all the way down when you don't hit your draw? I wouldn't feel comfortable 3-barelling here with nothing against a fish