Levelling is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to understand in poker, and in a lot of cases it is something that cannot be taught, but is only picked up through playing thousands and thousands of hands, and understanding how people react in various situations.
What is Levelling?
Levelling is the classic poker situation of ‘he knows that I know that he knows’. It is the side of the game that is removed from math and game theory, and relies on instincts, people reading and the intangible skill that is reading the flow of the game.
The term stems from the thought process you should apply when you are playing a hand and analyzing in-game situations.
The levels of thinking can be categorized as:
Level 1: What do I have? – Being conscious of your cards
Level 2: What does he have? – Being conscious of your opponent’s cards.
Level 3: What does he think I have? – Being conscious of your image.
Level 4: What does he think that I think he has? – Being conscious of how your opponent thinks you perceive him.
The higher the level that you’re accurately analyzing hands at, the better a player you are.
Take an extreme example where you sit down at a cash table with 100 big blinds and open shove your first three hands, and then show the table raggedy cards when they all fold. The next hand you pick up AA and open shove again. You have now levelled your opponents at the table into calling you with a very different range than they would have if it were your first open shove. On your fourth straight shove they may call you with hands as weak as 99, AJ or KQ, which of course means that you can open shove TT or AQ for value on the next hand should you pick them up. Obviously this is an extreme example, but it shows what the essence of levelling is: gaining an advantage on your opponent by thinking a level beyond him.
Levelling in Online Poker
When playing online, the degree to which levelling will influence your decisions will depend very much on the stakes or buyin levels that you are playing. At lower stakes where the player pools are very large, you’ll likely be playing against hundreds of players and rarely build up enough hands against the regulars to develop much of a dynamic with any of them, particularly if you are moving through the levels.
However, if you’re playing on a smaller site or playing $2/$4 and above, you’ll be playing with the same players day in and day out and if you’re multi-tabling, chances are that many of the same players will be at most of your tables. Over time, you will build up a history of thousands of hands with these players and it becomes extremely important that you pay attention to game-flow, individual traits, and their perception of you if you want to win the levelling war. Pay particular attention to players who are playing a lot of tables and may not be as tuned into the levelling game as you, or some of the other regulars are.
The Pre-flop Levelling War
Far more hands are played pre-flop than get to the turn or river, so this is the street on which you’re going to build up the biggest levelling dynamic with your tough opponents. The games are so aggressive now that light 3-bets, 4-bets, and even 5-bets have become commonplace and maintaining an awareness of this dynamic with the opponents which you face regularly is extremely important. For example, if you have been relentlessly 3-betting the player on the cut-off when you have the button, you have to expect him to begin to 4-bet you light. Consequently, you will need to widen your 5-bet shoving range to protect your 3-bets. From that point, he would have to either tighten his 3-betting range or widen his 4-bet/calling in order to avoid being exploited. It is the player who can best recognise the timing and frequencies of other players and adjust their ranges according that will win the pre-flop war in the long run. You just have to be prepared to accept the increased variance that goes with it!