Monday, December 23, 2013

Levels of Poker Thought

I had a poker conversation a few weeks ago with a poker-playing friend. During that discussion, my friend said something that led me afterward to believe he didn't really understand the differences between Level-1 and Level-2 poker...

...but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn't fully understand it either. Sure, both of us knew that a Level-1 player was someone primarily thinking about the absolute strength of their own hands, and that a Level-2 player was "playing the player," putting their opponents on hand ranges, and so on, but the reality is this concept of "levels" is a little simple minded. Further, it wasn't very useful in helping the process of putting a player on a hand range. So, as I'm often wont to do, I spent some brain cycles pondering the whole topic of thought levels in poker.

Long-time readers of this blog know all about my REDi-method of breaking down a poker hand and determining the best course of action to maximize expected value. One way for newbies to think about this REDi system is to split it into two separate halves, RE and Di. The first half (i.e., Reading and Estimating) are akin to a battle planner gathering and processing information on the enemy prior to engagement. How strong are the bad guys, where are they located, what are they planning, and, just as importantly, how well do our troops stack up against theirs? During this part of REDi, we're not choosing our own attack lines yet, but instead are "analyzing" the battle situation first.

The second half of the REDi process (i.e., Deciding and Maximizing) are where we formulate an actual attack plan that maximizes our effectiveness against the enemy-- and then carry it out. Where do we attack, how many soldiers do we throw into the battle, and, just as importantly, how tricky do we get and how do we mislead the enemy. During this second half of REDi, we're deciding on and "executing" our battle plan...

...which brings us back to what level of thought our opponent is operating on. I believe that a more complete way of classifying our opponent's level of thought  (i.e., beyond just the standard I-know-that-he-knows... method) is to assess both their RE and Di abilities. Let's call these the Villain's Analyzing and Executing abilities, respectively:
  • Analytic Ability. A villain is either capable of thinking through a hand, or they're not. An analytic player is actively trying to solve the so-called "puzzle" of a hand before applying a solution, while a non-analytic player is, well, not.
    • Analytic. An analytic player is one who is taking in all the information they can gather and then applying analysis and logic to that data. They're looking at specific things that their opponents are or aren't doing (e.g., tells, bet sizes), adding in other external factors (e.g., combos and board texture), and actively trying to get inside the head of the villain. They're then processing the gathered data, and estimating their own equities, pot commitment, and so on relative to the opponent's range and line. In other words, they're reading the player and situation, and they're estimating their own strengths against those reads.
    • Non-Analytic. A non-analytic player is one who is, at best, following a rote script; often these players are blindly using things like starting hand charts, and are frequently varying their bet sizes based solely on the absolute strength of their own cards. They're gathering minimal data (such as their own cards or position), but they're not really analyzing the situation. They're not thinking very deeply at all. They're not reading the player and/or situation, nor are they thinking of their own cards in anything other than a relative sense.
  • Execution Ability. Players generally fall into one of three categories of execution abilities when acting in a hand: arbitrary, straightforward, and deceptive.
    • Arbitrary. An arbitrary player isn't really sure (or even aware) of why they're betting, or checking, or folding. They are essentially just acting however they feel at the moment. The good news is that this approach usually leads to the wrong decisions for them. The bad news is this means their actions (and therefore hand ranges) can be difficult to read. The good news is this range is usually super wide.
    • Straightforward. A straightforward player is more or less playing "by the book." Another word for this kind of player is "ABC." They're taking any analysis they might have done in the R and E steps, and then are following standard advice found in standard poker books or training videos to decide what to do. They're plugging and playing, so to speak, and as a result, they're relatively easy to read.
    • Deceptive. A deceptive, or tricky, player is one who is purposefully trying to deceive or mislead his or her opponents. They have analyzed where they stand relative to their opponents, and are now trying to maximize expected value. They are in a effect "playing the player." Another way of saying this is that they're trying to do the opposite of what their opponents want or expect. These players are usually quite difficult to read.
Putting these two traits or abilities together can then lead us to the more complete level of thought classification of an opponent. A Non-Analytic and Straightforward player, for instance, is essentially a Level-1 player. Similarly, an Analytic and Deceptive player would be classified as a Level-3 or higher player. And so on.

Confused? Don't be. Here's the breakdown in graphical format:

So why is all this important? Answer: because knowing what level your opponent is operating at is one of the key steps in determining how to read their hand range and lines. Remember the Progressive Elaboration graph of Information vs. Accuracy of Reads? Well, right down there near the bottom of input factors is understanding how our opponent thinks in a hand. I.e., his or her level of thought:

More to come on this topic in the New Year. Until then, Merry Christmas to everyone!

All-in for now...

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