One of the biggest errors in poker is the failure to quickly and properly classify the level of thinking used by each of your opponents. Every time you hear a player complain, "I can only beat good players." You can probably assume that he suffers from FPS, (Fancy Play Syndrome,) and doesn't take into the account the level of thinking used by his opponents. In the article on Rating Your Opponents in Poker, I briefly addressed the Level of Thinking but more discussion will probably help all of us. You'll probably remember some of the comments.
Level-0 is usually the level of thinking employed by the beginner, the Novice, and the drunk. "I know nothing." These players have no concept of the value of possible hands. Generally they don't even understand that you should have starting hand standards. They only know that if you fold you can't win. They will take any two cards to the river and they are the ones that meet us at the river with Ace, rag, some weird hand or under-pair.
Last evening in 9 tournament structure games, I won 4 but was felted 5 times by the same player who called all-in bets with, 6-7os, J-6s, J-6os, K-9s, and 7-4s. There were no bluffs or fancy plays. I pushed with the best hand and he chased me down. That's poker. I left a winner. He didn't. He is a Level-0 thinker. He has no idea what he holds, and poker players like that are poor targets for bluffs. No matter how great the play, they will call. DO NOT BLUFF.
You can recognize Level-0 poker thinking several ways. They normally play lots of pots. They normally call to the end and turn over some of the strangest combinations of cards. They normally call bets for no apparent reason. You have only one real strategy against a Level-0 thinker.
Get your money in with the best hand.
When you win, tell them tough luck and buy them another drink. When they catch the cards and put you on the rail. Smile, tell 'em good hand, and mean it. (After all the hand was good, it was their play that was questionable.) They provide a significant amount of your positive EV, and should be cultivated. Keep 'em happy and they will come back. God bless 'em.
Level-1 isn't much different from level-0 and should be treated the same way. They usually have some concept of starting hand standards, but those standards include most of the deck and a lot of "any's" like: any two High cards, any two suited cards, any two connectors to include two gappers, Ace rag (of course), and any pair calls on the river. They have some understanding of the game and can recognize their hands, but these poker players have no concept of position, and don't use comparative thinking. They are playing video poker. They have a hand and fail to grasp that the best had wins the pot. Like the Level-0 they will call, and will not fold with a pair or a draw. DO NOT BLUFF. The Level-1 thinker resembles the Level-0 player. Plays lots of pots, but at the end will usually turn over something. It may be weird but it will be something.
Bet for value on the end.
Smile and shake their hand when the put you on the rail or better yet re-buy and get back in the game.
Level-2 is probably the most common level of thinking at the poker table. This player actually considers the possible hands of his opponents, and their success is based on how well they do read their opponent. At the lower limits many Level-2 thinkers are winning players. Most "Grinders" use only Level-2 thinking. Although, most of these players have tighter playing standards, it is not uncommon for some to play quite loose, and rely on good reads after the flop to keep them out of trouble. They are characterized by their lay downs. These guys will often lay down a hand and seldom make it to the river without some chance of winning. You can often get them to put down a hand if you represent a good hand or bet on when a scare card hits. Although the bluff isn't common, there are certain Level-2 players that bluff even more frequently. Super aggressive Level-2 players will take a shot at the pot, if they think you have nothing. (Since these guys are easily recognized by most players, putting them to your left and using their bets to trap other players into extra bets, is often a great play.)
Bluff often. If you are a very tight player that seldom bluffs, you might want to run a couple, and show the bluff. That will usually motivate the level-2 player to call you down later when you do have a hand.
Never fail to congratulate them on an excellent lay down. IF you are bluffing often, do not ever show your hand. Keep them guessing.
Level-3 is the purview of the successful bluffer. What they consider: "What do they think I have?" This player is all about appearances. If they think you have put them on a particular hand, they will bet that hand, not the one they actually hold. This player is best characterized by aggressive continuation bets or betting when a scare card hits, and of course they get caught. Don't be deceived by the player that starts by bluffing, but slows down after they have been caught. They have simply baited the trap by showing you their bluff. Many Level-3 players bluff at a higher frequency than other players,
Trapping is the preferred tactic against the Level-3 player, but when you're not getting the cards, coming over the top with a bluff or re-steal is probably the best tactic. If you do not stand up to these guys, they will steal you blind.
Be wary of these guys, and make them your friend. There may be no friends at the poker table, and it shouldn't matter but it can't hurt. Try to sit to their right, and only enter the pot when you are prepared to confront their aggression.
NOTE: If you are a Level-3 player, in a game of Level-0 and Level-1 players, you might want to dumb down. In this situation, they don't even consider what you may be holding. So Level-3 serves only to get you in the pot with a losing hand. Of course, usually a game will be a mix of players. The trick is to handle each player differently. Show the goods to Level-1 players. Bluff the Level-2 players and trap the Level-3s.
Level-4 starts getting a bit absurd, but there are players that actually think this way, "What does he think, I think, he has?" These players are characterized by the trap and the check raise bluff. They understand that the Level 3 player will often make a play based on what "I think, he might have." But to be successful the Level-4 player must have made a good read at Level-2.
Once you have established that a player is capable of Level-4 playing, avoiding him would be prudent, but there is some value here and it takes some preparation to work. First in a small pot bluff and either get caught, or show the bluff, hopefully against the target. Then make exactly the same play with the goods and trap him for a big pot, when he attempts to trap you.
When dealing with all of the "upper" level thinkers, making them your friend is usually a good tactic, but that usually carries a certain amount of flexibility on your part. Friends, or respected foes, tend not to abuse each other. They may play hard against each other but they usually play honestly against each other. Recently in the Aussie Millions, Gus Hansen faced Patrik Antonius and busted him. If you watch that hand, there was no deceptive play by either player. Both played the hand honestly. If you expect the Level-4 player not to abuse you, then you cannot abuse him.Level-5 is. If Level-4 is absurd, this tends toward ludicrous, "What does he think I think, he thinks, I have?" Hell, I can barely write it. So, it must be beyond my capabilities. I have noticed that Level-5 players often out-think themselves and use the reasoning as an excuse for really bad plays. If you can review the season 1 High Stakes Poker, where Daniel Negreanu got killed during the first few episodes. He flopped the nuts, was beaten on the turn, made a great read, but still called down the better hand. Level-5 thinking basically revisits Level-3. If you make a solid read at Level-3, this is pure speculation and should probably be avoided.
I definitely want these poker players as my friends and maybe I can learn something. Hopefully one of them can explain 5th level thinking and its utility. You should definitely avoid this player even if it means changing games. After this I have definitely reached my level of incompetence, and would love to have some one enlighten me. Although, I am going to at least one more level.
Level-A, for aggression, is best characterized by the super aggressive players. They don't really bet their own hand, and they don't really consider what you have. The simply bet that you don't have a hand good enough to call them. They will bet or raise with anything at anytime, simply on a read of perceived weakness. When they are hitting cards, they win. When they aren't hitting cards they still might win, because each of those bets/raises carries some fold equity
Don't get involved until you are willing to put it all on the line, and you might have to do it with marginal cards. So, either grab your ankles and jump in, or find another game.
One of the characteristics of the successful Level-A players, is the ability to lay down a hand, which many other players would play. Many unsophisticated Level-A players can be trapped effectively. These vulnerable players tend to push all-in on a bluff too frequently. Always be aware of which type of Level-A player you are in the pot with.
Here is a capture from Full Tilt. It may be 7 Card Stud but the note evaluations apply.
As you can see, I have the player rated a Level-2 thinker. If you read the piece on Rating Your Opponents, his hand selection is S/H3, (Selective but will fold marginal hands to a raise.) His Aggression is A2, (Tends to bet or raise.) Finally his Honesty is H2, (Seldom bluffs, but is deceptive.) He has raised with Ace, blank twice. I also pointed out the code or tag button. Here I use Yellow to indicate handle this player with caution. I really like that option on notes because it readily alerts me to my evaluation when I encounter gruby again. He is a player and should be respected accordingly. The quick access to notes and the ability to take them without observation is one of the best advantages to playing online.
Those are how you might classify your opponents, now you've got to use it to exploit the weaknesses of each level and not make costly mistakes. The identification of Level-0 or Level-1 players and not bluffing or attempting other sophisticated plays, will save you more money than any other consideration here. Bluffing against the Level-2 players and catching the Level-3 players will add some value to your poker game. Finally respecting, (avoiding,) Level-4 and higher players may not increase your winnings but will decrease your losses. The Level-A player is hard to play against but once you have his number, he should be an easy mark, and the source of an occasional double up.
So, once you start rating your opponents, drop into the forums here, or chat me up on Full Tilt. I would really like to hear your ideas about rating your opponents.