We all have those moments where we know what someone else is thinking. Sometimes it’s a friend, family member or a complete stranger, but there’s a moment when you know what they’re thinking. But sometimes we don’t have a clue what someone else is thinking, and further there are other times when we think we know what someone else is thinking, but we think we know what they think we are thinking. If you’re confused, you’re quite right to be.
In chess, it’s said that some grand masters imagine 10 to 15 moves ahead, which means they calculate every possible move they and their opponent could make for 10 to 15 moves ahead of their current position. That’s some forward thought and planning! However, chess is a perfect game - at any point, both players know exactly the lay of the land - they know who is in what position and can (in theory) work out every possible move from that point to the end of the game.
But the game we love most - Poker - is an imperfect information game, and therefore more nuanced than many other games. We have to guess what cards the other players may have. But then we have to think about what we want our opponents to think we have… OK, let’s keep it simple…
Novice poker players think about the hand they have, and what they should do based on that combination. When they don’t have a strong hand, they think about bluffing.
Experts believe there are actually six levels to poker playing.
The first level is someone who doesn’t know anything about poker, and importantly doesn’t claim to know anything about poker (we all know players who claim to know about poker and don’t, and players who claim not to know about poker and do!).
The second level is the one we mentioned above - the player who knows what their hand is, but doesn’t think beyond that.
Level three is a big group, with many players in here. If you think at this level, you wonder what your opponent has. Players know what hands are better than others, so they weigh up the idea of what someone else might have without knowing the range of complicated possible options.
In level four you start thinking outside of the standard pattern of knowing what you have and wondering what the other players have. You go one step further which is thinking about what the other players think you have, and playing in a way that continues that belief. This is the root of successful bluffing, but the levels don’t stop here, oh no.
Level five becomes a bit of a mind-bender, because players thinking at this level are asking themselves, “What do the other players think I think they have?” This is starting to feel a little bit like Inception, isn’t it? This kind of thinking is where experienced players can really make some great wins because they are able to give off the impression they have a certain kind of hand, all the while considering their options of what the other players have, and playing accordingly.
The final level is for top-level players, and is the next step in the process, going one step further. “What do the other players think I think they think I think they have?” Yes, there are too many ‘thinks’ in that question, and it’s not a surprise that almost no one really operates on this level.
Of course, the more you play the more your skills and levels increase. Knowing the strength of your hole cards is the place to start, and work up from there.
See our post on ‘The best hands in poker’ for hand rankings.