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Know Your Level

The popular and engaging British poker pro Nik Persaud explains the different levels on which poker players think

How should I approach an audience, some of whom have probably just started playing two or three months ago, and some of you have been playing for more than a couple of years? It’s difficult to cover something that’s meaningful for everyone. I could go super technical and talk about three-pot raises and databases and some people will glaze over, so I just want to talk about something we can all learn from.

I was driving home last night after playing a cash game with my friend; he’s one of the highest stakes players in the UK. We’d recently been to Vegas together and, having been back about a month, I asked him how he was doing. He told me he was $400,000 up for the month. I said: “That must be nice, 22 years of age and winning nearly half a million dollars in a month.”

I tell you this because I really wanted to know what’s in his head. What the hell is he doing – that I, and possibly a lot of you, are not doing? We get dealt the same cards in the long run.

So let’s start with someone who’s just playing freerolls and work our way up to my friend playing $25/$50 cash games on Betfair and iPoker. How can we correct a lot of the mistakes that we’re making and get to a point of near perfection?

When you learn poker, at first it’s just a game. You don’t really realise how deep and complex it is – you’re a complete newbie. You’re clueless; you’re being dealt two cards, you don’t know what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong, so you just get on with it. You start developing this trial-and-error process where after a while you realise that going all-in with 7-2 isn’t a good thing to do. Over a period of time things start making sense.

When you develop from that stage, you come up with what I call a beginner’s strategy and start to realise how clueless you are; you don’t have insight – you just don’t know what’s going on. But as you develop your beginner’s strategy you start to realise the things you should and shouldn’t be doing. After a while these things start sinking in, and you start thinking “Maybe I should fold A-8 under the gun? It’s not a good hand.” You realise over a period of time that this isn’t a winning play.

These are all conscious decisions that your mind’s having to make repeatedly, and it’s quite draining. Eventually when you get to my friend’s level they become very unconscious and natural. He’s played so many hands that he does a lot of stuff naturally. You fold A-8 under the gun without even thinking about it – because you just know. We could have a long discussion about why you should do that, but a lot of you will probably realise why you’re folding.

So now you’re subconscious mind starts kicking in. You’re folding under the gun and you’re giving your brain more capacity.

KEY STRATEGIC LESSON

I’m not a great fan of poker books – I’ve read nearly all of them and I think a lot of them are rubbish. A lot of the time they’re written by players who might have been successful a long time ago but maybe aren’t successful now. I do respect them, but there’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of bad books out there.

So putting books to one side, how should we think about the game of poker? Here’s my take: how would I play my hand if I knew what my opponent had?

I would play my hand perfectly, is the answer to that question. I would know exactly what I needed to do. I would fold when I was behind, and I would put money in the pot when I knew I was ahead. That’s a very simple premise of poker that people constantly try and overcomplicate. Poker is a game of mistakes: every time you make a mistake, your opponent gains, and every time your opponent makes a mistake, you gain. Every time you call when you should be folding, you’re giving equity to that person.

But, of course, you can’t see what your opponent has – it’s a game of imperfect information. You have to make guesses about how people play. If the guy in front of you is under the gun and he hasn’t played a hand for two hours, you have a fairly good idea of what that guy’s range of hands is. It’s going to be hands like A-A, K-K, Q-Q, A-K. When the action folds around to you, you can make a decision whether or not you should continue and it depends on your hand. If, for example, you have a pair of fives, when he has an overpair he gets really stubborn. Say the flop comes 7-5-2, he’s going to put a tonne of money in with his aces. You’ve called pre-flop trying to flop a set. But if it comes 7-4-2 and he bets big, you know he’s got it and you let your hand go.

Always try and imagine what you would do in a given situation if you could see your opponent’s hand. The statistics come back to the frequency. The guy that plays one percent of his hands has a very narrow range. The guy on the button that raises every single time it’s folded to him has a very broad range of hands. So against him when you’re looking at pocket fives you’re thinking “I could flop a set, or I could re-raise since he probably doesn’t have much.”

Going back to the beginner guy – another friend of mine wrote on the internet about what he called the ‘Luck of Learning Theory’. He said the one problem with us as humans, when we come from freerolls or very low stakes poker, is that our brain is very results oriented. It’s always very hard for us when we’re learning the game to separate results from what we should actually be doing. He gave the example of A-K. You’ve read that you should re-raise with A-K, but you do so four times in a row at your local cash game and you lose four times. As a human, despite the fact that you’ve not been told a lie (you’ve been advised to make a good pre-flop equity decision), you start going back into your shell. You start just calling to see if you hit anything. This is the Luck of Learning Theory.

What’s happening here is that you’re now developing a big error in your game. The problem that beginners have when moving from novice to intermediate level is that whatever happens to them early in their career they tend to ‘rinse and repeat’.

I hear people say things like “I hate jacks”, or “I don’t like A-K”. These things don’t really make sense if you think objectively about how the game of poker works. Every situation that you will come across has similarities to other previous situations. But all situations are different.

Going back to my high-stakes friend, what is he good at? Early on he was able to externalise his thought processes and separate results from what actually happened. He’s just looking to make the best play in the long run.

LEVELLING

Let’s say there are levels of thought processes from Level 1 to Level 4. My friend thinks on Level 4. What does a Level 1 player think about?

A Level 1 player is someone that purely thinks about what hands they have. That’s all they’re concerned with. They don’t care where you’ve been raising from, they just know that they’ve got tens and that you don’t get tens very often. They’re going to play their tens without any sort of analysis of what’s going on around them. The problem with this is that there’s a lot more going on in poker than just thinking about what you’ve got.

A Level 2 player is thinking “What does my opponent have?” They themselves have tens – that’s their bit of perfect information – but they don’t know what their opponent has got. So then that comes back to the opponent’s frequencies, what they raise with, from what position, etc. Level 2 players then make better decisions based on what they think their opponents have.

Then we get to a Level 3 player. He’s not only concerned with what he has and what he thinks his opponent has, but when you’re playing a complex game of poker at the higher levels you need to be considering “What does my opponent think I have?” At this level players are capable of adapting to their own image. You must be aware of how people perceive you.

At Level 4 things start to get a bit convoluted. This is the top level of psychology that the highest stakes players in the world get to: “What does my opponent think I think he has?” So at Level 4 players are capable of adapting to their opponents’ adaptations to them. This is the final area to concern yourself about.

Let me give an example of this using reraising. A player in late position raises: how do we react at different levels?

At Level 1, suppose we have aces, we will just re-raise because we know it’s the right thing to do. If we move on to Level 2 with these aces (which, in my experience, is roughly playing $0.50/$1 No-Limit online; $20 sit-n-gos, that sort of level), we are thinking about what they are raising us with. We’re aware of their range. We know that they raise from late position with a lot of hands. We can therefore reraise with nothing. That’s what I do a lot. They know that they’re meant to raise with K-J in late position because a book has told them to. I know that the book has told them that and I just exploit that. It’s really difficult if you’re playing a tournament with 1,500 chips, you make it 300 in late position and I make it 900 – what do you do with K-J now? So we can reraise with nothing and expect them to fold most of the time, but even though we’ve got aces, we might take a risk and call. We know they probably don’t have anything so we can under-represent our hand and when the flop comes T-9-3 and they have A-10, K-10 or J-10, we can get them for a lot of chips.

At Level 3 we now need to consider what they think we’ve got. We need to look at our own image. If we have a tight image, and we reraise, we’ll probably get him to fold – we know that he thinks we’re tight. But if we’re very loose, like I am – I’m a monkey when I play poker, I’m in every single hand raising and reraising – he’s going to think his pair of nines is pretty good. But I have aces. So he might then come back over with another raise thinking that I’m playing with nothing.

At Level 4, we consider what our opponent thinks we think he has, and because he’s been raising a wide range of hands he’ll think we’re raising him with nothing, so then he’ll be reraising with us without a hand.

It’s very important that the next time you’re throwing your chips in the middle that you’re thinking about what you would like your opponent to do. If you think you have the best hand, but you think he might call with his worse hand, then you want him to call. If you have 7-6 on a K-2-3 board, you know you’re bluffing and you want him to fold. Always ask yourself this question when you make a bet: “What would I like my opponent to do?” It’s very, very simple when you think about poker in these terms.

CONCENTRATION

I love to watch the television, Facebook, use the phone, etc when I’m playing online. But I’m trying to train myself to think about the money and turn the TV off. So I’m going to build myself a nice study where I cannot be distracted. This is my living. Concentration and discipline are very important.

HUMILITY

One of the biggest things that has saved – and made – me money is when I’m playing heads up poker online and the person’s beating me: I’ll just sit out for a while. There are so many people that you can play and after half an hour you can both see that this really isn’t going anywhere – it’s a ‘zero sum game’ – we’re both Level 4, so why are we playing each other? The rake’s going to win and we’re just going to lose money. It’s much smarter to say, “Good game, but no thank-you”.

There are so many fish out there that you could be making money from, why would you want to play another expert player? That’s the way you should be thinking in terms of getting better at the game.

If you’re really serious about the game then you want to get a coach. Even if its $200, that’s going to be the best $200 you have ever spent in your life. A lot of you might be some way away from that point, but that’s the journey that you should be going on.
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