The Counter-Striking Style: Level Three Thinking in Low-Stakes Tournaments

Parenthood has left me too busy and too exhausted to keep it up, but up until my son was born, I’d been training in boxing for a few years. It might sound surprising to people who haven’t done both, but I think most poker players who’ve also trained in combat sports would agree with me when I say that the two have a lot in common. Yes, poker is almost entirely mental, while fighting is extremely physical and, between the pace and the adrenaline, requires more instinct than deliberate thought. However, both include the elements of pattern recognition and deception, as the competitors attempt to identify patterns in what the others are doing, while changing up their own strategies whenever they feel the opponent is starting to catch on.

When the best offence is a good defence

I trained at a couple of different gyms, and the coach at one of them had a preference for a counter-punching style, so we worked a lot on evasion and countermoves there. His very favorite move was the simply-named “lean-back,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Your basic boxing stance has you leaning forward slightly, and most of your weight on your bent front leg. If your opponent throws a power punch (especially a hook), one of your options for getting out of the way is to push off from that front leg and arch your back, getting your weight onto your back foot to remain balanced while pulling your head and shoulders back out of harm’s way. This has the added advantage that as soon as the punch swings by, you can proceed to push off from that back foot and throw your weight into a right cross (or a left, if you’re a southpaw) while your opponent’s guard is down.

In demonstrating the technique, first leaning in, then leaning back, and finishing with the cross, this coach would often repeat the mantra “give him what he wants, take it away, make him pay.” That philosophy resonated strongly with me at the time, because my main poker format at that time was the heads-up sit-and-go, and finding ways of baiting my opponents into making spewy plays had already become a big part of my strategy. Between that background and the coach I had, my boxing style inevitably ended up being similar; while sparring, I would typically spend most of the round appearing to retreat, waiting for my opponent to over-commit while chasing me, at which point I could plant my feet and swing for the fences.

Now that I mostly play multi-table tournaments, my game has changed, but I still find that one of the most effective strategies to adopt is to make myself look like an easier target than I really am, and let the more aggressive players at the table come to me.

Levels of thinking

Poker players often talk about levels of thinking, or “the leveling war.” I actually prefer a term used by players in a forums community where I used to play the party game “Mafia,” which at some point I’ll discuss in my Beyond Poker series. The term used there is WIFOM, which stands for “Wine In Front Of Me,” a reference to a classic scene from The Princess Bride.

In this scene, the character Vizzini captures the essence of the leveling war in poker, Mafia, and indeed nearly any game or real-world situation in which one or both parties involved hold critical, secret information. “Level one” thinking, then, is a simple analysis of the public facts and those known to oneself and making decisions on that basis – attacking where the terrain is most favorable, throwing basic left-right combos in the ring, voting against the Mafia player who seems the most dangerous, betting based on one’s own cards and the board, or “drinking the wine in front of me.”

Each level of thinking beyond level one is based on the assumption that your opponent is thinking on the level before. If your opponent is in fact thinking on level one, you can deduce his cards (or his range, at least) by analyzing his bets. But if he’s trying to do that to you – thinking on level two, in other words – you can communicate false information to him by playing differently than he expects. That’s level three, and of course from there, you can try to beat a level three opponent by going to level four, and so on.

What’s critical to realize, however, is that higher levels of thinking are not intrinsically better. Each level of thinking is predicated on the assumption that the opponent is on the previous level, so if you’re thinking at too high a level, you’re just deluding yourself. The best level to be at is one step ahead of your opponent, but failing that, you’d rather go all the way back to level one and just make the most natural move, rather than making decisions based on thoughts your opponent isn’t actually having.

Easy as one-two-three

When it comes to live tournaments in the $100-$500 range, my experience so far has been that recreational players are almost universally on some version of level one – they’re playing their hands, although not always correctly – while the small-time pros and would-be pros are pretty consistently on level two. That means that the strategy I’ve found to be effective in these tournaments could be described as “one-two-three.”

That is, when the tournament is starting up or when I’m first moved to a new table, I have little choice but to play a solid level one game, although perhaps with a little bit of level two thinking based on “zero hand” physical reads. That’s a bit beyond the scope of this article, but generally speaking means that I’m playing a bit looser against players who are older or strike me as recreational, and a bit tighter against the young guys wearing poker-branded clothing.

Despite starting off that way, it’s these latter guys – the young regulars – who I’m ultimately hoping to play a big pot with. If I get a solid level two read on one of the fishier players, I’ll certainly use it, but because most of them don’t play their draws aggressively or employ complicated bluffs, you tend to have to get a cooler situation against them to take their whole stacks, otherwise you’re mostly picking up smaller pots from them. The young guys, on the other hand, are not inclined to let anyone play small ball poker. That makes them dangerous to tangle with, but by the same token means that there’s a big upside when you do manage to outplay them.

The nice thing about my approach is that the same style I adopt to stay out of trouble while getting my reads also develops the exact image I want to have when I do decide to go to level 3 and try to exploit the would-be sharks. They tend to be looking for “ABC” players – that is, decent but predictable level 1 thinkers – to exploit, so after they’ve seen me go raise preflop, continuation bet flop, check-fold turn a couple of times, I know that they’re going to be drawing a bead on me. They’ve decided that I’m trying to play small pots and so of course they’re going to force the action against me and assume I’ll continue to play like scared money when lots of chips are on the line. At that point, they’re in a lot of danger, they just don’t know it yet.

There are a few different ways of exploiting an aggressive level 2 player, but ironically, one of the best ways is in fact to play your hand in a very obvious manner, but then do the opposite of what he expects on the final decision. For instance, it can be okay to make it incredibly obvious that you have marginal holdings on a scary board, so long as you know that he’s seeing it, but he doesn’t know that you know. If all of that is the case, then he’s likely to try to price you in when he actually has you beat, and make larger and often multiple bets when he’s bluffing. Calling those bluffs can be scary, but at these stake levels, as long as you’ve picked your villain correctly, properly established your image, and chosen a good spot, you’re very likely to find yourself dragging a far larger pot than your hand itself strictly deserved.

Aces near the bubble and a terrible run-out

Here’s an example of that strategy from a hand I played last night, as the tournament approached the money bubble in the $250 Frenzy at Playground Poker. Unfortunately, I failed to record the details of stack size, blinds and bet sizes, but I had something like 25 big blinds and the villain in question had more like 35. I had, I felt, established myself as fairly tight but competent, and allowed him to take a couple of small pots off of me post-flop. More recently, though, I’d been on a bit of a tear; I’d won one pot with a continuation bet, then 4-bet jammed Queens preflop over a 3-bet and got a fold on the next hand, and now the very next hand found myself looking down at a pair of Aces.

I was in the hijack and villain was on the button. I made my standard, slightly-more-than-minimum preflop raise and he flat called me, while the blinds folded. At this point, I knew he’d be expecting me to have a fairly strong range to raise a third hand in a row, and his flat call in position looked like a speculative hand trying to either outflop me, or bluff me off the hand on boards that would be bad for my range. Of course, with the stack sizes being what they are, there’s a limit to how weak a hand he could call with, but I think he would call a bit wider than a textbook range, because he assumes he’s got a big postflop edge due to his read.

The flop was fairly disastrous for me: two Queens and an Eight, with two Diamonds. I did hold the Ace of Diamonds, so I had a backdoor flush draw, but this was a double-edged sword in that if I ended up getting raised on the flop, I’d be blocking a lot of his potential flush draws and so it would be much harder for me to call. I thought about going into check-call mode immediately for this reason, but decided that he’d be unlikely to raise with a Queen and therefore also keep his bluffs for a later street as well, so I made a small, one-third pot bet to keep him in with a lot of floats and gutshots and thereby avoid getting to the turn against only the strongest parts of his range.

He called, and the turn was a blank Seven. This was unlikely to have improved either of us, and I decided I’d likely win more chips when ahead and lose fewer when behind by checking and allowing him to bluff. I also thought that he could end up deciding to shove with either a Queen or a flush draw if I bet again, and I didn’t want to leave myself in that spot. So, I checked and called a bet which was sized so as to leave me with a little over a half-pot bet behind.

The river was the Seven of Diamonds, double-pairing the board and completing a possible flush. Most people would intuitively hate this river when holding pocket Aces, and indeed, that was my first reaction, but after I checked and he put me to the test with a bet for almost all my remaining chips, I realized that it wasn’t nearly as bad as it seemed.

Nightmare river… or a bluff-catcher’s dream?

I’d been hating life up to this point, because I don’t like going out close to the money any more than the next guy, and especially not by getting my Aces cracked, and yet I knew from the start that I could not be surrendering too easily just because of a bad runout. As I contemplated the likelihood that he’d be bluffing, I came to realize that this particular river was actually the best possible card for me in that regard.

For one thing, it’s clearly a disgusting runout for Aces, Kings, Jacks or Tens, and those are exactly the hands I’d most often be holding in this exact spot, given my actions, the approaching money bubble and the villain in question. Meanwhile, the only likely hands for him which beat mine would be a Queen or a flush, and I felt he’d almost certainly check back a flush or at worst bet very small to get calls from my pairs, given that I could very well have been trying to trap with a Queen myself.

Meanwhile, if he had Jack-Ten, Jack-Nine or Ten-Nine for a flopped gutshot draw, his plan would have been to bluff turn and river all along, and he probably would not feel an Eight was good now. All his underpairs had been counterfeited and couldn’t even beat Ace high. So, even if he’d called the flop for showdown value with some of these hands, he would now surely be turning them into bluffs.

My image was right for him to be bluffing, and I was pretty sure he was aware of it. The situation was right for him to be bluffing, since he had me covered and the money bubble was approaching. My betting behavior was right for him to be bluffing, because I’d played my hand exactly like the preflop-monster-turned-marginal-one-pair it was. And the board was right for him to be bluffing, because it was legitimately scary for me, holding the hand he almost certainly knew I had.

So, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck, and has feathers like a duck, and lays eggs like a duck… what do you? Turn it into delicious Korean barbeque, of course. After a good long tank, during which I thought about all these things, I finally flipped a single chip in to indicate a call and was both relieved and delighted to hear him groan as he pitched his cards into the muck. Sure enough, he announced to the table that he’d known exactly what I had, but never thought I’d call with it.

Exactly the way I like it.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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