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What Is Leveling in Poker & How to Avoid Costly Mistakes


Poker is a fairly simple game to play on a basic level, but also one that involves many different strategies and opportunities. You are allowed to act any way you like, regardless of the cards you are holding, which opens countless options on each street of every hand.

When you first learned how to play poker, you probably played the game on the most basic level, where your cards are the only thing that matters.

As you learned more, you got into bluffing, value betting, and all the other important concepts of the game, which opened up new levels of thinking.

Today, we will talk about leveling, a process of trying to outwit and outsmart our opponents at the poker tables, and both the benefits and the potential costs leveling in poker can have for us.

Before we talk about any of those, let’s figure out the leveling definition first and explain what leveling is and how it is used in poker.

What Is Leveling in Poker & How to Avoid Costly Mistakes

What Is Leveling in Poker?

So what is leveling in poker, and how does it work? This is the first question most novice players have when the concept is brought up.

Basically, leveling is the concept of looking past your own cards in the game of poker and thinking about all the other elements that may come into play in a particular hand.

In his 1999 book "The Theory of Poker, " Poker legend David Sklansky first introduced leveling," in which he described the different levels of thinking in the game.

Each new level of thinking gives you new opportunities to make some amazing plays but also puts you at risk of making some costly mistakes.

Some of the possible levels in poker are:

  • Level 1: What is my hand?
  • Level 2: What is my opponent’s hand?
  • Level 3: What does my opponent think my hand is?
  • Level 4: What does my opponent think I think of my hand?
  • Level 5: What does my opponent think I think about his hand
  • Etc.

As you can see, the depth of thinking in poker can go on for quite a while, and every new level will relate to a new piece of information you can gather.

The process of going deep into this kind of thinking is called leveling, and getting into a leveling duel with an opponent in a hand is called a “leveling war.”

In leveling wars, both opponents are trying to outsmart the other one and figure out which exact level the other guy is thinking at.

A simple leveling scenario is one in which you think your opponent is bluffing because they believe you to be weak, so you make a call with a marginal hand.

A more complex scenario would be one in which you think they are bluffing for the same reason, but you have a hand you can’t call with, so you make another raise to represent a strong hand.

Your opponent could, in turn, move all in and try to force you to fold your hand, despite having nothing more than a bluff in his hand, either.

Leveling wars can go quite deep, and we have seen some players like Vanessa Selbst make leveling into an art form at the peak of her career.

Example of Leveling in Poker

We have explained the leveling definition and introduced the basic concept, but let’s talk about it a little more and show a common example of how leveling works in real games.

Playing a $2/5 game in your local casino, you are dealt 8h7h in the cutoff and raise it up to $15. The player in the big blind makes the call.

With $32 in the pot, the dealer puts out a flop of AdQc4h, and your opponent checks. A level one thinker would check back, as the board did not improve their hand in any significant way.

However, considering what your opponent thinks about your hand, you can safely go ahead and make a continuation bet on this board, as you will have a lot of hands containing an A or a Q.

With this logic in mind, you go ahead and bet $20. This is a great time for the start of a leveling war. Holding nothing but Kd7d, your opponent decides that you are c-betting with nothing on this board very often, and instead of folding, his hand raises to $85.

In your spot, you should probably be folding your hand now. You have nothing, and without any clear drawing options, it should be unlikely for your opponent to be bluffing.

However, if you want to take the leveling war even further, you can go ahead and put in another raise. You have a clear range and nuts advantage on this board, so you can represent a strong hand.

That said, if your opponent does not believe you would be playing the best hands so fast, he can play back at you again.

At the end of the day, this leveling war can go for as long as you have chips behind. The moment one player announces all-in, they have won the pot, as both hands are not strong enough to ever make a call and go to showdown.

Benefits of Leveling in Poker

If you are very good at it and capable of figuring out the level at which your opponents play with high frequency, leveling in poker can prove to be very useful.

You may be able to win many pots that you have no business winning and make other players fold their cards even when they are miles ahead.

While many modern players who base their game on the GTO model try to avoid leveling altogether, it is a strategy with many merits when applied correctly.

If you are the kind of player who often engages in leveling wars, you will also become a scary presence at the table, and your opponents will be afraid to run any bluffs against you.

This added benefit of being a leveling master is the icing on the cake. However, becoming truly good at leveling is a skill that will require a lot of work, patience, and nerves.

Once you start engaging in advanced leveling often, you will also see the strategy sometimes backfire, which can turn into a disaster.

How Leveling Can Go Wrong

There are many ways for leveling in poker to go wrong. If you make a mistake and believe your opponent is doing something they are not, you could make a costly mistake that could have been easily avoided.

Leveling can often lead players to lose their entire stack in hands that should have only cost a couple of chips, making them question future decisions.

There are many spots in the game of poker where your opponent's bet can represent either a very strong hand or a complete bluff, leaving you with a difficult choice.

This is where leveling comes in, as you may try to figure out what your opponent is trying to do and what level they are thinking on.

Are they value betting because they think you will call too much, or are they bluffing, thinking you are likely to make them for a big hand?

This kind of leveling war can take you down a slippery slope if you aren’t sure what you are doing, and it’s even worse if you start questioning more obvious decisions.

For instance, some players very rarely bluff, but players still often level themselves into thinking that a particular bet coming from them could be a bluff, costing them money they never needed to lose.

What Is Leveling in Poker & How to Avoid Costly Mistakes

Should I Be Leveling in Poker?

Now that you know the leveling definition and have seen some examples, you must ask whether or not you should be leveling and how often you should do it.

The truth is that, in most cases, leveling will include a lot of guessing, and you won’t be able to actually tell what level your opponent is currently thinking on.

For that reason, you may as well go back to playing your baselines or playing as close to GTO as possible, and you will end up beating your opponents, who are likely to make many mistakes.

Yet, against some players, leveling can play a big role, and you may be able to pull off some plays that would not work against other people in other situations.

If you have a reputation for being a wild player who always bluffs, remember to give up on hands sometimes or make thin value bets every once in a while, as others are likely to level themselves into thinking you never have it.

On the other hand, if you are someone who is believed to be very tight, go ahead and make some big plays for all your chips that no one can really call off without the nuts.

Leveling occasionally is recommended, but trying to constantly engage in leveling wars left and right will probably leave you confused and frustrated because most of it is just guesswork.

Avoid Leveling Wars in Poker

Leveling in poker is a strategy that has a place, and that has been used over the years by many successful players. However, it is important to note that leveling won’t work well against good and balanced players and that you may not even need it against the bad ones.

When playing soft games, try to exploit recurring player tendencies. In tougher games, remember to balance out your ranges and do some randomizing to avoid getting exploited.

As far as leveling goes, there is no harm in trying to figure out why and when a player may have chosen to make a certain play, as long as you don’t take that to an extreme and try to read every player’s soul in every situation.

What Is Leveling in Poker & How to Avoid Costly Mistakes

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