Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2013) in Poker Player newspaper.
I teach five levels of winning in poker. Together they define a path to success and, eventually, to world-class play.
Today, we’ll examine those levels, so you can see where you are now and plan for future improvement.
There’s nothing sacred about these levels. And five isn’t a magic number. An intelligent poker trainer could define different levels — maybe 2, maybe 30 — and they could include other sets of conditions and goals. Still, I think my plan is superior, and I want you to understand it. I’ll share it today.
Remember, I said “five levels of winning.” These don’t cover the total poker experience, because — for most players — there are requirements that come before winning. Like what? Well, you need to know the rules. You need to be comfortable with acting in turn. You need to learn the common language of poker. Fine. Let’s say you’ve done that. Now it’s time to win.
Winning at level 1
You can be a lifelong winner as a Level 1 poker player. You really don’t need to do anything else. It’s just that you won’t win as much as you should.
This level requires you to play very conservatively and to choose opponents who are weak and who play too many pots. This is largely the arena of small-limit home poker games. Extremely tight is right at this level.
Why does it win? Even though you’re sacrificing many hands that can be proven to have an expectation of profit, you aren’t sure which they are. So, you stick to the obviously strong hands. By contrast, your opponents are dancing into pots with cards that are clearly unprofitable. If they aren’t, you’re in the wrong game. This is the level where you first learn the importance of always finding players who play worse than you do.
When you enter pots only with superior hands, you usually have such a great advantage that it overwhelms the disadvantages of not playing other facets of poker effectively.
Find a weak, loose game. Play super tight. You’ll usually win, but not nearly as much as you could.
Winning at level 2
At the next level, you don’t only play hands that are obviously profitable. You add more.
You do this by learning from expert recommendations of which hands are profitable, taking into consideration your seating position and the situation. You’ll also begin to use your feel for the game to risk money at smaller advantages.
These smaller advantages all add up and usually account for the majority of your profit. That means, unless you stray into playing unprofitable hands, you’re making more than twice as much money as you were at level 1. But you’re doing it at greater risk.
Winning at level 3
This level is when you begin to use serious poker skills. You won’t have as much control over your profit, and you’ll endure even more swings of fortune. But the upside is that you’ll make more money overall. That means, you’ll increase profit on average, but you won’t win with as much certainty or consistency.
That’s fine, because it’s how you do in the long run that matters, not how likely you are to win on a single session. So, yes, we’re increasing the risk again as we climb up the ladder.
And that turns out to be an important poker concept. Expert players engage is riskier play and don’t win as consistently as tight players, even against weak opponents. They win much more money eventually, though.
So, here we are at level 3. This is the level where you flip some of the hands known to average a loss when played by everyone and averaged together. You see, some of those losing hands rest very near the line between small-profit and small-loss. Skillful players can handle them a bit differently, turning a small expected long-range loss into a win. I call this “flipping the chart,” because I have charts of what you should expect to win or lose by playing specific hands by position and circumstance. Here at level 3, we’re flipping some of the losers into winners through expert play.
For instance, in a nine-handed hold ’em game, we know that raising with K-J from the dealer position after everyone else has folded is marginally profitable. But raising with K-7 will average a loss. How do we know that? I know it because I’ve simulated hundreds of millions of hands by computer, using software that I created myself. And I know it because I’ve had access to databases of millions of hands played online.
So, what does this mean to you? It means that you already could raise with the K-J at level 2, but at level 3, you can now consider raising with K-7. The conditions need to be right. Let’s say you observed that both players in the blinds surrender more often than they should. That would mean you’d expect to win a meaningful share of pots without a fight. Mix that in with the times you get called and are a slight underdog and the times when you’re raised and have to surrender, and that K-7 may still show a profit.
There’s another reason why, at level 3, you can add hands that lose slightly when played by others. It’s that you’re beginning to outplay opponents on later rounds of betting. So, you can absorb the small initial theoretical loss and still win in reality.
Winning at level 4
Welcome to level 4. This is where you begin to concentrate on tells. Sure, you might have been gathering and using some tells along the way, but now it’s time to make your opponents’ body language a big part of your game.
Notice that I don’t begin by teaching tells. It’s important to have a fundamental understanding of winning poker first. In fact, I don’t teach tells in detail until after the first three levels.
Reading opponents through tells makes our decisions better. At this level, we incorporate tells into the things we weight. But, unless it’s one of those rare 100 percent tells, we only use it like any other factor in swaying a decision. Adding tells can greatly increase our profit.
Winning at level 5
Fine, now we’ve gone through the stages of winning by playing super tight, adding more hands, using skill to flip some hands from losers to winners, and applying tells.
The rest is psychology and manipulation. That’s level 5.
Here you begin to use mental warfare to lure calls and increase your chances when bluffing. You learn to intimidate in friendly ways. The skills at this level add enormously to your bankroll, yet few players understand the true importance of doing this.
That’s why I’ve written about using psychology so often. Opponents are precariously balanced on most decisions, meaning they aren’t sure what to do. So, it’s your job to persuade them. That’s the final level.
It’s important to be aware of all five levels when you’re playing poker. When you’ve ascended to level 5, you’ve broken through four previous levels. But you need to always be conscious of what they are and what you’ve learned along the way. – MC