Profitable Zero-Level Thinking

7 min read

Much has been written about first, second, third, fourth, and even fifth-level thinking in poker. These are the increasingly complex ways to consider poker data while playing a hand.

Question matrix
Asking, and answering, key questions about your opponents — and yourself — is one of the keys to becoming a better poker player. (Image:

But I’d like to move our thinking in the opposite direction – toward the thinking that precedes even the simplest hand analysis of Level-1 thinking. I’d like to look at the considerations you should weigh even before your hand is dealt – even before you start your poker session. I call this zero-level thinking.

Think about your game before you play your game

To fully understand what zero-level thinking is all about, we first need to define what players mean when they talk about how they think of the game of poker.

First-level thinking is playing poker by just considering the strength of your hand in a vacuum. Second-level thinking takes into consideration your opponent’s possible hand, using their image and betting action to help inform you. Third-level thinking is more sophisticated still, as it considers your opponent’s likely view of you and your hand. Fourth-level thinking kicks the sophistication up a notch by considering how your opponent might view your view of his image.

You can carry this thinking up to an infinite number of levels, as you and your opponents try to out-think each other. It’s one of the reasons poker remains a fascinating game.

Zero level, on the other hand, is that thinking you must do before your session starts, before your opponents are known, and before the cards are dealt. It’s an internal thinking process that looks inward toward your motivation and readiness to play. Just as any number raised to the zero power is 1, so too is zero-level thinking all about the 1 – about you and your motivation, inclinations, and disposition before you play.

Let’s look briefly at how a thoughtful player might use these questions to help ensure that they’re going into a session in the best possible frame of mind.

Key considerations

As previously mentioned, zero-level thinking should be focused on you and your state of mind at the start of any new session. Just like an athlete before the start of a game, a good poker player should make sure they’re both physically and mentally fit to meet the challenges they’re likely to face on the felt. That said, here are some of the key questions I recommend you consider before you grab your seat at the table.

1. Why am I playing today? Am I ready to play?

This should trigger thoughts about your motivation. Are you going to play to win or just pass some time? Are you looking chiefly to socialize or to take advantage of your opponents? Are you looking to impress others or to keep them in a good gambling mood?

This question should also trigger thoughts about your readiness to play. Are you physically and mentally fit for the felt? If non-poker matters are weighing on you, can you separate them from your playing self and focus on the task at hand? Are you physically up to the task today?

Sometimes, you’re better off staying in bed or otherwise away from the game. Do an inventory of your physical and mental condition and decide if you’re able to play your best game, free of undue distraction. If so, go forth into battle; if not, stay away.

2. What specific goals do I have for today’s session? How will I accomplish them?

Each session you play should have goals. They may be monetary ones, like doubling up your starting stack or earning 10 big blinds an hour. Or they may be more metaphysical, like playing your best game, feeling comfortable playing at a higher stake than normal, or not getting impatient or distracted.

Whatever they are, you should think about them and acknowledge them before you start. Similarly, you should think about how you will best accomplish those goals. What game should you play? Should you move up in stakes? Move down? Practice better game selection? Leave earlier? Stay longer? Try a different room?

The key is to ask these questions to avoid just playing out of habit and routine.

3. What challenges am I likely to face? How will I best address those challenges?

You need to acknowledge your weaknesses and challenges as you go forth into battle. No one is invincible or perfect, and we all have things we need to work on. What are yours? Maybe you have a tendency to crumble after early losses or to gamble too readily when you’re ahead. Maybe you fear aggression from others or quit while you’re ahead, even when the game is so good you should absolutely stay.

Confront those challenges and think about how you’ll best address them with your play. If, for example, you find that you tend to stay at the table too long in an effort to “get even” when you are behind, how will you inhibit that bad habit? Maybe you need to commit to staying no less than five hours?

Similarly, if you tend to leave after being up a small amount, failing to take full advantage of profitable situations as you settle for “locking in a win,” what will you do differently when you face this possible situation?

The more you can anticipate your likely errors in play — and plan to replace your erroneous behavior with better behavior — the more likely you’ll be to correct that behavior when the situation arises the next time you sit down to play.

4. How will I best assess how I’m doing as the session goes on?

I’m sure you’ve heard about what happens to even the best-laid plans. That aphorism holds true in poker, as well, especially if you don’t have some sort of concrete mechanism to help you stay the course when things go awry during the course of a game.

Good players often benefit from a planned method for how to extricate themselves from the play of a hand and allow themselves the space to consider how they are playing. For example, you might say that you will build in five-minute breaks every two hours. Or you might plan to evaluate your session when you’re either up or down 50% of your starting stack. Or you and a playing buddy might decide to have a meal break at 5 p.m. to eat and discuss how you’re doing on your goals.

In addition to taking breaks, you might plan to make brief notes of problem hands you faced at the table so you can analyze them later to see if you’re applying your best poker thinking in the heat of battle. You might keep notes on how you’re reacting to the aggressive moves of your opponents and whether you’re able to overcome the anxiety that you normally experience, or whether you’re giving in to stress by folding, even as you think you have the best of it.

Unlike first, second, third, or higher-level thinking, zero-level thinking won’t help you figure out the proper betting action in a specific hand. But, by focusing on yourself and the big picture, helping you inhibit your bad habits, and working on improving your game, it will surely improve your play and your results.

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