Inside the mind

Many years ago I used to watch broadcast coverage of the WSOP - the only televised poker tournament at the time. This was before hole-card cameras, back when a typical review of a poker broadcast included the words "cattle grazing." But I loved it; I loved trying to get inside the mind of the poker professionals at the table.

I wanted to know how the pros knew their opponent would fold to a re-raise, how they knew their Ace-high was best. I wondered why some players looked so uncomfortable - Did they have the nuts? Were they bluffing? Did they have irritable bowel syndrome?

Now, with hole-card cameras, the game of wondering what players are thinking is even more fun. Who doesn't want to know how Phil Ivey got his opponent to lay down the winning hand? You've just got to wonder, how many levels deep does this guy think?

Like all pros, Ivey was once a beginning player and so that's where our journey inside the mind of poker players will begin.

First, the setup:

The tournament is No Limit Texas Holdem. All players have $10,000 in chips. The blinds are $50 and $100. It's a full nine-player table, and the guy we're playing along with is first to act before the flop. "We" pick up AsQs and raises to $300. Two players fold and an aggressive player in middle position calls the raise. The remaining players fold.

The pot is $750.

The flop comes: Qc 8c 2h

Inside the Mind of a Beginning Player

Beginning players typically think one level deep:

  • Level 1: "What hand do I have?"

    Let's listen in on the thought process of a beginning player before the flop:

    "Okay good, I have an Ace and a Queen and they're suited! I love being suited! I'm going to raise because my hand is strong."

    And, here are the thoughts after the flop:

    "Fantastic! I flopped top pair, top kicker. I have a great hand so I'm going to bet."

    The beginning player bets $300.

    The opponent raises all-in and now the beginning player must call $9400.

    "I have a strong hand!" he thinks, "You picked the wrong time bluff me buster!"

    The beginning player calls.

    Inside the Mind of an Intermediate Players

    Intermediate players typically think two levels deep:

  • Level 1: "What hand do I have?"

  • Level 2: "What hand does my opponent have?"

    Let's listen in on the action after an opponent's smooth call or the raise before the flop:

    "Normally this aggressive player would re-raise to get heads-up, but instead he just called. He's probably playing a middle or small pocket pair, a weak ace, or suited connectors."

    After the flop:

    "I've flopped top pair top kicker, but the flop has a flush and straight draw. I'm going to bet to protect my hand."

    The intermediate player bets $750, enough to give the draws bad odds.

    The opponent raises all-in, a raise of $8950.

    "What hand could my opponent have? If he's willing to move all-in, he must have an over-pair, a set, or a gut-shot straight flush draw with the Tc-9c or Jc-Tc. Against the likely hands, I'm a slight favorite when he has the straight flush draw and a huge, overwhelming underdog against the other hands. I guess I've got to fold."

    Inside the Mind of an Advanced Player

    Advanced players think three levels deep:

  • Level 1: "What hand do I have?"

  • Level 2: "What hand does my opponent have?"

  • Level 3: "What hand does my opponent think I have?"

    This time we'll listen in from after the opponent's all-in raise.

    "My opponent probably thinks I have top pair because I bet to protect my hand. Because he's probably thinking this, is it possible that he's trying to push me out of the pot? Then again, what if he made his set? Or what if he has an over-pair? If I call and lose, I'm eliminated from the tournament. If I lay down my hand, I'll still have $8950 left -- more than enough chips to some play solid poker. I'm going to fold."

    Inside the Mind of an Expert Player

    Expert players think four of more levels deep:

  • Level 1: "What hand do I have?"

  • Level 2: "What hand does my opponent have?"

  • Level 3: "What hand does my opponent think I have?"

  • Level 4: "What does my opponent think that I think they have?"

    We'll listen in again from after the opponent's all-in raise:

    "My opponent probably thinks that I think he has a pocket pair or suited connectors because he just smooth called my pre-flop raise. Since he knows I'm capable of laying down top pair, he decided to move all-in. Can he beat my top pair, top kicker? If so, would he bet $8950 into a $1500 pot? I don't think so. I suspect he over-bet the pot because he doesn't want to be called. I think he's on a move with the Ace high flush draw. I'm going to call."

    Take it to the Next Level

    You can improve your play immensely by taking your thought processes to the next level. If you're a beginning player, do your best to consider the likely hands your opponent will hold. If you're an intermediate player, consider what your opponent thinks that you hold. If you're an advanced player, give more consideration to what your opponent thinks that you think they have. If you're an expert player, get your butt out to the tables.

    In my new DVD, "Expert Insight's Final Table Poker" you get to see my hole-cards and then listen in on my thought process as I play through twenty-four hands at the final table of a high stakes tournament. Depending on the situation, you'll hear me thinking on different levels. Against the Internet rookie Butch Dude, I'm thinking two levels deep. Against the 2001 WSOP Champion Chris Ferguson, I'm thinking four levels deep. Throughout play, you hear every thought I have while making winning decisions in No Limit Hold'em. It is a great teaching method – experiential rather than professorial.

    Will watching my DVD make you a WSOP championship like Chris? Well, I can't promise this. But I can promise that the lessons in this DVD will substantially improve your poker game. I can also promise that when you see Rachael Huntley of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" fame playing the role of Harmony Jensen, you won't be thinking of cattle grazing.

    Phil Gordon is a World Poker Tour Champion, host of Bravo's Celebrity Poker

    Showdown, and plays online exclusively at FullTiltPoker.com. Get inside the

    mind of Phil Gordon in his new instructional DVD, Final Table Poker

    available online at ExpertInsight.net