There are a number of factors that influence the meta game, such as your perceived playing style, table dynamics, and game state. By successfully outplaying your opponents in the meta game, you gain a strategic edge that allows you to make better decisions in the poker game.

Levels of Thinking in Poker

The best way to think about the meta game in poker is as a big game of “I know that you know that I know that you know…” that could go on forever. It’s all about getting an edge by thinking on a different level than your opponent; they’re thinking on Level 2, so I should think on Level 3 to get an advantage over them. While the levels in poker can go as deep as you want, there are four levels primary levels that are used in-game. These are:

  • Level 1 – How strong is my hand given my hole cards and the board?
  • Level 2 – What does my opponent have given how the hand has played out?
  • Level 3 – What does my opponent think I have given how I play and how the hand has played out?
  • Level 4 – What does my opponent think that I think that they have given how they play and how the hand has played out?

As you can imagine, getting beyond Level 4 requires a lot of assumptions, and many players just haven’t built up enough of a history with their opponents to make thinking beyond Level 4 worth the hassle.

At the poker table, you’ll find that different players think on different levels. The recreational players tend to think on Level 1; they’re only concerned with how strong their hand is. As players start to learn more about the game and get more experienced, they start to think about what their opponents have; this will be your average regular player who thinks on Level 2. Good players will not only think about what their opponents have but will also think about what their opponent thinks of them (a clear demonstration of Level 3 thinking). The very best players on your table will be thinking all the way up to Level 4 as they try to find every way possible to exploit their opponents.

How to Beat the Meta Game in Poker

But, you may be wondering, how exactly do we use this to our advantage and beat our opponents in the meta game? Well, the answer is to always be one step ahead of your opponents; literally and figuratively.

Hierarchy Of The Meta Game

There is a set hierarchy of strategic thinking in the meta game that goes as follows:

Level 1 < Level 2 < Level 3 < Level 4 < Level 5 < Level 6… etc. etc.

Simply put; thinking on the level above will always beat an opponent who is thinking on the level below.

Let’s use an example to demonstrate this. You’re against a recreational player who’s only thinking on Level 1; they’re only concerned with the strength of their own hand and will play accordingly. By thinking on Level 2, you’re thinking beyond the strength of your own hand and are thinking about what your opponent has.

In the hand in question, your opponent has been betting big on all three streets. You have a reasonable hand that is theoretically strong enough to call with; but as you’re thinking on Level 2, you know that your opponent must have a very strong hand to be betting aggressively on every street. You make a disciplined fold, and your opponent disgustedly turns over the nuts; you just saved yourself a huge bet on the river by outthinking your opponent in the meta game!

Thinking Through The Levels

A good poker player is always thinking on multiple levels throughout the hand and changing their focus to beat their specific opponent. You should be using the levels as a guide for thinking through the hand every time the action’s on you; start with how good your own hand is, then think about what your opponent may have, then think about what they think you have, and so on.

By progressing through the levels in each situation, you’re using every available data point when making your decision and will be able to outsmart your opponents who aren’t capable of thinking on multiple levels. If you come across a Level 2 thinker; simply think on Level 3 to outsmart them and out-maneuver them in the hand.

Not only do you get to outsmart recreational players who cannot think about the game on multiple levels, but you can also manipulate thinking players and use their proficiency to your advantage. Thinking players will take notice of how you’re playing and adjust their game to try and counter you. By creating a table image in the early stages of your game, you will force your opponents into thinking you play a certain way, which you can use to your advantage when you change gears later on in the session.

Psychology and Mind Games

Actions like creating a table image to deliberately play into it later in the session is one aspect of the meta game “mind games” that people play at the table. Poker is already a psychologically intensive game, but when you add the meta game into the mix, there’s plenty of potential for psychological tricks and strategies that you can use to wrong-foot your opponent.

We’ve already covered creating and using your table image, but there are other psychological strategies you can use to your advantage. Tilting your opponents is a high-risk move, but one that can pay off handsomely if you’re able to adapt to it well enough. Players who are on tilt will often play hyper-aggressively against the person who has tilted them as a way of “getting back” at them. Their heightened emotions will also prevent them from accessing their higher-level thinking; it’s easy to see a Level 3 or Level 4 thinker revert back to a Level 1 thinker while they’re on tilt.

Sometimes, simply playing well against an opponent is enough to give you a psychological advantage in the meta game. Constantly playing well and putting your opponents under pressure can have people questioning how they play, which leads to unprofitable adjustments. How many times have you played against someone and thought “Geez, no matter what I do, I just can’t beat them! I better start switching things up to try and confuse them.” and then made a crazy bluff or trapped at the wrong time? You aren’t the only one!

Many of your opponents will reach a breaking point where they feel they have to significantly alter how they play to try and get one over you. If you have a good understanding for how someone plays, watch for significant shifts in their play. When someone drastically alters their playing style on short notice, you’ve very likely gotten inside their head, presenting you with an opportunity to exploit them.

The Dangers of Going Down the Rabbit Hole

When working your way through the levels, particularly against high-level thinkers, it’s easy to lose yourself down the rabbit hole of the meta game and end up spiraling out of control. It’s common for players to overthink the meta game, and end up leveling themselves into bad decisions.

The Dangers Of Levelling

Strong players have a habit of putting players to difficult decisions. You never quite know where they’re at in the hand, making it tough to determine what the right course of action is. By engaging in the meta game, you give yourself a chance to get into the mind of your opponent, but doing so carries the risk of leveling yourself.

We’ve all been there before; we’re against a good regular who’s just made a huge bet, and we’re sat thinking through the hand. “They’re representing a really strong range, so they must have a good hand.” “But they know that I know that, so it could be a weak hand disguising itself as a bluff.” “But then again, they know that I know that strong means weak, so actually it’s a strong hand trying to look like a bluff!” “But actually, they know that I’ll know all of that, so really it’s a bluff trying to look like a strong hand that’s trying to look like a bluff!” You make the call, and your opponent shows you the nuts.

You’ve just out-levelled yourself.

Sometimes you’ll have to accept that you’ll never know what level your opponent is thinking on. In these situations, trying to outplay your opponent in the meta game is more of a help than a hindrance; if you don’t know what level your opponent is thinking on, you’ve only got a 50/50 shot of thinking on the right level. Instead, you should simplify the hand and bring it back to basic principles; “what are they likely to have based on the way they’ve played the hand?”

Cutting through the meta game and getting back to good, old-fashioned hand analysis is the antidote for players who frequently out-level themselves and make the wrong decision.

The Risk Of Incorrect Assumptions

The meta game is played on a fine edge; think one level higher than your opponent, and you’ll win, think two levels higher, and it’s your opponent who will have the edge. In a game of limited information, it can be easy to incorrectly assume your opponent is playing on one level of the meta game when they’re really playing on another. These incorrect assumptions can lead to poor decisions at the table, and can significantly impact your win rate.

To try and limit the frequency of these incorrect assumptions, it’s best to take a step back and really analyze how they play. Take a look at every showdown they have and think “Was that the best way to play that hand?” Go back through the previous action and try to determine whether they were making their decisions based on the strength of their hand, what their opponent’s range was, or what their opponent thought of their range.

Try to use every data point to your advantage; listen to how they discuss the hand after it’s over. Do they sound like they know what they’re talking about? Do they admit they played the hand based on its strength, or do they try and explain what other factors led to them playing their hand that way?

It can take time to understand what level your opponent is thinking on, but once you do, you’ll reap the benefits.

Poker Strategy and Meta Game: GTO vs Exploitative

When you first sit down at a table, the best way to begin is by playing a Game Theory Optimal strategy. Playing a solid, unexploitable strategy gives you the time to familiarise yourself with the table and who your opponents are. You cannot expect to sit down at a table and jump straight into playing the meta game; unless you have history with some of the players at the table, you’ll need time to figure out how they play and what level they’re thinking on.

Playing a purely GTO strategy in the early stages of your session allows you to profit from your opponent’s mistakes without having to engage in the psychological aspects of the game. Once you’ve spent a bit of time at the table and analyzed the way your opponents are playing, you should be able to correctly identify the level they’re playing on.

If you’re confident that your opponent is playing on either Level 1 or Level 2, you can start to make adjustments based on how they’re playing. For example, if a Level 1 player only bets when they have a strong hand, you can significantly overfold each node and attack situations where they play passively.

We only recommend adjusting to players playing on the early levels as their games are a lot more predictable than players who think further up the meta game. Once you start getting into Levels 3 and 4, there’s a good chance that your opponent is capable of thinking beyond that, which turns your strategy into nothing more than a guessing game.

Against these thinking players, playing a GTO strategy allows you to cut through the noise and play a profitable strategy without the headache of figuring out what level your opponent is thinking on.

Make Money Using the Meta Game Against Weak Players

In poker, the majority of the money is made by playing against weak players. Recreational players, or “fish” as they’re commonly known, frequently make costly mistakes that allow you to profit if you can take advantage of them. The meta game follows this same trend; you make most of your money outthinking weak players rather than trying to outthink strong players.

Identifying Profitable Players

When you first sit down at the poker table, your first goal should be to try and identify the weakest players at the table. Like Mike McDermott says in the poker classic Rounders, “if you can’t spot the sucker within the first 30 minutes, you are the sucker.”

Study how each of your opponents plays their hand and pay close attention to any showdown that you see. Ask yourself questions such as “Should they be playing that hand from that position?”, “Was their line reasonable given the strength of their hand?”, and “Would I have played the hand the same way in their position?”. You should also be using other data points outside of the hand itself to your advantage. How do they hold their chips and cards, do they look experienced? How do they talk about the hand after it’s finished; are they knowledgeable about poker or do they sound like a recreational player?

After taking in all of this information, you should quickly be able to identify who the weakest players are at the table.

Exploiting Fish Players

There are two primary types of fish players you’ll come across at the poker table; the Wild Card and the X. Both players are extremely profitable to play against but require different strategies to do so. The Wild Card is our name for the type of fish who can show up with any hand at any time. Whether that’s checking back with the nuts or 5-bet shoving the nut low hand, these players have no real idea of what they’re doing and are just clicking buttons. All you have to do to beat these players is to get a good hand and maximize your value.

X players aren’t complete noobs; they know how to play the game and they may even think that they’re playing a good strategy, but they make repeated mistakes which significantly impact their win rate. These players are your typical Level 1 thinkers; they’re only concerned about the strength of their hand and put little thought, if any, into what you might have.

While these players aren’t giving it away at the same rate as the Wild Cards, they are an extremely valuable source of win rate if you know how to play against them. Their mistakes are less random than Wild Cards; instead, they make repeated, predictable mistakes throughout the session. This means that to properly exploit them, you need to pay attention to how they play.

Most fish of this ilk will fall into the category of “betting big when they’re strong and betting small when they’re weak,” which can be simplified to bet size = hand strength. By engaging in Level 2 thinking, we can understand that when they’re betting big, they have it and we should get out of the way; conversely, when they’re betting small, we can take advantage of them by applying the pressure.

No matter what mistakes the fish are making at your table, you should be able to pick up on predictable patterns of play via observation. Once you’ve identified their weakness, you can out-think them and make huge exploits against them to increase your profitability.

Meta Game Poker: Examples

We’ve talked enough about the theory of the meta game, so let’s take a look at some examples of outthinking our opponents in action.

Psychological Manipulation Through Physical Tells

This is a classic example of Level 3 > Level 2 thinking. You’ve identified an opponent who thinks on Level 2; they’re not only concerned with their own hand, but they also consider your range when making their decision. As a multi-level thinker, you can use this to your advantage by thinking on Level 3. You know that they’re going to make decisions based on what they perceive your range to be, so you can manipulate them into certain decisions through your actions.

Physical tells are a great way to do this, especially against someone who you know is paying attention. Most players know that a shaking hand is a sign of extreme strength, so intentionally making your hand shake while making a bluff will likely convince your opponents that you have a monster and get them to fold.

Strategic Adjustment in Bluffing

This is another example of Level 3 thinking being used to exploit Level 2 thinkers. When you first sit down at a poker table, your opponents are going to be paying close attention to how you play. That first hour is going to inform their opinions of you, which they will then use when making decisions against you for the rest of the night. If you sit down and are dealt trash hands for the first hour, your opponents (rightly or wrongly) will perceive you to be a tight player.

Rather than being a negative, you can use this to your advantage. Once your image as a tight player has been established, you can change gears and start to bluff more aggressively. Your opponents will still think that you’re the tight player who folded for the first hour, so will be much more likely to overfold against your bluffs.

Bet Sizing Awareness

Bet sizing tells are extremely common in Level 1 thinkers and will often be indicative of hand strength. Many recreational players have identifiable betting patterns that allow you to make huge strategic adjustments when you’re playing against them. For example, you may find a Level 1 thinker who always bets big when they’ve got a strong hand to try and build a pot, but always bets small when drawing so they can try and hit their card as cheaply as possible.

Once you’ve recognized a pattern such as this, you can adjust your play to exploit them. You can overfold against their large bets as you know that they have a strong hand, and you can play aggressively against their small bets as you know they’re on a draw.

Reading Players Through Previous Hands

Level 1 thinkers are also more susceptible to tilt and allow their strategy to be dictated by their emotional state. How many times have you seen a fish player donk off a couple more buy-ins after getting bad beat? When you’re at the table, you should be constantly scanning the emotional state of your opponents and adjust your game when a large emotional change occurs.

For example, you’ve just seen a recreational player lose with AA against JJ after their opponent hit a jack on the river. They’re almost certainly going to be steaming and will want to come out swinging to try and win their money back. In this situation, the player is far more likely to bluff and play overly aggressive than they otherwise would have been, and you should be adjusting your strategy to take advantage of that. By calling down lighter and adding more bluff catchers to your range, you can maximize your EV against that player given the table dynamics.

Staying Ahead with Table Image

When playing poker, you should always be aware of how your opponents perceive you. It’s important to have an unbiased view of how you’ve been playing, as it will dictate how your opponents are going to play against you. If you’ve been playing aggressively for the past couple of orbits, you might know that you’ve had it every time, but your opponents don’t know that. Instead, they’ll just think that you’re playing aggressively and getting away with your bluffs.

In this example, it’s important to know that you’ll be perceived as an aggressive player, as it means your opponents will be more likely to call you down if they catch a piece of the board. By understanding this perception, you can reduce the number of bluffs in your range and increase your value range, knowing that your opponents will call you wider.

You should be constantly manipulating your table image and playing against the table’s perception of how you play; if they think you play tight, play aggressively, and if they think you play aggressive, play tighter.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the meta game is the psychological game that is played between you and your opponents at the poker table. By gaining an advantage in the meta game, you are able to adjust your strategies and exploit your opponents at the poker table. Understanding the level of thinking your opponent is on gives you an insight into their thought process which can be used to counter their strategies. Thinking one level above your opponent in the meta game allows you to out-maneuver them at the poker, significantly increasing your win rate.

Jordan conroy

Author
Jordan Conroy, a respected name in the online poker arena, has cultivated his authority through years of dedicated play and content creation. Since 2020, he has earned a stellar reputation for his in-depth analysis of poker theory and his ability to keep a finger on the pulse of the latest developments in the poker world. Jordan's dedication to staying at the forefront of poker knowledge allows him to consistently deliver top-quality content that resonates with both novice players and seasoned professionals. Beyond his poker expertise, he brings a diverse perspective, closely following other competitive domains like soccer, snooker, and Formula 1, enriching his insights and providing a comprehensive understanding of the gaming landscape.
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