Trying to figure out what level you should be on can be maddening. In fact, the whole mental exercise that defines leveling is quite pointless. I’ll explain.

To begin the leveling process, it usually works like this:

Level 1: What does he have?
Level 2: What does he think I think he has?
Level 3: What does he think I think he thinks I think he has?

In a hurry, the language gets incredibly complicated. However, it gets even more frustrating when you realize that, for all that thinking, you’re always just switching back and forth between a limited number of options.

For example:

Level 1: He has a weak hand; I should bluff.
Level 2: He knows I know he has a weak hand, so he’s going to call. I should value-bet.
Level 3: I know he knows I know he has a weak hand and is going to call, and that I’m going to

value-bet, so he should fold. So, I should bluff. Or, to simplify:

Level 1: Bluff Level 2: Value Level 3: Bluff Level 4: Value

This continues indefinitely. We can clearly see that leveling, rather than a way to discover the right move through complex parameters, is actually just a toggle. You are just flipping back and forth between bluffing or value-betting. So, without reads, we shouldn’t be afraid of leveling because we are always coin-flipping to be on the right level.

However, we want to be right more than 50%. So, how can we improve the likelihood that we are on the right level? Discover their Level Zero.

Level Zero is a player’s pre-existing preference. Bad-Passive players call. Bad-Aggressive players bluff. Nits fold. Everyone has a Level Zero, a starting point from which the rest of their game has been built. If you’re unsure of which level to be on, try climbing down the ladder instead of up.

I was playing in a high-stakes live game against a very famous loose-aggressive player. I isolated a fish with ATo and she called on the button. The fish also called. The flop was A♥6♥4♣. I c-bet, she called, and the fish folded. She was smart enough to know that I often have a strong hand when betting into the fish, so I thought she would be likely to raise her nut-hands and call with her draws. The turn was a 3♦ and I bet again (for value from her draws). She called again. The river was a 5♠. I checked and she instantly moved all-in. Suddenly, I went into the leveling tank and got very confused. First, I thought “She knows I have a big hand, so she’s unlikely to bluff here”. Then, I thought “but I always fold to her and she is always bluffing”. Then, it was, “But she knows that I always fold to her, so she has to think that I’m not folding this time.” So I folded. And she showed a bluff. Instead of trying to move up the ladder, I should’ve moved down—she likes to bluff. That’s it. Decision over.

It can be tricky to determine someone’s Level Zero without history. So, I’m constantly looking to see what my opponents have at showdown. What do they do when they tank? Do they end up calling? Do they end up folding? These things will help me discover my opponent’s Level Zero and will prevent me from the leveling headache that so many regulars struggle with. In short, keep it simple—you can’t do worse than a coinflip on your leveling decision. You can do better if you’re looking for the right things.