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Reading the Poker Meta-Game
Meta-game is the game within the game – the psychological battle that results from frequent encounters with the same opponents. Recent history can have a massive effect on dynamics and can propel an option that you might normally never consider to the top of the pile. Meta-game is all about layers of thought. Is your opponent making any adjustment due to recent history? If so, is he interpreting the recent history in the most straightforward way, or is he predicting how you might interpret his interpretation and trying to counter that?

Going a step further, some opponents might even predict that you will be step ahead and make the obvious adjustment because you are expecting the opposite one. We call these meta-game reads level 0, level 1, level 2, and level 3 respectively. Confused yet? You should be! Let's illustrate with an example hand.

Meta-Game in Action

You have position on an opponent. Twice in three orbits he opens the CO and you 3-Bet him on the BU. Both times he folds. The next hand you are in the SB and Villain opens on the BU. The BB is a regular who likes to squeeze. You are dealt 7s6s. What's your play?

There is no automatic correct answer here. The right choice very much depends on how Villain is reading the meta-game. Here are some possible interpretations of this.

Level 0 – Villain is making no interpretation whatsoever of your play and is continuing to play his base game. In this case you can either 3-Bet or fold, it won't matter much against a balanced player. If Villain's base game is to fold too much to 3-Bets then you should 3-Bet.

Level 1 – Villain is making the most straightforward interpretation of your play. He thinks that you are stepping out of line and attacking and he is going to counter by 4-betting more and flatting more. Maybe he has already started tightening up his opening range because you are acting behind him. In this case your hand becomes a fold.

Level 2 – Villain is aware that you are aware of your continued aggression and expects you to back off a bit now. He therefore interprets a 3-Bet as a sign of strength. You should 3-Bet.

Level 3 – Villain is expecting you not to expect an aggressive response given how obviously it looks like a meta-game reaction. Therefore, he is going to be more likely to 4-bet or call your 3-Bet as a double bluff. You should fold.

How do We Tell?

Determining which level Villain is on is a tricky business. Here are some guidelines:
  • Calm or mathematical opponents tend to be on level 0. They wait for very strong evidence before reacting.
  • Tilted or weak/aggressive opponents, as well as ego-mad regulars tend to be on level 1. Angry typing into the chat in an online game or cussing and huffing in a live game are signs of this.
  • Thinking, conservative players are drawn towards level 2 as an explanation of your action. They themselves tend to think on this level and so they expect it of competent opponents.
  • Tough aggressive opponents who think you are a tighter thinking player can often be on level 3 but this is the rarest level to encounter.


If we have no idea which level our opponent is likely to be on, it is important that we fold in this situation. The reason for this is that level 1 is by far the easiest interpretation for anyone who is slightly emotional, or only half paying attention to make. If in doubt, assume Villain is on level 1 when there is clear evidence of meta-game in your recent history. I would tend to fold this spot against most opponents, and only 3-bet if I strongly suspected that Villain would be on level 2.

As Villain, my default response to such a 3-bet would be level 0 against a strong player. I would elect to hide in the fortress of game theory optimal play and would play my normal game against the 3-Bet, folding the bottom part of my range and continuing around 50-55% of the time. Most tough regulars are aware of their recent actions and so assuming the are on level 1 is a dangerous practice.

If I knew Villain was more mindlessly aggressive however or was a weaker player, I would be very inclined to adopt a level 1 explanation and look to fight back. It takes some much stronger individual reads to adopt a level 2 or 3 response here.
Do not assume that an unknown opponent is thinking on a higher level just because you would be. This is known as levelling yourself.

Using your Range to Stay Protected

The most prudent approach in meta-game wars is to stay on level 0 until you have enough evidence to deviate. If your level 0 game is a balanced one with no holes in common situations, then you will be safe from exploitation. Being dealt a bottom of range hand like on the BU, raising, and then folding to a 3-Bet is not a problem, even against a potentially light 3-bettor, because your range is defending often enough to protect you from the aggression. This one pot does not matter. It is the long-term battle that will determine your win-rate in this spot. Moreover, it is very possible that Villain will overreact to short-term history. If he continues 3-betting aggressively, you can step out of your balanced fortress with a higher frequency of 4-bet bluffs to counter-exploit. That is, as long as you're sure Villain will not be on level 2, expecting such an adjustment.

Summary

  • Meta-Game is a case of 'he thinks I think.' To win the meta-game you need to be exactly one level above your opponent.
  • Overthinking it and being two levels above your opponent will cause you to lose the meta-game.
  • Expect most opponents to be on level 1 but reserve judgment against tougher players, remaining on level 0 until you are have a better idea of their mindset.
  • If your level 0 is strong, no one can hurt you. Only your range can be exploited, not the hand you happen to have been dealt this time.
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