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Stairway to heaven


In this article
  • The Skill Levels
  • How Level-Switching works
  • It's effect on your Mindset

Hi! I’m GooG. I evaluate hands, make VODs and coach bronze status players on Limit Poker at PokerStrategy.com. As a result, I constantly observe how players start beating micro limits with the $50 provided by PokerStrategy.com. However this article is not about limit levels, instead this article is dedicated to skill levels.

I have often read in blogs and heard from some very successful players that sometimes you feel as though you’re stuck, you can’t find anything new for yourself, you play and don’t improve. Suddenly you feel that something changes inside of you, and you realise a small thing and your game dramatically changes. You start thinking up new game lines, you think differently.

In this article I want to explain how this “level-switcher” works. I really hope that it may be useful for some of you, and that it allows you to reach a new skill level and have a new poker mindset. The article is mostly based on my own experience and interactions with PokerStrategy.com’s various Limits players, but I do have some experience with No Limit players as well.

In order to make it easier, let’s divide the Stairway to Heaven (the skill levels) into certain steps, representing different levels. It is very likely that some of you may recall climbing up this staircase while reading about them.

Level 0 - The Beginning

Well, somehow we got to the poker table. We have our starting capital, have just learnt the basic rules, and still are not absolutely sure whether КА234 is a straight or not.

We’ve read some basic articles, and so we find ourselves in the middle of the poker world – full of joy and disappointments, the world of emotions and adrenaline. We wait for the next card, our heart beating fast and we’re extremely excited when we hit our gutshot on the river, and punish our opponent showing us his flopped 2 pair.

Yet, time goes by and finally we realise that something is wrong. Just blindly playing without understanding what we are doing is not for us. We need to read something, to learn something new, to watch VODs and so on. Thanks to this, we take a step to the following level of poker education.

Level I – The first Steps

So we’ve decided to read a serious book on poker, or found the ‘strategy’ section on PokerStrategy.com and we start reading almost everything that catches our eye. We’ll probably even read it two or three times, with the keener ones even taking notes. It is obvious that just reading is not enough, you need to practice what you’ve learnt, to make mistakes, and apply the tools you’ve just learned. Little by little we are approaching the next step – the standard play line.

Level II - Standard Lines of Play

We still are not quite sure why or how we make certain decisions in certain spots. However, we clearly understand that we have TPTK and we should bet or raise postflop HU, as we do have TPTK. In Limit Hold’em we C-bet in 3-way pots on any flop (according to standard strategy) –but do not fully understand why.

We do have some reasons, but they are too simplified and we lack a real understanding. All of these reasons we might have learnt from the first level or perhaps from poker literature, PokerStrategy.com or our friends. On this level we accurately learn the standard lines of play – things like check-raising on the flop being out of position and in the lead, or calling down with a good hand in HU.

However, we happen to find ourselves in situations when none of the typical actions applicable to standard spots are possible, and, let’s admit it, we make really random decisions. Well… it’s high time we moved on.

Level III - Non-Standard Lines of play

So now we reach the level where even seemingly non-standard situations are becoming clear to us in a way. We can distinguish differences from well-known standard spots, i.e. we are able to match up the situation with the most relevant standard spot – and based on this reasoning make certain decisions. Roughly speaking, this level is more of a transitional level between Level II and IV, but it is still worth noting.

Level IV - Opponents Range

So far we have learnt to play like the pros do a little bit, and are almost capable of accurate situation distinguishing. Now it’s high time we realised why and against what opponent’s cards we are doing any given move. This is exactly what ranges are about. Starting from pre-flop and followed by all later streets. All players have a 100% range initially, and our goal is to understand the possible opponent’s range given his actions so far, and make a correct decision. The term “Equity” can help us a lot, and is the topic of the following step.

Level V - Use of Equity

We suddenly realise that we do understand the possible opponent’s check-raise range on the flop, however, we are still not able to judge how well we stand against his range with our marginal hands, and if we should 3-bet for value or just call him down. This is just the right time to get some help from equity software, which should be installed on every poker player’s PC, except of course for born geniuses who can count everything in their head, such people really do exist as well.

We use equity software mainly after the hand, in order to understand our equity against the opponent’s range in certain spots. This info allows us to better understand where we stand against a range. Such study before and after playing sessions gives really great results and deepens your perception of poker, which in turn impacts positively on your winrate.

Level VI - Various EV-Lines

This is a more advanced level of equity software usage. StoxEV is a good example of EV calculation software. This software is very useful, and by entering the conditions of the hand, it calculates and compares our EV.

You can also use simple math forms, such as EV of a call-down. Obviously, it is rather difficult to use this software at the time of your game. However, such tools and manual calculations in the course of your game analysis is strongly recommended (although you will need to spend a lot of time on it). Alternatively, various EV lines can be logically calculated.

For example, let’s analyze the EV of check-calling and bet-folding on the river HU. Let’s assume the opponent’s river range consists of only premium hands and busted draws, and we have a lead with a certain showdown value against all busted draws. We know that the opponent won’t fold his premium hands to our bet. However, he is rather aggressive and will probably bet his draw hands on our check, as they have no showdown value. In this situation we understand that the EV of a check-call line will be much higher than the EV of a bet-fold line.

Moreover, it is not necessary to calculate each EV line precisely. We just need to analyse what EV lines will be more profitable and then make the correct decisions to use those lines. It is possible that several lines will be +EV in the long term, and we should choose the most profitable one depending on our hand and the opponent’s range.

Level VII - Range against Range: Balance

While we constantly try to play against fish, there will always be a certain percentage of situations (depending on your table selection quality) where we play against regulars. We make a note for regulars about how we see them play, especially the successful ones. That is why we simply can’t consider our line of play with a certain hand against all opponent’s ranges as the same.

In other words, if we play too predictably, the opponent may get the point and start reading our hands correctly, so we should balance our play in different ways, like playing different hands on the same boards more or less identically. Consequently, with a certain hand on a certain board we should not consider it as a play “against the opponent’s range”. Instead, we should evaluate it as a play of “our range against the opponent’s range” and find the best possible and profitable line for us. Obviously, it’s not the easiest thing to do.

Level VIII - Exploitive Play

Balancing your game is always good. It’s always profitable when your lines are balanced very well. However, a game against an exploitable opponent is even more profitable. It’s not just about 3-betting more often when your opponent raises pre-flop a lot (though that is exploitive play as well).

It’s not necessary for you to balance a lot of play lines if you know your opponent’s real strategy, it just means that our play line should be as counter balanced as possible, and we should almost always use exploitive play against fish, if the opponent isn’t folding at all, don’t play aggressively with your draws – you should exploit it and just play for value (even more loosely than you do usually). There are some situations when exploitive play may be successful even against the regulars – of course not good ones, I’m talking about average players, multi-tablers or break-even players.

Level IX – Creativity.

Yes, it’s strictly forbidden for beginners. Yet, it is vital at higher levels. Otherwise, you may get stuck on the middle levels and continue playing like that for a very, very long time. What do I mean when talking about creativity? On this level we should completely forget about our standard play that we have used before, it may be difficult, but it is crucial. Now we have to analyse our game from pre-flop to showdown in view of all possible dealt cards. We should re-evaluate every possible play line as if we’ve never found ourselves in this particular situation. Moreover, we should analyse even the most foolish possible move – one that is unusual but perhaps the most profitable one in this spot.

Sometimes when we post such hands on forums or discuss them in Skype or ICQ, a lot of you say “What the…” and provide us with a default arguments or, preferably, more creative arguments. For sure there will be people who will consider this move, and we will have an opportunity to discuss and analyse it. It is quite likely that not all such moves will be the best, but sooner or later you will be able to distinguish every little chance to play thin in every spot.

Level X - Poker Philosophy

This is the last step in my “Stairway to Heaven”. Perhaps there is something beyond, but for now I can’t explain it clearly. I want to point out that this is the point where we go through the whole development process of our game. I am talking about your attitude towards your poker career in itself.

Here everything counts. Our mind set, our psychology, work schedule, ability to choose the best time for play, table selection, correct odds evaluation, work desk setup and so on – all of these seem to be such minor factors, but in fact make this poker philosophy, as a whole, very important. After all, action with middle pair out of position on the turn is not the most important thing in poker. I am convinced that this last step is what really matters. If your mindset is correctly tuned towards your poker career, you are just bound to succeed despite any external influences.


Finally, I want to wish you get to the next level on the Stairway to Heaven as soon as you can. I do not insist that my steps and their sequence are absolutely correct, this is the way I see it. For all of you who read my article to the end – thanks for your patience and attention.