Poker is a game of psychological warfare:

  • “Is my opponent bluffing?”
  • “Why would he bet so big?”
  • “Does the story he’s telling make sense?”

The meta game refers to trying to get inside your opponent’s head and figure out what they’re doing and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Here are a few factors that might influence this:

  • Why did my opponent do what they did?
  • How they want me to perceive it?
  • What action are they trying to provoke from me?
  • How should I respond appropriately?

If you’re able to figure out what your opponent is thinking, you only need to be one step ahead to profit from them in the long-run.

However, as with most things, the whole aspect of meta game isn’t so cut-n’-dry. There are many complex considerations and constant adjustments one has to be making. Let’s dive in to learn more about it!

Table of Contents 

Meta Game: Getting Inside Your Opponent’s Head

There are a couple of “levels of thinking” to understand in poker to simplify the concept of the meta game:

  • Level 0 – I don’t care about my cards or know what I’m doing.
  • Level 1 – What are my cards?
  • Level 2 – What are my opponent’s cards?
  • Level 3 – What does my opponent think I have?
  • Level 4 – What does my opponent think that I think that he has?
  • Level 5 – Etc.

flip-top headTo correspond with that, here

are some thoughts that players might have on those different levels:

  • Level 0: I don’t know what I’m doing, so every action I take is random.
  • Level 1: I have a good hand. I bet.
  • Level 2: I think my opponent might have a weak holding. I’m going to bet to try to bluff him off the pot.
  • Level 3: I currently have a loose, bluffy, aggressive table image. My opponents will perceive me as being bluff-heavy when I bet. I will value bet more frequently and avoid bluffing, as my opponents are likely to call me down, lighter and/or more often.
  • Level 4: Because my adept opponents will likely expect me to play tighter and more value-based because of my looser, bluff-heavy table image. I can continue to intensely bluff because they’ll expect me to have good hands now to compensate. 

How to Beat the Meta Game in Poker

In essence, the way to beat your opponents in terms of meta game is to simply be one step ahead of their thinking. 

In other words, counteract their play by being just one level above them.

  • Versus Level 0, be Level 1 and play your hands according to their strength.

  • Versus Level 1, be Level 2 and think about what your opponent might have.

  • Versus Level 2, be Level 3 and think about how your opponent will perceive you.

  • Versus Level 3, be Level 4 and think about how your opponent will think you perceive them.

Meta Game Poker: Going Full Circle

You can see as the levels increase further, the deeper down the rabbit hole one can go in terms of their thinking. 

This thought-process can be dangerous if you - 

  1. Incorrectly assume which level your opponent is on, especially if they’re capable of adjusting to your play themselves.

  2. Level yourself down the rabbit hole while your opponent stays on the same level as before.

As such, it’s always crucial to stay focused and pay attention at the poker table. Use any information you can gain to understand how your opponent might thinking over the course of a session (and how this might change). Also, how skilled they might be in adjusting their levels of thinking from hand to hand and against certain opponents. 

Be aware that if your opponent’s skill level is high, he might be looking to counteract you with a meta-game advantage and try to be getting inside your head, too!

Poker Strategy and Meta Game: GTO vs Exploitative 

Against the toughest players, using a game-theory optimal (GTO) strategy (with balanced ranges and generally-complex betting strategies and frequencies) is a sound way to go. Otherwise, all you’re doing is playing a guessing game as to what level they’re on and whether or not they have a good hand.

By playing perfect GTO poker, your profit will only come from the mistakes your opponents make. It should also be noted that in this play style, you don’t need to “get in your opponent’s head” so-to-speak, to show a profit. 

That said, though, most opponents are not able to play perfectly like a super-computer. There are massive exploitations that become quite evident in a player’s strategies through quick observation, and more money can be made against players like this using an exploitative approach, instead of a GTO one.

Even players from the nosebleed levels have divulged that there is so much more exploitative play going on at the highest stakes than there is GTO play.

two players sitting face to face

As such,appropriately assimilating and counteracting the meta game is part of developing a good, exploitative poker strategy. When you’re playing the player and trying to stay one step above them on the ladder, doing everything correctly and by GTO-standards isn’t as necessary. 

You can make more money using an exploitative approach.

Generate More Meta Game Profit vs Weaker Players

In a game where the skill curve is flatting from one opponent to the next, it’s essential to remember where your profit margins come from in poker. That income is mostly from the fish - the inexperienced, losing players. 

Fish are easy to play against because they are somewhere between Levels 0 and 2 and almost always stay on the same level of thinking throughout the course of a game. 

They frequently play according to the strength of their cards in front of them. Therefore, they are incredibly easy to read, allowing you to fully, and swiftly, deduce what they’re doing.

They seldom change their ways, and if they do, it’s like night and day. If they do switch it up, because of their basic level of thinking, it’s probably going to very obvious. You can simply stay one level above them and crush them as a result.

Meta Game Poker: Examples

Let’s briefly talk about some common areas of the game where the meta game can come into effect. You’ll notice that staying one step ahead of your opponents will typically involve trying to get inside their head and then doing the opposite of what you think they’ll perceive to be true.

  • Acting/Physical Tells: If your opponent has a keen eye for physical tells and relying on them for decision-making, perhaps throw them a reverse tell! For example, because trembling hands when betting is a common tell that usually indicates strength, maybe the next time you bet or raise as a bluff. Perhaps add a (normal-looking) shake of the hands when you’re placing your chips forward. Because your opponent will see this, process it, and likely think it means strength, they might fold more often than otherwise, allowing your bluff to win the pot. However, be careful whom you use this against a Level 1 player. Your “trembling hands reverse tell” won’t mean a thing. And on the flip side, perhaps your opponent might know you’re capable of throwing reverse tells into the mix, too!

  • Bluffing: If you have a loose, bluff-heavy table image, tighten up and go for value. It’s so sweet being dealt a monster hand immediately after losing a big pot. Most players are going to perceive you as tilting form the previous hand,wanting to blast off more of my stack or bluff the table to get back to even. The same thing goes if you have the opposite image of being tight and nitty. In this case, you should bluff more! Against conscious, thinking players, they’re always going to believe you have the goods and will likely overfold versus your bets! However, keep in mind that your table image won’t mean a thing to a newbie. Just stay one step ahead of your opponents who might perceive you to have a particular table image.

  • Repeated Actions: Suppose the player to your left repeatedly 3bets you preflop for multiple hands. How you respond will depend on what you assume their level of thinking to be from the first time they do it to the next and the next. For example, a Level 1 player will typically only 3bet if they have a good hand, so you can easily fold your weaker hands. Level 2 will perhaps be able to 3bet bluff if they think you’re raising weaker hands. Level 3 will look to exploit their table image to try to elicit a desired result, etc. Try to figure out what your opponent is thinking when they do an action repeatedly and how you can stay one level above them each time they do.

  • Bet Sizing: Some opponents might bet big with their bluffs (to try and get folds) and small with their value bets to try and elicit calls. Figuring out any bet sizing tendencies of opponents can be relatively easy, but knowing whether or not they’ll change these tendencies to counteract you after you figure this out is another story – and one that you have to do your best to adjust!

  • Previous Hands/Table Image: How someone reacts from the result of a previous hand can undoubtedly affect their play moving forward. As such, it’s critical to try and stay ahead of your opponent. Deduce why they might do what they do in future hands, based on the information of how previous hands might affect this.

poker player at table

Meta Game Summary

You can undoubtedly improve your meta game abilities and intuition by tuning into your opponents more,throughout a session. 

Think about the following aspects – 

  • Their playing types and tendencies
  • How focused they are
  • How they might change their strategies (if at all) throughout a game and why
  • Consider other things of the like

If you’re able to get inside your opponent’s head, just stay one step ahead of them, and “Profit-Ville” awaits!

However, relying heavily on the meta game for your decisions will force you to make some substantial assumptions about what your opponent is thinking. This strategy can be quite dangerous if you’re inexperienced in poker or your intuition is a bit off.Against better players, you’ll very rarely be able to deduce their level of thinking, and as such, you’re usually better just playing more GTO against them.

Lastly, don’t overthink things when trying to get inside someone else’s head. Mind games can make you go crazy in poker, so either trust your gut instinct or refer to GTO principles when making decisions.

Don’t lose yourself spiralling down the different levels of meta game thinking.  Because if you do, then you’ll think that he thinks that you think that he thinks that you think... Well, you get the point!

About the Author
By
Matthew Cluff is a poker player who specialises in 6-Max No Limit Hold’em games. He also periodically provides online poker content for various sites.
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