Generally, I'm not a big proponent of the idea that you should try to think one "level" higher than your opponent, as is advocated in a lot of NLHE poker books, including a chapter called "Multiple Level Thinking" in No Limit Hold 'em: Theory and Practice by David Sklansky and Ed Miller. Game theory takes care of this because it solves for the infinite-level. It cannot be out-thought; there is no higher level. Anyway, I had an interesting hand this week in which I ended up needing to think one level higher than my opponent. This is unusual. It only came up because my opponent and I have a rich history of hands against each other and because I made a weak play at one point in the hand that my opponent attempted to exploit. In fact, this opponent is the same player I named "X" in an earlier post, "Raising as a Bluff." Player X is a very good player. I know he has been paying special attention to my game for the past year, and he seems to pride himself on acting on his reads. I play a relatively predictable style; he knows this, and I know he knows this.
The reason my strategy is relatively predictable is that I usually try to play close to "optimally" in a game-theoretical sense. I don't go as far out of my way as most players do to mix up my play. If I truly played optimally, my strategy would not be exploitable (by definition), but, in practice, my play has many deviations from optimal, but intentional and (mostly) unintentional. One play I like to make that's probably not optimal is to make a small blocking bet when I'm out of position on the river and my opponent is likely to successfully bluff me out of the pot if I check. Once in a while I will make this same play with the near nuts. This makes it very expensive for my opponent to raise me as a bluff, and most people will just call me unless they have the nuts. I don't think player X has ever seen me make this type of blocking bet with the nuts, though. I know he has seen me do it a few times with medium-strong hands that cannot stand a raise.
On to the hand in question: Player X had about $1700 and I had him covered. I raised in early position with AsQh to $30 and got two callers, including player X.
Flop($100 pot): QcJh6c. I bet $65, X called.
Turn($230 pot): 4c. I checked, X bet $120, I called.
River($470 pot): 6h. I bet $160. My intention here is to force a cheap showdown. In my mind, X cannot be sure I didn't flop a set or two pair and then make a full house on the river. This should make it very dangerous for X to raise me here if he just has a flush. In truth, I probably would have bet a set on the turn even though the flush came in, but how could Player X be sure of this?
After I bet, player X says, "Really, Keith?" He thinks for 30 seconds and then raises to $660. My plan was to fold to a raise, but I stop to consider the circumstances. I have to call $500 more to win a pot that will be almost $1800 all told. If there's a 28% chance that X is bluffing, a call is profitable. I thought back over my play and realized that it was highly unlikely I would have a full house on the river here. Player X knows I couldn't have a hand like Q6 because I don't raise with that preflop, and he knows that if I had a set, I would have bet out on the turn. This means that my blocking bet was very transparently weak. My range here doesn't really include anything to scare my opponent. The truth is that he realized this before I did, and he had the guts to capitalize on it. However, I still had a chance to rectify the situation. I just had to think one level beyond X. When he raised me to $500, he could not have expected me to call. If he had a flush, he would have raised less or just called. I've seen him bluff with small pocket pairs before, and that is what I kind of expected him to have. I called and he showed me Td9d, a broken straight draw.
It occurs to me that most of my posts about hands involve my explaining how clever I was. Let me just acknowledge at this point that this is a result of severe selection bias. It's more fun for me to write about such hands, and I imagine it's more fun for you to read about them.