There are three basic levels of thought when it comes to approaching a poker hand. As your understanding of poker evolves, and your skills improve, you'll reach Levels Four, Five, Six, and so on, but each stage, after the first three, basically repeats.
1. The first thing you need to focus on is, "What do I have?"
That's about as simple as it gets, and that's why it's called Level One.
As a beginning player, you need to be able to look at your cards, look at the board cards, and then figure out what you have and what cards you need. Then, you must factor in the probability of one of your needed cards actually coming.
2. The second thing you need to think about is, "What do my opponents have?"
That's pretty basic as well, and called Level Two.
Once you've figured out what you have, and whether or not it's a good hand, Level Two requires you to consider what your opponents may or may not be holding.
You accomplish this by focusing on their betting patterns, both past and present. Any information you have on your rivals' previous betting history will help you with the current situation. Other things to ponder, even before you get to their betting patterns, include the following: what cards they like to play, how they usually play them, do the opponents like to limp-in or raise with a pair of aces, do they play loosely from early position or are they conservative?
The questions become even more complicated after the flop. Ask yourself, would one opponent bet so much if he had a flush draw? Does another player like to set traps on the flop and then go for the check-raise?
There are so many variables to consider when putting your challenger on a hand, and the best way to figure things out is to ask yourself various questions. Then go to your memory bank for the answers.
3. The third basic principle to think about is, "What do they think I have?"
This is Level Three poker and relates to your table image, meaning how other players perceive you and the way you play your hands.
Remember, while you are busy trying to figure out what your opponents have, they in turn are trying to figure out what you have as well.
For example, if they've been paying attention and saw you bluff several hands in a row, they may have you pegged, making bluffing in this situation less effective for you.
Conversely, they may figure you to be a weak, straightforward player who never bluffs. In this case, a well-timed bluff may work very well. Since you know they've been studying you too, try to take advantage of your perceived table image whenever you can.
Understanding your table image is important, but feeding your memory bank, by paying attention to the game at all times, is essential. Remembering similar past hand situations, both how you and your competitor played, is crucial to your success in the current hand.
Let's say the last time you flopped top pair you went for the check-raise, and in another hand you flopped a drawing hand and bet right out. Now, if you've flopped top pair again what you need to think about is this: If you bet right out this time, will he put you on a flush draw again, or will he think you're using reverse psychology?
Chances are, if he's perceptive, your opponent will think your bet means you have a draw. What he doesn't know is that you've delved into your memory bank and are using that stored information against him.
As you can probably imagine from this last example, there is no end to the old game of "I know, that you know, that I know, that you know." In essence, this is your introduction to Level Four poker: "What does he think I think he has?"
The levels never really stop and that's when poker becomes more of a chess match. When both you and your opponent know so much about each other that you are constantly mixing up your game, using reverse psychology and maybe even some reverse-reverse psychology, you've reached a whole new plane.
Just remember to always try and stay one step ahead of your opponents and you'll do just fine.