Ever since the game of poker was first invented, people have been trying to find the best way to play it. However, every strategy fell short somewhere, and players eventually found a way to exploit it.
This pattern kept recurring for decades until computers finally solved the game at a rudimentary level. Today, a new approach called game theory optimal offers the “perfect” way to play poker in an unexploitable way that guarantees a profit.
But what exactly is game theory optimal poker strategy, and how does it work? Better yet, how exactly do you learn this strategy and start crushing your games?
We delved into the GTO poker strategy origins, its foundations, and the mechanics behind it to teach you how to go about learning this advanced poker strategy and mastering it over time.
The term GTO poker strategy comes from “game theory optimal,” the full name of the strategy that was invented over the last decade.
Game theory optimal, or GTO poker strategy, is a strategy that seeks complete balance in the game, making your plays 100% unexploitable by your opponents.
This style of poker is the exact opposite of the exploitative poker strategy, which most players from the older generations employ.
While exploitative strategy seeks to find holes in other players’ games and use them, GTO poker strategy seeks perfect balance, protecting the player from anyone else exploiting them and gradually creating profit based on imperfect plays by other players.
When playing GTO, you will be bluffing and value betting on every street of every hand with various holdings, and you will not care about what your opponent does.
While this may sound like a bad way to play poker at first, GTO is a proven strategy that works like a charm, especially in heads-up poker.
In fact, computers have only been able to really solve heads-up play thus far, but many of the concepts of GTO play can be employed in 6-max games and ring games as well.
So, let's start talking about how the GTO poker strategy actually works and all the game theory concepts you need to understand before you start playing.
Read Fedor Holz' thoughts on GTO Poker Solvers.
For most poker players, poker decisions come down to absolutes. "I will either call this bet, or I will fold" is how many players think, and the things they take into consideration are not always perfect either.
As humans, we are subject to all sorts of biases, and in poker especially, we tend to make our decisions based on live reads, history with a player, and many other non-tangible factors.
Poker solvers, computer programs used to create GTO poker strategy, on the other hand, use a much more systematic and mathematical approach to create the perfect strategy.
This starts from pre-flop play, when the solver will instruct you to raise certain hands at a certain frequency regardless of who your opponent is.
A great example of how frequencies work is that the solver will recommend you 3-bet certain hands 70% of the time and fold them the other 30% of the time before the flop when facing a raise.
Solvers continue to come up with similar divisions as they dissect hands on further streets, instructing you on how to split up your ranges in completely balanced and unexploitable ways.
If you adopt a GTO poker strategy, you will no longer be thinking about the short-term results and will often even make decisions based on a flip of a coin or a randomly generated number from a computer.
GTO poker strategy is all about balance, and that balance starts before the flop. Whether you are playing in a 6-max cash game or a tournament, poker solvers can easily tell you which ranges of hands to play from each position.
Like a regular poker player, solvers recommend having a strategy that plays fewer hands from early positions and more from late positions, but the way the ranges are set up is not the same.
While many exploitative poker players only recommend playing strong hands from UTG, solvers recommend playing all suited aces and hands like QTs and KQ in a 6-max cash game.
The reason, of course, is balance.
You want to have these hands in your range to ensure that your opponents can’t exploit the fact that you are only playing the premium hands from this position.
Similarly, you will be adding new value and bluffing hands in each position at the table, creating the perfect balance in your range and making it impossible for anyone to exploit you by playing tighter or looser than they normally would.
Whether players behind you 3-bet, fold, or call your raises, your range will be so balanced that you will have the perfect answers to each of those. However, it is important to know what those answers are and how to play each of the hands.
Fortunately, poker solvers offer just such solutions, and it is possible to create charts for each possible scenario before the flop.
You may think that GTO poker is somewhat random and sometimes counter-intuitive, but it is absolutely not.
For every decision a solver makes, there are reasonable explanations, all based on math and logic.
Like a human player, a solver will take into account pot odds, implied odds, reverse implied odds, and more.
However, with the GTO strategy, you will not be too worried about your opponent's decisions or their range, as your plays will render you unexploitable and perfectly balanced.
It may seem like this is not possible, but it is because poker's math runs deeper than you might imagine. Solver’s decisions when facing bets will be based on a concept called “minimum defence frequency” MDF, which we are not going to explain next.
While you can’t compute and use minimum defence frequency to perfection in-game, it is one of the best tools to use when learning about GTO poker off the tables.
MDF refers to the minimum percentage of hands in your range that you need to continue with in order to make it impossible for your opponents to exploit your play.
When you play a hand of poker using the GTO poker strategy, you will have a certain range of hands, which will shrink with every new street and every decision you make.
Depending on the opponent’s bet sizing, MDF tells you how many of your overall hands you should continue with. As expected, the bigger the bet, the fewer hands you must continue playing.
If you have seen some of the young players make “weird” calls against small bets on TV, this was probably because they were applying the concept of MDF.
You may have also seen some players fold very strong hands against huge overbets, and this too was based on the fact they realized they should only call a very small percentage of their overall range according to MDF.
In every situation when facing a bet, you should consider the overall number of combos you have, figure out your MDF, and then reduce the number of outs accordingly.
To determine your MDF, you should use the following formula:
MDF = Pot Size / (Pot Size + Bet Size)
Here is a very quick table that you can also use to determine your MDF for the most popular bet sizing percentages:
Once you know what percentage of hands you should be folding to a bet, you will need to choose which hand combos to eliminate from your range.
Of course, you will want to continue with the hands with the most playability on future streets while cutting out those that don't have much chance to improve or which won't play well against your opponent's range.
The solver can help you make these decisions, and practising such spots in solvers while not playing is one of the best ways to prepare yourself for real-world situations when they do arise.
MDF in itself is a very complex topic, and it will be a part of your studying process when you start learning how to play GTO poker, which you are just taking the first step into.
Balancing Your Bet Sizes
When applying the GTO poker strategy, you want to balance all things, including your bet sizes. To remain unpredictable and unexploitable, you will need to make sure that every bet sizing you use is a bluff some of the time and a value bet some of the time.
For the most part, the GTO poker strategy instructs that you want to be value betting more than you are bluffing, but that doesn't mean you won't be bluffing.
In fact, most GTO players bluff more than exploitative players because an average poker player severely underbluffs across the board.
Here is a great example of how poker solvers tell us we should balance out our bet sizes with value/bluff percentages in river situations to remain balanced:
As you can see, GTO poker allows us to bluff more when we make big bets that are less likely to get called and less when we make smaller bets that are likely to get called.
Yet, both the 25% bet and the 200% bet have some bluffs and some value bets, making it impossible for our opponents to take advantage of us.
If we manage to split up our range exactly like this, it will not matter whether our opponent makes the call or not; we will not be losing money in either case, whether we are bluffing or value betting.
GTO strategy will teach you how to make unexploitable calls like this across the board, but that leads us to the one potential downfall with playing GTO poker, and that’s the fact you are not exploiting your opponents either.
GTO vs. Exploitative Poker – Which is Better?
We have explained that the GTO poker strategy ensures you are not getting exploited in any way, but it also does not do anything to exploit the mistakes of your opponents.
Of course, if your opponents are not playing GTO, they will get punished one way or another, but those punishments can be small and not nearly as effective as those of a strong exploitative player could be.
For instance, when playing against a calling station, GTO will still recommend bluffing with some frequency in many spots where you know the bluff is very unlikely to work.
While you won’t lose money because your range is balanced and you have enough value bets, you could be making more in this spot by bluffing even less and getting more calls on your value bets.
The examples of when the exploitative strategy works better are endless, but such a strategy also leaves us vulnerable to being exploited ourselves.
For the most part, playing exploitative poker is 100% the way to go against recreational players and bad regs, but the GTO strategy will give you good results against even the best players in the world.
So all of this breaks down to:
Our advice is to get out there and learn how to play GTO poker and then find ways to adjust the strategy to be exploitable when the time comes, and the situation is right.
By having a strong GTO baseline, you will be sure that no one in the world can crush your soul and see where others are making mistakes. On top of this, having a strong set of exploits ready will give you a chance to get max value against weak players.
The next step is to download a poker solver and start playing around. When you have a good understanding of how it works, you might also want to check our training program at Pokercode.
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