Since the term “GTO” was first uttered by one of the internet pros, a battle has been waged between those who put their faith in the stoic, unwavering GTO gods and those who rely on divine inspiration (better known as “feel”) to make decisions which they believe best exploit their opponents.
If you ask this question at any live $1/$2 game, you’ll likely find an even split based on the age of the player at the table - 30 and under, GTO is king, over 30, GTO is trash. However, many high-stakes players live their poker lives according to GTO, so surely it has to be right, right?
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at both GTO and exploitative play, to see if we can clear up some common misconceptions about these styles of play.
GTO or Game Theory Optimal poker is a way of playing that is completely unexploitable. It’s a deep and complex strategy where you essentially try and play perfect poker. When you play GTO poker, your opponents cannot change their strategy to win more money from you, which means that your game cannot be exploited.
Playing GTO poker is impossible for humans to do, as it requires a deep understanding of all aspects of the game tree, including knowing how and when to split your range, what sizings you should use, and a perfect understanding of your ranges.
However, humans can play an approximation of GTO poker by studying solver outputs and playing a simplified strategy that is much easier to implement and only loses a small amount of EV. When people talk about playing GTO poker, this is what they mean.
On the other side of the spectrum, exploitative poker is a way of playing that seeks to maximally exploit your opponent’s mistakes. For example, if your opponent is a calling station, exploitative poker players will change their strategy to value bet way more often than they bluff. By doing this, they exploit their opponent's weakness and make more money from their value bets while losing less with their bluffs.
Playing exploitative poker requires you to have a good understanding of how your opponent plays, know where they’re making mistakes, and know what you need to do to best exploit those mistakes.
Many online players prefer to play GTO poker as it gives them a baseline strategy that is guaranteed to be profitable and can be used against anyone. When you’re playing online, you come up against new players all the time, and you might not have the time you need to find holes in your opponent's game that you can exploit.
If you have a solid understanding of GTO poker, you can walk into almost any poker game in the world and expect to hold your own. It also means you’re free to just play your game, without getting into the levelling wars of “they know that I know,” which are always hard to get right.
If you’ve used a solver before, you’ll know that you need to input both your range and your opponent’s range to receive an output. Once you’ve given the solver your range and your bet sizes, it will explore the strategies for both players until it reaches an equilibrium where no player can change their strategy to make more money. The output you receive will be an unexploitable strategy for that particular scenario.
However, this strategy is only unexploitable if you know your opponent’s exact range; if your opponent plays a different range, the strategy will not be optimal. You can never know for certain what hands your opponent will put in their range, some players may play too wide, some may play too tight, and the optimal strategy will be different for both opponents.
Not only that, there are hundreds of different flop, turn, and river scenarios to study - can you expect to run a simulation and remember the output for all of them? While there are ways to streamline your study of flop textures, it’s a lot of information to take in and then implement at the poker table.
Very few players can effectively play anything close to GTO poker, which is what makes the game so difficult.
A lot of players prefer to play exploitatively because they don’t have the time to study GTO poker, or because they just don’t believe in it. There are a number of players who have been winning for many years, learning the game on their own, and making decisions based on how their opponent plays, so why fix what isn’t broken?
If you stick to a rigid GTO strategy that’s made from predetermined ranges, you’ll be leaving a lot of money on the table when you come up against people who are playing sub-optimally.
One of the biggest problems with exploitative poker is that, by definition, you’re playing exploitatively. While you may be doing so to target a weaker player, a strong player may be able to pick up on your adjustments and make their own adjustments to exploit you. These problems do not exist when you play GTO, as your opponents cannot make adjustments to exploit your game.
Another problem with exploitative play is that it requires you to understand when your opponent is making a mistake, and if you don’t understand what’s optimal, how can you tell if your opponent has made a mistake? A hand that could be game theory optimal may look like a mistake to the untrained eye, so if you try to exploit that “mistake,” you’ll quickly find that you’re the one making the mistake.
Playing exploitative poker also relies on you getting a read on how your opponents play and then adjusting to that. Sometimes in poker, you don’t get the time to figure out what mistakes your opponents are making, so if you’re relying on those mistakes to make your money, you’ll find yourself struggling early on.
While zealots on both sides of the spectrum will insist that their style is the best way to play, in truth, the best style is the one that you’re most comfortable implementing at the table. After all, if you can’t put the theory into practice, then you won’t be a winning player no matter which style you use!
If you feel more comfortable learning and understanding the optimal way to play, then keep on that path, but if memorizing optimal play doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s completely fine to keep playing exploitatively.
The truth of it is, in 99% of the poker games you’ll ever play, everyone’s going to be making a lot of mistakes. The trick to winning is making sure you make fewer mistakes than your opponent, so find a strategy you’re comfortable with and stick with it.
While many people treat them as diametrically opposed viewpoints, GTO and exploitative play are really two sides of the same coin. You need to have an understanding of optimal play to be able to exploit your opponents, and you need to understand how your opponents are playing in order to play optimally yourself.
When it comes to the discussion of which style is better, we recommend playing the way you’re most comfortable with.
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