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The first appearance of GTO strategies in poker came in Limit Hold’em heads-up games; the limited bet sizes made it easier to program. As technology improved and became more advanced, GTO solver developers’ attention turned to the most popular poker game – No Limit Hold’em.
Learning GTO poker is important for every poker player; having an understanding of the optimal way to play not only helps guide your own strategy but helps you understand when and how your opponents are making mistakes.
Game Theory is, to quote Wikipedia, “the study of mathematical models of strategic interactions among rational agents.” Or, simply put, the study of creating the best possible strategy. The study of game theory was an obvious fit for a strategy game such as poker, where the rules are clearly defined and variables can be controlled.
The key concept behind GTO poker is what’s called the Nash Equilibrium. This is the point at which two strategies cannot increase their expected value (EV) by changing their strategy. Let’s look at a rudimentary version of how this plays out.
This final state is an example of the Nash Equilibrium. Neither player can adjust their strategy to increase their EV; if Player A increases their bluffing percentage, Player B makes more money when they call, and if Player B folds more often, Player A makes more money with their bluffs.
When you run a GTO solver, that solver is testing each permutation of each strategic decision to arrive at the Nash Equilibrium.
Both GTO and exploitative strategies have their place in poker and offer advantages and disadvantages. Ideally, players should be playing with a GTO baseline strategy but should be willing to exploit players when they see mistakes being made. The key difference is that GTO strategies seek to avoid exploitation, whereas exploitative strategies risk being exploited in the pursuit of larger gains. To see this in action, we have to refer back to the Nash equilibrium.
The Nash equilibrium is a theoretical point where both players’ strategies have reached a point such that neither can change to exploit the other. In poker terms, this would be a scenario where both players are playing optimally. However, humans have a tendency to play un-optimally, so what happens in these scenarios?
Well, if your opponent is deviating from what would be considered the optimal way to play based on your strategy, that equilibrium moves. To maximize the amount you can make from your opponent, you need to adjust your strategy and exploit the mistake they’re making.
If you continue to play a “GTO” strategy, your opponent’s mistake will go unpunished, and you are not making the most you can make from this scenario. However, by adjusting your strategy, you leave yourself open to exploitation if your opponent reverts to the optimal strategy.
This is why it’s important to pay attention to your opponents; if you see them making a mistake, it’s OK to deviate from GTO strategies and play exploitatively.
When playing a GTO strategy for the first time, you need to build a solid foundation from which to work. Unfortunately, GTO solutions are not plug and play; there is no GTO cheat sheet that I can give you for preflop, flop, turn, and river play, as your solutions will depend on your preflop ranges, your bet sizes, and your rake structure.
However, we can give you advice on how to build your foundation, so you can give yourself a platform from which to learn the GTO strategies you find when running your simulations.
You must start by building solid preflop ranges for yourself and your opponents. Some solvers allow you to run simulations that give you optimal opening ranges for each position based on the rake structure, some sites sell you ready-made preflop ranges based on different rake structures, or you can develop your own ranges.
Without solid preflop ranges, you won’t be able to run accurate simulations. Without accurate simulations, you won’t be able to learn GTO strategies, and you won’t be able to spot when your opponents are making mistakes.
Once you’ve learned your solid preflop ranges, the key to early success while studying and implementing GTO solutions is staying balanced postflop. GTO strategies keep your ranges balanced with strong and weak hands to prevent certain lines from being exploited by your opponents.
This is one of the hardest things to learn early on, as players are used to splitting their ranges into strong and weak lines. For example, when check/raising the flop, many players take this line with strong hands but rarely do so with bluffs. This means that the check/call line is significantly weaker than the check/raise line, which can be exploited by your opponents. GTO strategies will protect their check/call line by including strong hands in this range and will add more bluffs into their check/raise line to prevent opponents from overfolding profitably.
Due to this desire to stay balanced, you will often find that GTO solutions have hands with mixed frequencies, which means that a certain percentage of the time a hand is played one way, and a certain percentage of the time it is played another way.
For example, you’re on the flop with a king-high flush draw, and your opponent has made a half pot bet. You may find when you run your solver that the GTO solution is to raise this hand a percentage of the time and call it a percentage of the time. This can be difficult to understand when you’re just starting out with GTO solutions, but the reasoning behind it is simple.
In instances of mixed frequencies, the EV difference of each action for the hand is extremely similar. In the above example, if the solver advocates both raising and calling with your flush draw, it means the EV of raising and calling are similar. Solvers choose hands like this to mix frequencies as it helps keep ranges balanced without a loss in EV.
GTO poker strategies are unique to the games that they are built around. Betting patterns and range construction do not transfer from one game to the next. Even games that are similar in their mechanics, such as Texas Hold’em and Omaha, have little to no crossover whatsoever. Players cannot study GTO strategies for Texas Hold’em and expect their understanding to transfer to PLO.
Companies have developed solvers for games other than Hold’em, with the most popular game being PLO. Due to the increased number of starting hand combinations compared to Texas Hold’em, Omaha solvers work differently from Hold’em solvers, but they still provide players with an optimal strategy based on the variables input into the software.
Let’s make one thing clear before we go any further; humans aren’t playing GTO poker. A 100% optimal poker strategy is far too complex for human minds to remember, let alone implement at the table, as the game trees become too complex and the number of options too great. Instead, players use a simplified version of GTO which is easier to implement at the cost of a small amount of EV.
Start by developing optimal preflop ranges based on the rake structure of the game you play. If your solver doesn’t have the option to output preflop ranges, you can find people selling ranges for different stake levels and rake structures online. Study these ranges to the point where you’re able to recall them by heart; you’ll need to remember them when you start playing!
Once you have your collection of preflop ranges, you can use these to develop your postflop strategies. Common examples that we recommend looking at first include SB 3bet vs BTN, BTN raise vs BB, and SB raise vs BB. These are scenarios that will come up all the time in your games, and because of the wide ranges, can be difficult to play.
Look at how the solver approaches flop play on a variety of different textures; which ones does it bet often and which ones does it check often? How aggressively does the caller play postflop? What hands are used to c-bet and which hands are often played as checks? Ask yourself why the solver is choosing these strategies and these hands to bet/check/raise with.
Then, look further through the hand and see how different turn and river cards affect your strategies. Identify which are the cards that are good for the preflop aggressor and which ones are good for the preflop caller and see how much strategies change.
Once you have an understanding of how GTO approaches these scenarios, you can start implementing these strategies in your game. You should recognize familiar situations from your studies and remember the general principles of how often you bet and what bet size you use dependent on the board texture.
A lot has been written and spoken about GTO since it reached the poker mainstream, much of it incorrect! This has led to players holding misconceptions about GTO poker that prevent them from implementing it properly. To put this right, we’re tackling the common misconceptions people have about GTO poker and putting the record straight.
While many of us aspire to play as the solver does, you do not need to play exact GTO strategies to be profitable. In fact, due to how complicated it is to play GTO strategies, any attempt to fully replicate these strategies will likely cost you more money than it will win! Instead, players play a simplified version of GTO strategies that sacrifice a small amount of EV in order to implement
Another common misconception is that specific GTO concepts apply across a broad range of situations. Just because the solver plays one way in one scenario, it doesn’t mean it will play the same way in a similar scenario.
The best example of this is the “C-bet 100% of your range as the preflop aggressor in a 3bet pot” strategy. For a long time, this was the in-thing, as players noticed that solvers would use this small bet size in 3bet pots.
However, this only applies to certain scenarios, such as an A64r flop where the preflop aggressor has a huge advantage; if the flop was Th8h7c, the advantage is in favor of the preflop caller, and the solver wouldn’t be betting 33% pot with 100% of its range!
GTO strategies aren’t just a tool of the super-high-stakes players, they should be used at every stake level. You should learn GTO strategies and implement them whenever you’re facing an unfamiliar opponent, no matter the stake level.
Many players advocate ditching GTO when playing against weak players at low stakes; while we understand the reasoning, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. They argue that you should be maximally exploiting weaker players and that GTO strategies won’t do that. This is true, but how do you know how to exploit a player if you’ve never seen them play?
By playing GTO strategies as a default, you give yourself time to evaluate your opponents and spot their mistakes without opening yourself up to making mistakes or being exploited. Once you’ve identified the mistakes your opponents are making, you can deviate from GTO strategies to maximally exploit them.
Many players incorrectly assume that GTO poker is strictly for cash games and has no place in tournament play – this is untrue! The best tournament pros use GTO strategies all the time throughout the poker tournaments they play, from the early stages to the final table.
GTO poker is commonly associated with cash games as players in cash games are required to every single edge, no matter how thin, to maximize their profit. GTO strategies help eke out the maximum amount of value from situations, and, therefore, were considered a natural fit for cash games.
In contrast, tournament poker plays much differently; once you’re eliminated from a tournament, you’re out and don’t have a chance to play for the top prizes.
ICM is a big factor in why players may deviate from GTO play. ICM is a concept that puts a real money value on your tournament chips. The fewer chips you have, the more valuable each chip becomes, as they represent your tournament life.
Players will avoid marginally winning situations in favor of preserving their tournament life, even if doing so would be “GTO.” This is because the chips they stand to win would be worth less than the ones they could lose, according to ICM.
However, understanding GTO strategies is still important as if the EV of a risky decision is high enough, it’s worth it to risk your tournament life. If you don’t familiarise yourself with these situations, you’re missing out on EV which could affect your ability to win the tournament.
GTO strategies are a valuable tool that allows you to play optimal poker, even with the pressures of money jumps bearing down on you. Having a proven strategy to fall back on during times of high stress is invaluable, as it prevents you from thinking emotionally and making fear-based decisions.
While you should still exercise caution in high-risk tournament situations, using GTO strategies will make you far more profitable in the long run than players who aren’t using them.
If you want to gain a solid understanding of GTO strategy, you have to get a poker solver; there’s just no way around it. There are a number of different GTO poker software options available on the market at different price points, giving you the flexibility to choose one that matches your budget.
Once you have a poker solver, you can use it to run simulations on specific poker scenarios to help you learn the optimal solution for those situations. You need to input your preflop range, your opponent’s preflop range, the stack sizes, the available bet sizes, and the flop. Once you’ve entered these variables, leave your solver to run the simulation, and check back to see the results.
After the solver has finished running, you’ll be able to see the optimal strategy for both players across the full game tree, giving you a comprehensive insight into the way the scenario should be played. You can even explore different turns and rivers, allowing you to understand how different cards affect the actions of the players.
Some poker solvers even allow you to do something called “flop aggregation.” This takes the variables you input and runs them across a number of different flop types, such as “one high, two low,” “three broadway monotone,” etc., etc. By doing this, you can see the broad strategy for each flop type, allowing for more efficient studying.
However, a poker solver’s solution is only as good as the inputs you give it. You need to make your ranges as accurate as possible, as the construction of these ranges will have a significant impact on the results you get from the solver.
One of the great things about GTO strategies is that external factors such as psychology and table dynamics have little impact on how they are implemented. The only thing you need to consider is how your opponent’s psychological state is affecting their preflop range. Preflop ranges are the foundation of your GTO strategies; if your opponent is playing tighter or looser than normal, you need to take that into account.
However, psychological factors play a much more significant role in identifying areas to exploit your opponents. Opponents who are tilting, nitting up, or overconfident are much more likely to make mistakes, giving you opportunities to exploit them.
Pay attention to how your opponents are feeling and how that impacts the way they play. Have they just won a huge pot and are now looking to protect their win? Start bluffing more aggressively. Have they just lost two coolers in a row and you can see the steam coming from their ears? Call down with a wider range.
If your opponents are making emotional mistakes, identify what they are, and adjust your strategy to exploit them.
Practicing GTO Poker is an essential part of being able to implement the strategy. However, many players are hesitant to dramatically adjust their strategy in their regular games, as it could end up losing them money. Luckily, there are ways you can practice GTO poker without the risk of losing money by doing so.
Some of the best poker solvers allow you to play against a GTO bot to practice the situation you just solved. Simply input your ranges, bet sizes, and other variables like normal, and once the solver has found the solution, you can choose to practice by playing hands against it. You’ll be dealt a hand and can play against the solver as if you were playing in your regular game.
Best of all, you get real-time feedback on whether or not your decision was correct, as well as immediate access to the solver’s solution, so you can see how you should be playing.
Alternatively, a great way to get to grips with GTO Poker is by changing the variables when running the solver to see how it changes the output. Seeing how the solver changes its strategy when your opponent’s range is 10% wider/tighter, or when stacks are 200bb deep compared to 100bb gives you a detailed insight into the situation that you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.
Doing this helps to hone your intuition and makes it more likely you’ll make the correct decision when you face the scenario in reality.
As solvers get more advanced, both the speed and accuracy of the solutions will increase. This means that the cost of producing and running solvers will decrease, making them more accessible to the poker community. We may even see multi-way solvers to be developed in the future, but the complexity of these means they could be a little while away.
The GTO strategies themselves don’t really change – an optimal solution will stay an optimal solution – but what will change is the meta-game as players become more and more aware of what optimal strategies are.
We’ve seen this happen over the years; as players learned that solvers sometimes like to c-bet 33% of the pot with 100% of their range, it became the “in-thing” to do. Players realized this and adjusted by increasing their raise percentage on boards that favored their range. As players’ c-bets were getting raised more often, they started to reduce their c-bet percentage and protect their checking range.
This is a microcosm of how the poker landscape plays out in reality. We may learn the optimal solutions that have reached the Nash equilibrium, but players struggle to implement these strategies correctly, leading to “meta-games” such as the one above.
GTO strategies are incredibly complex and practically impossible for a human to implement while playing. The game tree is too large and the number of variables is too great for humans to conceivably remember all the different actions and frequencies.
It’s also a challenge for players to learn even the basic strategies that cover the majority of situations they will face. The amount of computing time it takes to run solutions for each scenario means that players need to spend hours and hours studying to get a baseline understanding of GTO play.
Arguably the biggest challenge players face is trying to take in all this new information at once. When players start out, they develop their own poker strategy based on bits and pieces they pick up from various resources. To suddenly uproot all of that and change the way they play based on what the solver says can be too much, and players make significant mistakes while trying to learn and implement a GTO strategy in one go.
Rather than trying to learn everything in one go, we recommend trying to learn a simplified GTO strategy that’s easier to remember. So, take out mixed frequencies and multiple bet sizes; while this will result in a drop in EV, it will make the strategy much easier to implement, giving you an advantage at the tables.
One thing’s for sure, and that’s that GTO Poker is here to stay. It has had a profound impact on the way we play poker, and having a mathematically sound strategy to work from has taken a lot of the guesswork out of how we play the game. Many players consider it a necessity if you want to play at the highest stakes, although some believe that exploitative poker is still a viable strategy.
However, some people are concerned about GTO’s role in the future of poker. As technology becomes more advanced, players will be able to access solved solutions faster and faster, increasing the risk of real-time assistance being used in online games. This could lead to the widespread adoption of enhanced security measures such as live cameras and audio that prevent players from accessing these solutions while playing.
Whether you’re a player looking to learn the best strategies or just someone who plays poker for fun, it’s likely that GTO Poker will have a major impact in shaping the future of poker.
GTO Poker is, ideally, the way we should be playing poker. It’s an unexploitable strategy that offers the best EV for each decision, making it the most optimal way to play. However, this type of strategy is far too complicated for humans to implement, so we try to use a simplified version that we can comprehend.
If you’re just starting out with GTO poker, remember the key factors are to have solid preflop ranges and to stay balanced postflop. If you can remember that, you’re well on your way to implementing your GTO strategies. Just remember to watch your opponents and punish any mistakes you see them make.
Poker players should always be learning, and we certainly have a lot to learn from GTO Poker solvers!
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