Winning Poker Strategy: Game Theory Optimal Simplified

7 min read

GTO is a term widely used in poker strategy discussion today. Unfortunately, I’ve found that it is seldom described simply enough to make it useful to the typical player.

So, let’s look at what GTO is, exactly and simply, and see whether it makes sense for you to use in the typical, multi-player, modestly staked ($1/2, $1/3, or $2/5) No-Limit Hold’em cash game.

Game Theory
Playing Game Theory Optimal poker is the best way to maximize your winnings at the table — or is it? (Image: TheStreet)

GTO means “Game Theory Optimal” and describes a “non-exploitable” strategy of poker play. The simplest way to understand GTO is to first understand what “non-exploitable” means. For that, imagine the simplest of all gambling games, Pick ‘em.

This is a simple two-person game. You put a coin in your hand facing heads or tails, without your opponent knowing what it is. You then present your closed hand to your opponent and ask him to pick heads or tails. He guesses. You open your hand, revealing either the heads or tails of the coin.

If he picked correctly, he wins. If he picked incorrectly, you win. You then repeat this process many, many times, until you both either grow tired of it, a set number of turns have been made, or until one person has won all of the other’s money.

Simple enough?

There’s more to deception than you can see

At first, this might appear to be a game of pure chance. He picks heads or tails. The payout is even money, so no one has an advantage, right? It’s just random guessing. Where’s the skill in that?

In fact, there are skills that can be used to develop an advantage in this game. One is that of detection. A really good “guesser” might pick up on extremely subtle “tells” his opponent exhibits when picking a side of the coin. Perhaps he holds the coin a little higher when it’s heads. Perhaps when he switches the side of the coin, he tends to have his glance linger on his hand a little longer before he presents it to the guesser.

One might also observe certain patterns in keeping or changing the side of a coin. You might notice your opponent’s tendency to switch back and forth from heads to tail more than he keeps the coin on the same side. Or you might notice that he never shows the same side more than three times in a row.

Another skill is that of trickery and concealment. You might be quite adept at being inscrutable. You might send off misleading “tells” to fool your opponent. You might create the illusion of patterns only to get your opponent to guess the opposite of what you actually do. Figure out your opponent’s patterns, predilections, and picks, while keeping yours hidden, and you can win his money.

Random acts of randomness

How is GTO strategy employed in such a game?  Simple. You randomize your pick.

Rather than looking at the coin and deciding whether or not to flip, you randomize your selection by putting the coin in your palm, cupping your hands together, shaking them for a few seconds, and then revealing the coin. In so doing, you completely eliminate any possibility that your opponent can figure you out.

Your opponent would have no way of exploiting you because your selection would be the product of chance. Similarly, when you were the guesser, you could randomize what you guessed, preventing your opponent from fooling you with fake tells or misleading patterns.

Applying this to poker, GTO strategy randomizes your bluffing, so even your strongest and most insightful opponents can’t figure you out and exploit your tendencies. It is just like randomizing the coin selection by shaking the coin in your cupped hand. By randomizing your poker betting action, your opponent will have no way of figuring you out; and without being able to figure you out, they won’t be able to exploit you.

There are lots of ways to randomize and camouflage your bluffing frequency during the play of a hand. You can do this by adding certain bluffing hands to your preflop ranges and then playing them exactly as you would play your legitimate hands. Similarly, you could use a spinner, a sweep second hand, or some other randomizing device to dictate whether you bluffed in certain situations on later streets.

By removing your decision-making from the point of making your decision, and/or by making your decision to bluff at random, you make the decision undetectable, unknowable, and as such, unexploitable.

That explains what GTO is and how it applies to poker. But the question remains, should you use it when you play?

Is GTO right for you?

GTO strategy is unexploitable. “Unexploitable” sounds really strong, kind of like “invincible,” but that’s not what it means. Unexploitable simply means that your opponent can’t gain an advantage over you. It also means that you can’t gain an advantage over your opponent.

Think of the coin-flipping game. By randomizing your pick, you ensure that neither you nor your opponent can have an advantage.

Do you want to play an even poker game with your opponent? The benefit is that they can’t exploit you. The disadvantage is that you can’t exploit them. Is the benefit worth the cost?

If you’re playing against world champions or seasoned professionals who are likely to read you and exploit your every decision, then GTO is an invaluable tool. You’ll be making decisions that they won’t be able to figure out, no matter how perceptive they are, because your choices are randomized. You’d gladly give up your ability to gain an advantage over them by applying a strategy that neutralizes their potential advantage over you.

Similarly, if you’re playing against your equals, you might want to neutralize their ability to figure you out in certain situations. By using a GTO strategy, you might gain an advantage over them in some situations.

Situation should dictate your strategy

In the typical low-stakes cash game against players who, with appropriate game selection, will tend to be worse than you – in many cases significantly worse than you — you don’t want to put yourself on an equal footing in any situation. You want these opponents to engage you in a battle of wits as often as possible, allowing them every opportunity to make the many mistakes they typically make. Why give them an equal game when you expect to always have a significant advantage?

In a typical game, you want to use your superior skills of perception and deception to beat your opponents as often as possible. You want to consciously force them to make as many bad decisions as possible, not ever randomizing your strategy. An even game isn’t acceptable. You want maximum advantage, not non-exploitable equilibrium.

Think of it this way. In the simple coin-flipping game, if you were psychic and could read your opponent’s mind, you’d never want to randomize your picks. Instead, you’d always want to use your psychic power to know what he was going to do, and then pick accordingly.

So too with these modestly-staked No-Limit cash games. Don’t settle for the non-exploitable situations that GTO creates. Instead, use your superior powers of perception, concealment, and guile to exploit your opponents at every turn.

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