I’m happy to share an excerpt from a new book by Dara O’Kearney and my co-author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 & 2, Barry Carter. If you’re overwhelmed by the idea of learning to play a Game Theory Optimal strategy, this book has been billed as a great entry point – a GTO for Dummies of sorts. This excerpt is focused on the mental side of the game. I encourage you to take a look at GTO Poker Simplified.
It is true that an exploitative poker strategy will make the most at the small stakes. So many big mistakes will be made at, for example, a $1 MTT, that you can quickly crush those levels by pouncing on these errors. If, for example, your opponents are over folding on Ace high flops. The most profitable course of action would be to always bet Ace high flops regardless of how wide your range is, and probably betting quite small so you can get away cheaply when they have hit. A GTO approach might see you check back some of the time and would limit the number of bluffs you have if you use a small bet sizing.
The problem is that exploits at one level don’t work at another. Players might overfold on Ace high flops too much in $1 MTTs but bluffcatch too much on the same flops in $5 MTTs. If you moved up to $5 MTTs with the same strategy you would end up exploiting yourself if you carried over the strategy of always c-betting in these spots.
An exploitative player has to take time to figure out the exploits when they move up. The old exploits don’t work anymore, and if the player doesn’t adapt they will themselves get exploited. They have to learn how to beat each level over and over again. Not to mention that different players have different leaks in the same games. The UTG player might call too much, the Cutoff might fold too much, the Button might pot control too much and the Small Blind might have inconsistent bet sizing. Not only do you have to figure out the exploits for each player pool, you have to figure them out for each player.
There is now a new school of players who refuse to diverge from GTO poker, even when they could make more money in the short term. It might take a little longer to move out of the small stakes, but the benefit is you learn a strategy that can beat any game. If you learn how to play fundamentally sound GTO in $5 MTTs you might not be winning the maximum, but you could get parachuted into a Super High Roller tournament and be a winning player. This is a bold claim that might surprise you, but it is true. There is, of course, the mental game element that might make some players crumble under the pressure in these games but if they can stick to what they have learned they will be winning players at high stakes tables.
The new roadmap for a professional poker player is to prove they are a winning player using GTO principles, even if it is at small stakes. With a big enough sample, that can get you staked to play in bigger games. A $5 MTT grinder who plays GTO can easily get staked for $100 MTTs and win. They can make much more money playing GTO in bigger games than the old method of game selecting and shot taking the larger stakes. I don’t think we are far away from players creating staking threads based on their average rating on the DTO app instead of their SharkScope or Hendon Mob ranking. It might already be happening.
Another reason to use the GTO approach to small stakes is that it is much easier mentally. If you know you made the right play by calling 40% of the time on the river you can find resolve in the fact you did the right thing. If a hand bothered you, you can study it in a solver and you will either feel better because you made the right play or at least you learned something. If, however, you had a read your opponent never bluffs, then they bluff you, it’s harder to deal with, because exploits are much more instinctive.
Be warned that some players do use GTO as a crutch from a mental game perspective. There are times when it is blindingly obvious that an exploit is the way to go (let’s say the player in front of you is drunk and calling everything) but you refuse to diverge because of the uncertainty that playing an exploitative strategy brings. Also, GTO is only as good as the initial assumptions you make. You have to get the opponent’s range and betting tendencies right for the information to be useful. If you don’t revisit and question your own assumptions a few times you could be making big errors and protecting yourself from having to deal with them.
There is a bandwidth benefit to the GTO approach, you have to think about fewer things. A good exploitative player has to think about GTO, exploits, what their opponent thinks they are thinking and possibly live reads like physical tells, which is a lot of information to juggle. I once eavesdropped a conversation at breakfast between three of the top players in the world and one of them expressed the view that this is why Alex Foxen plays so slowly.
GTO, while perhaps harder to learn initially, is much easier to manage at the tables.
Exploitative players will make more money when their reads are correct, but GTO players do not need to worry about their reads being correct, they can just play in any game. Another reason to sacrifice short term EV to play a GTO style is because it is generally much easier to play GTO from a mindset perspective. I am reminded of a quote from Bertrand Russell which sums up the benefits of being a GTO player, he said “what men really want is not knowledge but certainty”.
Exploitative players have to deal with much more uncertainty because so many more things can go wrong. Their assumptions about their opponents might be wrong and they find themselves diverging very far off the game tree. Opponent A might diverge in one direction, Opponent B might veer off a completely different part of the game tree. If an exploitative player thinks their opponent is under bluffing, then that player shows them a bluff, it can be stressful. Were all their assumptions wrong, or was it just the one time the player bluffed out of hundreds of missed opportunities? Exploitative players have to be very forgiving of themselves.
GTO players do not have anywhere near the stress of this, because they can usually run a sim and get an answer as to whether they made a mistake. GTO by comparison is a one size fits all approach where you were either correct, or you are provided with an answer to correct an error for the next time.
There are mindset issues that come from this, however. Because GTO involves mixed frequencies it means that often most plays can be right a small percentage of the time. You might run a hand where you made a seemingly bad hero call and discover, for balance purposes, that the solver does it 12% of the time. You might use this as a crutch to justify all of your bad play.
Just because something is allowed, does not mean it isn’t a mistake. In the example above, if you do the hero call 100% of the time, it is still a massive punt. Do you really call there just 12% of the time? Probably not. So to thrive from GTO you need to be able to make genuine assessments about how often you really are doing the minority mixed actions. As a baseline starting point you should try and stick to the more favoured actions the solver takes.