Game Theory Optimal – The Holy Grail of Poker Strategies
If you have been reading poker forums or watching training videos in the last five years, GTO is a term you have surely heard before.
GTO stands for game theory optimal, and it is a poker strategy based on a branch of mathematics invented by John Nash at Princeton University in the 1950s.
In this article, I will explain what game theory optimal poker strategy is, how it is applied in actual poker games, and how it compares to other strategies. But before we talk about it in any detail, let's break down what game theory optimal poker actually is.
What Is GTO Poker?
Game theory optimal is a poker strategy that attempts to play perfect poker, making every play completely unexploitable to other players. This means that no matter what anyone else does, you would win over the long run if you played perfect GTO.
Of course, there is no real way for a human brain to come up with exactly the right balance in every situation to make every play unexploitable, which is why the only way to achieve GTO plays is with the use of computers.
Computer programs known as solvers have been used to simulate poker situations and develop the perfect way to play every hand against a random opponent, regardless of their playing style.
Poker players who are trying to play GTO can either try to memorize as many situations as they can or try to learn the concepts solvers use to create hand ranges and approximate the logic in their own game.
The truth is that no player in the world plays true GTO poker, but a number of the best heads up and tournament players have been trying to come as close to it as possible for the last several years.
When Can Game Theory Optimal Be Applied?
The biggest limitation of the GTO poker strategy is that it only really works in heads-up poker and heads-up pots in other forms of this game.
When only two players are sitting at the table, the solvers come up with perfectly unexploitable solutions that will crush any opponent, regardless of how good they may be.
On the other hand, the solvers are not yet capable of correctly solving for multi-way situations in poker, and the number of factors at play in such situations is simply too great to correctly solve for.
For this reason, the GTO poker strategy is best applied in heads-up games or high-stakes cash games and poker tournaments where very few hands involve more than two players in total.
If you are playing a $1/2 game at your local casino, I would suggest not thinking about playing GTO too much and exploiting the novice players to the maximum to move up to higher stakes as fast as possible.
Why GTO Poker Strategy Is Considered the Best?
All poker strategies that have been used by players before the invention of GTO would fall into the category of exploitative play.
This means that the strategies were designed to exploit other players' mistakes while also opening yourself to being exploited if the other player figured out what you were doing.
For example, a player may realize that his opponent folds too much on the river and would bluff every time. However, should his opponent realize this, they could easily raise their bet and represent a much stronger hand even if they didn't, in fact, possess any of the best starting hands, to begin with.
All this back and forth leveling stuff was made obsolete with the invention of GTO, a poker strategy that strives for perfect balance. Instead of trying to exploit a particular player's tendencies, GTO makes a profit against everyone and does not lose against anyone.
However, since the truth is that no human can actually play a perfect GTO strategy, the assumption that GTO is the holy grail of all poker strategies is partially flawed.
Yet, the truth remains that to beat the toughest poker games in the world these days, you will probably need to learn at least a fair bit about the most important GTO poker concepts.
Is GTO Always the Superior Strategy?
Most poker players like to believe that they know something others don't know. However, the truth is that the poker strategy of the vast majority of players is flawed in many different ways.
Learning poker from a GTO point of view leaves nothing to interpretation. The solver's solutions are very clear, and if you follow them, you will eventually make a decent profit against any field. The further away from GTO others play, the more profit you will make.
All that said, there are plenty of times when going from GTO strategy to exploitative play can give you more profit. This is especially true when you are up against very weak players making obvious mistakes that are easy to counter.
If someone is always folding when they miss the flop, you should be betting whenever you miss and disregard GTO strategy completely. In an opposite situation where your opponent is never folding no matter what he has, you should not be bluffing at all.
The advantage of the GTO poker strategy is that you won't have to worry about who you are playing against or that you were transferred to a new table where you don't know any of the players. Instead of waiting to accumulate reads and possibly get them wrong, you can play every hand optimally and make a profit against any player in any field.
How Do You Start
If you like the idea of playing optimal poker that cannot be exploited even by the best players in the world, then you should certainly try to learn all you can about GTO poker.
However, that's easier said than done as learning game theory optimal is not as simple as learning a few basic concepts like pot odds or minimum defense frequency.
Instead, the best players in the world spend countless hours running simulations of different possible scenarios in solvers and trying to memorize as many of the spots as possible.
Some great GTO poker courses have been launched over the years, but to become a true GTO beast, you will also need to run your own simulations and learn on the go.
The last thing to remember is that no matter how much you study, you will never play true GTO, and there will always be flaws in your game. Trying to patch those flaws up and play better the next time is how you improve and get closer to GTO each time you sit down at the poker table.