GTO Poker Explained – How to Make Optimal Decisions at the Table

14 minutes

Posted by: Ivan


In just a few short years, the game of poker has evolved a great deal, to the point where many of the poker books and coaching videos that came out just a decade ago have grown nearly obsolete.

The radical change in the way many players are approaching the game has caused this, and that radical change has been the switch to a game theory optimal approach.

The switch to the GTO poker strategy has caused many players to start making fewer mistakes than they were in the past, making the games a lot tougher to beat.

While not every player you encounter these days will be playing GTO poker, you will likely meet many trying to do so as you play in different games.

But before you can try and adapt to this new playing style, let’s talk about what is GTO poker, how it works, and why it may or may not be superior to other approaches to the game.

What is GTO Poker Strategy?

Game theory is a relatively new branch of mathematics that was invented by John Nash at Princeton University in the 1950s.

Game theory can be applied to many different games. Its application to poker specifically was limited to the use of the Nash Equilibrium for tournament shove/fold ranges for a long time.

However, more recently, computer programs known as “solvers” were created to help players understand what game theory has to say about the various situations in poker, and the results are often quite surprising.

Of course, poker is a game too complex to solve completely, especially when we are talking about No-Limit Texas Hold’em ring games, which are the most popular format of poker these days.

Poker GTO

While a solver can give you mathematically correct solutions for every situation you may encounter, the computer will take a lot of time to process the situation. For a human, it is not possible to memorize all the possible permutations and bet sizes you may encounter.

Instead, players focusing on the game theory optimal approach to poker are trying to figure out how solvers dissect poker hands and construct their ranges to play as close to GTO poker as possible.

Now that we have a general idea of GTO concepts let’s talk about how you can learn them and what kind of benefits and downsides there are to account for.

Benefits of GTO Poker: Play Well Against Everyone

Traditionally, poker players apply what is known as an “exploitative” approach to poker. This means they are trying to use their opponents’ mistakes and exploit them to make a profit.

For the most part, exploitative poker works very well against terrible poker players and pretty well against average ones. However, once you start dealing with the pros, trying to exploit their mistakes can often backfire and cost you money.

The biggest reason players are adopting poker GTO strategies is because they allow them to play well against everyone, in every game, at any stake.

If you could actually play like a solver, there would be no way to exploit your tendencies. The biggest advantage of playing GTO ranges is that they are always perfectly balanced. Thus, there is no way your opponents could play to make you lose money.

A game theory optimal range will consist of just the right amount of value bets and bluffs in every situation that other players’ approaches won’t really matter.

However, the fact is that no player plays like a solver, and most players still have certain biases regardless of how much they are trying to play GTO poker.

All that said, GTO poker players have been notoriously difficult to beat at the game as their ranges leave very little room for exploitation on the part of their opponents.

The Downsides of GTO Poker: Leaving Money on the Table

You now know the GTO poker meaning, and you understand that it does not allow for any deviations based on the particular opponents you are playing.

A GTO strategy would not consider that an opponent is significantly more or less likely to bluff in certain spots, that they only value bet the nuts on some runouts, or that they are a calling station. This can cost you a fair bit of money in the long run.

GTO poker meaning

This is not to say that a GTO player will lose to players who play badly, as that’s not the case. However, the player will win significantly less than another exploitative player who knows how to adapt to the situation well and exploit his opponents’ tendencies.

GTO poker strategy is often used in heads-up games by some of the world’s best poker players. However, even they will admit that GTO concepts work great against other great players while applying them against the fish will be leaving money on the table.

Finding the Balance: Mixing GTO with Exploitative

The best way to beat poker is always by adapting to your opponents’ tendencies if that is possible. When you play against other GTO players, such adjustments may not be possible, but most games will not be made up of GTO players.

GTO sets a fantastic foundation on which to build your poker game. For example, using the GTO preflop charts in ring games will save you a lot of trouble and hassle about constructing your ranges and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

However, once the flop has been dealt, there is no reason not to turn on your brain and try to figure out if there are ways you can exploit a particular opponent you often play against.

Mixing fundamental GTO concepts with advanced exploitative ones can be a great way to make money in poker. This is especially true in live poker games, where plenty of splashy players come to have fun and enjoy a good time.

Not only will playing a more creative way be more profitable in these games, but it will also make other players like you more. They will not look at you as some robot trying to steal their poker chips and never make a single mistake.

GTO Poker Applied: Making a GTO Bet on the River

If you have never worked with solvers in your life, you probably still don’t quite understand what is GTO poker all about.

The solver does not tell you things like “bluff now” or “fold your hand.” Instead, GTO poker is all about frequencies and balancing out your range so as to be completely unpredictable and not allow your opponents to ever exploit you.

A good example to explain how a solver may tell you to play a hand is on the river of a random poker hand. You are first to act, there is $100 in the pot, and you are looking to make a $100 bet to win the pot.

Game theory optimal

Of course, you will get to this river with a series of different hands. So, you will need to decide what ratio of value hands and bluffing hands you will want to use to make a profit with your bet.

The solver says that you should use 33% bluffs and 67% value hands to make a profit in this situation because:

  • Betting for value 100% of the time will win you $100 if they fold every time.
  • Bluffing 100% of the time will lose you $100 if they call every time.
  • Betting for value 50% and bluffing 50% of the time will win you $50 if they call every time.
  • Betting for value 67% and bluffing 33$ of the time will win you $100 if they always call and $100 if they always fold.

Of course, your opponents will neither always call nor always fold. However, the fact that the balanced range wins you the most in both scenarios means it also wins the most at all other calling and folding frequencies.

Finding the perfect balance between value bets and bluffs on the river means you will need to think about it on earlier streets. You will eliminate some bluffs earlier and leave yourself with a range that is made up of 2/3 value bets and 1/3 bluffs.

Alternatively, if you have more bluffs in your range, the solver may suggest you make a smaller bet, thus again making it irrelevant if your opponent calls or folds their hand.

All said and done, following the logic of a GTO poker solver will be certain to make you money in all scenarios, even if an exploitative approach may end up making you more.

For example, on this same river, you may be playing against a player who you know to fold rivers easily, even with reasonable calling hands. In that case, making an $80 or $50 bet may achieve the exact same results, making your long-term poker income for the scenario even bigger.

GTO Poker Concepts

If you learned how to play poker the traditional way, switching over to the game theory optimal model may feel very unnatural at first.

This is because solvers “think” about the game in a different way, and everything you will encounter while learning GTO poker will be about frequencies.

For instance, you may reach a river in a hand and be thinking in terms, should I call or fold. A solver might tell you to call 65% of the time and fold 35% of the time with your particular hand, completely confusing you.

GTO concepts

To understand why the solver tells you to do this, you must also understand that it is trying to play against the villain’s entire perceived range. The solver isn’t playing against a particular hand, which is what most players try to do.

Instead of putting your opponent on AK and making a hero call with a pair of deuces on the river, the solver will try to pick the best hands as bluff catchers based on things like blockers (cards that make it hard for your opponent to have the nuts) and other relevant facts.

Now, we will take a look at a few of the basic GTO concepts you will need to grasp when you ask the question of how to learn GTO poker. I am going to explain them in layman’s terms, although you will need to look into them much more carefully if you want to really become a GTO poker pro.

Preflop Opening/3 Betting/4 Betting Ranges

As I mentioned earlier, the preflop ranges are the one concept from the poker GTO strategy that pretty much every player should learn.

The balanced opening and re-raising range that solvers come up with simply work very well against all opponents, even if certain deviations from the GTO may give you better results in some games.

Of course, you may already be familiar with the idea of opening and 3-betting a balanced range. However, the way solvers do the balancing is superior to anything that was done in the past.

For that reason, learning the ranges by heart and sticking to them in all situations will almost certainly make you a profit compared to your earlier poker strategy.

For example, a ring game player might want to learn the opening and 3-betting ranges for 100, 200, and 250 big blind situations, which commonly arise in real poker hands, thus making it simpler to play these spots.

Applying the Pot Odds

The concept of odds was perhaps one of the first things you learned as a poker player, as you learned what number of outs translates into what amount of equity.

However, the concept that few players who learned poker the traditional way understand are the pot odds, which are very important when you intend to play the game at a higher level.

What is GTO poker

A GTO poker player will always be thinking in terms of the pot odds they are getting and trying to call with hands that have such equity against the opponent’s perceived range.

Of course, you may still get things wrong as the other guy’s range will sometimes include hands you did not expect, but making educated mistakes is better than going in blind.

Minimum Defense Frequency

Minimum defense frequency (MDF) is one of the most important concepts that a game theory optimal approach to the game encompasses.

In short, MDF refers to the minimum percentage of hands you should continue playing the hand with, whether it is by calling or raising the opponent’s bet.

While many players will frown upon you continuing in a hand with a gutshot or an ace-high on certain board textures, there are times when this is absolutely necessary if you want to play poker optimally.

The MDF is calculated based on a simple mathematical formula:

Pot Size / (Pot Size + Bet Size) = MDF%

Here is what that means for the most common bet sizing situations in poker:

  • 100% Pot Size – 50% Minimum Defense Frequency
  • 75% Pot Size – 57% Minimum Defense Frequency
  • 50% Pot Size – 67% Minimum Defense Frequency
  • 33% Pot Size – 75% Minimum Defense Frequency

Once you have calculated your MDF in a certain spot, you should start thinking about what hands would fall into the 50% or 75% of the hands you should continue with.

This means you need to really know what your entire range is that you would still be in a hand with and calculate the best hands out of that range. Of course, this will be hard to do at the table, but thinking in this way about poker (instead of thinking in terms of individual hands like 2-7 or pocket aces) while studying your sessions will let you make better plays in the future.

GTO in Multi-way Situations

The solvers most players use these days are tools created with heads-up poker in mind above all else. This means that their solutions will not always be perfect for ring games or tournaments, especially when multiple players are left in a pot.

For instance, if you were to play your hand when facing a bet, as if there wasn’t another player to act behind you, you would be bleeding money in every situation.

The thing to remember is that while GTO solutions may be nearly perfect in heads-up pots, they will often be flawed in multi-way situations. You should make sure to adjust for other players in the hand and change your ranges accordingly.

In fact, once a hand has more than two players going to the flop, it is usually a good idea to forget about trying to play GTO and look for exploitative and creative solutions to play the hand.

Once again, using the basic GTO concepts in these situations as well will be beneficial. You will still want to play a balanced game that cannot be easily exploited by the other players.

GTO Poker FAQs

What is GTO poker?

The GTO (game theory optimal) poker strategy is one based on mathematical models derived from the game theory branch of mathematics. GTO poker focuses on playing an unexploitative style that will make a profit against any player, regardless of the way they play their hand.

How to learn GTO poker?

Learning the GTO meaning and concepts is a long and hard process, and you should start out by watching some training videos and materials by GTO poker experts. After that, you should download a solver yourself and start running through particular hands and scenarios to learn how to play them.

Is GTO poker superior to exploitative strategy?

GTO poker is designed to make a profit in any situation, regardless of how your opponents are playing or what exploitable mistakes they might be making. This makes it a great strategy to apply in most games, although exploitative strategy may be more profitable in some situations.

Will GTO poker always make me the most money?

Not necessarily. A player playing the perfect GTO strategy may be missing out on value in many spots that a good exploitative player may find it in. On the flip side, exploitative players leave themselves vulnerable to being exploited themselves, which sets up the endless debate between the two schools of poker.

Can I play the perfect GTO strategy?

No! It is not possible to play GTO poker as there are too many elements to consider in every hand. For that reason, the best you can do is try to come close to playing GTO and play a game that seeks to establish a balance similar to the one that solvers create using game theory.

What is the minimum defense frequency?

Minimum defense frequency is an important GTO poker concept that refers to the minimum percentage of hands in your range that you should continue playing a hand with when facing a bet. The MDF will increase as the bet size gets smaller, and it will be up to you to pick which hands from your range best fit into the MDF range.

Can I apply the poker GTO strategy in multi-way pots?

To an extent, you can! However, it is very important to remember that having extra players in a hand will make it much more difficult to play and add many possible scenarios that the solver will not account for when you calculate based on one opponent. For this reason, you will need to significantly tighten up your ranges and often revert to an exploitative strategy in multi-way pots.

Ivan Potocki

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