Texas Hold’em Poker strategy has evolved a lot over the years. One of the most important changes is the shift from exploitative play to Game Theory Optimal (GTO) strategy. The old-school poker stars made their millions mainly by exploiting the mistakes and imbalances in their opponents’ games, often with a good deal of luck on the side. Those were the days when poker primarily took place at live tables, where reading an opponent’s “tells” played an important role in the game.
That all changed with the arrival of online poker. The modern style of play is based on the idea that there’s a mathematically optimal way to play in any given poker situation. Today, a basic knowledge of GTO is essential for anyone who wants to learn how to play poker. For beginners, it’s an opportunity to start applying strategy immediately. For seasoned players, it’s a chance to dominate the table. Let’s take a closer look.
What is GTO poker?
GTO strategy is the attempt to play poker in a mathematically perfect way. If you play perfectly against players who make occasional mistakes, you will dominate most situations, and your opponents will be at a loss for ways to exploit your style. However, true GTO play is widely regarded as something of an impossibility. Every situation in Texas Hold’em Poker has too many variables for even the most mathematically gifted human being to solve.
Don’t get the wrong idea. GTO is handy for learning to play poker online because it provides deep insight into the game and helps players to understand why some plays make more sense than others.
Basic GTO poker concepts and strategies
Actually learning GTO may seem very daunting. After all, poker is a tremendously complex game where every decision can influence your win rate, from the specific hand you open with to whether you check or raise in a given situation. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a mathematical savant. You just need to use a few tools and understand why you’re using them.
The most basic GTO tool is a preflop opening chart. Depending on your position, it shows what hands to open-raise with when the action folds to you. The further out you are, the tighter your hand ranges need to be. There are also charts for more complex situations, such as responding to a raise, what hands to call or what hands to three-bet.
Understanding pot odds is also a must to figure out what calls are profitable in the long run and what calls aren’t. This requires you to know your equity in any given situation, so you’ll want to use an equity calculator.
Then there’s the minimum defense frequency (MDF.) It’s very effective against aggressive opponents because it shows the minimum percentage of times you have to call or raise to stop your opponent from exploiting you by over-bluffing when they bet. To work out your MDF, divide the pot size by the pot size plus the bet size and multiply the answer by 100.
Learning to play with poker solvers
If you’re serious about learning and understanding GTO strategy, the most valuable investment you can make is to buy a poker solver. As the name suggests, you can use a poker solver to analyze various situations and find the right play in any scenario. Applying yourself to your studies will gradually build up a fundamentally-sound strategy for practically any situation. You can also use a poker solver for off-table studies. You should see an improvement in your level of thinking – and your profits – over time. The two most popular poker solvers currently are PioSolver and PokerSnowie.
The limits of GTO
As impressive and important as GTO strategy undoubtedly is, it isn’t a silver bullet. That’s because applying GTO strategy against all opponents, regardless of their style of play, can be a fairly rigid approach. They may not exploit you, but you won’t get to exploit their weaknesses either. This may result in you losing your money. For example, the GTO model may prescribe a three-bet size of 13 big blinds in a specific situation. If you’re up against a very loose player with a tendency to call bigger three-bets, you’ll want to deviate from the standard GTO strategy. The same goes for an opponent who only bets big when he’s holding the nuts. If he raises, you can safely fold if this opponent bets on the river, regardless of the mathematically-optimal play.
Many players think you have to choose between GTO or an exploitative strategy, but that’s a false dilemma. The truth is that the best poker players mix them up. Without the solid foundation in poker strategy that GTO can give you, you won’t understand when your opponents are making mistakes, so you’ll never understand how to exploit them.
GTO can also be beneficial when dealing with a tough table of players who are better than you, as often happens in online poker tournaments. To prepare for this kind of situation, analyze some frequent scenarios to understand balanced play in these positions. That way you can play close to GTO in similar spots. You’ll improve your poker tournament strategy and enjoy the confidence of knowing what you’re going to do without caring about what others are doing.
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