GTO vs Exploitative Poker

GTO vs Exploitative Poker – Which is Best? The topic of much debate and confusion amongst many poker enthusiasts. Which is better? A GTO style or an exploitative style of poker? 

Let’s quickly define our terms:

GTO: Stands for “game theory optimal” and involves use of un-exploitable “balanced” strategies.

Exploitative: Involves directly and aggressively looking to target weaknesses in our opponent’s strategy even it means our own strategy becomes “unbalanced”.

So which of the two should we be looking to employ? The answer might be more straightforward than we initially imagined.

Poker’s Golden Rule

There exists a fundamental golden rule in poker. Breaking this rule is never a good idea, although sometimes players are confused by it.

The Golden Rule“We should never take any line that doesn’t generate the maximum expectation (profit)”.

Sometimes players might imagine that it is ok to take a line that generates a lower (or even negative) expectation provided it “benefits other hands within their range”. Unfortunately, this is not how poker works. Our goal should always be to play every hand within our range at its maximum expectation. 

So how does this important concept relate to our discussion on GTO vs exploitative strategies?

Balancing Arbitrarily Doesn’t Maximize EV!

The way we generate the maximum expectation with a certain line is to directly target our opponents’ leaks (i.e. exploitative play). To adopt GTO strategies when our opponent is presenting us with a clear exploitative opportunity is actually a violation of poker’s golden rule. It would imply that we are deliberately taking lines which don’t maximize our expectation.

Players who look to employ GTO strategies against everyone hence demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of poker’s golden rule. Even in scenarios where our opponent is unknown, good players make use of population tendencies to develop default exploitative strategies (as opposed to default GTO strategies).

Population Tendencies (Definition) – Data collected via tracking software on the entire population of players at a certain room or network. The data can then be collated to show the tendencies of an average player in each spot. If don’t know the tendencies of a specific opponent, it makes sense to assume that they conform to the average tendencies.

If exploitative play is hence always best, what exactly is the relevance of GTO play?

GTO Play *IS* Exploitative Play

A handful of the best players understand that the classic “GTO vs Exploitative” debate is not a real debate at all. To illustrate, it’s a little like debating whether “Cadbury or Chocolate” is the best. The debate doesn’t make sense because Cadbury is a type of chocolate. In a similar way, a debate on “GTO vs Exploitative” implies that the two are polar opposites, which they are not. GTO poker is actually a form of exploitative poker. How so?

Let’s imagine a perfectly balanced opponent with zero leaks. What is the best exploitative strategy against such an opponent? Well, since that opponent is not presenting us with any exploitative opportunities, we maximize our expectation by also playing a GTO approach. In other words, a GTO approach is the maximally exploitative style when dealing with a perfectly balanced opponent. If our opponent was perfectly balanced, we’d absolutely choose to play GTO poker.

But…if our opponent is not balanced, then the maximally exploitative approach will not involve using GTO strategies. And we always want to take the maximally exploitative approach. After all, that’s poker’s golden rule!

The Value of GTO

Since almost none of our opponents will be playing a perfectly balanced game of poker, the key takeaway so far is as follows:

We should not be looking to employ GTO strategies against the vast majority of opponents.

In that case, why bother to learn GTO in the first place? Well, although we will not want to employ GTO strategies directly at the table (in most cases), there are a number of reasons why learning about GTO strategies can be beneficial for our development as poker players.

  1. It helps us to understand poker on a deeper level. If we understand what GTO play looks like, we will also be able to understand when our opponents are deviating from it. This makes us considerably more effective at generating efficient exploits.
  2. It can help us to find the best play in scenarios where we have no data on villain. Of course, if we have no data on villain, we’ll consult the data derived from our population tendencies. In some scenarios however(especially unorthodox situations), we won’t have any data on villain or the population. GTO strategies allow us to generate a reasonably effective counter without having any handle on our opponents’ tendencies.
  3. We may need GTO strategies against very tough, balanced opponents. Seeing as poker is not yet solved, such a situation would rarely present itself. But theoretically, if our opponent is perfectly balanced, the maximally exploitative counter is for us to play GTO poker ourselves.