What is GTO in Poker Strategy?

Black and gold playing cards and poker chips against a black background.

Imagine playing online poker so well that your opponents can never take advantage of you, no matter how they try. That’s the objective of Game Theory Optimal (GTO) poker strategy, a mathematically based model that seeks to produce flawless play. In theory, a GTO master will be able to determine the mathematically optimal play for any specific poker situation and become unexploitable as a result. Sounds great, right? Just plug in a mathematical formula corresponding to your hand and the board, and you’re guaranteed never to lose. In reality, things aren’t quite that simple. 

Poker is so mathematically complex that a true GTO solution remains out of reach for the present moment. However, GTO strategy is an invaluable method of thinking about and learning poker. Combined with old-fashioned exploitative play, GTO can help you dominate when you play Texas hold-em poker online. Let’s run through the basics of GTO in poker strategy.

Understanding GTO

What are we trying to achieve when we apply GTO strategy in poker? The answer is simple. We are trying to develop a math-based style of play that makes us virtually unexploitable by balancing our range. Consider the fact that poker is a game of probability. Whatever your hand is, there’s a certain chance that your opponent is holding something better. If you can make a decision that maximizes your expected value based on the hands you could be playing and your opponent’s potential hand range, then you’re playing according to GTO strategy. In the best-case scenario, your opponent won’t ever be able to do better than break even against you. Ultimately, this should have a very positive influence on your win rate.

Opening charts

So, how exactly do you determine the mathematically optimal play for a specific poker situation? If you’re mathematically inclined, you can take an online course and study poker math in depth. Alternatively, you can make use of the various GTO tools that exist. One of the most useful – especially from a beginner’s perspective – is what’s known as a pre-flop opening chart (these are easily available online.) When the action folds to you, you need to decide whether to open-raise. This handy poker aid takes the sweat out of the decision by showing the right hands in this situation, according to your position at the table.

Poker players and a dealer, playing at a blue felt table.

Equity calculators

Another useful tool for GTO players is an equity calculator. Equity relates to the amount you can expect to win on average over multiple instances of a specific situation, otherwise known as your pot odds. If you know your equity value, you can make better decisions on whether to call or raise bets. This cool-headed, long-distance approach is especially useful when it comes to online poker tournaments. You can also use an equity calculator to evaluate your decisions and learn from your mistakes after the game. If you’re trying to get inside a specific opponent’s head, you can use your equity calculator to analyze their hands and get some insight into their decision-making process.

GTO solvers

If you’re truly serious about taking GTO strategy on board, then you’ll want to invest in a poker solver such as PioSolver or PokerSnowie. These are incredibly powerful pieces of software that you can use to analyze practically any poker situation and come up with an optimally balanced play. The way it works is that you give the solver inputs to work with based on options, including each player’s pre-flop ranges, bet size, raise size, effective stack size, pot size, and the possibility of an opponent donk-leading (giving up the chance to effectively act last on the flop). The solver then outputs the optimal strategy for the options you provided. Naturally, like a genie granting wishes, the answers a poker solver gives you are only as good as the questions you put in – and remember there’s always the element of luck to factor in too. Keep your inputs as close to reality as possible and try to understand why the solver plays certain hands in a certain way so you can identify and internalize patterns and concepts related to the situations that interest you.

Exploitative play versus GTO

GTO strategy is incredibly powerful, but it isn’t guaranteed to yield the greatest value every time you play poker games online. That’s because GTO assumes that your opponent is also playing optimally. This ignores the reality that your opponent may have certain tendencies when they play. Exploiting these tendencies can often be more profitable than trying to apply mathematical models. This is especially true in live poker tournaments, where the best players identify weaknesses based on live reads. To get the difference between GTO and exploitative play, think about the simple old game of rock, paper, scissors. A player who adopted a GTO approach would play rock, paper and scissors around 33% of the time each – and get exploited in no time. An exploitative strategy, on the other hand, might go for 24% rock, 33% paper and 43% scissors. This would exploit players that use paper more (because your scissors would beat it,) but is vulnerable to players who tend to use rock. Obviously, you’d adjust your strategy according to your opponent’s tendencies while mixing up your play so as to be unpredictable.

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