Solver Strange Love: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love GTO

  • When done perfectly, GTO makes it impossible for your opponents to exploit you at the table
  • GTO serves as both a baseline poker strategy and a defensive posture
  • Solver programs can help poker players better learn GTO and apply it to their game
  • Dara O’Kearney and Barry Carter’s new book, GTO Poker Simplified, is a great gateway into GTO
Major Kong riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove
Game theory optimal (GTO) poker is not the easiest to learn, but doing so can put poker players on a path to an unexploitable strategy. [Image: YouTube/MrsJsHistory]

Impossible to exploit

The phrase GTO has been bandied around in the poker space for the past decade or so, often misused and misunderstood as it pertains to the game we love. Game theory is essentially the branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of strategies deployed in competitive situations where the outcome of a participant’s choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. 

your opponents could, in the long run, do no better than break even against you

Game theory optimal (GTO) is a “perfect” way to play a game that makes it impossible to be exploited by opponents. In other words, if you play a perfect GTO strategy, your opponents could, in the long run, do no better than break even against you, and crucially that would only be if they played a perfect GTO strategy themselves.

In No-Limit Hold’em poker, game theory optimal in its purest sense is not yet known and likely never will be owing to the game’s complexity, but what we can do is limit the options for actions on each street and create useful toy games which have GTO solutions. By studying these solutions, poker players can infer heuristics which massively benefit them in similar situations that they come upon in the course of play. 

Balance is sexy

This strategy of playing unexploitably for a draw will always win EV from opponents who are unbalanced in the long term, but it does not capitalize maximally on those opponents the way that a specifically targeted exploitative strategy would. The first problem is knowing exactly what that specific exploitative strategy is and executing it. The second problem is that diverging from GTO is a decision to play unbalanced yourself and therefore in a way that can be exploited. 

both a baseline and a defensive posture

For that reason, I like to think of GTO in poker as both a baseline and a defensive posture. I like to study GTO principles so that I can learn the right play versus a perfect opponent and then make my divergences based on either population tendencies or specific opponent vulnerabilities. I also like to study GTO principles so that I can retreat to them when I feel outmatched by superior opponents. If I can closely approximate a balanced strategy, then I might stand a chance versus elite players. 

Parking the proverbial bus in front of the goal can obviously be construed as a “negative” strategy and stalemates are inherently duller affairs in many endeavors. In poker, however, this is simply not the case. Balance means finding the correct number of bluffs in every situation. Balance means deploying tiny bets and overbets. Balance means hero calling with the right blocker. Balance isn’t just elegant, it’s sexy. 

F**k GTO?

In 2018, poker pro Charlie Carrel made a video entitled “F**k GTO,” in which he argued that GTO learning is detrimental to an up and coming player. He insisted that poker is a guessing game where you strive to be better at guessing than your opponent. As a game of incomplete information, it can certainly be framed in that way, but I think whether GTO learning is beneficial ultimately boils down to how the student is wired. 

Carrel has a flair for the experimental and improvisational. If poker is both science and art, then he is an artist. Having played against him, there’s no doubt in my mind that, when it comes to poker, his logical and mathematical facilities are strong, but he certainly excels in the game of cat and mouse, probing for weakness and inducing errors. 

If a goalkeeper facing a penalty kick has three choices – dive left, dive right or stay still – then the GTO solution is for him to randomize among all three. The “F**k GTO” solution is to hang from the crossbar, jump up and down on the line, try to goad the penalty-taker by telling him which way you plan to dive, and then watch the striker’s body language in the run-up and choose which way to go at the last possible second. It’s an approach that has brought Carrel tremendous success on the felt, but it’s not for everyone. 

Finding equilibrium

The GTO debate is actually a re-hash of an old dichotomy in poker. Fifteen years ago, players were pigeon-holed into two categories: “the feel player” and “the math player.” While our knowledge about the game paled in comparison to what we know now, there was still a sense that individuals leaned into the human psychology/behaviorism aspect of the game, or they built their game around probabilities and pot odds. 

even the most exploitative players these days generally acknowledge that they use solvers

Fundamentally, poker is a logical discourse – a question and answer game – and as our knowledge base has grown and the average player has become more sophisticated, we have converged on equilibrium. Even the most exploitative players these days generally acknowledge that they use solvers, node-locking where appropriate so as to better understand the correct deviations. 

In fact, in March of this year, the clever people over at Finding Equilibrium produced an excellent video on how, far from his “play the player and not the cards” philosophy, Carrel actually uses “a very methodical approach that focuses on EV maximization through range construction and probability assessments,” the very foundation of game theory. 

Deoxidizing my rusty poker brain

Many players, including myself, are better suited to learning about fundamentals, pillars of knowledge which they can rely upon. In 2019, Dominik Nitsche and Markus Prinz released the DTO poker training app and, for me personally, this piece of kit was a game changer. 

I was struggling to get a foothold in the new solver paradigm

Having moved away from full-time poker playing when my son was born in 2017, I was ready to work hard again on my game, but I was struggling to get a foothold in the new solver paradigm. I knew the vernacular and I could grasp the framework in a study context, but I didn’t have time to run my own sims in PioSolver and in the heat of battle, I knew that I was lapsing into bad habits. DTO allowed me to get in my reps, but crucially when I blundered, it didn’t cost me money and it told me the line I should have taken. From that information, I could examine the why and that process deoxidize my rusty poker brain. 

That same year, two great books came out on the subject of GTO in poker – Michael Acevedo’s Modern Poker Theory and Andrew Brokos’ Play Optimal Poker – two towering pieces of poker literature that will undoubtedly stand the test of time. Both also contributed enormously to my own thought development and while it’s hard to find criticisms of either, one feature of them both is they are difficult to access if you don’t already have a solid grounding in poker theory.

GTO Poker Simplified

Working with solvers is difficult, especially for someone who came up in an earlier poker paradigm. GTO concepts are complex and that can be intimidating, even for experienced players as solver output doesn’t explain the why. That is something the people running the sim must intuit themselves. 

the perfect gateway into solver learning

Recognizing that gap in the market, acclaimed poker authors Dara O’Kearney and Barry Carter have just released their new book, GTO Poker Simplified. Like their three previous collaborations, there is plenty in the text for advanced players, but this book has an accessibility both in its presentation and structure, making complicated ideas easy to understand. It is the perfect gateway into solver learning and the perfect companion book for a player who is already trying to incorporate game theory principles into their game. 

GTO poker might be an impossible ideal, but the journey toward it is a noble one which has been undertaken by many players. Thanks to GTO Poker Simplified, more will commit to the solver odyssey and for many of them, the knowledge gained will be a recipe for success.