GTO Versus White Magic: A Clash of Poker Philosophies

  • GTO uses mathematical analysis to determine optimal poker strategy when facing others’ actions
  • “White magic” involves reading opponents and using one’s behavior to affect them
  • Andy Black argues that “white magic” can help use one’s strength in life at the poker table
  • Dara O’Kearney contends that GTO is a better starting base for players and helps reduce mistakes
Glowing white card floating between two hands
Dara O’Kearney and Andy Black take sides in the game theory optimal (GTO) versus “white magic” poker strategy debate. [Image:]

Heavyweights debate

On the most recent episode of The Chip Race, I acted as an intermediary of sorts as my VegasSlotsOnline News colleague and co-host Dara O’Kearney engaged in a vigorous but good-natured debate with Ireland’s winningest poker player Andy Black. The segment was billed as Game Theory Optimal (GTO) versus White Magic. 

different philosophies, different routes into poker, and different coaching starting points 

This particular debate had been teased for quite some time, with the Irish Poker Tour expressing interest in having the two legends duke it out in a live setting. That may yet happen – in which case I hope our segment has whet the appetite for further discussion – but even if it doesn’t, I think the piece stands alone as an interesting clash of different philosophies, different routes into poker, and different coaching starting points. 

For the purposes of the debate, O’Kearney and Black were pitted as dueling representatives of the two opposing concepts, O’Kearney argued for GTO principles. His best-selling book GTO Poker Simplified espouses the virtues of unexploitable lines via balanced ranges. Black certainly recognizes the importance of having strong fundamentals, but he is also a believer in “white magic,” that somewhat ethereal Hellmuthian term which prioritizes the specific hand that you are playing and draws upon hand and people reading abilities to diverge successfully from game theory.

What is GTO? 

Game theory is the branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of strategies for dealing with competitive situations where the outcome of a participant’s choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. Essentially, the objective of game theory is to figure out an optimal strategy. In other words, no matter what your opponents do, they cannot beat you long term. At best, they can break even by also playing optimally. This optimal strategy solution is known as “Nash equilibrium.” 

In No-Limit Hold’em, game theory optimal in its purest sense is not yet known and likely never will be owing to the game’s complexity but, using solver software, we can create useful toy games which have GTO solutions. The hand ranges and a limited number of options for actions on each street are input and then the solver iterates on strategies for each player until a balance point is found. 

good players will begin to recognize patterns and infer heuristics

The point is that armed with these solutions, good players will begin to recognize patterns and infer heuristics which will then massively benefit them in similar future situations. That is not to say that they will stick rigidly to those strategies. Of course, there will be times when they may choose to diverge but even then, it will be a divergence from this sound baseline strategy. 

What is white magic?

On a 2021 episode of No Gamble, No Future, Hellmuth was asked about white magic, a term he invented, and he told the story about a non-standard fold he made when his opponent shoved into him blind versus blind for 15 big blinds. According to “The Poker Brat,” the player was giving off strength tells and for him, “reading trumps everything,” so he laid down Ace-Ten. 

Another time, when he was asked about white magic, he was a little more cryptic, saying: “you don’t understand my mysterious and unseen powers.” Well, trying to decode the sorcery at play, author Zach Elwood wrote an excellent article entitled: “What Is Phil Hellmuth’s White Magic? Can We Define It?” In one section, the renowned poker tells expert focuses on the 16-time world champion’s ability to adapt to how people react to his belligerent behavior at the table: 

“Hellmuth often offends people. He often gets on their nerves. And so he generates many opportunities to get… reads.”

Elwood then gives an example of how a hand might play out between Hellmuth and a player who he has annoyed: 

Hellmuth knows his opponent is unlikely to act that way if he were bluffing

“Hellmuth and his opponent get in a hand and they get to the river. Hellmuth’s opponent goes all-in. Hellmuth insults him and his opponent fires back with a quick insult, very loose. Or, more subtly, maybe he stays quiet and only a brief flash of irritaton crosses his face. For either of these reactions, Hellmuth knows his opponent is unlikely to act that way if he were bluffing. Hellmuth folds.”

Elwood then offers a counter-example:

“Later on, the two get into another hand and his opponent makes a significant river bet. Hellmuth whines and berates his opponent, but his opponent is stoic and neutral, and doesn’t give anything way. Hellmuth is much more likely to call here.”

Less GTO is better?

The debate between O’Kearney and Black kicked off with me harkening back to Black’s first visit to The Chip Race when he said how when you are in a hand, being up against Kings feels different to being up against Aces, that they have their unique signature or energy into which an attuned player can tap. Feeling that difference and responding to it correctly seemed to quite nicely incapsulate the idea of white magic, but Black immediately reframed the conversation.

Black was keen to address what he believes is a preponderance of GTO material in the poker coaching realm. He contended that its domination of the space is at the expense of a more individually tailored humanistic approach to the game. He also suggested that roughly half of all poker players and the majority of recreational players would benefit more from a coaching methodology that looked to exploit their strengths in other facets of their life, honing in on the traits that have cross-over application. 

the way for some of them to get better is to be a bit more thorough”

“There are a whole bevvy-load of recreationals who are the heart blood of the game and I think that the way for some of them to get better is to be a bit more thorough, looking at stuff like focus and awareness, looking at the game in slightly more broad strokes… through that, you manage to find a composure.”

More GTO is better? 

By contrast, O’Kearney argued that by incorporating GTO principles you can improve and move up the stakes faster because you have a game that can win at all levels. In other words, your core game is scalable and not reliant on working out the specific exploits that work versus the different population tendencies at different stakes. 

In his book GTO Poker Simplified, O’Kearney says that playing GTO “means not having a leak in your game like bluffing too much or too little or calling too much or too little that can be exploited by another player.” He believes that shoring up these technical leaks and developing a play style that is more fundamentally sound is actually the best first step for recreational players.

O’Kearney also believes that it is often through GTO work and solver learning that players achieve the poise and composure that Black values so highly:

a systematic studious approach, not based on what happens, but based on learning a strategy”

“It comes from the way that they have gotten good technically at the game. They apply that to other areas as well… [poker] gave them an approach, a systematic studious approach, not based on what happens, but based on learning a strategy, which they are then able to apply, not just to other areas of poker but other areas of their life.”

Two different approaches

As the moderator of the debate, I was keen not to polarize either participant. To do so would have been disingenuous. It’s not like O’Kearney has never made a read on a player who was giving off tells and did the opposite of what a solver would have done. Similarly, it’s not like Black is out there just winging it without some baseline fundamentals. 

the crux of their difference is in the order and priority of things

I was also happy to embrace the redefining of white magic and the focus on the recreational player’s way into the game because I think it ultimately leads to more common ground. It struck me that both O’Kearney and Black want to coach players to be as good as they can be, but the crux of their difference is in the order and priority of things. 

O’Kearney gives players knowledge and teaches the ability to self-teach, believing that good execution relies on first having a solid base of understanding. Black works on a player’s execution first, believing that the ability to absorb information and build a knowledge base relies on first learning how to be receptive and aware. 

White magic is black magic? 

Ultimately, players seeking out coaching need to decide which methodology would work best for them. I can certainly see how Black’s approach could be valuable to a player who is struggling with a lack of composure and perhaps also a feeling that there is an overwhelming amount of material to consume in order to get proficient in the game. 

I do, however, lean more towards the O’Kearney modus operandi, as I think of GTO both a baseline and as a defensive posture against elite opponents. As such, it is the rock upon which I can build my game and that, in turn, gives me confidence. From there, confidence breeds composure and with composure comes (I hope) sharp execution. 

Black said: “Even if you cannot see something, it doesn’t mean it is not there”. That may be true, but I personally prefer to put my faith in things I can see, and solver output provides that. I am reminded by a famous line from The Sea, The Sea by the great novelist and philosopher Iris Murdock:

“White magic is black magic. A less than perfect meddling in the spiritual world can breed monsters for other people, and demons used for good can hang around and make mischief afterwards.”

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