I think it’s time to talk about Game Theory Optimal (GTO) vs Exploitative play.
This subject seems to confuse a lot of you guys based on how often I hear it asked about and mis-used. It’s a complex subject, so I understand the confusion.
GTO vs Exploitative play has been an ongoing discussion in the poker community for a long time now. And it’s been coming up more and more often as GTO has become a widely used term that basically means “optimal” or even just “good.”
In this article, I’ll break down how and when to use each strategy. But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page and define them.
Prefer watching to reading? Scroll to the bottom of this page for the video version of this article.
What is Game Theory Optimal (GTO)?
The term GTO gets thrown around a lot in the poker community, albeit rarely in a correct or constructive way.
If you were to play a true Game Theory Optimal style, it would be impossible for your opponents to exploit you. The absolute best they could do is break even…
…but it is not quite as amazing as it sounds. There are some practical problems with attempting to play a GTO style.
The Problems with Playing GTO
No Limit Hold’em is not yet a solved game, thus there is no known, truly GTO strategy.
No matter how well-balanced you think your strategy may be, there will always be exploitable weaknesses.
Even if the GTO strategy was known, it would be basically impossible for any human being to utilize it without the assistance of a computer. No Limit Hold’em is just too complex of a game for that.
Right now, the best you can do is try to emulate GTO play by attempting to make unexploitable plays based on known theoretical concepts…
…but by doing that, you run the risk of ignoring the tendencies of your opponents and consequently failing to recognize if they are exploiting your strategy.
That’s where exploitative play comes in.
How Does Exploitative Play Differ from GTO Play?
An exploitative strategy is one where you identify and exploit imbalances in the strategies of your opponents.
In other words, you find and attack weaknesses in your opponents game, even if it creates some of your own.
By definition, an exploitative strategy is a deviation from a balanced, GTO strategy, which leads to some drawbacks as well.
The Problems with Exploitative Play
The biggest weakness of exploitative play is that it opens the door for your opponents to exploit you back.
You have to be extremely sensitive and conscious of your opponents tendencies when utilizing exploitative strategies. If and when your opponent catches on, they will make an adjustment to counter your strategy. You will then have to re-adjust or risk being exploited yourself.
Higher variance also comes with an exploitative style.
Exploitative decisions are based on information or assumptions about your opponent’s game. So, when you make a play based on what turns out to be mis-information or an incorrect assumption, it can be extremely costly.
How to Play a GTO-Based Style
As mentioned above, the GTO style in No Limit Hold’em is still unknown. It’s impossible for any computer, let alone a human, to play perfect GTO (though that may change soon).
That said, understanding the theory of poker and knowing how to utilize it at the table is a huge asset.
In order to play an effective GTO-based style, you must construct well-balanced ranges for every possible line.
When betting, your goal is to make your opponent theoretically indifferent between calling and folding, which can be accomplished in two steps:
Step 1: Calculate the pot odds your opponent is being offered against your bet and express it as a ratio.
Step 2: Construct your betting range with the same ratio of value bets to bluffs.
Let’s boil this down further with an example:
$5/$10 Heads Up on PokerStars, $1,000 Effective Stacks
River (Pot: $200)
Villain checks, Hero bets $200
Villain is facing a pot sized bet of $200 on the river, which means they’re getting 2-to-1 odds on a call and must be ahead at least 33% of the time to call.
Here, the correct ratio of value bets to bluffs as Hero is 2-to-1, meaning that Hero’s betting range should consist of 66% value bets and 33% bluffs. This will make Villain indifferent between calling and folding, as the expected value of both actions is 0.
Hero is basically freerolling Villain making a mistake. Sure, Villain could play perfectly, which would result in the two players splitting the costs of rake. More likely though, Villain will make mistakes with some hands sending EV to Hero in the process.
If you’re still having trouble grasping this concept or just want to hear it explained in a different way, check out this excerpt (~7 minutes long) from a YouTube video I released earlier this month:
As you can probably imagine, a perfectly balanced GTO strategy requires a lot of thought and time to construct.
Luckily, you don’t really need to play a perfect GTO strategy. Constructing precisely optimal ranges in the middle of a hand is very difficult (sometimes impossible) and not necessary.
What you do need to do is play a strategy based on known GTO concepts.
(Note: Learn to play the perfect blend of GTO & Exploitative in The Poker Lab! Ryan Fee & I teach a practical, easy to implement strategy in this extensive poker training course. Click HERE or on the image below to learn more.)
The Pros and Cons of a GTO-Based Approach
Employing a GTO-based strategy has a number of practical benefits.
- GTO-based play is difficult to exploit.
As mentioned many times above, the goal of a GTO style is to be unexploitable. This makes it a reliable strategy that, if executed well, effectively guarantees long term success.
- A GTO-based strategy is profitable against almost any opponent.
A GTO-based approach will have marginal success(or better) against almost any opponent, especially the tougher ones.
Players with very unusual tendencies that require major strategic adjustments are the exception, but their leaks are often so obvious that you’ll notice and adjust to them immediately (more on that shortly).
- A GTO-based approach is a perfect default strategy.
“Adjustments” is a commonly used word when discussing poker strategy, but before you can adjust anything, you need to have a default gameplan.
A GTO-based approach is the ideal choice for a default strategy for the reasons mentioned above: it’s difficult to exploit and it works against almost any opponent.
However, playing a GTO style also has a huge drawback.
- A GTO-based style will not always make the most profitable play.
By definition, a GTO approach does not factor in your opponent’s tendencies, including the exploitable ones.
In other words, a truly GTO-based strategy will often times pass up on the most +EV decision for the sake of balance.
This hurts the EV of some individual hands, but makes your range more profitable as a whole. Most of the time, especially at lower stakes, there’s no need to make this EV sacrifice when there are gaping holes in your opponents’ games to exploit.
Imagine being at the table with an extremely loose player who is raising 50% of hands preflop from all positions. Taking a GTO approach against such an opponent would be leaving a ton of money on the table. Making an exploitative adjustment, such as 3-betting a wider range to isolate the loose player, is the superior option here.
How to Play an Exploitative Style
Employing an effective exploitative strategy requires paying close attention to the tendencies and frequencies of your opponents.
If you are playing online, using tracker software will allow you to make extremely specific (and effective) adjustments based on your opponent’s statistics.
If you are playing live, keep an eye on the action in every hand, even the ones you are not involved in. There are times where you can identify huge leaks in a player from just one or two showdowns. For example:
$2/$5 at the Bellagio, $500 Effective Stacks
Hero is dealt UTG
folds to co, Cutoff raises to $20, 2 folds, Big Blind calls
Flop (Pot: $42)
Big Blind checks, Cutoff bets $25, Big Blind raises to $70, Cutoff calls
Turn (Pot: $182)
Big Blind bets $90, Cutoff calls
River (Pot: $262)
Big Blind checks, Cutoff checks
Big Blind shows
Cutoff wins $262 with a pair of Queens
This one showdown yielded a lot of information about both players, particularly the Big Blind. Let’s consider what was learned and how you could use it to exploit these opponents:
- The Big Blind check/raised the flop with a medium top pair.
The Big Blind’s flop play indicates that he likes to go for very merged check/raises on the flop. As a result, his check/call range will contain mostly draws and middle-to-weak pairs.
This is a very easy strategy to exploit. Start by checking the flop with all of your medium strength hands (if you weren’t already). C-betting a hand like AT or J2s and facing a check/raise is a disastrous scenario against this player.
When the Big Blind just check/calls the flop, exploit that weak range by value betting thinner and bluffing more often.
- The Big Blind’s bet sizing was indicative of his hand.
On such a dynamic flop, the Big Blind should be using relatively large bet sizes to extract max-value before the turn or river has a chance to alter the board texture. Instead, he chose to use small sizes (less than half pot) on both the flop and turn.
The sizes make more sense after seeing the J♠9♠. It’s hard to say for sure without a larger sample, but it seems like the Big Blind kept his sizes small so the Cutoff could more easily continue with worse made hands.
Since the Big Blind is unlikely to barrel multiple streets with such a merged range, you can counter this bet sizing tell by raising a wider range prior to the river (containing both value hands and draws).
- The Cutoff didn’t go for a thin river value bet.
Despite the Cutoff having a lot of missed draws in his range, he chose not to value bet with an overpair. Granted, he had just faced a somewhat concerning flop check/raise and turn barrel, but it’s still a reasonable spot to go for some thin value on the river.
This is a less exploitable mistake than the ones made by the Big Blind, but it’s still exploitable. If this player isn’t willing to bet strong one pairs for value on the river, you can counter him by bluff-catching against his river bets when draws miss.
If you just zoned out after folding that 92o, you would have missed out on all of that valuable information.
Adjusting and Readjusting
Exploitative styles must be fluid.
As mentioned earlier, deviating from GTO opens you up to exploitation and in order to avoid that, you have to be ready to adjust your strategy at a moments notice. For example:
Imagine you are playing an opponent who folds to c-bets on the flop 80% of the time. This is easily exploitable by adjusting your c-betting range in two major ways:
- C-bet all of the air and vulnerable made hands in your range to take advantage of his high fold frequency.
- Check back most, if not all, of the strong hands in your range to keep your opponent in the pot.
However, if your opponent ever catches on, he can own you pretty hard by re-adjusting in the following ways:
- Call with more marginal hands on the flop.
- Check/raise bluff the flop with a high frequency.
- Probe the turn with a very value-heavy range using a large size.
- Trap check the turn with his nutted hands, intending to check/raise.
As a result, you will have to re-re-adjust your strategy accordingly. Making the proper adjustments and re-adjustments is one of the most crucial aspects of playing an exploitative style, and it becomes even more important as you move up in stakes.
If you could take one thing out of this article, make it this: Be careful not to make adjustments with too little or unreliable information.
Too often, I hear and read people say things like “How could you bluff there? He’s NEVER folding!” Sure, if you somehow knew your opponent was never folding a spot, you could adjust by never bluffing…
…but rarely is that actually the case, and absolute statements like these are rarely backed up with reliable evidence. Don’t make decisions based on shaky assumptions like these.
Best Of Both: Employing A Mixed Strategy
In practice, the most effective style to use is a mix of both GTO-based and Exploitative play (which is why we teach it in The Poker Lab).
Generally speaking, if you have no information or reads on your opponents, utilize a GTO-based style. That way, you will probably be beating most of your opponents while being difficult to exploit yourself.
As your session progresses, you will pick up on ways to exploit your opponents’ tendencies and add exploitative plays into your strategy where they seem appropriate.
Stay aware of how players respond to your adjustments and be ready to counter their counter. Remember, you can always go back to that baseline GTO-based strategy and adjust from there.
(Note: Want to improve your poker game, move up in stakes and win more money? Check out The Poker Lab, a training course that teaches a practical strategy that works in low, mid and even high stakes games. The Lab is the best and most efficient way to get better at poker, but don’t take my word for it, see what our members are saying HERE.)
GTO vs Exploitative Play (Video)
I have over $5,000,000 in live tournament winnings. In 2014, I won my first World Series of Poker Bracelet, followed up with a 2nd bracelet in 2016.
My online winnings are over $2,000,000 on Full Tilt and PokerStars alone, mostly at Heads Up No Limit, and those graphs are publicly available on HighStakesDB.