With a lot of hype going around game theory optimal poker (GTO), one may wonder whether GTO answers all poker dilemmas. The truth is that in most real case situations, even if GTO can give useful insights, it is not the best tool to apply. Real players are imperfect, and using a proficient exploitative poker strategy to take advantage of their shortcomings will be way more profitable!
Even if GTO and exploitative strategy are on opposite sides, understanding GTO is essential to playing good exploitative poker. It helps you grasp what having a balanced game means. Therefore, it serves as a baseline, showing you when opponents deviate from it and how to counter their leaks!
A little about game theory and GTO
Game theory is a mathematical way of studying strategic interaction among rational decision-makers, like most poker players. The Nash equilibrium is a solution where all players, even knowing the strategy of others, have nothing to gain by altering their plan.
A simple example
Let’s consider a trivial example; the familiar game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. The Nash equilibrium is achieved when all players choose randomly between the three options – a third of the time Rock, a third of the time Paper, and a third of the time Scissors.
GTO and poker
Poker, and particularly multiplayer, no-limit, is so complex that such equilibriums are not always reachable. However, understanding the principles of game theory can help in some cases to balance your play and make it unexploitable. For example, if you steal-raise in a blind versus blind preflop situation, using GTO, you can find a balanced mix of value and bluff raises. This way, you can know that, even if your opponent reads into your strategy, that you steal x% of the time, you have enough value raises in your mix that your opponent cannot profitably reraise you out of the pot!
So, what about exploitative poker?
Nevertheless, in real life, players have different playing styles and capabilities. So, they most often play far from equilibriums. This leads to the optimal play for an observant player not being one that is close to the Nash equilibrium, but one that exploits the opponent’s deficiencies!
In our rock-paper-scissors example, consider that an opponent tends not to choose more than two times in a row the same object. If, for instance, he selects two times in a row Rock, in the next round, he is more likely to select Paper or Scissors. In that case, sticking to your game theory equilibrium (choosing at random) will give you a zero expectancy. However, this is not the optimal strategy for you as you can exploit your opponent’s play by adapting accordingly. In our example, you can choose Scissors. As it is less probable that your opponent chooses Rock, you have less of 1/3 probability of losing, and more than 1/3 probability of winning (when he goes for Paper), or breaking even (when he goes for Scissors)!
In our example of blind versus blind confrontation, your opponent may be folding more than he should. So, in that case, sticking to your balanced mix of bluffs and value raises is not the most suitable strategy. It will be more profitable for you to widen your range, and include more bluff raises!
Exploitative poker and playing styles
Most poker players, and notably weaker ones, have leaks in their games. This means that their strategy has some imbalances that you can exploit. This is when exploitative strategy comes into play. It is a way of adapting your game to take advantage of your opponent’s imperfect game.
Players, particularly weak ones, have betting habits that deviate from the baseline strategy. Some players limp too much preflop, while others raise too often. Some call too loosely while others fold too easily! These patterns often reflect their overall playing style.
At a higher level, players’ styles are divided into loose versus tight and passive versus aggressive. These combined create four basic playing styles. Under normal circumstances, meaning average effective stack sizes and no antes, the tight-aggressive form is the most balanced among them.
Against a loose-passive opponent, you can play a few more speculative hands and tune down your aggression. By playing more drawing hands, like suited connectors, you allow yourself to play more hands post-flop and exploit your opponent’s weaknesses on later streets. Also, against a calling station, you have less fold equity. So don’t try to make sophisticated bluffs or semi-bluffs. Opt to see flops cheaply, then mostly check your drawing hands and value bet your made hands! Even on the river, you will be able to pull off more thin value bets against a loose-passive opponent.
Against a loose-aggressive player, you may want to play more passively. Play solid hands and let your opponent bluff his money away when you have a strong hand!
Against a tight-passive player, you can increase your aggression! What you hold becomes less significant, as you can win many hands by making your opponent fold.
Keep changing gears!
Take note that by deviating from the equilibrium, you expose yourself and can potentially be exploited by your opponent. For that reason, when you play exploitative poker, and your opponents catch up to your way of playing, you need to change gears!
In general, tight-aggressive poker is a balanced style, as it incorporates a fair mix of bluffs and value bets. However, if you have deviated from the baseline, or if your opponents think that you have, take advantage of your own image! If your opponents’ perception of your play shifts to one end, use it to your advantage by moving to the opposite!
For example, let’s say that you are dealt a few premium starting hands in a row and raise many times before the flop. As you may seem to be playing too loosely, play tighter than you normally do. This way, you will exploit the ones trying to take advantage of your presumed loose style! On the contrary, if you are dealt terrible cards for many consecutive rounds and keep folding, your opponents may think that you are playing too tightly. So, loosen up, take advantage of your image, and try making some bluffs!
Exploitative poker against skilled opponents
When facing very skilled poker players, exploitative poker becomes less interesting for two main reasons. Firstly, competent poker players generally have more balanced strategies, giving you less room to outmaneuver them. Secondly, by playing exploitative poker, you distance your game from the baseline, leaving room for your skilled opponent to take exploit! For these reasons, you should maintain a more balanced approach when facing solid, experienced poker players.
There are, nonetheless, exceptions to this rule. When a skilled poker player tries to exploit the weakness of another opponent, he may offer an opportunity for others. For example, in a poker tournament, as blinds increase and antes kick-in, some poker pros start open-raising preflop too loosely against weak-tight blinds, allowing you to re-steal under the proper conditions.
In a nutshell
As real poker players make imbalanced plays, using exploitative poker is the best way to take advantage of their leaks. GTO can be useful in showing you what the baseline is and helping you understand when your opponents deviate from it. Then, using exploitative strategies, you can reach optimal profitability!