Should you play GTO or exploitative poker

Should you play GTO or exploitative poker?

There has been a lot of debate over the years between the GTO (Game Theory Optimal) and exploitative players. Part of the debate is based on misunderstandings around what GTO and exploitative play really is. One common misunderstanding is that playing GTO will be break-even. Another common misunderstanding is that you can look at an isolated situation and claim that playing GTO will make you exploitable. For example, when facing a nit bet on the river and you know the nit has aces or kings. Let us take a closer look at what GTO and exploitative play is. 

GTO is a way of playing that makes it impossible for your opponents to exploit you. Even if they know exactly what your ranges are and how you play them, they cannot win money from you. It is a mathematically sound strategy that is created by poker solvers (for example PIO Solver and MonkerSolver) and there is no way around it. With that being said, the game is not completely solved yet, especially not for multiplayer scenarios. But assuming we know and are able to replicate GTO (it is incredibly complex and not quite possible for human brains to implement fully) the above is true.

Exploitative play is almost the opposite. It means adapting your play to take maximum advantage of your opponents mistakes. If you know that your opponent folds too often to a steal, you will steal with a wider range.

Since exploitative play by definition means you are deviating from GTO it also means you are opening yourself up to being exploited by other players.

So what about the common misunderstandings mentioned in the introduction? First question around GTO being break-even – this is actually true if you are playing against perfect GTO bots, but that is never the case in reality. So whenever your opponent makes a mistake and deviates from GTO, you will benefit. Some mistakes will be huge and you will benefit  a lot. At micro stakes this will happen frequently. 

In the other case with the nit, with kings and aces, it is true that playing GTO and not adapting to what you know about his ranges will be losing EV to him. But if you look at the whole game tree in a holistic way, the nit will be losing a ton of money to you overall, because of all deviations from GTO (mistakes) he is making.

Back to the question, should you play GTO or exploitative poker? Here is the answer:

  • If you play above micro stakes you should learn and incorporate GTO into your play.
  • If you want to be able to climb above micro stakes you should learn and incorporate GTO into your play.
  • You should definitely play exploitative poker under the right conditions – at all levels.

If you are a recreational player and you do not have any ambition to really learn the game well and rise to higher levels it is fine to ignore GTO. You can play with a good winrate at micro stakes and low stakes and be completely ignorant about GTO. This works well since your opponents are not capable of exploiting your mistakes. Even though some of the players at the micro stakes or low stakes will be capable of exploiting your mistakes, those are not the ones you are targeting with your exploitative moves.

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