Advanced Poker Strategy: Exploitative vs. GTO
When to Apply GTO versus Exploitative
Let’s begin with a fitting metaphor from the book How to be a Poker Player by the nosebleed HU expert Haseeb Qureshi (aka InternetPokers aka dogishead):
Keep your ship fortified where your attention cannot reach, and in the places that your attention is active and continual, that’s where you want to be playing exploitably and opening yourself up to attack. Because your own attention is limited, it is a valuable defensive strategy to try to play unexploitably.
He touches on a key aspect: to play exploitative poker necessarily leaves YOU exploitable. If you play purely exploitative poker, then eventually the better regs (assuming they exist in your game) are going to notice and attack you. Some attacks will be obvious, but others will be subtle, and you may not notice. Therefore, as Haseeb suggests, choose your battles carefully. Default to game theory optimal poker (GTO), when you are not sure how to exploit your opponent.
How does balanced play fit in? To play GTO is to play a balanced strategy, but to play a balanced strategy does not necessarily mean you are playing GTO poker. For example, if you only raise the flop with monsters you are playing exploitatively. If you raise the flop with the occasional bluff, but mostly monsters you are balancing. But to reach GTO, you must be raising the flop with a specific ratio of monsters to bluffs (usually many more bluffs).
Consider the extent to which you choose to approximate GTO play. It is not purely a duality. Your objective is not do I play GTO or not. It is: how balanced do I need to be? Do I want to be value-heavy in this spot or bluff-heavy? Do I want to slightly over-bluff compared to GTO or slightly under-bluff?
If you always raise flops for value, good villains will learn to always fold. If you always bluff, they will always bluff catch. If you play GTO, perhaps they still call too much. Your most profitable strategy is then to balance, but lean towards value. And of course game flow is dynamic. For example, once they catch you bluffing with little equity, good villains will start to call you more, and you can adjust accordingly.
How to Learn GTO Poker Strategy
Start by reading my 3 simple techniques for applying GTO Poker Strategy. Next, I would check out Matthew Janda’s book “Applications of No Limit Hold’em”. It is an advanced strategy book and probably requires multiple readings, but it will thoroughly cover GTO poker. This will also ensure you know the appropriate ratios and how to calculate them (e.g. generally continuation bet flops with twice as many semi-bluffs as value hands).
Know your Ranges
Work out all of your ranges for every situation: open raise, 3-bet, cold call, call 3-bet, etc. In order to know which hands to put in which lines post-flop, you must of course know what your post-flop range will be! The majority of players I coach have only a vague idea of what their ranges are. To become a great player, you must put hours into tools like Equilab and Flopzilla until you know all of your ranges by heart and can visualize them easily.
Do your Hand Reviews
From here it is all about hand reviews. Make your best attempts at the table, but then mark the hands while you play to review later. During your poker study time, thoroughly work out which hands you are doing what with using the ratios you’ve learned. Then you will not only know whether you made the right play, but you’ll have a better idea what to do with all of your other hands in that spot.
How to Learn Exploitative Poker Strategy
In order to make a specific, non-standard play against your opponent, you must have a good reason. In other words, you must have a read. Perhaps you notice that your opponent has a very low Went-to-Showdown (WtSD) statistic. Therefore he is likely to fold easily if you apply pressure. Now you can play an exploitative strategy where you are doing more bluffing than usual.
Thus the crux to good exploitative play is developing your reads. Improving your exploitative poker skills means getting to know all of the statistics in your HUD very well. Figure out what the normal range is for the stat. When the value falls outside of the range, too high or too low, this is an opportunity for exploitation.
As a skill development exercise, you could create a spreadsheet. Write down every major statistic in your HUD or that you would like to use. Enter the two threshold values that mark the edges of a “normal” range. Then, describe specifically what your exploitative strategy will be for when your opponent falls above or below this range.
And if you have other suggestions on how to develop your GTO skills or exploitative skills, please share in the comment section below.