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Game Theory Optimal vs. Exploitative Play in Poker

Poker is a game of probability, or so most people think. Given a hand, there is a certain probability of your opponent having a better hand. As a result, there is always an optimal decision to make that maximizes expected value. This style of play is called GTO (game theory optimal). Playing true GTO ensures that the best an opponent can do is break even. This sounds amazing, but it is not as good as it sounds. GTO completely ignores the fact that an opponent may have certain tendencies and given these tendencies, another style of play might yield higher expected value.

On the other hand, exploitative play exploits these tendencies. A player employing an exploitative style will identify and attack their opponent’s weaknesses. As a result, this style is higher variance. The very best poker players in the world play this style. In live poker tournaments, live reads are so important and the best players are able to identify weaknesses based on these reads. At the highest level, ability to play exploitative is synonymous with “skill”.

GTO vs. exploitative play can also be explained through the simple game of rock, pappers, scissors. A GTO approach would to play rock 33%, paper 33%, and scissors 33%. It is easy to see why this is hard to exploit. An exploitative strategy could employ a 43% rock, 23% paper, and 33% scissors. This exploits players that tend to use scissors more, but gets exploited by players who use paper more. Exploitative poker play is all about using this concept, but with the added information of opponent tendencies and weaknesses. As stated before, these tendencies and weaknesses are apparent in live poker games, where exploitative play tends to work better. GTO does have its merits–many great GTO players are extremely successful in online poker.



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September 2017