GTO vs Exploitative Play In Poker: Which Is Better?

GTO vs Exploitative Play In Poker: Which Is Better?

When thinking about the best approach to winning poker, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what Game Theory Optimal (GTO) is, and whether it’s a better option than exploitative play.

In reality, you don’t need to choose one of these options, but rather understand the basic principles of GTO play and when it should be applied.

In this article, I’ll try to go over every important detail to clear up any confusion, and I’ll start by explaining what GTO is and how it works in real-life scenarios.

GTO Poker Strategy: It’s Good But Not Always The Best

Let’s start with the basics: What is GTO poker?

Game Theory Optimal (GTO) is basically when you attempt to play mathematically perfect poker, so that your opponents make mistakes against you. This strategy balances your value hands and bluffs in a way that leaves you unexploitable. 

Since the phrase has the word ‘optimal’ in it, people often think that GTO is a perfect approach that is better than anything else out there. But that’s not always true.

First of all, the GTO model revolves around the style of play that makes you unexploitable.

It means that if you were playing a true Game Theory Optimum, your opponents couldn’t find any way to take advantage of your style. No matter what they do. At best, they could break even.

On the flip side, though, the GTO approach is fairly rigid as it doesn’t allow for any adjustments.

You’ll be following the same strategy against all opponents no matter what they do. So, while you can’t be exploited, you won’t be exploiting others, either.

The best way to explain this is through a simple example. If the GTO model dictates that perfect 3-bet size in a certain scenario is 13 big blinds, you’ll be 3-betting to that size regardless of who your opponent is.

Even if you’re up against a loose maniac who’ll gladly call a 30 big blind 3-bet when you have pocket Aces, you’ll not deviate from your standard strategy, and leave money at the table against that particular player.

So, clearly, there are some upsides and downsides to this approach, but before jumping into the details, I want to address another topic.

No-Limit Hold’em Hasn’t Been Solved Yet

If you hear the word ‘optimal’, you immediately think of something perfect. However, there is still no such thing as a perfect poker strategy.

No-Limit Hold’em is a game with many variables, and is yet to be solved, especially in non-heads up games.

Besides, even if there were a complete solution to NLHE, it would be way too complex to memorize for a normal human being.

There is absolutely no way you could learn by heart what to do in every single situation.

If you had that kind of memory, you could probably earn much more money doing something else instead of playing poker.

So, GTO is very useful for learning basic principles and understanding why certain plays make sense. It’s good for building a solid strategy that you can implement against tough opponents.

But it’s not necessarily the best way to play poker in every possible scenario.

The Main Issues With GTO

Person studying poker books

The biggest problem that comes to mind when talking about GTO is actually learning it.

If you want to adopt this style of play, you’ll have to spend many hours analyzing different situations, working with solvers, reading strategy books and watching training videos.

But you won’t be able to remember all of that information and play a GTO strategy all the time.

However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t study a mathematical-based approach. It can help you learn a fundamentally sound strategy for almost all scenarios, and is the perfect starting point against any competition.

That being said, GTO poker isn’t always the most profitable one because it doesn’t take into account players’ stats, tendencies, or reads in live games.

For example, if you’re up against a very loose player who opens many hands preflop or makes huge c-bets on flops every time, playing GTO won’t make much money against this particular opponent. You need to adjust to their style and take advantage of their mistakes.

Of course, you’d still be winning by sticking to GTO in this scenario, just not as much as you could.

Exploitative Play: Reading Into People’s Tendencies

The exploitative approach to poker has been around for much longer. In fact, some of the best in the game had used this style to win heaps of money over the years, long before the idea of GTO took hold.

It’s important to understand that exploitative play still means you have to play very strategically sound and solid poker. You still have to make good hand selection before the flop, be mindful of your position, and pay attention to pot odds.

But then you go one step beyond.

This is a style of play where you open yourself to being exploited but make more money by targeting your opponent’s mistakes instead of balancing your ranges.

Many weaker players are unable to readjust to these changes, so playing a GTO style against such an opponent would mean leaving money on the table.

Let’s look at an extreme example.

You sit down at a 2/5 table, and you don’t know any of the players, but you saw that one guy open-shoved five times in a row. Two times he got looked up and showed ATo and T9s. You can now be pretty certain this player is here to gamble.

This is where GTO considerations go out of the window, and you snap them off with pocket tens, AQo, or even weaker holdings. Their showing range is just so wide that it makes no sense to stick to GTO and keep folding as if they were playing normal ranges.

The same applies to a completely contrasting scenario.

If you’re up against an ultimate nit who never bets big without the nuts, you can safely fold even some of your strongest hands when facing such bets on the river from this particular opponent.

While this would open you up to being exploited by competent players, it’s fine to do against someone who pretty much has just one gear.

Of course, situations are rarely this clear cut in real life.

Sometimes, you can make bad assumptions or misread the situation and only hurt yourself trying to adopt exploitative play.

So when you’re not sure how to exploit your opponents, GTO play is your best option.

Are GTO And Exploitative Play Mutually Exclusive?

There also seems to be some confusion among players about having to choose either one or the other style and stick to it, which is completely false.  

As already mentioned, learning GTO basics is vital for learning solid poker strategy foundations.

After all, if you’re going to vary your styles and exploit your opponents, you need to understand where they’re making mistakes, which you can’t do without knowing the right strategy yourself.

Learning GTO (at least to some extent) is also very useful for situations where you find yourself at tough tables or against unknown players. For example, you could be seated at a tough table in a tournament with players that are better than you.

Here, resorting to GTO might be your best option as the exploitative approach would probably hurt your chances of winning.

So, these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, and, ideally, you’ll want to learn both.

This will make you a much tougher opponent overall as you’ll be prepared to tackle different scenarios and able to adjust to new situations at the tables.

Once again, you don’t need to try and learn the entire GTO by heart.

It would be an overkill and pretty much impossible to do. What you want to do instead is analyze some frequent scenarios to understand the balanced play in these spots.

This should give you a pretty accurate idea of what to do in similar situations to keep your ranges balanced and your play close to GTO.

More On Exploitative Play: Adjusting & Readjusting

Poker table with maths symbols drawn all over it

Like game theory optimal strategy the exploitative approach has its drawbacks, too.

While GTO has its foundations hardcore math, exploitative poker is more about guessing your opponent’s tendencies.

As you probably know, conclusions made at a poker table aren’t always perfect or even correct at all.

Earlier in this article, I gave an extreme example where switching to an exploitative approach would be +EV.

But, in real life, things usually aren’t as simple. You’ll have to make much thinner reads and find smaller leaks in players’ styles that you can use to your advantage.

A problem with making these adjustments is that you often don’t have enough information.

Seeing someone play a few dozen hands can give you some idea about their tendencies and inclinations in particular spots, but you shouldn’t overvalue that type of info.

With a small sample size, it could still just be a coincidence.

For example, you could see a player 3-bet several hands in a short span. Your initial thought might be that they’re probably doing it with a wide range of hands and that you might adjust to it by opening fewer hands or starting to 4-bet them as a bluff.

However, it’s entirely possible that they’re just running hot and have been dealt with some really good hands in a short time span.

While the exploitative style can definitely be more profitable, you need to make sure the information you’re basing your adjustments on is solid. Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions.

Be Mindful Of Other Players

Another drawback of the exploitative style is that it opens doors for you to be exploited.

For example, you could adjust to a loose opponent who opens many hands preflop by 3-betting them light in position.

Against that particular player, your play is perfectly reasonable and will result in profit in the long run. However, you can face some problems if you’re not playing heads up.

If there are some other competent players at the table, they might take notice of what you’re doing.

If a good player realizes you’re isolating a weak opponent too often, they might come after you. Since you’re 3-betting light, you won’t be able to do much when they start 4-betting you.

So, when making your adjustments, it’s not just the player you’re targeting that you need to consider. You also have to think about others involved in the game and what they might do.

If you notice one or two of them are starting to change their style to attack your adjustments, you’ll need to recalibrate your strategy.

You don’t have to deal with any of this when using GTO, which is why this approach is so powerful. You just know what you’re going to do and don’t care about what others are doing.

Always Mix Things Up

So, to wrap this discussion up, will you be better off playing GTO or exploitative poker?

The answer is… both!

Neither is better. Each serves a different purpose and depends on what kind of games you play.

In tough lineups, the GTO approach will usually work better as you’ll leave very little room for your opponents to take advantage of your plays.

In weaker games where your opponents aren’t paying as much attention and aren’t adjusting to your changes, you’ll make more money playing the exploitative style.

Since most of the time you’ll find yourself in situations with both weak and strong players at the table, you’ll be best off knowing both strategies.

That way, you can vary your style as needed and play exploitative strategy against weaker players to take full advantage of your mistakes and adopt the GTO approach against strong opponents to make sure they never get the upper hand.