GTO Poker in 2023 – Understand Game Theory Optimal Strategy
Last Updated: October 19, 2023
Checked by: Ivan Potocki
If you have been playing poker, studying the game, or even just watching poker content on YouTube over the last few years, you are surely familiar with the term GTO poker.
However, the actual GTO poker meaning continues to elude most poker players, especially those who have not studied the concept extensively. For most, it remains a mysterious poker strategy that is played by top poker professionals of the new generations, but one that is very hard to explain.
In this guide, we will delve deeper into the GTO poker meaning, explain how it works and what it strives to achieve, and compare it to the exploitative strategy to try and figure out which one is better.
Before talking more deeply about the GTO poker strategy, we must find out what it is and what makes it unique. If you prefer video content instead of text, we made a must-watch one for you. Check it out!
GTO Poker Meaning – What Is Game Theory Optimal Play?
GTO poker stands for Game Theory Optimal poker, and it refers to a perfectly balanced strategy derived by doing mathematical calculations. While you do not necessarily have to know all of it by heart, playing competitive online poker games will be nearly impossible without understanding this topic.
Unlike exploitative poker, GTO poker does not even look at the opponent across the table or care about their stats, tendencies, or anything else.
Instead, poker GTO strategies strive to create a perfect balance in every situation by adjusting your hand ranges and bet sizing to make them unexploitable.
By being unexploitable, you create the perfect scenario for yourself to win. In theory, playing this strategy would lead to you making money off your opponents’ mistakes, while they could only break even against you by playing the same optimal strategy.
Of course, it is impossible for a human being to play a perfectly optimal strategy, which is why the term GTO poker is very relative, and saying someone plays GTO is an embellishment of the actual truth.
In reality, poker players can study GTO poker using poker software known as “solvers” and look to learn from the way solvers create hand ranges and apply this knowledge in actual games.
GTO Poker Strategy Pros
- Works against anyone since you are guaranteed to at least break even or win
- Perfect strategy against very good players that also play balanced ranges
- Great against new players you have no information about
- An optimal way to play in a situation where you are not sure how to proceed
GTO Poker Cons
- It is very complex, so it is close to impossible to learn the GTO poker strategy for all situations
- It is not very effective in multi-way pots since there are too many variables
- Often you will be leaving money on the table by not adopting more profitable exploitative plays
Overall, the Game Theory Optimal approach has more pros than cons, so you must understand at least the basics of it. Texas Hold’em is a complicated game, and the best approach is to use GTO as your starting point and adjust to exploitative play when you have information on your opponents.
Game Theory Optimal Poker Solvers Explained
The only way to play a GTO poker strategy is to learn it by using sophisticated poker learning tools called poker solvers. These programs are designed to find optimal ways to play every hand in your range in different poker scenarios.
In order to get a poker solver to give you some solutions, called outputs, you first have to give the solver some inputs to work with.
User inputs that poker solvers require to provide GTO poker solutions include:
- Player stack sizes
- Possible bet and raise sizes
- Previous action
Providing the solver with such information will allow it to do calculations and create a perfectly balanced range in every situation.
For example, poker solvers will tell you which poker hands to bet at which frequency on a flop after raising preflop and getting called by two players in particular positions at a particular stack depth.
However, the output will change every time you tweak anything, including stack sizes, your original raise size, or the positions of the players who have made the call.
For that reason, since there are infinite scenarios you would have to memorize, it is safe to say that it’s impossible to fully learn the GTO poker strategy.
On the other hand, trying to calculate game theory optimal poker plays on the spot would be even less possible, which means the best we can do is get as close to GTO as possible.
What Are Frequencies in Poker?
A typical poker player thinks about every poker hand in fairly absolute terms. For example, a player will look at a hand and decide to raise or fold it, but that’s not how poker solvers “think.”
Since a poker solver is looking to create a perfectly balanced strategy, it will often do different actions with the same hand at a particular frequency in the same scenario.
For example, when opening from an early position with a hand like 33, you will see the solver sometimes raise the hand 50% of the time and fold it the other 50% of the time.
Furthermore, if you give the solver several bet sizes to work with, you will see that it bets certain hands big at one frequency and small at another, again striving for balance.
For the human mind, it is impossible to memorize or deduce such a complex strategy, forcing us to use poker solvers as mere learning tools instead of an end-all-be-all solution for the game.
Minimum Defense Frequency
MDF refers to the minimum percentage of hands you need to play to avoid being exploited and is an essential concept behind the GTO poker strategy. You need to defend a specific part of your range based on your opponent's bet sizing.
Minimum defense frequency is calculated by a simple formula. MDF = Pot Size / (Pot Size + Bet Size). Here is the table illustrating the exact percentages.
Minimum Defense Frequency (MDF)
As you can see, if your opponent bets half of the pot, you must defend 67% of the hands in your range to avoid being exploited. If you fold over 33% in this situation, your opponent can profitably bet any two cards against you.
As bet sizing increases, you need to continue with fewer hands, but you always should have MDF in mind when making decisions and evaluate it along with pot odds and your opponent's tendencies.
Poker GTO Preflop Hand Ranges
One area of the game of poker where GTO poker strategies can be used to near perfection is preflop play, as solvers can create poker ranges for all possible preflop scenarios.
By learning opening, 3-betting, and defending hand ranges for different preflop stack sizes approved by poker solvers, you will no longer have to think about whether you are making a mistake playing a certain hand a certain way preflop.
Since the number of scenarios in preflop play is relatively limited and players typically use similar raise sizes in this betting round, preflop is probably the one street you can use solvers for with the most success.
In fact, you don’t even have to create your hand ranges, as plenty of preflop charts generated by major poker solvers are already available out there, waiting for you to learn them by heart. In fact, you can grab our free poker heat sheet.
Remember that these charts are much more complex than we used to have in the past and that the solver raises, folds, and even limps hands at various frequencies from various positions.
You don’t have to learn each chart and frequency by heart, but the more correctly you can memorize the preflop charts, the fewer mistakes you will make.
The Power of Poker Game Theory
The power of poker solvers and the GTO poker strategy runs way deeper than preflop play, as solvers can create perfectly balanced ranges for every betting street. While the outputs you get can often seem a bit unorthodox and somewhat random, I can assure you they are not and that every solver decision makes a lot of sense.
The solver chooses hands to bet, raise, call, and raise with based on various factors, including pot odds, implied odds, and even future bluffing potential.
With this in mind, you will often see the solver pick hands for bluffs that can improve to flush draws or straight draws on the turn, which is a logic that many human players have failed to use to their advantage for years.
When facing bets, the poker solver uses a concept known as “minimum defense frequency,” which is another poker GTO term you will need to understand, especially in heads-up poker.
Minimum defense frequency refers to the minimal percentage of hands in your range you need to defend against a certain bet size, which is a concept most players don’t normally consider.
The logic here is that when facing bets, you will always want to continue with the top portions of your range. The smaller the bet, the more of your range you have to continue.
By folding too many hands, you would be giving away value, while by calling too many hands against bigger bets, you would again be playing imbalanced.
In actual games, players often deviate from this GTO strategy and adapt to their opponent’s playing style, but playing according to the MDF will make you unexploitable to your opponents regardless of their strategy.
Choosing Your Game Theory Optimal Poker Solver
If you happen to know a little something about Game Theory Optimal play, you probably have an idea that it’s hard to learn. To be completely honest, it isn’t easy. It isn’t something you can pick up along the way.
The only way to master the GTO poker strategy is to devote your efforts and spend quite a bit of time studying it.
If that doesn’t scare you and you’re determined to give it a go, there are a few poker software solutions that can be very helpful in understanding this concept and implementing it in your games.
It is a “lightweight” piece of software that can still give you a very good understanding of GTO strategy.
One of the biggest downsides to Poker Snowie is that it isn’t as detailed or in-depth as other GTO solvers. While this may be important to someone trying to beat the best players on the planet, it doesn’t make that much of a difference in most regular live or online games.
Suggestions and solutions for different spots are very close to the perfect poker strategy, and that’s all you need if you’re just getting started.
The added benefit of this lighter approach is that Snowie's calculations are virtually instant. You won’t have to sit around and wait for complex reports, which can take a while.
Simple GTO Poker Trainer
If you’re new to GTO poker, I’d suggest you start your learning curve with Simple GTO Trainer.
This software lets you play against AI (artificial intelligence) GTO opponents and see how much you deviate from the perfect poker strategy.
This APP is very easy to use and can help you understand the actual GTO poker implementation in various situations and quickly advance your play. With plenty of graphs, range examples, and detailed analyzes, it is bound to help you improve.
Once you get a grasp of the GTO strategy and perhaps want to move on to more complex stuff, PioSolver is the number one software you can get your hands on.
It is the software most high-level pros use and can produce detailed, highly accurate analyses for most spots you can think of. It will cost you a few hundred bucks, but if you’re determined to learn GTOpoker, this is the best way to go about it.
The user interface is not very intuitive, but you’ll be able to learn your way around it. However, if you want to get the most out of this app, you’ll need to develop solid foundations before even trying it out.
GTO Poker vs. Exploitative Poker
After running some solver simulations and learning the basic concepts of GTO poker, one thing will become obvious: you are often potentially missing out on a lot of value. For example, you may find yourself facing a drunk player in a live poker game, throwing his chips away, and playing wildly unbalanced.
Running certain hands, you played against this player will have a solver telling you to fold in certain spots, bet small in others, and more.
Yet, playing against this player in real-time, you will notice that you can bet any size you want for value and get called by very weak hands or that you can make another player fold everything but the absolute nuts in 90% of the cases.
When playing against players like this, you often want to deviate from the GTO poker strategy, as playing a more exploitative style will allow you to generate more expected value.
Yet, every time you make a play trying to exploit another player, you leave yourself open to getting exploited as well, which is particularly dangerous in multi-way situations.
For the most part, especially when facing weak or intermediate poker players, going the route of exploitative poker will give you more EV in the long run if you can apply such a strategy well.
Yet, you need to ensure that in looking to exploit others, you don’t leave yourself wildly open to getting exploited and losing money because you are playing too far off the baselines.
Is GTO Poker the Perfect Way to Play?
Yes and no! Game theory optimal poker is the most balanced strategy, which means it does not give anything away, which is the perfect baseline to play from.
GTO poker is the perfect way to play the game when facing particularly good players, who will notice any attempts at exploitation on your part and play back at you.
On the other hand, a more exploitative style is almost always better when facing most players out there, including most players in live poker games.
I recommend learning as much as possible about GTO poker strategy and building off that strategy when playing in real poker games.
By knowing what the GTO play is in most scenarios, you will be able to make proper deviations and not go too far one way or the other, still maintaining solid balance but also crushing your opponents and punishing their tendencies.
Start by joining one of the best poker training sites to learn about advanced GTO poker implementations or gram previously mentioned tools and run some sims yourself before you move into real games and start using GTO poker logic to play against real poker opponents