These days I witness poker players brandishing the phrase “GTO poker” like it's a selfie stick at the beach. Sure, it’s a sexy idea — to apply “optimal theory” to your game — but there’s an essential aspect to the idea that most players miss.
While pure game theory optimal solutions (i.e., equilibria) are characterized by two players playing perfectly, GTO can still be used to analyze spots where your opponent is far from perfect. In fact, since the vast majority of us are imperfect (a.k.a. human) players, arguably the real power of GTO analysis is how it can improve your exploitative play.
To understand this, let’s walk through the typical steps of GTO analysis.
Step 1 - Pick a Hand, Any Hand
For this exercise, you’ll need a poker hand. You can make one up, or, even better, pick one you’ve played recently. I suggest selecting a spot where you were wondering what to do on either the turn or the river. All of the solvers mentioned below are free to use if you’re analyzing later streets, but they cost money if your analysis begins on the flop (or earlier).
Take note of the positions and any reads you have on your opponent as this will help you assign hand ranges more realistically.
Step 2 - Choose your Solver
Why do math by hand when you can use a calculator?
GTO calculators are called “solvers,” and there are three main ones on the market:
- GTO Range Builder - More graphical/visual. Web version only. Lots of educational material.
- SimplePostflop - More tabular. Standalone version. Can start the analysis preflop.
- PioSOLVER - More tabular. Standalone version. Preferred by high stakes players.
You might consider starting with GTO Range Builder, since it has a web interface and is the fastest and simplest to try. A in-depth comparison of solvers can be found in this post and responses on Two Plus Two. And for specifics on how to use each of the solvers, refer to their tutorials.
Step 3 - Enter the Hand Ranges
With a hand in mind and a solver in hand, it’s time to enter the data. Any good analysis starts with assigning hand ranges.
Stop and consider which hands your opponent might be holding given the action so far. Enter them into the solver. Which hands could you possibly be holding in this spot? Enter those as well.
Step 4 - Find the GTO Solution
Next enter the other facts about the hand such as board cards, pot size, effective stacks and what kind of bet sizes you think will be used. Then run the solver.
If you’re analyzing the turn or river, this should only take a few seconds. Flop analysis can take a few minutes or up to an hour depending on the solver and the hardware used to run it.
The output will be your GTO solution. The solution specifies what each player should do with every hand in his range. Now you can look up the specific hand you were holding and take note of how you would play it if you were both playing perfectly.
Step 5 - Find the Exploitable Solution
Now comes the critical step.
Since obviously no one is playing perfectly, we want to determine our optimal real world solution. Each tool has a feature where you can manually change the solution to reflect what you think your opponent is most likely to do. This is called “locking” your opponent’s strategy.
Perhaps the tool says a perfect opponent should always check to you on the river, but you know this guy will bet his top-pair hands and better. You can lock that strategy into the tool, and then recalculate the solution.
You now have an exploitative recommendation that will yield the maximum possible value based on how your opponent actually plays!
If you’re not sure how your opponent plays, perhaps because he’s unknown to you, then you can simply default to the solver’s GTO solution.
Seize the Opportunity
This is a powerful technique. You are taking much of the guesswork out of estimating how to exploit your opponent. And the results can sometimes be surprising and often enlightening.
Also, this kind of analysis is relatively new. The solvers themselves have appeared in only the last couple years. Perusing the web (try googling “Poker GTO”), the amount of instructional material available on these concepts is slim but growing fast.
An opportunity therefore exists for the more ambitious students of the game. Soon perhaps these tools will get integrated into the popular database programs like Hold’em Manager and Poker Tracker, but until then I suggest you spend some time with these tools and techniques and increase your edge over the competition.
Mike Gano is a professional poker player, coach, streamer, and author. He’s been a consistent winner for over a decade in the online cash games, currently playing 200NL on 888poker. He’s created educational videos for CardRunners, DeucesCracked, Red Chip Poker, and Hold’em Manager. Check out his weekly poker strategy blog called Poker in a Box.