For the next few days, we’ll be diving into the world of Game Theory. I’ll be sharing some thoughts on its relevance at high level poker play and how we can use it to make more money. In today’s post, I want to address some of the myths surrounding Game Theory, and provide some sound arguments supporting the pursuit of GTO knowledge. Are you ready for the ride? Let’s get started!
Myths surrounding the Study and Application of Game Theory in poker
Everytime I hear someone either in the forums or in real-life mention one of these false-truths about GTO play, I cannot help but feel like this:
I think the extent to which these lies are spread in the forums is extremely laughable. And I shall attempt to dispel these myths in the following paragraphs.
1) “GTO Play only leads to both players breaking even.”
This is one of the most common myths out there that I continue to notice time and again in the poker forums. This myth is commonly propagated because Rock Paper Scissors is often used as the first toy game to explain the Indifference Concept which is fundamental to constructing optimal strategies and in that game, both players will generate an EV of 0 at equilibrium. However, this isn’t going to hold true for No Limit Hold’em, as there is a much greater room for making huge, fundamental errors, such as never taking any aggressive action on all streets (only checking and calling).
I want you to just imagine a very simplistic and extreme example here. Let’s say that Player A plays a solid, well-balanced strategy. Player B plays every single hand Preflop and never folds on any street. Who’s going to win here? Even if Player A is not maximally exploiting Player B, you’ll find that Player A will get paid off with his strong hands almost always. When he is bluffing, he will often get caught, though sometimes even his bluffs beat Player B’s bluff catchers (Player A might be bluffing with K high but Player B might be calling down with 3 high). It should be pretty obvious by now that the well-balanced strategy is going to make heaps of money here against Player B’s inferior strategy.
For a more detailed analysis of why GTO play will allow its user to dominate weak players and make a healthy profit, I strongly suggest reading this article from the GTORB blog by Alex Sutherland.
2) “Understanding GTO principles and play is only important at the highest levels. We mere mortals at the micro-stakes have no reason to delve into the world of Game Theory.”
While it might be true that trying to be balanced in most spots is going to be more important against tougher opponents, it doesn’t mean that the study of Game Theory is irrelevant against weaker opposition.
First of all, having a well-balanced game-plan is going to be very useful against unknown opposition. Let’s say that we have just sat down at a poker table, and we have completely no clue about how the other players play. Would you want to stick to an unexploitable game-plan that works against all sorts of different players? Or would you want to keep folding until you pick up reads when other players clash against each other? Or would you want to play as loosely as possible to try and get to showdown so that you can quickly see how your opponents are playing and thinking?
Several years ago, I think that most FR players will default to the second option, due to their conservative style of play. HU players will often make loose calls for the sake of information gathering. But I believe that Options 2 and 3 often sacrifice too much EV for the sake of information gathering. It’s best just to stick to a solid game-plan which works decently well against most players. We can start making adjustments to our strategies after we start picking up reads and information.
Second of all, I think that many people tend to have the misconception that the GTO approach and the Exploitative approach to poker are mutually exclusive. What you’ll actually find if you spend more time trying to understand GTO principles is that both approaches have a very distinct relationship with each other. When we use the Exploitative Approach in poker, we are trying to select the action which leads to the highest EV. When we are using the GTO Approach in poker, we are trying to think about how our opponent could use the Exploitative Approach in poker to maximize his EV (and minimize ours), and formulate a strategy which prevents our opponent from doing so.
Another point worthy of note is that it’s useful to have a rough idea on what the GTO strategy looks like, before attempting to exploit our opponents. Much of good poker play lies in a spectrum, and most poker players fall within a spectrum of Weak to Competent. The bigger one’s leaks are, the more we can afford to deviate from optimal play and not suffer the backlash of counter-exploitation in the future.
I think many players tend analyze NLHE hands on a hand-by-hand basis but the truth is that NLHE is a game that is played over a long period of time, over hundreds to thousands of hands in many cases. Even weaker players will eventually realize what you are doing if you are always using bottom pair to call down against a triple barrel. So I think the key here is to make our adjustments and exploitations relative to the size of our opponent’s leaks and his/her ability to counter our strategy.
Here’s a Preflop Example. Let’s say that we know our opponent has a Preflop Leak. He has the tendency to call a lot vs 3bets. How do we exploit him? Do we only 3bet QQ+/AK? Do we never bluff? What about widening our value 3bet range? With no clear game-plan in mind, it’s hard to have a definite answer on how to extract the most value out of this player’s leaks.
However, let’s say we do indeed have a clear game-plan in mind. Our default strategy is to 3-bet the top 1/3 of our range vs his opening range. Against someone who folds <20% to 3-bets, we will stick to the strategy of using a linear range of 3betting the top X% of our range. So if let’s say our opponent is opening 24% from the CO, we will stick to a strategy of 3-betting the top 8% of starting hands (99+, ATs+, KJs+, AJo+, KQo). Wouldn’t you think that this strategy will outperform a less clearly defined strategy of “3-bet only value hands QQ+/AK and nothing else” which fails to take into account every single bit of information?
3) “Poker is a game of bravery, courage and having nerves of steel. I believe that I can outwit and out-level my opponents.”
Sorry to break your bubble here, but the level of poker has been steadily increasing over the past few years. Many players are very competent now as they spend more and more time crunching numbers, analyzing cutting-edge software, and formulating unexploitable game-plans. The truth is that most people tend to suffer from Illusory Superiority; they tend to vastly over-estimate their own skill and competence in many aspects of life. The same holds very true for poker.
“I have a very solid image and I have not been bluffing for the past hour. My opponent is observant and will probably give me credit for a third barrel here. I think I’m going to fire the third barrel here, expecting to be given a lot of credit.”
The main problem with attempting to play the levelling game is that there is a limit to how much you can outguess and outwit your opponents. Often, these guesses are not really based or founded upon any logic. And in the face of a huge upswing, a player might assume that he is invincible and get over-confident in the future. Or in the face of a huge downswing, he might start doubting himself all over the place, even in the simplest of spots. I’ve seen many of my poker friends go through this phase due to a poor foundation in Game Theory. When you hear rumours and stories about players who were once at the pinnacle of the poker world (Phil Ivey and Tom Dwan) getting wrecked by Internet Whizzes like OTB_RedBaron, Ike Haxton and TrueTeller, you know that GTO isn’t a lie, it’s something very real and important.
4) The Myth of the Feel Player
Here’s a very interesting article about the Myth of the Feel Player. To briefly summarize it, the author Haseeb Qureshi states that Feel Players as a collective group are starting to go extinct as poker starts to evolve, and that even “Feel Players” at the highest levels of play have some basic clue about poker theory, just less than their peers.
So there you have it! My explanation of the top myths surrounding GTO play in poker. Got any more questions? Send me an e-mail or post your comments in the comments box below and I’ll be happy to answer them. If not, stay tuned for tomorrow’s post where we’ll see the Application of GTO and Exploitative concepts to Real Poker.