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Ode to Game Theory – How Game Theory revolutionized the way I approached Poker

Recently I have been receiving plenty of questions on how to improve one’s game.
“What books should I read?”
“What videos should I watch?”
“What spots should I focus on?”
I have also been reading some nonsensical advice on 2p2 and reddit poker which annoyed me quite a bit. I wrote this article with the intention of addressing these issues once and for all.

The Dark Ages

In 2012, I was working really hard on my Poker game. I would often do session reviews after playing, and tried my hardest to improve. I found myself hitting a brick wall pretty regularly. It was common for me to face unusual situations and feel completely lost.

  • “This guy is 3-barreling me a lot. How wide should I call him down on the River?”
  • “My opponent is known to be creative and aggressive. However, he makes a super huge overbet on the River and no one ever bluffs in this spot. Do I call or fold?”
  • “The BB checks behind on the Turn and raises the River. His line makes completely no sense. Why would he ever check behind on the Turn with the nuts? I don’t know how to put him on a range.”

Each time that happened, it left a sour taste in my mouth. I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer for those burning questions.

Lost, Then Found

The following year in 2013, Game Theory was starting to become a hot topic in the poker forums. People LOVED comparing the merits and disadvantages of Optimal Play vs Exploitative Play. It was extremely common for forum members to post long forum-posts refuting each other on the effectiveness of GTO play. On one hand, I often read about how “Game Theory is useless at the micros because you cannot maximize your EV by exploiting your opponents.” On the other hand, there were plenty of top professional players who were constantly singing the praises of a GTO approach to poker.

I contacted a private coach and ended up paying him $1600 for a 6-hour Game Theory course. It was, without a doubt, the best 6-hours worth of coaching in my entire career.

Ancient people used the notion of gods or supernatural beings to explain the unknown. And here, I finally found my own “god” in Game Theory; my answer to all the unknown things in poker.

For the first time, I could tackle a spot which only occurs once in a million hands.
For the first time, I knew how to come up with optimal bet sizes for all sorts of situations.
For the first time, I had a proper framework for dealing with over-aggressive maniacs.
For the first time, I learned how to go about exploiting my opponents’ tendencies.

The_script-for_the_first_time_s Why Game Theory is frickin’ awesome

  • Provides you with a great quantitative framework for approaching poker
  • Learn how to maximize your EV against a strong player with the Indifference Principle
  • Learn how to construct ranges for both the Aggressor and the Caller on every street
  • Know how to balance bluffing and value betting ratios
  • Develop a default game-plan against unknowns
  • Improves your Exploitative Play

Misconceptions about Game Theory

In this section, I’m going to dispel some common misconceptions about Game Theory.

1. Game Theory is break-even at best.
This misconception commonly arises due to the fact that Rock-Paper-Scissors is often used to explain the Indifference Principle, a fundamental Game Theory concept, and it just so happens that the EV of RPS is 0, which means that both players are breakeven at best. Both RPS and Poker are completely different since Poker is not a symmetrical game, and making such an assumption will prove to be erroneous.

Breakeven_TS_The_Script2. Exploitative Play > Game Theory Optimal Play at micro-stakes. You are going to be much better off focusing your efforts on exploitative play to maximize your winnings.
This argument is often used together with Argument 1. The most important thing to note is that exploitative play and GTO play are not mutually-exclusive. In fact, GTO strategies are maximally exploitative against one another at equilibrium.

You will also find yourself playing against unknown players lacking in reads for plenty of poker situations. Under those circumstances, would you prefer to use an unexploitable strategy, one that works against everyone, or something else?

Final Thoughts

A. Stop finding yourself an excuse to be lazy!
I truly believe that many of the people who are so quick to reject GTO play just don’t want to spend the time and effort on improving themselves. It is certainly much easier to write Game Theory off as useless, than to put in the hours to master Game Theory for practical usage.

B. Understanding your Default Game-plan helps you to gain a better understanding of exploitative play.

Your opponent is leaning slightly towards the aggressive side with regards to his barreling frequencies. How wide should we call him down on the River?

The way I would go about doing it is to figure out my default call-down ranges based on villain’s bet-size on every street, then widen my call-down ranges slightly against this specific opponent.

Your default game-plan on what to do in every single preflop situation may take >100 hours to derive. But when it’s finally done, the rewards you can reap from it are tremendous. Default game-plans can help you to tackle situations against anyone, especially unknowns whereas spending your time on coming up with the maximally exploitative strategy for a highly specific spot is going to be far less effective.

Example: Villain (27/20/10, with F/T/R cbet frequencies of 70/60/60) 3-barrels pot-size on every street on a AK623 board. We hold A5. Do we call or fold?

Exploitative Approach:
Ok, he’s giving us 33% pot odds on a call on the River. Based on his Turn barreling and River barreling frequencies, as well as his wide Preflop Range, I think he’s barreling with any >6-hi Flush draw and all straight draws. I think he has enough bluffs in his river range and I should have enough >33% equity with so I call here.

The next day, we find ourselves in the same exact spot. The only difference is that we are up against a nit. “DAMMIT!” You think to yourself. You spent 20 min the previous night on figuring out whether you can call down with A5 or not. Now you are just as clueless as you were the day before.

Game Theoretical Approach:
Ok, he is betting pot-size, so I need to defend the top 50% of my bluff-catchers to make him indifferent between bluffing and not bluffing. The 50th percentile hand in my bluff-catching region is A7. Since he’s on the looser/more aggressive side, I should expand my bluff catching range slightly to include A5 as well.

The next day, we find ourselves in the same exact spot. We already know that our weakest calling hand should be A7 by default. Since our opponent is pretty nitty, we make the simple adjustment of tightening our bluff-catching range significantly to AJ+.

How do I improve? Recommended Books and Videos?

Maybe you’re still wondering whether I’m going to answer the questions above. My answer is fairly simple – Focus on GT-related material.

Books: Headsup No Limit Hold’em by Will Tipton, Applications of No Limit Hold’em by Matthew Janda, The Mathematics of Poker by Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman
Videos: Sauce123, Lefort and Internet are the top 3 NLHE video producers in recent years in my opinion

That’s all from me for now.

Loved the article? Disagreed with what I just wrote? Do let me know what you think about this article in the comments section below. And if you like my content, I highly recommend subscribing to my e-mail list to receive updates.



10 comments for “Ode to Game Theory – How Game Theory revolutionized the way I approached Poker

  1. Swish
    June 15, 2014 at 7:50 am

    Why isn’t poker a symmetrical game? Take zoom 6 max for example. Can’t we say that people will equally be in the same situations over an infinite sample size? And for example if you bet on the river and you want to make your opponent indifferent to calling, isn’t the EV of your bet 0 thus break-even at best?

    • June 15, 2014 at 8:51 am

      1. It’s not symmetrical because of positions.

      Example: In a 9-handed game, you are seating on seat 1, and an aggro regular seats on your direct left. Only 1 out of 9 times, you get to play IP vs him.

      You could argue that over the long run in a zoom game, everyone will seat in every position an equal number of times. But when we analyze poker from a GTO perspective, we are usually talking about specific situations and positions.

      2. With a GTO strategy, your nut hands would definitely be +EV bets. Your air hands would either be breakeven, or +EV. On the other hand, your opponent will be losing money on average with his bluff catchers. This is why it’s better to play polarized ranges and play as the aggressor.

      • Swish
        June 15, 2014 at 9:29 am

        1/ You’re right, that was my point: “everyone will seat in every position an equal number of times”. Say you’re in a given situation, you solve this situation, your opponent could be in the same situation later, he solves it etc. in the end it’s symmetrical.

        2/ OK yeah, that makes sense, because of the money in the pot and the FE.

        Another point: “For the first time, I could tackle a spot which only occurs once in a million hands.” Do you mean that you can tackle it while playing or when reviewing your session? If you can tackle a spot that comes up every million hands afterwards, what is the point? There will be hundreds of spots that come up this often, memorizing them (in case you work on the spot after the session) is really sick, and I’m not counting all the other more frequent spots that come a few times every 100 hands…

        Thank you for answering. I think your article is very interesting.

  2. June 15, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    1. Yeah but usually when we analyze a game, maybe HU NLHE, we will analyze the spot such that one player will end up being the raiser and the other will end up being the caller. And when we approach it like that, the game is asymmetrical based on the given action.

    2. Going into deeper analysis will certainly help but basic GT concepts will also help you come up with good approximations in game.

    Example: Someone makes some weird aggressive play at you (like a huge overbet or a strange raise).
    I would call the top portion of my range and fold the bottom portion of my range. Where is the cutoff? You would probably need deeper analysis to find out what’s the cutoff point for calling down.

  3. Kevin
    June 15, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    “Example: Someone makes some weird aggressive play at you (like a huge overbet or a strange raise).” Oh I know that situation only too good. I can remember that I called very light and get punished hard for it. Great article! I bought the book NL Heads Up by Will Tipton long time ago but I never really studied it because I thought its only for heads up games. Maybe I should start studying there instead of playing and session reviews …

    • June 16, 2014 at 3:26 am

      Yep you probably should

  4. Vytenis
    June 16, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    Isn’t example a bit wrong, since A5 is better than A7 due to blockers ?

    • June 16, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Sure, you certainly have a point. Frankly speaking I didn’t think through the example that much. But if 45s and 45o is part of villain’s value range, then certainly A5 > A7 here.

  5. Tema
    July 17, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Why you didn`t recommend your own book( for advanced player) in the list above?
    I thougt it based on GTO,
    (I haven`t read it yet)
    thanks

    • galvin.bay@gmail.com
      July 17, 2014 at 6:38 am

      well it does teach some basic game theory concepts, but is not a true game theory book

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