Texas Hold’em poker strategy has changed a lot over the years. Back in the day, many of the concepts used at the poker table would be unheard of in today’s landscape. A-K suited was considered a drawing hand, “going with your gut” was celebrated, and Doyle Brunson won back-to-back World Series of Poker Main Events with 10-2 suited.
In the early genesis of poker and Texas Hold’em, the only way to strategically play was exploitatively. The blueprint was simple: take your opponent’s mistakes and use them to your advantage. While you could find mathematical theory and concepts within the game, the main emphasis was on sound fundamentals and taking advantage of what your opponent did wrong preflop and post-flop.
Fast forward to the year 2022 and times have changed. With the eventual introduction of online poker, solvers, and software, the game of poker now requires an understanding of mathematics in order to be successful. Game Theory Optimal or GTO is a fixture in modern poker strategy, as some of the best poker players in the world have utilized it to win millions.
With both exploitative and GTO poker strategies being used successfully by poker players in the modern era, which of the two strategies is superior? One of the fiercest debates a poker player can find themselves in is exploitative versus GTO, but can a poker player be successful with one and not the other?
The Downsides Of Both Exploitative And GTO Poker Strategies
The Weaknesses Of An Exploitative Strategy
Exploitative poker is a style of play that focuses on taking advantage of specific opponents’ weaknesses, tendencies, or imbalances. This style of play involves strategic adjustments, such as folding too often in certain positions, calling too often in certain situations, etc.
These strategic adjustments can gain you huge edges, but they also open your strategy up to being counter-exploited. If someone realizes that you’re over-folding to them on the river, they can start bluffing more, and all of the sudden your strategy is the one getting exploited.
The Weaknesses Of A GTO Strategy
GTO (Game Theory Optimal) poker assumes that your opponent is also playing GTO, & focuses on making optimal decisions that result in unexploitability. Any deviation by either player will result in the other gaining value. So, whoever plays closer to GTO wins in the long run.
With that said, GTO strategies are only as good as the inputs. If your assumptions are wrong, such as how you think your opponent is playing preflop, the post-flop GTO strategies will cause you to lose tons of value!
So… with shortcomings of both approaches, how should you go about learning poker and what approach should you take?
Game Theory Optimal – GTO
The first thing to understand is that GTO is not meant to be blindly followed. Studying these strategies is vital to building good fundamentals, but instead of simply asking, ‘what does the solver do?’ you should ask, ‘why is the solver doing this?’
By trying to always understand the reasoning behind GTO strategies and constantly learning game theory principles, you are training yourself to think like a solver. This strong base, built by good habits & fundamentals, is what’s going to allow you to be an exploitative crusher.
Once you have a strong GTO base, and you understand that GTO is simply controlled by the inputs and assumes that the opponents also play GTO, it’s time for your exploitative mindset to come into play to really gain massive edges.
Exploitative Poker Strategy
The key to properly exploiting your opponents is having great fundamentals, paying attention, and extrapolating information. The best exploitative players in the world are rarely on their phones; they pay attention to everything whether they are playing tournaments or cash games.
From there, being able to extrapolate that information and make assumptions is key. If you see someone scoff at a player for 4-bet bluffing all-in, you can pretty much assume that they won’t be the type to find bluffs there…
If an opponent snap calls a weak hand on the river that you would snap fold, you can assume they will be sticky on flops and turns! Utilizing this information to develop your strategies is critical. From there, your GTO foundation takes over…
As an example, if your opponent frequently folds to 3-bets, you should 3-bet them more often than GTO poker would suggest, adding in more bluffs. If your opponent is always calling versus 3-bets OOP. You should 3-bet them with a wider, linear range of hands, skipping bluffs.
While GTO robots and grizzled exploitative veterans can debate until they are blue in the face, being a profitable poker player in 2022 requires the implementation of both strategies. Like in many areas, striking a balance is the best course of action when building a winning poker strategy. Although becoming competent in just one strategy can feel daunting, putting in the time to not just play but also study poker will help grow your bankroll.
To the GTO wizards, exploitative crushers, and all the poker players that fall in between, best of luck in your games and have a good one!