GTO or not GTO? That is the question

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Game Theory Optimal: You hear players throw this term out all of the time. Do you need to play this way to win at poker? In a world where every player is playing perfect GTO, no one gets an edge and the house ends up winning all the money. 

In many games, this is referred to as the Nash Equilibrium. This just means that if everyone plays perfectly, no player gets an edge. The game is solved. You always play to a draw or the player who goes first or second always wins. 

In games without chance, this is easy to see. In tic-tac-toe, you know this simple game always can be played to a draw, no matter who goes first or who goes second. In chess, two computers can be programmed to play perfectly to a draw. Poker is different, right? There’s an element of chance, so you can never predict who can win. 

Well, yes and no. In any hand, session or tournament, anyone can win no matter what their strategy is. In the long run, though, those who play closest to perfect are going to win. Unless, of course, they always play against others playing perfectly, in which case the winners and losers truly are random. 

Computer programs have been created to solve the game. Much like Deep Blue did for chess, or AlphaGo did for Go, PioSolver has been paving the way for a computer to figure out the best play in any given scenario, and it’s working. The best players in the world immerse themselves in hours and hours of study each week to learn what the computer already knows. How often should they three-bet? When should they move all-in for four times the pot on the river on a bluff? The answers are just a large amount of RAM and CPU consumption away. 

Should you give up if you don’t play GTO? No, you shouldn’t give up if you’re a winning player. You do, however, need to go back to one of the first principles of being a professional player and keep learning. 

Many old-school players will say they don’t believe in GTO or they’ll say they don’t need GTO because they’re good enough. They’re wrong; the rest of the world just hasn’t caught up enough to make them realize it yet. In low-stakes games, the rest of the world might never catch up, but if they do, don’t you want to catch up with them?

— Brent Philbin is a pro you can reach at BrentPhilbin@gmail.com.