“Balance is important in poker!”
“If you don’t balance your ranges the good players will take advantage of you!”
“Always use one bet-sizing for your entire range to avoid giving out info.”

We’ve probably been exposed to the above pieces of advice at least once in our poker career. They each carry the idea that balance is super important, and that without it, we’ll find ourselves playing some type of easily exploitable face-up strategy.

Is balance truly that important though? How do good players view balance?

Balance Requires Incentive

One of the most common myths is that balance is something we directly strive for; i.e. if we notice an aspect of our game is technically exploitable, we rearrange our lines to cover the hole in our strategy. The truth is somewhat different however – balance is actually a byproduct of playing the highest EV strategy against specific types of opponent.

Here is another way of expressing a correct viewpoint of balance –

“We do not balance for the sake of it. We only balance when our opponent’s strategy dictates that it is necessary”.

Example 1

Villain is folding far too frequently to flop c-bets. We are currently c-betting very aggressively with a large number of trashy hands. We are technically exploitable. Should we look to bring more balance to our strategy by toning down our c-bet aggression?

Certainly if we were to check the output from a GTO solver such as PIOsolver or a neural network such as PokerSnowie, it would tell us that our c-betting strategy is terrible. Our opponent could potentially exploit us by raising very aggressively.

But… changing our strategy to a more balanced one can easily be a big mistake. After all, we like the current game setup. Our opponent continues to relentlessly fold against our c-bets and we are generating good amounts of profit. No, we should not look to balance, it clearly is not incentivized at this stage.

Counter-Exploit > Balance

Let’s imagine that after a few thousand hands that our fold-happy villain finally catches on to our strategy. He’s caught a glimpse of a few of our showdown holdings and realizes that we are c-betting hyper aggressively. What should we do?

Example 2

Villain is now raising like a maniac against our flop c-bets. He knows that our c-betting strategy is overly wide and that we can’t defend correctly against his raises. We are now being actively exploited. Should we look to balance our c-betting strategy?

It might seem as if balancing is now incentivized. It is clear that our opponent is actively exploiting us. Utilizing a solver-generated strategy would certainly help to patch up the vulnerability we are exposing to our opponent. It’s important not to be hasty however – we should think of balanced play as a last resort. Is balancing our only option, or is there another, more effective, response?

Our opponent is pushing his flop-raise exploit hard, exposing a vulnerability towards us. How should we play against an opponent that raises every flop? We can exploit that by populating our c-bets with a range of hands weighted towards value. When our opponent raises the flop hyper-aggressively, he’ll be hitting a brick wall.

The lesson? Don’t balance before its necessary. Look to counter-exploit first.

The Golden Rule

The decision to counter-adjust rather than balance is based on poker’s Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule –> Always take the highest EV option in every situation.

This conflicts with many player’s understanding of balance. A common belief is that it is okay to play hands within our range at a lower EV if it benefits other hands within our range. This is not how balance works. After all such a belief violates poker’s Golden Rule, since it implies we are deliberately playing hands in a way which doesn’t generate their maximum expectation.

Example 3

Explain how preemptively balancing in example 2 violates poker’s Golden Rule.

The employed counter-exploit was to switch to a c-betting range which is unbalanced towards value. We can assume that c-betting weak hands will generate a negative expectation since we’ll always face a flop raise. What if we were to c-bet these weak hands anyway, since they technically appear as part of part of a “balanced” c-betting strategy?

Although our balanced strategy would be “solver approved”, we’d deliberately be throwing away EV with the weakest part of our c-betting range. It is not okay to play these weaker hands at a lower EV just because the stronger hands are still getting paid. If a line is -EV, we want to cut it out of our strategy immediately.

Many players (even ‘advanced’ players) violate poker’s Golden Rule by looking to employ balanced strategies even when presented with clear exploitative opportunities.

Nash Equilbria

In the context of poker, “Nash Equilibrium” describes a setup where neither player has an incentive to deviate from their current strategy. Doing so would only ever lower the expectation of the strategy and hence violate the Golden Rule. In such a scenario, playing “GTO” poker would actually be the highest EV option. Remember how we said that balanced play is actually a byproduct of playing the highest-EV strategy against specific types of opponents? At Nash Equilibrium we are forced to play with perfect balance, otherwise we find ourselves breaking the Golden Rule.

Here is another way of thinking about this. We are forced to balance when our opponent is capable of quickly countering any imbalance with brutal precision. If villain is not capable of recognizing and attacking certain types of imbalance, it might not be +EV to cover up those imbalances in the first place. In fact, by leaving them in place, we may be increasing our win-rate by generating an exploit against villain.

What percentage of opponents are good enough where balance is a prerequisite to not getting crushed? Close to 0% – in fact, let’s say exactly 0% since poker is not solved. In other words, even when facing the world’s best poker players, we should absolutely be probing for exploitative opportunities rather than looking to balance.

The Bet-Sizing Myth

Another common myth regarding balance is that it revolves around not giving away information through bet-sizing. In other words, the belief is that “so long as we use the same bet-sizing consistently, we are balanced”.

Mathematically, this is not how balance works. If we understand balance on a high level, we’ll be comfortable with the following pointers –

  • Usage of multiple sizings does not imply imbalance. (Balanced play actually calls for the use of multiple bet-sizings in a large number of spots.)
  • Using the same bet-sizing consistently does not imply balance. (We might always use the same bet-sizing and yet be employing a highly unbalanced strategy.)

Some readers may not bat an eyelid at the above statements, while in others, the statements can trigger a long, searching, and often contradictory pattern of thoughts. If we find ourselves in the latter camp, it means that we still have internal unresolved discrepancies regarding the exact nature of balance in poker. Not to worry, most poker players don’t understand balance, despite what they may claim.

Multiple Sizings Don’t Imply Imbalance – Remember that “balanced” play still involves taking the highest EV line with every hand in our range. It hopefully shouldn’t surprise us that hands generate the highest EV when used along with a correct bet-sizing. Different hands will require different bet-sizings to generate the max-EV. Rather than preclude multiple bet-sizings, balanced play hence requires use of multiple bet-sizings in a large range of different scenarios. So long as each bet-sizing range is individually balanced, the overall strategy will retain balance.

Identical Bet Sizings Don’t Imply Balance – Balance is more than just a bet-sizing. It must include the right distribution of hands to go along with that bet sizing. For example, a polarized and perfectly balanced pot-size bet on the river should typically be a value bet two-thirds of the time and a bluff one-third of the time. If we change the distribution to 90% bluffs and 10% value hands the range becomes unbalanced. It doesn’t matter if we always using the same bet-sizing, our range is unbalanced towards bluffs. In other words, players who assume they are “balanced” because they always use the same bet-sizing on the flop are kidding themselves.

The Pros of Balance

It seems we have not said much regarding the virtues of balance. We’ve portrayed it to be a largely unnecessary concept, lacking relevance in the vast majority of poker scenarios. This remains true, but we don’t want do balanced play and injustice. There are few important advantages to understanding balanced play.

Understanding balanced play can skyrocket our theoretical knowledge. If we are interested in getting to grips with the detailed mechanics that underscore the game of poker, analyzing equilibrium (GTO) strategies is a great way of getting good, really fast. The mistake many players make is attempting to utilize said strategies directly in game, often at a big EV cost.

Sometimes we don’t know the exploit. If we don’t have any type of handle on our opponent, it may be reasonable to resort to equilibrium style strategies in certain areas of the game. A common mistake is to play equilibrium strategies out of the gate in every area of the game. If we don’t have specific villain information we should resort to an understanding of population tendencies to generate a default exploitative game plan. It should only be in unorthodox scenarios (in which we don’t have population data) that we make our best approximation of an equilibrium strategy. Notice how we still avoid a balanced approach wherever humanly possible.

Villain could be the 0.1%. Perhaps our opponent is just very very good, and GTO style strategies are incentivized. Probabilistically, this is not going to happen though. And if it does, it might be time to re-evaluate our table selection; we are currently sitting with one of the best players in the world.

Busting Myths Webinar

We’ll be tackling very similar myths during the Red Chip Poker busting myths webinar hosted by Red Chip coach w34z3l. There will also be opportunities to ask theory questions if we are still struggling to get our heads around some of the concepts.

PRO subscribers may access the recording of the webinar through this link.

Showing 3 comments
  • Danith Ham

    Great article, well structured.


    I think this article is very good, and makes its points perfectly well.
    IMO it says quite clearly that balanced/GTO poker is a theoretical way of approaching the game against a hypothetical optimal opponent who makes no mistakes and has no leaks. It also points out that exploring GTO mechanics will lead to a greater understanding of the underlying concepts behind ‘perfect’ poker, which in turn will help you develop your own baseline strategies off-table.
    That said, it also makes it abundantly clear that in practice a GTO/balanced style is not how to make the most money at poker. The way to make the most money at poker is, was, and always will be to exploit your opponent’s leaks and adjust to their strategies. This will continue be the case until poker is 100% solved and 100% of players play 100% perfectly 100% of the time (i.e… never).

    • Kat Martin

      Yup, I think that is a great summary.