With all of this conversation about GTO poker amongst players, it seems like exploitative poker has gone the way of the dinosaur. Who even cares about exploitative play when we have GTO solvers and mixed strategies to worry about?
Even though the current discussion may have you feeling that way, the reality is the polar opposite.
An exploitative strategy in poker means that you look for imbalances in your opponent’s game and craft strategies to attack those imbalances. This is the lifeblood of playing against imperfect players that have leaks and strategic issues abound.
We can visualize this with a simple, and hyper-exaggerated, example. Say our opponent is likely open-raising here with 22+/ATB/54s+/97s+. And if we were to 3bet, they are going to fold everything but AA. While this is an extreme and unrealistic example, it’s easy to see that our opponent is folding a MASSIVE amount of the time.
It’s clear to see that we could 3bet with anything, even 72o, and capitalize on the fact that our opponent is folding too much. We found an exploit (they fold too much), and we utilized a strategy (3betting them with a ton of bluff hands) to exploit that imbalance.
This is the bread-and-butter of making a profit at the tables.
But there are lots of nuances that go into maximally exploiting your opponents. So let’s kick this off with three major things to keep in mind when it comes to implementing an exploitative strategy.
A Profitable Play Can Still Lead To A –EV Line
In poker, we have lines and we have plays. A play is an action taken on a single street (like a preflop 3bet or a turn donk bet). And a line describes all actions taken on all streets within a single hand.
It’s important to remember that you can make a +EV play, but still have the overall line be –EV.
For instance, take our extreme example from earlier. We opt to 3bet with Q8s against this player. Given the width of their opening range (249 combos) and the fact they would only continue with AA (6 combos), this means they would be folding 98% of the time.
The breakeven %, given the fact that we are risking $80 more to win $27, is 75%.
Since our success rate of 98% is higher than the breakeven % of 75%, this play is mathematically +EV. Yes, even when we hold a junky hand like Q♦8♦.
However, let’s say that we are on super tilt. We plan on getting our entire stack in every time (be it by 5bet-shoving, barreling it off postflop, or paying off the overpair postflop). Sure, we will win the pot some percentage of the time – but we’ll end up losing our stack much more often the times that Brian does, in fact, wake up with AA. So the math begins to look like this:
- Hero 3bets & Brian folds: +$27
- Brian continues & we win: +$24
- Brian continues & we lose: -$107
- EV of the line: -$56
Clearly the 3bet, by itself, is outright profitable given how often Brian is folding. This 3bet inherently exploits Brian’s over-folding tendencies. But if we commit to going on a stack-off rampage, even against that suicidal range of AA, we see the EV of the entire line is –EV.
At this point, I’m sure you see how silly it would be to give a range that consists only of AA that kind of postflop (or vs. 4bet) action. But spots like this arise all of the time. Think about good double barrels that turn into horrific triple barrels, good check-raises that turn into awful re-raises, and good thin-value bets that end up paying off against a nitty river check-raise.
A +EV Exploit May Not Be Optimal
Bad players don’t even think about EV. Good players look for +EV spots. And great players are always on the hunt for the optimal solution.
Simply put, the optimal play is the MOST +EV play available.
So if the options are between a +5bb play, a -9bb play, and a +13bb play, we would clearly be most interested in the +13bb option.
The complexity with poker is that it can be tricky to precisely calculate EV away from the table, and even tougher (bordering on impossible) to do so in real-time. But with enough off-table exploration and calculations, you can estimate these things at the table and give yourself a huge advantage against players who haven’t put in the same off-table time.
We can actually use the same example from earlier. But say that Brian is likely to continue with TT+/AK/AQs if we 3bet. Even with Brian continuing more often than before, he is still folding more than 75% of the time and thus gives us an outright profitable 3bet.
And while that’s true, is 3betting the optimal solution?
What is the value of calling? Would calling be profitable? Could calling be more profitable than 3betting?
There are quite a few ways that this could be true. For instance:
- Brian plays well in 3bet pots, but has massive postflop issues in single-raised pots (edge differential in different pot types);
- Brian check/folds the flop whenever he misses the flop (a huge frequency issue that you can exploit with minimal investment);
- Brian over-values any pair postflop giving you greater implied odds (IO and future line planning).
You could come up with other parameters that can make calling more profitable than 3betting as well. But notice that our focus isn’t just exploring the outright EV of a single play. Rather, we estimate the EV of all of our available options and do our best to think ahead.
That said, you are likely noticing how much of this skillset hinges on two things:
- The assumptions you make about your opponent, their ranges, and their mistake propensities;
- The ability to make your own strategic adjustments while not falling into the trap of getting counter-exploited.
For instance, say Brian was originally folding a HUGE chunk of the time against your 3bets. However, you keep 3betting him and he’s clearly getting sick of folding. While your original 3bets were outright +EV, the next one (or next five), may go way down in outright value since you are 3betting too wide and Brian is folding far less.
The more your opponent is apt to adjust and create counter strategies, the closer to a balanced style you want to employ. But if your opponent is FAR from balanced and even less likely to adjust properly, even when your own frequencies get out of line, you can enjoy an easy session.
Memorize Your Breakeven Numbers
Up to this point, we’ve mainly looked at preflop examples – but this concept goes way beyond that. And to that point, I’d like to turn your attention to breakeven % numbers. These numbers exist anytime there is a bet, big or small, and are a great frame when it comes to finding more bluffs in your game.
The simple formula is:
BE% = $RISK/($RISK+$REWARD)
Where risk is your bet size and the reward is the pot you are fighting for.
So if you fire $80 into a pot of $140, the BE% is 36%.
Which means that so long as your opponent is folding more than 36% of the time, they are folding too much and allowing you to capture an outright profit.
And you can do the same thing for postflop raises.
Say your opponent bets $60 into $100 and you are pondering a raise to $200 total. That means you are risking $200 to win $160, and thus your BE% is 55%. If your opponent would fold more than 55% of the time to your raise, your outright profitable raise exploits the fact that they are bet/folding too frequently.
To make your life easier, here are the breakeven numbers for a few common postflop bet sizes:
|You Bet For||The BE% Of Your Bet|
and here are some breakeven numbers for some common raise sizes:
|They Bet||BE% If You Raise 3x||BE% If You Raise 4x||BE% If You Raise 5x|
By coupling the knowledge of common BE% numbers with some hand-reading skills, you’ll be finding tons of bluffs you were passing on before. At first, get comfortable estimating and calculating these bluffs, and in due time you’ll feel confident pulling the trigger and actually running the bluff at the table.
Exploitative play is everything in poker
At its core, poker is about making better assumptions than your opponent and using those assumptions to take better lines than they would. But remember, +EV plays are everywhere – but we need to continue striving to find the optimal line. Yes, it’s +EV to open-shove AA preflop – but it may very well not be optimal. Don’t stop exploring when you find a +EV play. Rather, challenge yourself to explore your other options and drill down to find the optimal one.
If you are interested in this kind of exploration, I’m hosting a group coaching session where I’ll show you more ways to exploit players once you’ve put them on a range of hands. Many players have worked tirelessly on improving their hand reading skills, but now need to know how to turn that range into profit for themselves. This includes bluffing, value betting, and sizing everything correctly – and we will cover ALL of those things!
Here are the details:
- Whom? For all PRO Members. (Already a PRO? Watch the replay here)
- When? The replay is available TODAY!
- How Long? ~2 hours (including Q&A)
Now is a great time to upgrade to PRO if you haven’t already. Replay this session and also get complete access to CORE, the entire PRO video library, every Crash Course, and more.