Welcome back to the Red Chip Poker podcast. On this week’s episode, we’ve got a little something new for you. This is the first of several “Software with the Developer” episodes, where we discuss the best poker strategy software available today, with the very people who created it.
Our first developer episode features Alex Sutherland, the mastermind behind GTO Range Builder, a powerful piece of software that calculates and visually analyzes game theory optimal decisions in poker based on the cards and ranges you input.
Zac Shaw (Strategy in Action) makes his podcast debut in this episode, interviewing Sutherland to gain insight for our community on the inner workings of GTO software, and how it can be applied to your game.
The Genesis of GTO Software
Sutherland started playing online poker in college back in 2006, when NLHE cash games were starting to become all the range. He had several friends who made a killing playing online during this time. Pre-Black Friday, he worked his way up from small sit-and-gos to NL400 and NL600. In grad school, he focused on game theory, and played lots and lots of poker when he wasn’t studying. Since he was making 10x what grad school paid, he quit to play full-time.
His first adventure in poker strategy software was TableNinja, a popular tool that he eventually sold to poker software mainstay Hold’Em Manager when Black Friday cratered the market. He then went on to pursue another project, but always had the idea of combining software and game theory to make a new poker strategy tool that would help players get a new edge on the game.
GTO as Applied to Poker
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the value of studying game theory and how you apply it to real world games,” Sutherland said.
As someone who comes from academia to poker, Sutherland says this misconception cuts both ways. Many poker players underestimate the value of pure strategy and pure math when it comes to their game. At the same time, many in academia fail to understand the extra nuance in applying this theoretical framework to a real live poker game with real humans who aren’t playing perfectly.
The baseline value of GTO according to Sutherland is to make you aware of which spots are good for you and which are bad for you in a mathematical sense, and how to you use that to your advantage when an opponent has a leak.
Sutherland used the example of continuation betting frequency to illustrate his point. Five years ago, c-betting on 80-90% of all flops was standard for good players. People were folding too much. Nowadays, the games are too aggressive to make this strategy profitable. People are check-raising, defending and 3-betting more. But you can’t make the right decisions based on the state of the game alone — you need to know what a GTO c-betting range looks line in order to have a foundation to build from.
Sutherland explained game theory for beginners as any finite game between two players, for which you can mathematically derive a “Nash Equilibrium“. In poker, this GTO strategy means playing a style of poker than never relies on tricks or adjustments to the player or the game. Playing GTO poker means making the best mathematical decisions regardless of these factors. Of course, players will factor in the leaks of opponents and the nature of the game, but GTO will show you the true math of the spots you choose to exploit them in, so your adjustments have a foundation of mathematical correctness.
GTORB Software Features
Now there are several GTO applications specifically built for poker, but GTORB was a pioneer in the field. The key idea that made it so successful? Sutherland worked on applying GTO to his poker study for a long, long time — starting with pen and paper and working his way up to building the software. He personally discovered many GTO spots before they were known to software!
Here’s an example of how GTORB works for flop analysis:
- Enter the size of the pot
- Enter your hand range based on preflop action
- Enter your opponents’ hand range based on their preflop action
- Click ‘solve’
There are several advanced features to play with, but that is really all it takes to put GTORB to profitable use.
What’s Under the Hood?
The above description makes GTORB sound like magic, but there is a lot going on behind the scenes to make it work. Sutherland had to learn an entirely new programming language just to make sure the program ran fast enough. In fact, this is where most of the difficulty lied in building the application. The number of calculations needed are astronomical. Sutherland said that even in academia, poker used to be considered too complex to tackle outside of the standard GTO framework. What happened was programmers got better at optimizing their applications to do the heavy mathematical lifting.
GTORB runs in the cloud with powerful servers using GTO algorithms called “fictitious play” and “counterfactual regret minimization“, to give you an idea of how deep and geeky this rabbit hole gets. These algorithms find Nash Equilibrium solutions to a wide array of games, including poker.
Applying GTO to Real Poker Games
Sutherland cites Bill Chen’s The Mathematics of Poker as the first serious attempt to apply GTO to poker in a rigorous, serious way. He cites a specific idea in the book for which GTORB was able to give a mathematical proof that players were incorrectly applying this concept when extrapolating what was designed as a GTO river strategy on flops and turns.
What he found after releasing the software was that it helps tremendously to have a deeper understanding of game theory and poker strategy to leverage the app’s computational power. Thus, the GTORB “strategy pack” was born. These training modules use GTORB to help apply insights gained from the software in specific spots.
The Future of GTO in Poker
“Progress is being made on the software side faster than anyone expected,” said Sutherland. He cites the ability to solve entire games from the preflop situation as the cutting edge of GTO software development.
Sutherland believes these advances will change some games in subtle ways, and others in drastic ways. He cites heads-up sit-and-gos as ripe for being ‘solved’ by GTO software in the coming years, with the possibility of those games drying up as the power of software-aided decision-making overtakes our human brains.
Some of Sutherland’s students (he does GTO poker-specific coaching) who play at the high limits on PokerStars in 6-max games have already seen significant shifts in strategy based on the new understanding GTO software is giving players.
The one area he sees a lack of development in is tournaments, and so that’s exactly what he’s working on now — how to apply GTO concepts to get an edge in tournament play.