GTO. Three letters that every poker player needs to know in the modern poker world. You may have heard of game theory optimal play, you may even comprehend what it is on a basic level. But have you integrated it into your game? That’s the question and Adam Jones, also known as ‘W34z3l’, is on the podcast this week to discuss. He helps people understand how game theory optimal fundamentals work, why they’re worth learning, where they can generate profit in your game and this isn’t just for high stakes players. Here’s the do’s and don’ts of applying GTO strategies to your small stakes poker game.

Featuring: Jones, Shaw

Today we’re going to talk about GTO for small stakes players. I know a lot of our listeners are small stakes players and they might be a little skeptical as to why they should put in a lot of study time on GTO. They might be playing exploitive poker and seeing lots of profit come from there. Why should a small stakes player start looking into game theory optimal play?

Adam Jones: Well, there are a few reasons, but we don’t want to give people the wrong idea. In many cases maybe they shouldn’t be looking into GTO play. Let’s just explain maybe why it might not be a good idea in the sense that if you want to make the most money as quickly as you can in poker, there’s generally a fast route. Sometimes it’s described as this low hanging fruit concept, maybe that’s something you’ve heard coaches talk about before. There’s a way that you can make money quickly at poker without needing to know all the technical details of how game theory in poker works.

In some senses GTO is not the right place to start. The basic idea is to have a good understanding of fundamental exploitative play. In fact, even at the very high levels the most important thing in any strategy is how to play exploitatively. So where does GTO come into that?

Generally speaking, exploitative poker will tell us how to adjust from a certain situation. But in order to understand how to adjust, it’s good to have an understanding of what you should be doing by default in a certain situation. For example, a common one that I hear is players talking about pre-flop. They’ll say something like, “Well, I don’t have default ranges or anything like that. I just play exploitative poker.” There’s a decent amount you can do with that. For example, you see guys folding way too much to 3-bets pre-flop, then you can go ahead and you can 3-bet that. But when things get a little bit closer to the line, when players are playing a little bit closer to optimal, there’s not always a clear exploitation. In fact, when players say for example, I’m going to loosen up or I’m going to tighten up in this spot, they might think they’re playing loose as an exploit or they might think they’re playing tight as an exploit. But compared to what they should be doing by default, they’re not actually pushing things that far.

That’s one reason why it’s good to have an understanding of what theoretically correct poker is. It gives you a starting point to base your exploitative deviations from. You might think you’re playing loose, turns out you’re actually not because maybe you’re actually playing tighter than you should be by default in a certain situation.

The second application is, let’s say you’re playing in a spot where you don’t have a good exploitative handle. You simply don’t know what the guy is doing and even an online environment for example this can occur in spots where the situation doesn’t appear with a high frequency. You’re not necessarily going to have a good idea of what people are doing by default in those spots. Once again, it allows you to formulate a starting point.

Just to summarize those two things in case it wasn’t clear. First thing: GTO gives you a better understanding of exploitative poker because it tells you what you should be doing by default and therefore you can may make adjustments from what your default strategy should look like. Second thing: GTO helps you deal with unknown situations. For example, low frequency spots where someone does something that you haven’t really seen the population do before, you don’t necessarily have a good exploitative handle on that situation. GTO allows you to come up with a default strategy in basically a situation you’ve never seen before.

I’d say those are the main two benefits for looking into GTO. But as I say, whatever little time you are playing you do definitely want to be playing a heavily exploitative style and pretty much any game. GTO is really a springboard for improving the quality of our exploitative game. That’s the main benefit of understanding game theory optimal play.

Those are two really great points and I want to dig into them a little bit more. The second one in particular struck me as I was watching your Red Chip Poker PRO video ‘GTO Misconceptions’, and you mentioned how useful GTO is in those situations where there are some odd bet sizes. That’s something that small stakes players do see; we have a lot of fishy players and we have a lot of players who are just starting to develop skills and they might be making these really odd bet sizes or odd plays. GTO gives you a fail-safe is what I’m hearing.

Adam Jones: Yes, that’s basically it. It gives you a strategy which can never really be that bad. If you’re pushing something exploitatively one way or the other, for example, you’re playing really, really tight in a certain spot or you’re playing really, really loose, well that could end up being exploitatively very, very good, it could also end up being really, really terrible. At least with a GTO-based approach it’s basically impossible for your opponents to be exploiting you. But at the same time, assuming your opponent is not playing correct poker, there will usually be a better option. It’s just that if you don’t know what that better option is, at least you have a starting point. You have this strategy which will be at least okay in pretty much any situation.

Right. And a lot of small stakes players believe the myth GTO is for higher stakes players; where players are playing super-tough games and they’re very, very skilled. But as you said, even if you’re just exploiting the average small stakes player, having that fundamental baseline of understanding what GTO is gives you some place to work your exploitation from as opposed to just doing it ad lib based on what you see at the table.

Adam Jones: Yes. It’s important just to mention just so there’s no confusion here that when people are talking about GTO poker, there’s no one that’s playing GTO poker. Even the best poker players in the world are not playing GTO poker. What they’re essentially doing is using GTO principles to improve their decision making. You could perhaps refer to it as GTO approximations. But essentially we’re still a very, very long way from understanding what the entire strategy of poker looks likes.

Even if people might claim that they play GTO poker, for example, what they’re really saying is that they use an understanding of this mathematical genre, let’s call it, game theory. They’re using it to improve their decisions but in a sense no one’s actually playing GTO because no one knows what GTO poker looks like. That’s one of the great ironies of the game of No Limit Hold’em, in order to understand what we should be playing pre-flop, for example, you essentially have to solve the entire game of poker first. Even the absolute best poker players in the world don’t necessarily know which hands they should be playing pre-flop. That’s one of the ironies of poker, that pretty much no one knows exactly what they should be doing in any situation.

For sure… and when we talk about GTO we have to talk about software, right? Because our understanding of game theory optimal play in the modern day is based a lot on these tools out there for off table study. Can you talk a little bit to the small stakes player who’s just getting into GTO thinking what kind of software should they be using in their study to gain just a basic understanding, to really get introduced to the concept?

Adam Jones: Yes. Like I say, it’s definitely important before you delve into the software to take the low hanging fruit. What we mean by this is just a basic standard strategy which doesn’t really rely too heavily on these concepts. Just stuff like, what should I be open raising, what should see betting and stuff like that. You want to start with a good basic understanding of the game before you go into any slightly deeper mathematical principles. It’s basically, as I said, the low hanging fruit concept. You want to be able to improve your game, you want improve your win rate as quickly as possible basically. By the time players start looking into some of these softwares and taking a more GTO-based analysis to the game, the implication there is that they’ve already reached a pretty high level of playing poker.

What I’m hearing from you is, if you’re a small stakes player just looking to get into the concept of GTO, software is going to be a little bit further out on your quest. What are some of the things that we should be starting with first? What are some of the specific situations where we can think in GTO terms to have a better fundamental game?

Adam Jones: It’s good to be aware of some of the basic ideas behind game theory and essentially what it’s trying to help us to do. Of course, the basic idea behind game theory is have an unexploitable game; so you play in such a way that your opponent can’t exploit you. It’s useful to be aware of some of the basic concepts, for example these ones. One of the basic concepts is known as the minimum defense frequency. The idea is that your opponent’s bet is done sizing and you have to defend at a frequency which doesn’t allow him to generate automatic profit. By the way, this is one of the absolute basic backbones of how GTO works and it could be very confusing as I’ll mention shortly. Just to put some numbers to that, let’s say someone makes a half pot bet, if that bet succeeds more 33% of the time then it generates automatic magic profit. So the way you prevent someone from having a bet that succeeds more than 33% of the time is you defend 67% of the time or more against the bet.

That’s the basic idea behind defending, for example, when you’ve got the basic idea behind aggression, which is you assign your betting range or bluff to value ratio which makes your opponent indifferent to calling. For example, to take a really, really simple situation, you’re on the river you make a pot size bet, your opponent essentially needs 33% equity to make the call. In that scenario you should be bluffing about 33% of the time and value betting about 67% of the time with a pot size bet. If you do that, then your opponent doesn’t really care too much whether he calls or folds; his expectation is going to be zero essentially.

Those are the two really basic fundamental principles regarding GTO play. You’ve got the defense idea there, which is stopping your opponent from generating profit, then you’ve got the aggression idea there, which is making sure that you have a bluff to value ratio that makes your opponent different to calling or folding essentially with this bluff catches. But you have to be very careful with this because there’s that saying, ‘A little bit of knowledge is dangerous.’ You can use what I’ve just told you to make some really, really bad decisions at the poker table. It’s good to know a little bit more about GTO in order to not make some of these really bad mistakes that players make when they first get introduced to the idea.

It’s funny you say that, I talk to a lot of coaches and one of the things that always comes up is this reticence to give this information for that exact reason. That in the wrong hands or in an unstudied mind, these facts, this information can easily be misapplied. How should someone go about applying these GTO concepts to their game? Are you an advocate–for example, you mentioned having one bluff for every two value hands on the river, should someone approach the game and say, “Okay, for this session I’m going to make that adjustment.”? How do you advise people get into GTO in terms of their actual play?

Adam Jones: Admittedly, it’s difficult. We’re not going to say it’s super straightforward. It’s definitely something that’s very interesting to read about and you want to avoid making any sudden movements in the sense that, let’s say you’ve got this game that’s working okay, let’s say maybe you’re break-even or you’re a slight winner in your games, you want to be a little bit careful before you make any sudden movements. You don’t necessarily want to break your current game.

Essentially, it’s just one of those things where your understanding is just going to improve gradually as you go along.

I even see training videos maybe two, three years old from some of the guys that are meant to be the best in the industry. These are the guys who are respected, they know about GTO etc and I watched these videos and — to give an example of an unnamed video that I went through. The guy is doing a hand history review, and he is going through these GTO-based approaches to his hands and he is just looking at his range versus range equity. At the time, that might have seemed like a really good thing to do. Yes, you have all of the equity, now you know what you should defend more than the minimum defense frequency or less. But the guy wasn’t looking at the equity distribution, and that’s just as important. For example, there are situations where you can have a whole bunch of equity, but if you don’t have the favorable equity distribution, you can’t bet frequently. Or in some cases you can’t even bet at all. You can model a situation like that and Cardrunners EV, for example, where you can have 95% equity with your range against the other guy, but it’s completely incorrect to bet.

It just goes to show, even a few years back, someone’s making this video and at that time it was top notch… they clearly look like they understand game to you, when you go back and analyze it, in some ways they were doing everything wrong because they were making their decisions based on range versus range equity. You can’t do that; that’s not how game theory works. It’s a combination of the range versus range equity and also the equity distribution. In some senses, the equity distribution is even more important than the range versus range equity. That’s the thing, you have to be careful with this idea, because you can learn something and you can apply it in a way that’s badly done. And this is even if you are following the instructions you’ve been given. This is even if for example the GTO expert tells you should do this, it’s been proven with math. But then in a few years even that expert will have upgraded their understanding of how to make good GTO approximations in certain situations.

The way I approach it is, rather than trying to implement these difficult mathematical concepts directly into one’s game, which can potentially lead to these kinds of mistakes that we are discussing, the basic goal here is to have an understanding of what game theory optimal play represents. I’ll give you an example of how this works.

Generally speaking, whether with the aggressor or with the defender, game theory optimal play generally tells us that we have to continue with the best hands in our range, and we have to discard the worst hands in our range. When you take something simple like C-betting, let’s say we open raise pre-flop or the texture comes down to something like king seven two rainbow. For a long time even some of the best players were advocates of automatically see betting that texture. They’d say, for example, “Well, it’s a dry board.” They’d even pull up Flopzilla and say, “Hey look, the guy hardly has any combinations on his texture. He’s clearly going to be over folding,” and of course play is advanced then now the defender is going to be not folding 80% of the time just because of his K72 rainbow. Rather than just give people tactical advice like always C-bet this texture or always do this on a certain texture, then you can start taking a more GTO principle-based approach. Rather than trying to figure out what frequency you should fire at the king seven two rainbow, you can say to yourself, “Hold on, it’s probably not correct for me to see bet the absolute worst hands in my range.”

The GTO idea or principle here is that, I’m going to continue with the best hands in my range and I’m going to discard the worst hands in my range. So we might still be C-betting with a reasonably high frequency on a K72 rainbow, we might be C-betting like 60-65% of the time. Or, are we going to be thinking about a range or what the worst 35% hands in a range are, and those are the ones that are going to go in our checking range potentially (along with some hands to protect it as well… maybe that’s another GTO principle, this idea of range protection as well). You wouldn’t check back a range that’s completely weak. You see how there we’ve applied some game theory principles to a certain situation without actually delving into any of the maths, which can easily go wrong very, very quickly.

You can find Adam Jones at — he’s available for private coaching and you can also enjoy Adam’s premium strategy videos in the Red Chip Poker PRO membership.