Sports & Games

Learn About Poker: What Is GTO (Game Theory Optimal)?

Written by MasterClass

Apr 15, 2019 • 5 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

Daniel Negreanu Teaches Poker

Game theory optimal (GTO) poker is an umbrella term players use to describe the holy grail of no-limit holdem playing strategy, by which you become unexploitable to your opponents and improve your winrate.


What Is GTO Poker?

At its most basic level, GTO poker strategy aims to avoid the exploitation that can happen if you make a specific play either too frequently or not frequently enough.

Is GTO Poker An Offensive or Defensive Strategy?

GTO is essentially a defensive strategy that incorporates the principles of balanced ranges and mixed strategy. GTO poker is not an exploitative strategy aiming for maximum profit.

GTO Poker and Balanced Ranges

Poker has evolved to the point where skilled players no longer think in terms of single hands—they think in terms of the range of hands they could have or could make their opponent think they have, versus the range of hands they think their opponent has.

What are hand ranges?

A hand range is every hand that you or your opponent could logically have in that specific situation. Ideally, you should strive to narrow down your opponent’s range as much as possible by tracking and evaluating their patterns of play. When playing against some opponents
who always play hands the same way without ever changing their strategy, you can sometimes pinpoint their exact hand.

How long does it take to understand an opponent’s range?

There is no set limit on how long it takes to understand a player’s range, but observing around a hundred hands is sufficient to build up a workable picture. Start this process by first assessing how many hands they are opening from each position and progress to assessing how frequently they cold call and three-bet preflop.

What is a balanced range?

A balanced range is a range of hands that is unexploitable by virtue of a varied playing strategy. For example, if you always bet your pairs and check all other hands, then you will be easily read and exploited by your opponents. For example: “Harry” only raises under the gun when he has a premium pair or AK. If Harry checks after the flop, you know he doesn’t have a pair—which means he definitely has AK.

To avoid being read like this and exploited, you have to balance the range of hands you bet in every situation. You should check strong hands some of the time, and bet some bluffs as well. This strategy will keep your opponents guessing in every situation and protect your checking range postflop from becoming too weak.

GTO Poker and Mixed Strategy

A mixed strategy is an optimal strategy in which you vary the way you play a hand across poker games. It is essential in preventing your opponents from easily reading you.

What is mixed strategy?

When utilizing mixed strategy in poker, you have to be willing to make plays you know are suboptimal in order to create your mixed strategy. For example, when you are facing an open raise to your right and you have a mediocre hand, you should switch between three-betting, calling, and folding, depending on any reads you have on your opponent. This mixed strategy will prevent your opponent from being able to discount certain hands from your range and make you harder to play against.

How is a mixed strategy developed?

You should determine your mixed strategy away from the table. How you randomize and incorporate these frequencies into your game cannot be done during actual play, because it’s too complicated. It’s also more important to get this part of your strategy right in online games because of the lack of physical tells.

How is a mixed strategy randomized?

There are many different ways to randomize your mixed strategy. One example is to use your watch. For a strategy that requires you to make one play half of the time, and a different one the other half of the time, you can use the second hand or digits to choose which play you will make by using the clock face like a pie chart and visualizing the percentages. This is completely random and your opponent won’t be able to pick up a read on you. You can also create a system that ties into the suits and number values on the cards on show. Additionally, you can do this by feel. If you have already checked twice in a 50:50 situation, then betting is fine. Always be aware that you should be mixing up your strong hands too, for balance.

It is important for your opponents to perceive you as always having the possibility of having a nutted hand, or else you can get run over. For example, if it’s likely that you can only have one pair at best, your opponent can exploit you by making big bet sizes that you cannot profitably call. To counter this possibility, you should slow play more strong hands.

As part of a mixed strategy, it is essential to make your opponents fear your checks. By always having the possibility of strong hands in your range, your opponents will not be able to take full advantage when you check the weak part of your range.

How long does it take to develop a mixed strategy?

A strong mixed strategy is developed over time. Beginners should play a more conservative style and slowly change strategy one part at a time, so as not to self-destruct with expensive mistakes. Because a mixed strategy will force you into more difficult situations, you should only add these extra layers to your game as you become comfortable with doing so.

Should I Always Follow GTO Strategy?

Professional poker player Daniel Negreanu advises that GTO poker should be your baseline strategy, but you should deviate from it in order to exploit your opponents. The key is to exploit your opponents with discreet adjustments so that they don’t realize your strategy.

You must create a hybrid strategy between GTO and exploitative play to maximize your profit, but always remember that GTO play is not necessary against weak opponents. Weak opponents always make mistakes, which means that you must always target them with adjustments rather than worry about being defensive.