Poker MythBusters: Myth 2: Playing GTO Is Always the Best Approach

In the last few years, poker solvers have become more prevalent and have helped to perpetuate the myth that playing a GTO (Game Theory Optimal) approach is always best. In our second part of the Poker MythBusters series, we will dispel this common poker myth.


“GTO means game THEORY optimal not what’s ACTUALLY optimal in real life. What is optimal in real life is always exploiting your opponents’ tendencies to the best of your ability. This will always create a much higher win rate than a strict GTO approach.”

-Chance Kornuth


Why the Myth Is Common:

Humans crave certainty and with other gambling games “solved” from a mathematical perspective, many want to apply the same approach to poker. 


However, with poker being such a dynamic game that has infinite permutations and player types, there will always be limitations. 


Here are some of the pitfalls of exclusively depending on a GTO approach:


Not Always the Most Profitable Line:

The essence of GTO is to play in a manner that’s impervious to exploitation. This sometimes means adopting a somewhat defensive posture where the primary objective is not necessarily to maximize profit in every hand, but rather to shield oneself from potential losses.


In situations where an opponent is prone to making glaring mistakes, a GTO strategy might not be aggressive enough to capitalize on these errors.


Missed Exploitative Opportunities: 

When faced with an opponent who, for instance, consistently overvalues mediocre hands, an exploitative player might adjust their strategy to trap or extract maximum value from this player. A strict GTO approach wouldn’t necessarily make these adjustments. As such, while you might not lose against such an opponent, you might not win as much as you could either.


Assumes Rational Opponents:

The foundation of GTO strategies is built on the assumption that opponents are playing rationally and close to optimally. In reality, especially away from high-stakes games, players can be wildly unpredictable, driven by emotion, overconfidence, or lack of understanding of foundational poker concepts.


Low and mid stakes games tend to feature more recreational players who deviate substantially from optimal play. In these games, the profitability of exploiting common mistakes often far outweighs the benefits of an unexploitable GTO strategy.


Real-Time Decision Making:

In the heat of the moment, players have limited time to make decisions. Trying to recall a specific GTO play for a particular scenario can be challenging, leading to delays, mistakes, or simply defaulting to intuition rather than a theoretically optimal play.


The human brain can’t come close to remembering all of the possible variables for so many solver outputs.


“It is easier to think of a spot like this: what hands is my opponent bluffing with? How frequently is that happening and how frequently do I need to call?”

-Alex Foxen


Dependency on Exact Variables: 

Small changes in parameters, such as stack sizes, pot sizes, or even opponent tendencies, can shift the GTO strategy for a particular situation. Keeping track of these ever-changing variables and adjusting in real-time is a tall order, even for seasoned professionals.


Underestimating Human Factors: 

GTO doesn’t account for the emotional, psychological, and situational factors that often influence human decisions. Players can go on tilt, become overly aggressive, become passive due to previous losses, or make decisions based on factors external to the current game. Recognizing and exploiting these human tendencies can be more profitable than a purely GTO-based approach.


While GTO provides a robust theoretical framework that can form the foundation of a strong poker strategy, it’s essential to understand its limitations. Integrating GTO with exploitative strategies, intuition, and keen observational skills often yields the best results, especially in mid to low stakes tournaments.