The Ultimate Guide to GTO Poker Solvers – 3. GTO vs Exploitative Poker – Do I Need to Use a Poker Solver in 2019?

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The Ultimate Guide to GTO Poker Solvers - 3. GTO vs Exploitative Poker - Do I Need to Use a Poker Solver in 2019?

If you’ve read Parts 1 and 2 of my Ultimate Guide to GTO solvers, you’ll know what a poker solver is and how they work, plus have a solid idea of what they can tell you and what they can’t. Today, we’re going to wade into the debate on whether or not a solver is an option or a necessity for those looking to improve their poker game and move up the limits in 2019 and beyond.

Believe it or not, this topic has been debated for longer than poker solvers have been publicly available. I distinctly remember having debates of this nature when I’d just started out playing full time in 2011. The form of the argument really hasn’t changed much since then: which approach makes more money – doing your best to play in a quasi-GTO manner, or paying primary attention to your opponent in each hand and attempting to max exploit every perceived leak in their game. Recently, the debate has been taken up once again by some high visibility players, most notably Charlie Carrel who has aligned himself strongly on the exploitative side. There’s actually quite of ideas to break down here, so let’s jump right in.

F*** GTO?


The core idea of exploitative play is that we deviate away from GTO/optimal play in order to win more cash from our opponents. For example, if we’re in a spot where we think our villain won’t fold as much as he should, rather than structuring our range with an optimal ratio of value bets and bluffs, we’ll drop a few bluffs from the range and potentially add a few thinner value bets. Sounds straightforward enough right? Perhaps you haven’t noticed the obvious contradiction here – deviating from the GTO approach inherently implies precise knowledge of the GTO solution. How can you deviate away from the strategy without knowledge of what it is? This is like steering a ship and deciding to change your course 10 degrees south, only the ship doesn’t have a compass and you have no idea which direction you’re traveling in to start with.

Deviating from the GTO approach inherently implies precise knowledge of the GTO solution.
How can you deviate away from the strategy without knowledge of what it is?

Max Exploitation

Continuing with our example above where we perceive our villain to be under-folding – attempting to full capitalise on this spot will lead to us making a dramatic strategy adjustment – no bluffs whatsoever rather than the normal 30-40% of our range. This is true even if our villain’s under-fold is relatively slight (say 10% from where it should be). If we implement this strategy, we potentially make a small gain in expected value, but we open ourselves up to a very costly counter-adjustment from our villain. If he perceives our strategy change, he simply switches to an over-fold strategy, calling down only the stronger hands and forgoing all the marginal bluffcatchers. Hopefully you can see that attempting to max exploit in this fashion is analogous to picking up pennies infront of a steam-roller – in an effort to capture a small win, we’ve put ourselves in a position to get massively owned by an opponent who’s paying attention.

Preserving Your Edge

Another problem with max exploit thinking is that dramatic strategic adjustments are very noticeable. A real-life example springs to mind – around 3 or 4 years ago I was playing a bunch of Heads Up (HU) vs primarily 6max regs. The en vogue strategy from the SB in these times was to open 100% of hands for a minraise, and fold to 65-70% of 3bets. Therefore, my counter from the BB was to 3bet a very wide, very polarised range. I was routinely 3betting a bunch of hands like 53o, 82s, 42o etc etc, as my opponents weren’t defending enough vs 3bet to stop these hands showing a profit. Suffice to say, it worked very well for a while.

BUT – if I had to show down a few of these 3bets with garbage, I’d stimulate an instant, dramatic response from smarter villains. Their open frequency would drop to something like 70%, and their fold to 3bet would go through the floor as they (correctly) started defending weaker hands vs my 3b. I’d quite frequently make marginal to bad bluffs in an effort to preserve their perception that I was only 3betting good hands from the BB, but if I showed down more than 1 or 2, I’d know the jig was up.

Hopefully this example makes clear the generalisation I’m trying to make here – shooting for larger exploits can have the effect of highlighting the mistakes your opponent is making, closing that window of opportunity to actually make some money from the leak.

What Do You Think You Know, and Why Do You Think You Know It?

You may have heard the phrase – there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Oftentimes when students are showing me hands where they made marginal (sometimes very marginal) plays in an attempt to exploit a perceived leak, the main basis of their perception of this leak is some statistic. I am always very skeptical of reads of this type, as there are an incredible number of variables which affect every poker situation. If someone has folded a situation quite a few times, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re using some wacky, super-tight strategy, it’s perhaps more likely they’ve just had bad hands a few times. How to properly use statistics to reasonable influence your strategic choices is a whole article in itself for another time, but for the purposes of this discussion, we just have to note that making drastic strategic adjustments to try and exploit an opponent requires very strong knowledge of the perceived leak – ‘he’s folded this situation 6 out of 8 times’ is not that. This is what Nassim Taleb would call ‘naive empiricism’ – drawing overly strong conclusions from weak, non-detailed ‘evidence’.

Not All Leaks Need to be Exploited

Imagine you’re playing poker with someone. They tell you they’re going to play exactly as normal, except that they’re going to fold AA and KK preflop, every time. What do you need to do to exploit this leak?

Nothing. This leak is self-exploiting, you don’t need to do anything (except play KK+ 😀 ) to have the money flow your way from this opponent. This is true of lots of other weaknesses that people tend to exhibit. For example, say your opponent is missing river bluffs – they are costing themselves EV by taking 0EV checks instead of +EV bets. The money will flow your way over time without any strategic adjustment on your part. It’s possible that it would flow your way quicker if you tightened up a little, but it’s not necessary to spend a heap of time worrying about exactly the extent to which you need to tighten – if your opponent is making suboptimal choices, the money is flowing your way regardless.


There are many valid routes to the top. I know of very successful players who don’t own a license to any solver software, so I’m not going to tell you that a solver is a prerequisite for success, now or ever. However, even these rare players who mostly learn by doing do end up studying solvers by proxy – through study partners or through analysing the strategies of their opponents.

I personally believe that in the quest for success, the best approach is to leave no stone unturned. Even if it’s possible to make it without a solver, this is certainly getting less and less true by the day as time goes on, plus I certainly believe using a solver increases your chances of success substantially. I am reminded of a quote, I think by Kai Greene but I’m not sure, regarding bodybuilding. People love to ask what the secret to success is – is it diet, is it training, is it lifestyle.. what is it? Is it 40% diet, 40% training, 20% lifestyle? He responded, if you’re going to make it, it’s 100% diet, 100% training, 100% lifestyle. It’s everything – give yourself every possible chance of making it, don’t let your brain find excuses for being lazy. A GTO poker solver can give you an excellent starting point for a huge variety of spots, from which you might choose to exploitatively deviate vs some opponents. You don’t have to choose between approaches, you can do it all.

That’s it for today, hope you enjoyed the discussion. If you did, show us some love in whatever way you’d like.

GL out there!


2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to GTO Poker Solvers – 3. GTO vs Exploitative Poker – Do I Need to Use a Poker Solver in 2019?”

  1. Pingback: The Ultimate Guide to GTO Poker Solvers – 2. What a Poker Solver Can Tell You, and What it Can't - BitB Cash - Poker Training

  2. Pingback: The Ultimate Guide to GTO Poker Solvers – 5. The Five Biggest Mistakes People Make Using Poker Solvers - BitB Cash - Poker Training

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