There are constant arguments between players on what makes the most money, exploitative or GTO play. Training sites like Upswing Poker (read our Upswing review)  have a fundamentally balanced strategy at their core, but even they have been hiring new coaches with exploitative and mixed strategies.

What is GTO poker?

balanced vs exploitative strategyUnderstanding GTO can be explained in a straightforward way – a GTO style is a playstyle which cannot be exploited. For example, in rock paper scissors you could play a GTO style by using a random number generator to generate either 1, 2, or 3, and pick rock, paper or scissors based on the number. There is nothing your opponent can do to get an edge against you. Unfortunately, there is also no way for you to gain an edge.

This article will refer to HUD stats such as WTSD, VPIP, PFR, FTFCB, and more. If you are unfamiliar with HUD statistics or are a beginner player, you may wish to read through our beginner strategy guide to the microstakes before continuing this article.

So why the hell would you play rock paper scissors in a way that you can never win?

Randomization is not a good strategy in a game as simple as rock paper scissors where your opponent cannot make any mistakes against you. In poker, if you could play a GTO strategy (which is beyond the reach of humans or even AI at this time) you would print money whenever your opponent’s make mistakes against you.

Balance is the fundamental of poker

You do not want to be predictable. If you only bet with a strong hand, opponents can fold against you with their middle strengths hands. If you only check raise the river with the nuts, your opponents can always fold the second nuts.

Balance is the core of a strong strategy. When you are check raising on the flop or turn, a balanced strategy has a mix of strong hands and hands with low showdown value with some equity that can force your opponents to fold a better hand.

Playing a balanced style is the key to the fundamentals of the game.

But here’s the thing – no one is perfectly balanced.

What happens if your opponent loves rock?

In rock paper scissors, if you were playing for money against someone who loves to throw rock, you would be torching cash by playing GTO. You could make much more money by using only paper, or, if you did not want your opponent to adjust to your strategy, by throwing paper at a higher percentage, but not noticeably. This is the difference between adjusting and over adjusting to your opponent.

As you play, you will find that many opponents will be either

  1. A) Too aggressive


  1. B) Too passive

They may be too aggressive in certain spots and too passive in others, but in general it is very rare to find any players, even at high stakes, who manage to be balanced in each situation. To make more money against these players, you can exploit their tendencies.

Examples of exploitative play that you can implement

Exploitative play ranges from very simple concepts which are obvious to more advanced ideas. We will start with two basic concepts and work from there.

Betting wider for value against stations

Players who have a high WTSD (went to showdown), and who in general have a low fold to bets including continuation bets are more likely to call with weaker hands. Against these players, you can bet wider for value. A hand like top pair with a weak kicker that you would check the flop with against the general population can be a very good candidate for a value bet against stationy players. Conversely, opponents who are nittier and have higher fold to bet statistics and lower WTSD stats can be bluffed more.

Folding more against passive opponents

Passive opponents have generally high WTSD and low aggression stats. They prefer to check and call rather than raise themselves. For example, they may have a check raise percentage of only 5%, which is strongly weighted towards value. They may also have very low pre-flop 3-betting percentages. What you do against these opponents? The way to exploit them is by folding the bottom of your range that you would continue against normal opponents.

More advanced exploitative play

Increasing check-raising frequency against players who float bet at a high frequency

If your opponents are always stabbing when you check flop instead of continuation betting, you can start check raising more against them. In extreme cases, you may wish to have no cbet range at all and check raise your entire range.

Against an opponent who overfolds to check raises, you would want to check raise your draws.

Against an opponent who underfolds to check raises, you would want to check raise your value hands.

Against a player who stabs once and stops betting, you would want to check call your medium strength hands and decide whether to lead turn or river for value depending on the strength of their range.

The inverse of this is true – against an opponent who is rarely stabbing at the flop when you check instead of c-betting, there is no point to having a check raising range has the situation will occur very rarely that you can actually check raise.

This is just an introduction to exploitative play, merely touching the tip of the iceberg.

When is balance most important?

Against regs. There is no need to be balanced against fish. Against fish, you should (almost) always do whatever is most profitable at the time. Against professionals and thinking players, we want to try for balance as they are the most likely to exploit us. The higher stakes you play at and the tougher your opponents, the more important it is to stick to balanced play and be careful not to over adjust.

Why be balanced?

Stops regs from exploiting us

Protect our ranges by not donking strong hands on runouts favorable to our range, or conversely implementing a strategy where we donk strong hands and bluffs

Having a mix of bluffs in order to be able to attack different run outs, for example bluffing missed straights on flush runouts and vice versa

We hope this was a good introduction to balanced vs exploitative play!



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