Poker Game Theory: The 5 Best Tips for Beginners

If you’re new to poker, learning the basics and poker game theory is essential for playing well. In recent years, poker has changed rapidly with many strategy resources, including books, videos, and digital content becoming outdated. The most significant change is that the old-school players made millions by exploitative play.

However, almost all millionaires now rely on poker game theory with exploitative play added to their game to make it even better.  In this article, we’ll give you tips to get started and improve your game. 

Poker Game Theory

Around 1950, John Nash created game theory at Princeton University as a branch in mathematics. Players have made great strides to improve their game theory knowledge.

Poker’s complexity can be understood mathematically. Every decision will have an impact on your win rate as a player. The expected value (EV) is a measure of how profitable a decision is.

A profitable decision is called +EV. If it is not profitable it is called -EV.

An example of a theoretically balanced strategy that a player uses is when they use a range of open-raising hands. This is an example of an opening range for a UTG (first to act) player.

Although it is a profitable play to increase our UTG strength, it would be too predictable to play only with those hands. Raising with less profitable hands, such as 9s8s and 6h6c, we balance increase our opening range, making it harder to play against.

It’s still possible to have a strong hand even if the flop is low or middling.

Why use a GTO Poker strategy?

You might be wondering why it is important to use a game theory-based strategy when most of your money can be made by exploiting weaker or uninterested players.

There are two main reasons:

  • You will win long-term money with a balanced, GTO-based strategy regardless of how skilled your opponents are.
  • It is easier to make adjustments to counter your opponents if you have a baseline strategy to base your adjustments on (more on this later).

Your hand review sessions should include objective analyzes of how hands were played from a GTO perspective. This will help you determine if your range was balanced. You should also consider what you would do with any given holding, not just the cards you were dealt.

During review sessions, you should ask yourself what you might do with different holdings.

You should be betting for value in certain situations. Your opponent will not know if you are betting for money or a bluff. Your opponent can fold profitably if you only bet value hands on a river.

Your opponent can also call profitably if you are too bluffing in certain situations.

These hypothetical examples by Doug Polk will convince you that a GTO-influenced strategy should be the best.

Examples of game theory poker

You bet $100 on the river into a $100 pot. Your opponent must call $100 to win $200. Your opponent has 2-to-1 pot odds. To break even, they must win at least 33% of their time.

Learn how to calculate pot odds.

This quick calculation will reveal the optimal percentage of bluffs within your betting range on river: 33% (one for every two value wagers). This frequency is optimal as it allows you to win the pot the most often without being countered.

Let’s compare 4 different bluff to-value bet scenarios. This will allow you to see why a range of 33% bluffs versus 66% value bets is the best from a GTO perspective. There’s nothing your opponent can do.

(For simplicity, let’s assume that we always win when our values bets are called and lose when our bluffs or a call are made.

If you want to be a successful poker player, it is essential that you understand the theoretically optimal way of playing each hand. This will allow you to exploit your opponents’ mistakes and maximize your own profits. Knowing what is right is impossible without understanding what is wrong.

Your opponent may fold 100% of the time. This means that you can win $100 with your betting range.

Scenario 2 – Bluff 100%, Value Bet 0%:

Your opponent can call 100% of all calls. This means that you could lose $100 with your betting range.

Scenario 3 – Bluff 50%, Value Bet 50%:

If your opponent calls 100%, you win $200 if you are value betting and $100 if you are bluffing. This means that you will win $50 with your betting range if your opponent calls every time (50% * –$100 = –$50; 50% * 200 = $100). $100 – $50 = $50).

This scenario shows that not bluffing is more profitable than bluffing 50%.

Scenario 4 – Bluff 33%, Value Bet 67%:

If your opponent calls every time, you win $200 when you value bet and lose $100 when you bluff. You lose $100 33% of time and win $200 67% of time. This net profit is $100 (33% * $100 = $33; 67% $200 = $133). $133 – $33 = $100).

This scenario uses the optimal bluff/value ratio because:

  • You win $100 if your opponent always calls
  • You win $100 if your opponent always folds

Your opponent may call or fold, but you make a $100 profit. This win/win scenario can only be achieved with a balanced range. No matter what option your opponent chooses, their range will still make a profit.

Using this ratio to exploit weak players can make the game more profitable. However, it is important to understand a GTO-influenced strategy.

Four Benefits of GTO

Take a look at these four general benefits of a solid GTO strategy.

1. Avoid Circular Thinking

One of the relics of poker training in the ’90s was trying to understand which “level” players were playing at.

  • Level-based thinking begins with you looking at your hand.
  • It then moves on to think about your opponent’s possible ideas.
  • Then it will move to what your opponent thinks you have.
  • Then it goes to what you think your opponent thinks you have.
  • And so on.

In an ideal world, you would be able to determine where the “leveling” process should take place. That is, you would determine what level your opponent plays and adjust accordingly. However, this is not possible against weak players.

It could also work against more experienced players, where both players try to outdo the other’s thinking.

This is why we can avoid getting into this situation. We can use a GTO-influenced Bluffing strategy to avoid confusion and get into a war with the flop without equity.

2. Avoid Assumptions

Another benefit to a GTO-based poker strategy is that it prevents you from making incorrect assumptions about other players. However, making general assumptions can prove costly.

It is not wise to say “this is NEVER an ad hoc bluff” or “he ALWAYS has this here,” or, that an opponent is incapable of holding a certain hand within their range or that they are very open or tight.

A well-constructed GTO strategy will eliminate confusion and help you make long-term profitable plays.

3. Objective Analysis

Many players mistakenly judge how they played a particular hand by its outcome. As a player advances in her poker career, she will realize that she is not in the business to look at the results in isolation.

But it can be difficult to think objectively, especially when the outcome of a hand is really bad or really great. It doesn’t necessarily mean that calling twice is the right play just because you hit your full house on the river and stacked your opponent.

Once you have determined the best GTO strategy in a particular spot, you can apply it to your post-session analysis to determine if you made the long-term profitable play with your range and not just your 2 hole cards.

To be a successful poker player, you must admit your mistakes. Game theory can help you recognize mistakes more easily.

4. It makes it easier to adjust

When it comes to making good changes in your strategy, why is poker game theory so important? Let’s play a game to find out.

Imagine that you have forgotten everything about poker strategy and are about to play your first ever hand.

Live $1/$2. Effective Stacks. $200

Hero is dealt A 9 at the big blind
Folds to btn. BTN increases to $7. sb folds Hero calls.

Flop (14) T 3
Hero checks. BTN places a $9 bet. Hero calls.

Turn (32 USD) J
Hero checks. BTN places $21. Hero calls.

River (74) 9
Hero checks. BTN wagers $50 Hero calls.

BTN shows A2. Hero wins $174 with two pairs

What do you think of the button’s aggressive top pair and his weak line? What could you do to make him more profitable in the future? You wouldn’t know where to begin if you don’t understand the theory behind how he plays his hand.

If you know the theoretically correct way of playing A2o in the button situation, then you will know how he has deviated from it. This knowledge allows you to find ways to exploit your opponent.

These are the adjustments that we can make to stop this aggressive thin-value betting strategy.

  • The little exploit: call down slightly when he bets on barrels (but not too heavily).
  • The big exploit is to relentlessly attack his checkback range, which is very weak, with big bets for thin values mixed with the right amount of bluffs.

If you want to be a successful poker player, it is essential that you understand the theoretically optimal way of playing each hand. This will allow you to exploit your opponents’ mistakes and maximize your own profits. Knowing what is right is impossible without understanding what is wrong.


We hope these tips on poker game theory help you improve your poker skills and have more fun playing the game. For more information on poker theory, be sure to check out our other articles on the subject.