Dara O’Kearney discusses whether a GTO or exploitative approach to poker is best for breaking out of the small stakes.

Dara O Kearney
Dara O’Kearney 

There is an old meme in poker – “move up where they respect your raises” – the suggestion being that fundamentally sound poker strategy cannot work at the small stakes, where bluffing is much harder.

In the modern era there is a similar suggestion, which is that GTO is only useful at the higher stakes. GTO shows you how to break even against a perfect player, as such the smaller stakes should be played exploitatively if you want to build a bankroll. 

It is true that an exploitative strategy will make the most at the small stakes. So many big mistakes will be made at, for example, a $1 MTT level, that you can quickly crush those levels by pouncing on these errors. 

The problem is that exploits at one level don’t work at another. Players might call too much in $1 MTTs, they might play too aggressively in $5 MTTs, they might pot control too much in $10 MTTs. As such an exploitative player has to take time to figure out the exploits when they move up. The old exploits don’t work anymore, and if the player doesn’t adapt they will themselves get exploited. They have to learn how to beat each level over and over again. 

A new roadmap for professionals

Dara O Kearney
The new way to learn poker

There is now a new school of players who refuse to diverge from GTO poker, even when they could make more money in the short term. It might take a little longer to move out of the small stakes, but the benefit is you learn a strategy that can beat any game.

If you learn how to play fundamentally sound GTO in $5 MTTs you might not be winning the maximum, but you could get parachuted into a Super High Roller tournament and be a winning player. 

The new roadmap for a professional poker player is to prove they are a winning player using GTO principles, even if it is at small stakes. With a big enough sample, than can get you staked to play in bigger games. A $5 MTT grinder who plays GTO can easily get staked for $100 MTTs and win. They can make much more money playing GTO in bigger games than the old method of game selecting and shot taking the smaller stakes. 

GTO and mental bandwidth

Dara O Kearney
GTO means you have less factors to consider overall

Another reason to use the GTO approach to small stakes is that it is much easier mentally. If you know you made the right play by calling 40% of the time on the river you can find resolve in the fact you did the right thing. If you had a read your opponent never bluffs, then they bluff you, it’s harder to deal with. 

There is also a bandwidth benefit to the GTO approach, you have to think about less things. An exploitative player has to think about GTO, exploits and possibly live reads, which is a lot of information to juggle. GTO, while perhaps harder to learn, is much easier to manage at the tables. 

For the record I sit right in the middle between GTO and exploitative. If I am in a tough game I lean towards GTO, if I am in a soft game I play exploitatively. Most of the time I am somewhere inbetween.

But if I was learning the game from scratch today I would probably go the GTO route. It’s a slower start but a faster trajectory once things start to click. 

Dara O’Kearney’s new book Endgame Poker Strategy: The ICM Book is out now.

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