Over the years, poker players around the world have been metaphorically traveling a yellow brick road paved with a myriad of poker strategy theories, seeking what may seem like magical solutions to solving the game of poker.
Along the way they’ve encountered many obstacles, strawman illusions to poker’s elusive major awards and monetary success. But with perseverance, courage, and heart, many have prevailed. The proof is in the astronomical results they’ve achieved. Poker savants such as Stephen Chidwick, Justin Bonomo, Fedor Holz, Ali Imsirovic, and Michael Addamo have banked millions, and the elusive key they’ve all discovered and put into practice is a GTO (Game Theory Optimal) approach to poker.
Even some of the OG superstars have jumped on the latest gold standard of poker theory. Daniel Negreanu studied GTO during his preparation for his high-stakes heads-up duels versus both Doug Polk and Phil Hellmuth. He may not have had the desired results at the time, but his understanding of the game soared to a different stratosphere.
“There is no question that I’m a better no-limit hold’em player today than I’ve ever been, by a wide margin,” declared Negreanu. “Not even close. I would smash the guy that won everything in 2004. Different era, but [he’d get] absolutely destroyed.”
That’s saying a lot. This is Daniel Negreanu we’re talking about, one of the most successful players in poker history.
Negreanu would go on to win two major tournaments in 2021, including the inaugural PokerGO Cup, while finishing third in the WSOP Player of the Year race. Negreanu has been open about his study in his vlog and recently shared some of his online play, holding up a book by Michael Acevedo. It’s a book that many consider to be the go-to GTO bible.
Card Player sat down with Acevedo, the humble wizard behind the Modern Poker Theory, to get the inside track on understanding and applying GTO at the tables. The renowned poker theorist will also be a regular columnist for Card Player Magazine. You can find Acevedo’s first article in his Exploring Modern Poker Theory series here.
Craig Tapscott: What exactly is taking a GTO approach to poker strategy?
Michael Acevedo: Game theory is a field of mathematics. Some people interchange a GTO approach with what is called Nash equilibrium. It’s basically finding the optimal strategy in which both players are playing near-perfect poker.
It organizes the ideas and concepts of poker in an intuitive manner that is totally focused and allows players to apply GTO practically. This translates into making more accurate poker decisions and in turn being able to exploit most players who don’t know how to use these available tools.
CT: Many serious players have read and praised your book, Modern Poker Theory. At $40, it’s a little pricier than other poker books, but none of the readers have seemed to complain.
MA: Thanks. It’s very hard for me to do any self-promoting, but I think the price is very fair. There are many GTO courses out there for $1,000 or more. Sometimes players pay that much just for all the poker charts, the preflop ranges for cash games and tournaments. I tell players to treat Modern Poker Theory like a college textbook.
CT: What do you consider the most important section in the book for players who want to begin to dabble with GTO principles?
MA: That’s easy. Focus on the preflop charts. Once you have that down, post-flop play becomes much easier. If you don’t have any idea of an opponent’s preflop ranges, then you will be lost on the flop of how best to proceed.
CT: Can you define equilibrium for me?
MA: The equilibrium will be the baseline GTO strategy, such as what type of hands you can play from each position. It will help create a very sound strategy to get you through most poker situations. Your opponents won’t be able to run over you. And the best result will be a pretty much guaranteed winrate or +EV (positive expected value).
CT: I’m intrigued. Every poker player wants to increase their profits. Give me a simple example of a GTO preflop analysis.
MA: Let’s say you are at a nine-handed table. There is a big difference in regard to what type of hands you can play from UTG compared to the button. When you choose to play a hand from UTG, you have eight players behind you that can wake up with a hand. So maybe you can play only 15 percent of hands from that position.
But once you are on the button, you only have to worry about the blinds, and you’re guaranteed to be in position the rest of the hand. So now you can open perhaps 50 to 55 percent of hands. That is the equilibrium.
Let’s say the blinds are very passive and weak, now you can open maybe 80 percent of hands. And if the blinds are super aggressive and play back at you often, you can adjust and back off. Now you can open 40 to 45 percent of hands. You learn the baseline GTO strategy and the principles and mechanics of the game, then you make adjustments.
CT: You just got back from the WSOP, which included a deep run in both the Hall of Fame Bounty tournament and an online event. Can you share an interesting hand for our readers?
MA: Sure. I’ll actually share a spot where I busted an event. I opened with pocket tens from UTG, and a tight player in the hijack three-bet me. I didn’t hesitate and moved all-in. He had jacks and busted me.
Now, this is pretty much a standard GTO play with about 30 big blinds or so, but I really needed to think it through a little deeper. The event had a good structure with one-hour levels, and the field was pretty weak overall. Now, if you know a bad player will probably gift you their stack in a better spot in the future, you should maybe just call preflop, or even fold pocket tens.
If I don’t jam in this spot during an online event, I would be runover by my opponents. But against this tight player live, it should have been a fold. But you know, it feels so nitty to fold there. (laughs) I discussed the hand with friends, and they said it was a fold. I could have saved my 30 big blind stack for a better spot and looked for a greater edge later down the line.
Basically, be more patient. It’s the art part of poker, and sometimes the adjustments can be extreme.
CT: So, you didn’t make the adjustment for live poker and your tight opponent, but more experienced players most likely would have.
MA: I’ll be much more aware of moving my equilibrium back and forth depending on my opponent. If he’s very aggressive and three-betting more than he should, I can even take a pair of sixes and shove all in. Knowing the equilibrium allows me to adjust in any situation. I made a mistake there.
CT: When did you start studying GTO play?
MA: I received a coaching session with one of the greatest online players of all time, Jon ‘apestyles’ Van Fleet, and he invited me to participate in his study group. I’m a physicist, so of course, I approach the game from a mathematics mindset. He asked if I had ever read a GTO book. I was familiar with the mathematics of game theory but wasn’t exactly sure how it applied to poker. I eventually joined the group which included some of the brightest minds in poker, players like Stephen Chidwick and others.
CT: And how did that evolve into writing a book about GTO?
MA: Jonathan Little had heard about me from other poker coaches. He works with D+B Publishing and they had been looking for a GTO expert to write a book.
CT: When did you first discover the game of poker?
MA: When I was in school. I love games, and I had started playing chess when I was 14. In fact, I was our high school champion two years in a row. Then I started playing a game called Magic: The Gathering. It helped me develop a lot the skills that are used for poker.
I started playing poker in a local game in 2009. During those years in college, I fell in love with the game. I love math, and I also love philosophy. So I pursued physics studies at the University of Costa Rica.
CT: I talked to Patrik Antonius recently, and he was very excited about the work the two of you did for FlopGTO, his poker app. Can you tell me a little about that relationship?
MA: Patrik contacted me a couple years ago because he was interested in getting up to speed with the modern concepts of GTO poker and how to use it to improve his game. He’s always crushed the high-stakes games, but all the great players today are constantly studying and learning.
Patrik and I decided to work together to develop FlopGTO. It’s a new generation e-learning platform to help players improve their skills based in GTO principles. It’s very easy to use with a friendly and intuitive interface. Players of all levels can access thousands of GTO solutions at a click of a button on FlopGTO.
CT: All the top players are talking about solvers these days. I did dabble some with PioSOLVER and FlopGTO. It was amazing when I tried them out and definitely helped my preflop game, but it definitely put my brain in the blender at times.
MA: That’s great, because most people have no clue what ranges to play from each position, and other important elements of the game. Such as, what to do with 25 big blinds in the hijack? What hands are you supposed to be playing from that position? What happens if the button or blinds three-bet you? What hands do you get it all-in with? What are the stack sizes? All of this information is so important to know, but yes, it can be overwhelming at first.
CT: I have to ask a silly question. Given your knowledge of the game, shouldn’t you be the next superstar and be crushing along with the greats? How’s your own game developing?
MA: You know this is in fact a very interesting question. I love poker, but I like to study it more than actually play it. Even though I’ve played thousands of online tournaments, I’m still fairly new to the game. Becoming a full-time pro wasn’t so easy. I had to overcome severe tilt issues and horrible bankroll management as a recreational player. I’ve only been a professional for about seven years or so, while many of the top players I look up to have been around for at least double that.
But I’ve been very successful online (he has more than $2 million in online cashes), and my students have been crushing the games everywhere. Three of my students have won WSOP bracelets over the last two series. That motivates me to play more and start chasing some of that poker glory!
CT: What are some of the obstacles players face when beginning the journey of studying GTO?
MA: When I first started playing poker, there wasn’t a book like mine. I’m lucky. I’m a physicist, so I can understand the mathematics of the decisions utilizing GTO dynamics. I can visualize it in my head. I can make sense out of all this madness.
But for most people, it’s almost impossible, right? That’s why I decided to write the book. I wanted to take all these concepts and ground them, so that most people will actually be able to understand what’s going on. I did my best to try to make all of this mumbo jumbo into something that is comprehensible. It’s still very, very dense though. That’s why I’m writing a second book. It will go into great detail regarding using GTO in various scenarios. Basically, a ton of practical, real-world examples.
CT: I’m looking forward to reading the second book, and also your columns in future issues of Card Player Magazine. ♠