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Optimal and Exploitative Play

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jul 18, 2018


If you’ve ever studied chess a little, you know that there are some basic strategic principles you learn early on. Develop your pieces. Control the center. Don’t waste moves. Protect your king. And so on.

These concepts are great for beginners because they are simple and if you execute them well you will move quickly up the ranks until you can play confidently in your local chess club against other experienced players.

Now imagine that you are watching your friend play a game. Things are going normally in the opening and both players are obeying the strategic rules. Then, your friend’s opponent decides to play his rook to a square where your friend can simply capture it without compensation. It’s a huge blunder, and your friend can essentially win the game immediately.

Instead, your friend moves his king into the corner. “What were you thinking?” you ask your friend after the game. “Why didn’t you take the rook?”

“My king was exposed. I had to protect him. That’s one of the core strategic rules.”
“But taking the rook protects your king better by basically wrapping up the game.”
“Do you want me to follow the rules or not?”

Well, I don’t think most people in real life would behave like the friend in this story. Most chess players intuitively understand that rules like developing pieces and protecting kings and so forth are guidelines. But that if your opponent presents you with a better opportunity—a free rook, for instance—you take it.

The guidelines are most valuable when you don’t have any other, obvious opportunities. “Huh, what should I do? I don’t see anything wrong with my opponent’s position. I guess I should develop this bishop and attack the center.”

That’s how it’s supposed to work. You follow the rules when you don’t have anything more valuable to do, and when if you didn’t follow the rules you might get yourself into trouble.

But you don’t cling to the rules in the face of more valuable opportunities.

In poker, however, people make the argument like the student above all the time. “How come you didn’t fold?”

“Well am I not supposed to call often enough to prevent him from bluffing me?”
“When there’s four cards to a straight flush on board and raises you all-in for a thousand dollars on the river, he ain’t bluffing.”

I mean, this is something people actually do—and defend later by citing “strategy.”

Optimal Play

So, if you’ve been following poker strategy for the last few years, you’ve no doubt heard of the idea of optimal—or game theory optimal—poker strategy. The basic idea is that you can calculate a way to play your hands that works no matter what your opponents do. If they fold too much, you will get some bluffs in. If they call too much, you will get some value in. If they bluff too much, you will get your calls in. If they don’t bluff enough, you will get your folds in.

And so on. The idea “call enough to prevent your opponent from bluffing you,” is rooted in optimal play.

There are two main reasons to learn about optimal play.

So you can protect yourself against opponents who don’t make many obvious or predictable mistakes.

So you can learn to identify what types of predictable play are mistakes so you can take advantage of them.

The second reason tends to be the far more important reason for most players. If you play “normal” stakes, then your opponents will make plenty of mistakes. Your job is to get better at identifying them. If you’re instead obsessed with protecting yourself from them you won’t win their money.

Exploitative Play

The key to getting better at small and medium-stakes poker is to learn as much as you can about optimal strategy. But it’s not so you can protect yourself. It’s so you can learn how to take advantage of as many of your opponents’ mistakes as you can.

If your opponent leaves a rook exposed, you want to take it. You don’t want to move your king into the corner.

Furthermore, you want to learn to identify less obvious mistakes your opponents make and take advantage of those too just the same.

After all, if you learn how to protect yourself, at the same time you are learning to spot when your opponents aren’t protecting themselves. Knowing how to protect your vulnerabilities teaches you how to find your opponents’ vulnerabilities.

Five Tips For Small Stakes Players

Here are my tips for how small stakes players should approach material about “optimal” play.

Don’t plan to make any changes to your game directly as a result of learning about optimal play.

As you play, think about how your opponents should play if they were trying to play optimally.

Try to find plays your opponents make that are clearly inconsistent with optimal play.
Think about the counterstrategy to the errors they make. For example, if they fold when they shouldn’t, then the counterstrategy is to bluff in that situation whenever possible.

Execute your counterstrategy as much as possible.

Ideally in a small stakes game, once you have implemented these five tips in your strategy, you will be playing counterstrategy (rather than strategy) nearly all the time.

That’s right. Almost all your plays will be a response to what your opponents do rather than any attempt on your own to construct an optimal strategy. It’s because your opponents make so many mistakes that you’re nearly always better off trying to figure out what those might be to take advantage of them.

Any time you spend trying to “play solid” is generally time wasted in small stakes games.

That isn’t to say you should force it. Sure, I just said time spent “playing solid” is wasted—but if you are still working on tips 1-4 then the counterstrategies won’t immediately pop into your head. If they don’t, then of course it’s better to play solid than to just flail around desperately trying to be an end boss.

If you don’t see a free rook to take, then sure, go ahead and put your king in the corner. No, it’s probably not the best available play. If you were better, you’d probably have seen an opportunity. But you aren’t there yet and you have to do something when it’s your turn, so go ahead and follow the rules.

But don’t forget that your end goal is to get to the point where you are playing nearly all counterstrategy.

Final Thoughts

Poker is a funny game. Simple things like, “If the rook is there for the taking, take it,” that are intuitive in other games tend not to be intuitive in poker. If your opponents fold all the time, bluff. If your opponents call all the time, bet for value. Yes, it is that simple.

But it’s not as simple to figure out if your opponents are folding or calling too much. So learn optimal strategy, but use it to exploit your way to victory. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site