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Dara O’Kearney: How Should You Play To Move Up In Stakes? 

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Mar 06, 2024


The Pro: Dara O’Kearney is a professional poker player, sponsored Unibet Pro, and the co-host of The Chip Race Podcast. He is highly regarded as one of the world’s best tournament grinders and poker coaches, with a particular focus on modern solver technology.

He is the co-author with Barry Carter of Poker Satellite Strategy, PKO Poker Strategy, Endgame Poker Strategy, GTO Poker Simplified, Mystery Bounty Poker Strategy, and the just released Beyond GTO: Poker Exploits Simplified.

Craig Tapscott: Let’s kick this discussion off in the right direction. Please define the GTO (Game Theory Optimal) and Exploitive styles and how these approaches are used to become a stronger, more successful player.

Dara O’Kearney: Sure. GTO is playing a style that cannot be exploited in any way. It’s basically a defensive strategy where you decide you’re not trying to exploit the other player, you just don’t want them to be able to exploit you. It’s a strategy that will win against everyone if you’re implementing it better than they are. But you won’t win the maximum against anyone. 

Craig Tapscott: How so?

Dara O’Kearney: Exploitative poker is interested in identifying an opponent’s leaks or mistakes and exploiting them to win the maximum. The problem is if you diverge from GTO to exploit someone, you open yourself up to exploitation. 

A simple example is that you notice someone doesn’t bluff very often, so you stop calling when you only beat their bluffs. You’re now exploiting them by folding all your bluff catchers rather than calling a certain percentage of the time to avoid being exploited. 

However, if that player picks up on the fact you nearly always fold to their bets, they will decide to bluff more frequently. Now you’re the one being exploited.

Perhaps someone notices you’re three-betting someone too often because they fold too much, and they start four-betting you more frequently. In trying to exploit the first player, you set yourself up to be exploited by the second one.

Craig Tapscott: What are the most significant leaks preflop besides calling with too wide a range of hands?

Dara O’Kearney: I would say a general lack of aggression and poorly-constructed ranges are some of the biggest leaks. In heads-up situations, you generally want to three-bet a lot with a polarized range. 

First, you have your best hands, and you three-bet, hoping to get action with them. Then you have hands just below those in strength value that aren’t good three-bets because they fall into the “not strong enough to happily call a four-bet but too strong to happily fold” category. So, you just call rather than three-bet with those hands, removing the option to four-bet from your opponent. Less strong hands just below that group or category, once again you can use as your three-bet bluffs because you love when the opponent folds. And, of course, you don’t mind so much having to fold if they four-bet. 

Also, a very common mistake players make is they three-bet linear, meaning just their strong hands. That makes them very easy to play against. You never have to guess whether they’re strong or weak; you know they have a strong hand. 

Craig Tapscott: What do the solvers say to do when engaged in multi-way pots?

Dara O’Kearney: In multi-way pots, solvers hate flatting, except in the big blind. If one player opens and another calls, solvers generally squeeze all or most of their range with a linear range (if you have no flats, you have no reason to squeeze weak hands).

Still, humans do the opposite. They just flat most of the time, and now you have a multi-way pot that others may come in behind.

Craig Tapscott: You brought up big blind play. Over the past few years, players have started defending their big blind more diligently than in the past. Where are most players going overboard in this spot?

Dara O’Kearney: By far, the biggest one is people realizing how wide they should defend in GTO but not realizing how different things are when ICM (Independent Chip Model) is a factor. So, they defend too wide and get into trouble post-flop.

Craig Tapscott: Is there a mental component to the choice between playing “GTO Poker” and an exploitative style? How does one prepare and execute to do either approach in game?

Dara O’Kearney: Well, it’s essential to realize that both styles have inherent advantages and disadvantages, and both have their place in an excellent fundamental overall strategy. 

Specifically, GTO should be used when you have no specific reads on your opponent or you think they’re just better than you. In that instance, you want to play a defensive strategy where they can’t exploit you, and you’re happy to surrender the capability to exploit them (because you have no confidence in your ability to do so). 

A further advantage of GTO is that it works at all levels against everyone. Historically, exploitative players start at one level, identify leaks that players at that level exhibit, and develop exploits that take advantage of those leaks.

When they move up to a new level, they generally find that the leaks they saw at earlier levels are not the same, so the exploits they developed don’t work anymore. Worse, those exploits might open them to exploitation at a new level. 

Craig Tapscott: Can you give me an example or two?

Dara O’Kearney: A concrete example is players at the lowest levels generally don’t bluff enough, mainly when they bet or raise big. An exploitative player who notices that will develop a very simple exploit, which is to fold all your bluff catchers and call those bets only when you beat actual value hands that might use that size. Players who incorporate this exploit into their game will tend to win, to the point they may decide to move up to the next level. 

Experienced players at the higher level will recognize that these newbies tend not to bluff catch enough or at all, so they will seek to exploit them by bluffing more frequently. By contrast, the dogmatic GTO disciple who insists on calling the correct amount of the time to be unexploitable will win at both levels, albeit not as much as the best exploitative players at both levels. 

Craig Tapscott: Does this mean one approach is better than the other overall?

Dara O’Kearney: This means that the GTO and exploitative players have two very different experiences as they move up levels. The GTO player can expect to win at every level (assuming their GTO game is good enough) without making any strategic modifications as they move up levels. In contrast, the exploitative player has to forget all the exploits that worked at the last level and work out new ones for the current level. And they have to do this every time they move up. 

Craig Tapscott: So, who can expect to move up faster? 

Dara O’Kearney: The GTO player, obviously. But the big problem with the dogmatic GTO approach is that it leaves a lot of money on the table. Yes, it can expect to win at every level, but it won’t win as much at any one level as the best exploitative players. 

Craig Tapscott: What’s the mental game aspect to best approach GTO or exploitative play?

Dara O’Kearney: Without question, it’s a lot easier on your peace of mind to be a rigid GTO disciple. You know if you stick to that strategy, you’ll win in the long term no matter what your opponents do. 

By contrast, the exploitative player has to continually be on the lookout for new leaks and exploits and eternally interrogate whether the ones they previously identified still apply. They also have to accept they’ll be wrong a lot. 

There are a lot of “if you never get caught doing – x – then you’re not doing it enough” in poker. The best-known one is if you’re never caught bluffing, you’re not bluffing enough. A lesser-known one is if you never get called by a better hand when you thin value bet the river, you’re not thin-value betting enough. The same is true of deviating from GTO based on a read.

Craig Tapscott: What do you mean?

Dara O’Kearney: You’ll get them wrong sometimes, and it can be very upsetting mentally when you do. GTO is telling you to call, but you fold because your read is this particular opponent is under bluffing. After you fold, you get shown a bluff, and well, that’s memorable. 

Previously, I’ve viewed “read-based” exploitative players with suspicion because of how often I saw them get a read wrong or apparently wrong. It was Andy Black who shifted my view on this over the course of a long conversation at a recent WSOP

He pointed out two things I should have figured out before. First, just because you get shown a bluff after folding doesn’t mean your read was wrong. The opponent might still be under bluffing in this spot, just not on this occasion.

It’s a bit like blockers. Having a relevant blocker makes it less likely your opponent has specific holdings, but not impossible.

And second, you’re not aiming for 100% on your reads. They just have to be right over half the time to be valuable. If you never get them wrong, you’re not using them often enough. When you get one apparently wrong, just accept it and move on, knowing that these imperfect reads are plus EV in the long term. 

Craig Tapscott: How do you recommend new and even more experienced players tackle the “GTO vs. exploitative” divide? 

Dara O’Kearney: First, I point out there’s no real divide. As I said before, they both have pluses and minuses, and both have their part to play in your overall strategy. 

I start by recommending you study GTO for two reasons. First, it’s the best overall conceptual framework for poker (you should think of it as the base solution or default strategy, to be diverged from as more information on opponent leaks and reads becomes available). Second, it’ll keep you out of trouble and defend you against being exploited by more experienced players until you gain more experience yourself. 

Once you’ve mastered the GTO framework, you can start thinking about leaks and exploits. You can try to come up with your own on the fly (or learn them from others), or you can use solvers to identify the optimal exploits (the method myself and Barry Carter explain how to do in the Beyond GTO book). 

Funny enough, when Andy and I initially debated GTO versus exploitative on my podcast The Chip Race in a segment we dubbed “GTO versus white magic,” this was our most significant bone of contention. We agreed both approaches had merit and both had a part to play in a good overall strategy but disagreed on the order in which they should be tackled. I thought GTO first, then exploits, whereas Andy flipped that order. 

As I said earlier, Andy turned my head around on the overall value of reads and made me see we should be seeking statistical advantage rather than certainty. I’m glad to report I turned his head on this one. Andy told me in Killarney last year he’d come round to the view that GTO first and exploits second is the best order to approach things.

You can keep up to date with Dara O’Kearney at and on Twitter/X @daraokearney.