Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


Theory Of Poker Author David Sklansky On Being A GTO Deviant

New Book ‘Help Them Give You Their Money’ Targets Small-Stakes Players


David SklanskyDavid Sklansky is perhaps the most prolific poker strategy writer ever, a three-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, and an all-around authority on all things gambling. In fact, when working as a casino consultant he even carried a business card with the title of ‘resident wizard.’

The self-proclaimed “black sheep” of his family found poker while attending the University of Pennsylvania and was quickly drawn to the world of professional gambling.

Although the math standout briefly worked as an actuary before poker, it wasn’t long before he was in Las Vegas, not only winning at the card tables but also finding success as a blackjack card counter and sports bettor, always looking for exploits in casino games and promotions. He even invented his own game, which would later become Caribbean Stud, (and turn into a $30 million headache.)

He eventually caught the eye of casino owner Bob Stupak, working with him at Vegas World and later the Stratosphere, which Sklansky convinced him to build, forever changing the Las Vegas Strip skyline.

Sklansky wrote his first poker book in 1976, applying his mathematical expertise to a little-known game at the time called hold’em. A few years later, Doyle Brunson invited him to write the stud hi-lo chapter of Super/System.

But it’s Sklansky’s work in 1978 that has long been recognized for building the foundation of poker theory. Regarded as the best-selling poker book of all time, The Theory of Poker is the game’s strategy bible, applying to all forms of poker. It was in this book that Sklansky wrote terms such as “implied odds” into existence, changing the way that the top players thought about the game.

Partnering with Two Plus Two Publishing, Sklansky has since gone on to write nearly two dozen books on poker variations and other forms of gambling, including an updated look at The Theory of Poker applied to no-limit hold’em. At one point, he joined J.K. Rowling as the only other author to have three different books chart on the Amazon top 100 list simultaneously.

The 76-year-old recently joined the Poker Stories Podcast to talk about his latest book, Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em: Help Them Give You Their Money, which is designed to teach players when and how to deviate from GTO play to maximize their profit with exploits.

Excerpts from the interview appear below, but you can listen to the entire episode here, Apple, Spotify, or any podcast app. In addition to all the strategy talk, highlights include stories about avoiding punches from Floyd Mayweather, challenging Donald Trump to a $1 million board game, an allegedly rigged election for mayor, and all five times he was held at gunpoint.

Card Player: Game theory optimal (GTO) poker is not a new concept.

David Sklansky: The Theory of Poker, which [I wrote] in 1978, had a chapter on game theory. There was a book written, I think a few years later, by a guy named Norman Zada who had a PhD in math. And he used game theory all the way back then. Then there was another PhD in math named Nesmith Ankeny, and he wrote a book about draw poker that was based on game theory.

The only difference between the game theory I wrote about and the game theory that you hear about nowadays is that I kept it to the last round of betting, where there’s no more cards to come. The game theory involved bluffing vs. not bluffing, which made [the concept] a little bit easier to explain.

Since then, they’ve used computers to come up with ways to use GTO in more difficult situations.

CP: The game tree now has hundreds of variables that consider things such as stack sizes, table position, bet sizing, and board texture.

DS: There’s a lot of different things, and you can learn a lot from the [solvers]. However, the reason for my GT-NO series of columns, in general, is to explain why you actually shouldn’t be using GTO to play poker.

CP: Players need to know when to deviate from GTO play.

DS: Which, when you’re playing against all but the very best players, is basically always. Now, it doesn’t hurt to know GTO, because if you know GTO, then you know what your fallback position will be. But you shouldn’t even use your fallback position unless you have good reason to think that your opponents are very tough.

What GTO does, is make your opponent’s decision after you’ve acted very difficult. Or the way they describe it, it makes them ‘indifferent.’ So no matter what he does, no matter how he plays, you will win what your cards deserve to win.

The problem is that you should win more than your cards deserve to win. And if you know how the other guy plays, you will.

The most obvious example is that GTO will tell you that when someone else bets the river, you should call him with your mediocre hands a certain percentage of time to prevent him from having easy bluffs. But say you’ve been playing with the guy, and you see that he never bluffs. If you follow GTO and call this guy, you are throwing a lot of money away.

And vice versa. Supposed it’s you who is deciding whether to bluff. You see that this guy never folds. GTO will tell you to bluff him a certain percentage of the time.

CP: To remain balanced.

Sklansky at the WSOPDS: Being ‘balanced’ is a GTO concept because GTO is so afraid that somebody else will figure how you play. You have to constantly play in such a way that it is not easy to figure out what you have, but that’s silly.

How many times have you been up against a bad player, and make a big bet where everybody else at the table knows you have it? Except for the guy facing the bet. He doesn’t know it. Maybe he just doesn’t have the willpower to throw his hand away.

And that’s the basis for our new book (written with Mason Malmuth), and for the column.

CP: Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em: Help Them Give You Their Money; that’s pretty much as exploitative as you can explain it, right?

DS: You can even go further, and some of the better players do this, which is to manipulate your opponents into playing worse. By the way you act at the table, by the way you play certain hands, you can actually make a player who normally plays decently, start to play worse.

Let’s face it. I’m not going to mention names, but there are people who do very well in tournaments who not only have no clue about GTO, but are very uneducated about even simple poker math. There is one particular person I have in mind who is on record saying that A-K offsuit is [a favorite] over A-K suited because it can make two flushes instead of one.

This is a person who has done, to say the least, very well in tournaments. Because when he’s in these big events, many of his opponents are bad players. And there’s something about poker that is different than virtually every other game.

In golf, if I used to beat you by six strokes and get better, then now I beat you by nine strokes. But I don’t just get better against you, I’m now better against everyone.

That’s not true in poker. The techniques that turn me from good to very good, if I used them against bad players, would make me do worse.

CP: It seems like a common complaint from average $1-$2 and $2-$5 players that some of the advanced concepts they hear about from the wizards at the PokerGO studio don’t work for them at the lower stakes.

DS: Certain plays that appear ridiculous to good players work against bad players. In an extreme example, we had a friend that would make lots of money by just pushing in whenever he was dealt two aces. In a $1-$3 game he would push $500 in there, and people would call him saying he couldn’t possibly have aces.

I mean, that’s an insane play, and no expert would ever tell you to do something like that, because it’s so wrong, theoretically. But if someone is going to turn around and call him…

CP: You do it until it stops working.

DS: Even the best players often confuse clear-cut errors with important errors. By which I mean there are errors that are indisputable, but they only cost you a tiny amount. It’s not just how bad the errors are, it’s how often they come up.

There is this idea that when you’re first in to the pot you should always raise. But that’s just wrong against very bad players. There might be a situation where you want to limp in early position with certain hands for a variety of reasons.

I actually gave eight different reasons why, but the biggest reason is that the people in the blinds may actually be trying to play well. Meaning, if you raise, they will [stay disciplined and] fold their bad hands. But if you don’t raise, and then they flop a piece, they tend to get themselves in trouble.

So why would you want to knock out a person who will lose a lot of money to you later on? That’s one of the keys to helping them give you their money. The opposite of that is, don’t help them play well.

Now, GTO hates that because GTO thinks that people will eventually figure out what you’re doing. But they don’t figure out what you’re doing. If they could, they would. When you do not play GTO, you can be exploited. But the only people who are exploiting you are in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio.

The better your opponents, then the closer to GTO you want to play. On the other hand, if you can find a game where there’s a couple of pretty bad players, you will make more money in the long run when you play exploitatively. ♠