The game of poker has come a long way since the Wild West when cards were played in smoke-filled rooms with pistols around the waist in case someone was cheating. Back then catching a cheater triggered a gunshot. Thankfully these days we look to catch gutshots. But how profitable is the chase with low equity to hit four outs, and what does a lab simulation say as to what is the best play?

To be frank (for the record, my name is zedmaster84, not Frank), I might be the least qualified person from a knowledge point of view to judge decisions made from a pure Game Theory Optimal (GTO) perspective. There are plenty of books in my apartment – I have been a bookworm since childhood. But of the six poker books I own, of which two were gifted to me by their author, I have only ever finished reading one of them, and that one only for a very specific reason.

The one I did finish, which was mandatory as I was the translator, was Poker Satellite Strategy by Dara O‘Kearney and Barry Carter. While translating it from English into my native German, I would review specific portions multiple times to freshen my own knowledge, despite the fact that I actually don‘t enjoy Multi Table Tournaments (MTTs).

For me, they tend to be very time consuming and my unusual work schedule usually doesn‘t allow for a lot of time off. In the rare case when that is indeed an option, playing in a tournament is the last thing on my mind. I instead prefer to dabble in Pot Limit Omaha cash games. More often than not, these short and action-filled sessions give me some inspiration to write a poker-related article, such as this one.

When it comes to high-stakes competitions that I have been lucky enough to watch up close, more times than I can count over the years on the live poker circuit, the GTO principle has become the gold standard. Who will be able to utilize the entire game tree, able to activate all the nodes at the right time, to overbet leaving a single chip behind, to do all that and get the call or fold they are looking for? At a certain point, you have to ask if the cards really matter at all.

It appears that these High Roller regulars have become slaves to the computer overlords that dictate perfect play based on millions of simulations. Dozens if not hundreds of agents in hoodies, with high-precision bet sizings, some of which wear sunglasses right from the Matrix. Away from the tables they will discuss strategy or have become best friends but look for the tiniest edge as soon as the cards are dealt.

They face recreational poker enthusiasts and business owners who have a large enough bankroll to spare while being entertained in a competitive environment. Does this automatically mean the “fun players” are doomed from the get-go because they lack this seemingly crucial knowledge? The answer is, of course, no.

Even if many wish to ignore one of the most vital aspects of the game, that luck and chance do play a factor in poker and no matter how perfectly you play the final outcome is not set in stone until the hand is over. Especially in large fields containing participants from various demographics, the accumulated experience and GTO wisdom can only lead one so far.

Risk assessment and management become equally important because the vast majority of contestants have little to no understanding of GTO. Is it even in their best interest to study this meticulously ahead of their next big tournament or would it be better to forgo this knowledge, leaving them lost and out of their depth, but comfortable in what they do know?

The best way to combat GTO is GTO itself, rinse and repeat the very same patterns over and over again in order to not give away any non-physical tells to the math wizards. However, the second-best alternative is to remain utterly unpredictable with varying bet sizes and shades of aggression masked behind an unfazed smirk on the face.

Watching the “best players in the world” compete for millions of dollars in small field high-stakes competitions may not be the best way to improve your own poker game. The strategies used in these cinematic showdowns are based on a wealth of razor-sharp calculations made within fractions of a second. In the long run, the perfect play is supposed to be rewarded with a handsome return on the investment but there is no guarantee and many tournament entries may go down in flames despite showcasing a flawless performance on paper.

A look at the all-time money lists on The Hendon Mob reveals more and more additions from High Roller contests near the top of the leaderboard. However, it portrays a skewed view of the actual profits as it only includes the cash prizes earned and doesn’t deduct the cost of entry.

One big score during a major live poker stop might only be enough to cover the recent expenses from five and six-figure buy-ins on a near daily basis, with re-entries often being available putting further dents into a player’s bankroll. The latter may even play a factor in the decision-making during the late stages of the registration period. You either run up a stack in a perhaps somewhat risky spot or try again with a fresh stack and new seat assignment shortly thereafter.

Trying the same move with a limited bankroll against some random player in the next $100 Daily at the local card room may not yield the same result. The random may not even know what the big blind ante format is, and they could pay with a gutshot just because they can. That is the beauty game, as many ways as there are to play a hand, there are ways to win.

For the ordinary poker player, simply knowing that GTO exists is perfectly fine. They don’t need to invest hours every day studying a myriad of solutions, ranges, and recommended bet sizings. Common sense will go a long way, as does the studying of table chat and body language. There is also plenty of free or affordable strategy content available that grasps on the basic GTO concepts without being overly confusing, especially if poker is just a hobby.

The game may not take place on an even felt, but unlike many professional sports competitions, pretty much everybody can win with a little help from Lady Luck and a tiny dose of serendipity.