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At the 2019 World Series of Poker, a software-driven strategycalled GTO threatens the game’s original draw: Personality

Alvin “Titanic” Thompson was the most purely American creation since P.T. Barnum. The elemental road gambler, Thompson was a golf hustler, a pool player, a certified killer, and a proposition man with patter sterling enough to charm five different teen brides. By the early 1970s, he was near the end of his life — and long past a once-prodigious bankroll.

Poker was one of Thompson’s rackets, and rather than grind or cheat his way to wins, Thompson was looking to sell his secrets. He summoned legendary poker champion Doyle Brunson to Colleyville, Texas, and offered up some hard-won Texas hold ’em knowledge for cold, hard cash: He’d worked out that, statistically, a starting-hand ace and king of the same suit was superior to an ace-king combo of different suits. “Hell, Ti,” Brunson said, according to Thompson biographer Kevin Cook. “Everybody’s known that for 10 years.”

Benny Binion brought Thompson in as a host of the first World Series of Poker in 1970, and as the cards are dealt this month at the Rio for the 50th iteration of the globe’s premiere collection of grown men wearing sunglasses indoors, one truth has held fast since Thompson tried to hustle Brunson: Having better information than your opponents is the path to gambling riches — but yesterday’s cutting edge puts you on today’s cutting board.

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Once upon a time, just knowing the percentages — that is, your odds of building a strong hand — was enough to give you a leg up. At the lower rungs of the poker world, that can still hold true. But for today’s top players, an approach called Game Theory Optimal is slowly changing the way the game is played. It’s a long way from Steve McQueen staring down Edward G. Robinson in The Cincinnati Kid, and much closer to an office-park accountant staring down an Excel sheet.

A GRAND ENTRANCE Phil Hellmuth arrives at his table during the World Series of Poker at the Rio hotel-casino, July 5, 2009.

A GRAND ENTRANCE
Phil Hellmuth arrives at his table during the World Series of Poker at the Rio hotel-casino, July 5, 2009.

Poker used to rely on what’s now called exploitable play. You watch for your opponents’ tendencies, and you take advantage of them. If someone only bets when they have the best hand possible, you fold every time. That’s an exploit. (Also something to keep in mind if you ever sit in the $2/$4 games at The Orleans.)

The full scope of GTO is expansive and complex, but the short version is that GTO is unexploitable poker. It’s a balanced strategy in which if two people played perfectly over a long enough timeline, neither could profitably outplay the other because it wouldn’t matter what the other guy did. Berkeley math Ph.D. Bill Chen won two WSOP bracelets in 2006. That same year he helped write The Mathematics of Poker, an early book about applying GTO. In 2015, GTO caught fire with the debut of PioSolver, a piece of software that costs up to $1,100, which can analyze how to play a range of starting hands on specific flops, turns, and rivers. PioSolver’s programmers cheerfully sum it up on their website: “It’s the first in a new generation of tools moving poker from a game based mainly on intuition to a game based on analysis and math.” But if you play or follow poker because you enjoy distinctly human battles of guile, will, and intellect, GTO is nothing to be cheerful about.

Enough players have realized it is having a couple of key effects. First, the games are getting tougher — certainly at the highest levels, but even now in the small games. And second, poker on television is getting duller. There is a slew of GTO-focused players who’ve spent so much time immersed in the nuances of this strategy that they play with all the joie de vivre of Bran Stark at the Westeros DMV.

Jamie Gold, the 2006 World Series champ at the high-water mark of mainstream pokermania, bluffed his way to the title and $12 million amid an auctioneer’s rat-a-tat of table talk. He was spectacularly lucky during that run, but it wasn’t a springboard to greatness. According to poker database The Hendon Mob, he ranks 51st all time in money from live poker, only padding $600,000 onto his lifetime total. It’s adapt or die. A lesson dearly learned by Daniel Negreanu, one of the great holdover personalities of the early poker boom who took on a coach to introduce GTO elements into his game, and still thrives in big-ticket tournaments.

Meanwhile, dispassionate German pro Fedor Holz, who has said GTO formed the basis of his strategy, had his first score in 2012. He now sits sixth of all time with $32.5 million and, if he weren’t semiretired, he’d likely have surpassed Negreanu’s $39.8 million second-place spot.

“I think poker has been dying for a truly great personality,” Jonathan Levy says. Levy is the co-host, along with Grant Denison, of The Breakdown, a podcast that analyzes poker hands in frighteningly subatomic detail. “Having lots of great delicious villains is a good thing. We have almost no heroes. Root for the unfeeling robot, or root for the villain? I almost like rooting for the villains.”

As more players become familiar with solver software and internalize their directives, there’s a place on the horizon where poker strategy could become pro forma. In a perfect GTO world, it’s Connect Four with a higher buy-in.

But let’s not forget what got us here. In 2003, the year of poker’s Big Bang, schlubby Tennessee everyman Chris Moneymaker beat Sam Farha, the impeccably dressed professional oozing Degenerate Bogart cool. Moneymaker was the guy in your home game, married with children in an unglamorous job. And all of a sudden, there he was, not just swimming with the sharks, but eating their lunch, $2.5 million to the good.

Here we are 16 years later, and what had been a ratings contender in 2008 with 2.4 million viewers tuning in for the Main Event final table has dwindled to fewer than 700,000 last year. You can’t blame it all on a dearth of colorful personalities, but it says something that the game hasn’t lately produced a new “poker brat” such as Phil Hellmuth. He got famous enough to appear in a Ludacris video, at least.

Titanic Thompson once bet some suckers he could drive a golf ball 500 yards. He waited until winter, and they had to helplessly watch the ball bound into the twilight across a frozen lake. That was who used to epitomize gamblers.

Brunson published his strategy book, Super/System, in 1979. It made reams of poker strategy available to amateurs. GTO solvers are the next step on an inevitable continuum. There’s no doubt that WSOP 100 will be played wildly differently than WSOP 50. But if the game doesn’t consider how to reclaim some of its flamboyance and individuality, GTO could be the thing to permanently unbuckle its swash.

 

The World Series of Poker is taking place through July 16 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.

 

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