Interview: Andrew Brokos talks about GTO and his "Play Optimal Poker" books

Jon Pill
Posted on: August 05, 2022 03:20 PDT

Andrew Brokos, the author of the Play Optimal Poker books, has been grinding away at poker for a long time. He came up in the game during the mid-noughties, learning game theory the way most of us did at the time — trial, error, online discussion boards, and MIT's open courses.

Poker players today have another option, they have Andrew Brokos's books.

"I was one of those poker boom kids," he explains to me over Zoom. "It used to be a common story — the original Moneymaker boom. I've been a pro since about 2004, right after I finished college.

"I enjoyed poker at college, then after, while I was looking for work, I was just casually playing online, very small stakes sit and goes. It became clear that I could make a lot more money doing this than at the jobs I wasn't even getting callbacks for."

His first foray into writing a book was a bit of a diversion from the grind. He certainly wasn't expecting it to become the cornerstone text it is now.

"I've always been a literary-minded person. I've always wanted to write a book," Brokos says. "I thought it would be a satisfying thing to do. I make a lot of different kinds of content, training videos and the podcasts. But I did try to think about what you can do in a book that you can't do in other formats. The first book was as much an intellectual project as anything else."

The success of the book financially has been moderate — Brokos explained that he hasn't been able to quit playing and teaching poker.

That may be just as well, his background working with educators and as a coach sets much of the tone in the Play Optimal Poker books.

What to expect from Play Optimal Poker

Along with Michael Acevedo's Modern Poker Theory, the two Play Optimal Poker books are just what a hold'em player needs to go from a solid beginner to an advanced intermediate.

Play Optimal Poker volume 1 gives readers a crash course in the relevant game theory. Volume 2 sharpens up the outlines with a greater focus on poker-specific strategies.

"In working on the first one, I'd exposed some things that I didn't understand as well as I wanted to," Brokos says. "So, in the second Play Optimal Poker book, I investigated the things that I was interested to learn more about. Putting those topics together in a way that was sufficiently rigorous to be in a book like that was useful for giving myself the impetus to learn about all those topics."

By the end of both books, serious readers — I do mean serious, these books demand an active reader — will have a surgeon's tray of GTO scalpels, bone saws, and retractors with which to start dissecting more advanced strategic questions.

"I would say more than calling for an active reader," Brokos clarifies. "I would say the book tries to create an active reader. [...] I have done a fair bit of teaching, and have worked with a lot of really high-quality teachers. So I think I do have a better understanding of pedagogy than many people who are much better poker players than I am."

That expertise shines through.

Each chapter begins with a kind of general ignorance test, asking the reader to think about the questions that will be addressed in the coming chapter. The reader makes their guess at an answer, gets it wrong, then Brokos explains what you should have done.

It's a clever way to start a chapter, creating a back and forth between the reader and Brokos, in what is usually a one-way format.

After he's put forward the ideas of the chapter, there is then another set of questions to drive home the ideas and to set the reader thinking on wider applications of the idea.

Who is GTO for?

"I think GTO is best thought of as a way of thinking rather than a way of playing," Brokos tells me. "What a lot of people mean when they say 'Should I play GTO?' is 'Should I do exactly what a solver would do?'

"I think you actually want to think of game theory as a way of approaching making decisions where you don't already know what the right play is. I think the level is getting lower at which the game gets tough enough to need that kind of thinking.

"If it is true that if your opponent is deviating from what a solver would do, then there are ways to exploit them. That is what a lot of the book is really about — how do you find those exploits? You have to have some sense of what perfect play looks like in order to tell when they are not employing it. But also, sometimes the adjustment isn't obvious [...] in those cases game theory can help you."

It isn't that solvers aren't a part of how Brokos approached the book. But solver outputs are rather less involved in the material than some modern poker books.

Instead, Brokos uses solvers to highlight key heuristics and to drive home the practical application of the more theoretical sections of his books. Things like "what drives your betting frequency, what drives your folding frequency, what factors make one hand better for bluffing or calling than another."

"This book isn't an introduction to poker. It's an introduction to game theory for people who already have a grounding in poker strategy.

"I do think once you're at the point where you are thinking for yourself rather than implementing a mechanical strategy, you need some game theory. [...] There are a lot people who feel that game theory is just not for them.

"I really don't think it's a question of 'I'm not a sophisticated enough player for game theory.' I think anyone can benefit from learning game theory."

What's next for Andrew Brokos?

Although he has been thinking about a third Play Optimal Poker book, Brokos doesn't have any concrete plans to start writing it until his motivation and his ideas coalesce into something that cries out to be book shaped.

For the moment, Brokos is working on a course for Solve For Why. In it, he expands on some of the toy game chapters in Play Optimal Poker.

He also continues to work on his longer podcast Thinking Poker Podcast and the more bite-sized Thinking Poker Daily.

Both volumes of Play Optimal Poker are out now as are two collections of Brokos's poker strategy essays called Essential Poker ConceptsVolume 1 and Essential Poker ConceptsVolume 2.

Featured image source: Andrew Brokos