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Poker theory can be confusing for new players. The phrase ‘poker theory’ gets thrown around in so many different contexts that it’s hard to nail down a meaning.

Is it odds and probability? Is it line balancing and bluffing? Will knowing poker theory even make you a better player?

It’s a complicated subject - too complicated, in fact, for one article (or even one book) to explain. I can’t explain all of poker theory for you but I can give you a brief overview of poker theory so you have a better idea of where you can go to learn more.

Poker Theory and Game Theory

Game theory is a branch of mathematics that can be used to model everything from the behavior of bacteria to the behavior of poker players. One of the premises of game theory is that in any situation where two or more entities are competing with one another, those entities will develop strategies designed to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses.

To put this premise in poker terms, players use strategies designed to exploit the weaknesses of their opponents’ strategies. For example, if your opponent is playing too loose, you would play tighter to exploit his weakness. If your opponent raises too much, you would 3-bet a wider range to exploit your opponent’s play.

In short, poker theory attempts to determine the optimal strategy for any given situation. Here are some well-known theories to help you learn more about poker theory.

The Fundamental Theorem of Poker

In The Theory of Poker, David Sklansky introduced the fundamental theorem of poker. Here it is:

“Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents' cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.”

In essence, Sklansky is saying that poker is a game of mistakes. If your opponent makes a move that he wouldn’t have made if he knew your cards, you profit. This theorem guides most other poker theorems.

The Gap Principle

The Gap Principle is a great example of how poker theory can make you a better player and win you more money. The Gap Principle states that if your opponent raises, you need a hand stronger than the hand you would need to raise in his position. To put it another way, there is a gap between the hands you can use to raise and the hands you can use to call a raise.

For example, if you wouldn’t raise a hand worse than KQo in middle position in a full-ring game, then you would need a hand stronger than KQo to call a raise from middle position.
The above example is a little simplistic, but you get the idea.


Some poker players spend years studying game theory to apply that knowledge to poker theory. As new strategies and counter-strategies develop; the game of poker changes. You can either learn about these new strategies and adapt your game or become one of the fish at the tables.
Theoretically there should be an optimal poker strategy that’s completely unexploitable. Fortunately, nobody has figured it out yet.

Poker is a dynamic game. You may be a winner today, but you won’t be a winner tomorrow unless you study poker theory.

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