In his PTO Poker 101 course (PTO stands for Player Theory Optimal), Joel Wald provides what most players need: the fundamental filler for the holes in their games. The gaps in some experienced players’ games are often striking. For example, a player leads out for half-pot on the river on a wet board. This indicates a polarized bet representing a big value hand or a bluff. But when called, they reveal a middle pair beaten by top pair, top kicker. A hand that likely could have been a check-check showdown was turned into…what? Not a good bluff. Or players c-betting with nothing into multi-way pots against calling stations. Or, as I have done a few times myself, bluffing big on the river without great justification or a story that backs the move up.
How do we get so deep into our poker careers and still make such mistakes? I suspect there are two reasons. One, we have not taken the time when we start out to read the books and watch the videos about how to play well. Second, there are very few courses designed to build up poker fundamentals in a clear and logical fashion.
Coach Joel seeks to rectify these gaps in players’ early career poker training in his PTO Poker101 course. After a thorough review of his course, we are happy to say that he proves to be quite effective in doing so.
Player Theory Optimal
The term Player Theory Optimal (PTO) is a play on the phrase Game Theory Optimal (GTO). GTO teachings have gripped the upper levels of poker strategy for some time now. GTO is based on mathematical models which dictate how certain actions in whatever game you are playing are “unexploitable.” In poker, the idea that your actions can not be exploitable is obviously attractive. Thus, in GTO there is a frequency dictated for certain actions (e.g., how often you c-bet and how large that bet is) in certain contexts, that provides no advantage to your opponent. Whether they call or fold offers equal expected value. There is no “right” move for them.
The GTO revolution has lifted poker into a whole new realm of complexity and academic study. At the highest levels of poker, GTO is absolutely necessary to understand and execute against elite players. However, 99.9% of poker games are not being played by such principles (or such skilled players). In fact, engaging in the ideal mathematical play is often counterproductive to making a profit in most poker games in your local cardroom. You’d be better off getting a good night’s sleep and eating a healthy breakfast to set yourself up for a good cash session than you would be memorizing the correct betting frequency and size for a turn bet with top pair, top kicker against a suspected flush draw.
This is where Wald’s Player Theory Optimal training comes into play. Wald presents a rounded picture of the skill-building and life-building approaches you need to be successful at No-Limit Hold’Em. The basics of solid preparation and execution at the table are, fortunately, much more straightforward than complex mathematical equations.
Structure of the PTO 101 Poker Course
Coach Joel divides his 30-session course into 5 modules. Each has 6 lessons that average around 25 minutes in length. His 5 modules are:
- Getting Started & Preflop Play
- Preflop Play Continued & Core Fundamentals
- Flop Strategy
- Late Street Strategy
- Making the Best Decision on the River & Beyond
Wald builds from a basic understanding of play and then works through the stages of an NLH hand. In the final module, he extends beyond the specifics of in-session strategy to cover the often-overlooked discussion of mental, emotional, and physical preparation for play. The course structure is organized and logical and allows for progressive skill-building. His approach within each video follows suit. He has specific knowledge and skills that he wants you to take with you after each session. Most often, Coach Joel presents a couple of bulleted slides with these points and then clearly speaks to them. A nice complement to the course is that you can download PDFs of all these key learning points. You don’t have to take copious notes as you watch.
Another unique aspect of the PTO Poker 101 course is the purchase structure. You can purchase the whole course for $425. Alternatively, you can purchase each module for $99 (except Module One which goes for $64). Or you can purchase the sessions individually (most for $20 each). I really like this purchasing flexibility, as it allows players with various budgets to engage at their own level. Also, it allows you to sample the course and/or focus on specific aspects of your game within your budget. However, the module prices and entire course price do provide discounts over the per-session purchase prices.
The first two modules, allow the new NLH player to sit at the table with some relative comfort. His first session, which you can download for free, explains the basic rules of No Limit Hold’Em (NLH). After that, Wald makes a very good decision. Instead of continuing with playing strategy, he steps back to a concept everyone needs to understand before playing: bankroll management. Whether your intention is to play recreationally or professionally, it all can end rather quickly if you have no idea how much money you need to support an enterprise where success is highly variable.
From there, he builds a solid foundation with key concepts. Included among these are understanding basic hand vs. hand probabilities, constructing preflop ranges by position, how to put opponents on hand ranges, understanding the implications of stack-to-pot ratio (SPR), betting for value versus equity denial, and understanding your table image. Wald covers these key building blocks well. As he does throughout the series, he sprinkles in hand examples as well as illustrations.
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Wald moves on to flop play in the 6 episodes comprising the third module. His introduction of c-betting, and particularly when to increase or decrease its frequency, is critical for both new and intermediate players. In further episodes, Coach Joel tackles bet sizing, pot odds vs. equity, and understanding how blockers reduce an opponent’s range of hands. He also addresses the age-old debate of when to play fast versus slow. He lays out some excellent tangible guidelines for how to make that decision.
The fourth module covers turn and river strategies. Key concepts of fold equity, pot control, leverage, when to flat versus raise, and semi-bluffing vs. pure bluffing are neatly woven into these sessions. Certainly understanding the ideas presented in earlier sessions help here as Wald describes more advanced play.
In the final module, Wald wraps up river decision-making and then takes on global concepts. How to manage your emotions in poker and how to deal with the frustrations of variability are key to not undermining all the skill-building you do. Coach Joel has some solid advice on these fronts. He also dips his toe into GTO concepts both in how they can be applicable to even early career players, but also in how they contrast with more exploitative strategies. The exploitative strategies are almost always the more profitable route in lower stakes games.
Overall Assessment of PTO Poker 101 Course
Coach Joel Wald has entered into the world of poker coaching and training with a course that achieves its aims. He is clearly trying to educate not entertain. Not that he does not present his material in an engaging way, he does. But he does so without the bluster or attempts to dazzle that some other poker content professionals seem to prioritize. Instead, Wald offers a nice roadmap to avoid the most costly pitfalls that beset many poker players. This course reminded me a bit of reading Phil Gordon’s Little Green/Blue/Gold book series in terms of its no-nonsense approach and focus on clarity and applicability.
The course materials are primarily geared toward the beginning to early intermediate player. Almost all of the 30 sessions could be helpful to them, but you do have the flexibility through Wald’s pricing model to enter into later sessions if you feel you have a good handle on the early concepts. However, there are plenty of experienced players who could likely use a brush-up on specific skills. If you recognize certain gaps in your game, it may be worth perusing Wald’s topic list for individual sessions that could be of value to you. If you feel you need more individualized help, Joel also provides one on one coaching, which can be accessed here.
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