GTO Poker Theories: Mutually Assured Destruction

One of the real gifts poker has given me is that it has been a great jumping off point to learn things from other disciplines like economics, AI, psychology and Game Theory. So here is a series of articles where I bring some of the most interesting things I have learned from other subjects outside of poker which are applicable in this game we know and love.

This week’s submission for GTO Poker Theories is by far the most horrifying but it is an important lesson from Game Theory and an aspect of world history everyone should be aware of.

We sadly live in a time when it is possible to push a button and end all life on this planet. Mutually Assured Destruction is a military doctrine which argues that when two sides become powerful enough, it is in neither’s interest to engage in full scale war. Nuclear weapons therefore become a detterent. The US and Russia hold the majority of the world’s nuclear weapons. If one of them sent a nuke to the other, the other one could do the same and both sides would lose. This has proven to be the case so far, but read about the Cuban Missile Crisis if you want to learn how terrifyingly close we came to this theory being disproven.

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Mutually Assured Destruction applies when both sides in combat have the capacity to completely destroy each other. They also have to believe the other would be prepared to push the button and most importantly both sides must act rationally.

Nash Equlibrium & MAD

Big stack
Chip leaders should avoid chip leaders in satellites

The main reason poker players should learn about Mutually Assured Destruction is for world history reasons. Make no mistake, poker is just a game and given what is at stake, this at a minimum is a reason to make sure you try and vote in the most rational world leader you can if you are lucky enough to live in a democracy.

Beyond that, if Mutually Assured Destruction sounds familiar it is because it is a Nash Equlibrium. That is a state wherby two parties know the strategies of the other but has nothing to gain by changing their own strategy. If you are familiar with ICM and GTO, then Nash is something you will know pretty well.

You don’t need to be a Nash expert to understand one area where Mutually Assured Destruction plays a part, and that is in satellites. In satellites there are no extra prizes for finishing with the most amount of chips, everyone who makes the money wins a prize of equal value.

The most obvious example of Mutually Assured Destruction in satellites would be near the bubble when two chip leaders get all their money in the middle of the table in a high variance spot. There is simply no reason to get into a chip leader vs chip leader battle in the late stages of a super satellite. Satellites are the only form of poker where it is often correct to fold Aces preflop for this very reason. In single examples obviously one of the two leaders survives, but as a long term strategy doing this will ensure both parties are losing players.

It isn’t just chipleaders and it isn’t just satellites where this comes into play. There are plenty of spots in regular tournaments where it just is not worth it to get involved in a high variance war when both of you are comfortable. Nobody wants to take a 50/50 coinflip AK vs QQ, for example, at the start of a deep structured MTT.

Just like the warfare version of Mutually Assured Destruction, this is all based on the assumption that everyone is a rational actor and knows what the other person is doing. Your big chip stack is not going to intimidate another big chip stack if they are a loose cannon, or have no idea they should be intimidated in the first place. Which is why the prospect of electing somebody who doesn’t understand this concept does not bode thinking about.

What theories from outside of poker have helped your game? Let us know in the comments.

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Barry Carter

Barry Carter

Barry Carter is the editor of and the co-author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 & 2.

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