If there’s a poker play we haven’t learned, then up-skilling to a better strategy can feel great. Improving our luck, however, is impossible. Luck doesn’t care about how hard you’ve been working on your game, whether you’re having a good day or a bad one, or whether you’ve lost your last ten coin flips.
Luck is an unfeeling acquaintance we cannot escape and must be treated as such. Dealing with a ‘bad beat’ can be difficult, but with our helpful hints below, you’ll be in the best possible place to get over that slice of bad luck and play your A-Game in the next hand:
Keep Some PerspectiveUnderstand the OddsPut Bad Beats to WorkFind Your FocusPost-Match AnalysisPerform a RitualFocus on the Next HandKnow When to Fold ‘EmStay Calm and Walk AwayCheck Your Account(ability)
1. Keep Some Perspective
While all the following tips and hints apply and can help, it’s important to remember your place in the world. If you’ve lost a hand of cards, you’re already lucky. The chances are pretty high that you’re reading this on a $400 smartphone, laptop, or tablet. Given that 50% of the world’s population lives on less than $7 a day, you’re already in an immensely privileged position. Understanding that in the game of life, you’ve basically been dealt a premium pair can go some way to reducing the magnitude of your feelings about any given bad beat.
Before you play poker, think of the worst situation that could happen. Let’s say it’s a $5 entry tournament, and at the final table, you’re all-in with pocket aces for a chip-leading pot with 6 people left. If you win, it’s very likely that you’ll go on to win $1,000. If you lose, you’re going out for just under $100. That’s a $900 swing, or to put it another way, 180 buy-ins.
I’ve been in this position. I was playing someone with pocket tens, and they hit a ten on the river. Then another player showed their hand with a ten in it. They hit a one-outer to effectively cost me the best part of a thousand dollars in equity. So, what was my takeaway here? Did I stay calm? Not at the time. Do I still recall how it felt? Absolutely, it stung like a wasp on a hot summer’s day.
But taking a look around me helped. I was sitting at a laptop I owned, in a house I could afford to rent, with food and comforts all around me. Getting some perspective isn’t easy when you’re in the moment, but it can help you immediately focus on the game as just that – a game. You’ll still have whatever you had before you set aside the buy-in. Losing at cards will happen, losing at life is, for some, inescapable. Gratitude is the pathway to bad beats hurting less.
2. Understand the Odds
What is a bad beat in poker terms? For such a popular expression, the actual boundaries of qualification for the phrase to be justified are blurry, to say the least. If you qualify a bad beat as a committed pot where you are the favorite with all your chips in the middle, and then the other player overtakes your hand to win, then you’re going to experience bad beats a lot of times, possibly over and over in the same tournament or cash game session.
If you get your chips into the middle with aces against kings pre-flop, then getting beaten is an outrageous piece of bad luck, right? Well, not really. You’re a 4:1 favorite before the five community cards, which means one time out of five, you’re meant to lose. That’s not the case in every hand, of course, but to truly appreciate the odds, you’ve got to look at the long-term picture.
If you can understand the odds for situations you’ll frequently find yourself in, then the individual bad beats won’t feel so impactful. They should start to become more of a consistent pattern and part of a larger truth, that poker is essentially one long game. Over time, luck will even out.
That’s the certainty of probability added to time, or rather the sample size of your situation getting bigger over time. If you can find peace in bad beats through understanding the chances of it happening again over time, things can really improve. Before you thought of it in those terms, what were the chances of that happening?
3. Put Bad Beats to Work
One of the biggest gifts we can give you about bad beats is almost not looking at them as bad beats. If you’ve just been one-outed, we can appreciate that sounds pretty crazy. But it’s not. If you never get a bad beat, you never check the odds, look at the perspective you have on the game of poker, or appreciate a bad beat.
That’s right, we said A-P-P-R-E-C-I-A-T-E. Here’s the twist: if you don’t get it in good, then you can’t be bad beaten. If you’re the outside chance, then you’re the one doing the dirty. That should feel better, right? Wrong. It only feels better when you win a bad beat, and since you got it in bad, you’re going to lose most of the time. You got a bad beat? That means you got it in good, meaning you’ll be winning most of the time.
That feels better already, doesn’t it? Phil Hellmuth once said, “If there weren’t luck involved, I would win every time.” While The Poker Brat might have been stretching the truth a little, he has a point. The bad beats hurt the 17-time WSOP bracelet winner because he tries to put himself in positions where he’s the favorite. Without fortune, poker would be like chess, a game based entirely on skill.
While this would still be interesting, it would hardly make it one of the most popular and entertaining games on Earth. As Rick Bennt once said, “In the long run there’s no luck in poker, but the short run is longer than most people know.”
4. Find Your Focus
This is one piece of advice that you may well have heard before, but definitely need to hear again. Regaining your focus after a bad beat can be a difficult, sometimes dizzying experience. So many emotions flood your senses when you face a bad beat that processing them can be very tough.
Someone else is raking in your chips, for a start. They’re overjoyed at having won a big stack of chips through luck alone. Their feeling is euphoria. Despondency is a natural opposite that you must welcome into your system, process, then overcome as quickly as possible. In order to do so, you may well struggle to find a mental foothold, but the image of trying to place your feet on solid ground after falling is an apt one.
A bad beat can feel exactly like that. You’ve climbed the mountain, gone your opponent all-in and at risk with the worst hand, then they make a set with their underpair, and you ask yourself why you worked so hard to put yourself on that pedestal.
Picture yourself up a literal mountain. You’re about to reach the peak when someone comes up behind you and trips you up. Hey, maybe it’s even the wind or uneven ground. But it’s not like you tumbled all the way to the ground. You’re still up the mountain, you’re still climbing.
Even if you busted a tournament or lost a cash game session’s buy-in, you haven’t lost everything. Pick yourself up, stand your ground, learn what you can do better, and accept that you fell, but now you’re back on your feet and going to keep moving forward.
5. Post-Match Analysis
All the other ways you can get over bad beats deal primarily with the physical or mental senses that are knocked off balance after you are dealt a dose of bad luck. Rebalancing focus, leveling your emotions, appreciating your privilege. Each of those deals with improving your overall mood. That’s very important. It will aid you in the long term in dealing with bad beats. But there’s something else you need to hear, and you’re not going to like it.
You might have made a mistake. Even in a hand where you were bad beaten, there are ways you could have changed the course of the hand. Let’s use an example here and adjust where the chips go into the middle. Let’s imagine that you have 25 big blinds and are holding pocket jacks. The chip leader – your enemy in the hand – has pocket tens. In the first scenario, you shove pre-flop, they call and hit a ten on the river to knock you out of the tournament.
Bad beat, huh? Awful luck, and you need to go into all those recovery scenarios you’ve already read about. Now imagine that instead of shoving pre-flop, you plan a ‘stop and go.’ You know that the chip leader likes to flat call with middle-ranking pairs a lot of the time and almost never plays ace-high. When the flop lands A-4-2, having three-bet rather than shoved pre-flop, getting a call, you then shove the flop.
Pocket tens now don’t look so good for the chip leader, and he folds, never getting to the river, never hitting the ten, and losing a substantial pot to you instead. You just rewrote a bad beat. The good news is that in almost any scenario at the poker table, there’s a different way to play it.
Maybe you don’t know the chip leader’s ranges as well as we just described. Maybe it’s aces against kings. Not every bad beat can be avoided. But some can. Admitting that to yourself and considering different ways to play out the scenario you just endured is elite-level thinking. So why not do it?
6. Perform a Ritual
“If you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further.” Do you know who said that? It wasn’t a poker player, but a character in a movie. Still need another clue? It’s perhaps the most popular movie of all time. Well done at the back with your hand up; it’s the line that Andy Dufresne writes to his friend Red when he is guiding him from prison parole to the mystical Zihuatanejo on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
We say the same thing to you now. If you’re prepared to take our advice, then we’d encourage you in the direction of a ‘recovery ritual.’ Many athletes practice this. Think of the tennis player who bounces the ball seventeen times before he serves. Or the footballer who taps his helmet three times before waiting for the snap. Elite athletes have rituals, so why not poker players? It turns out they do.
Often these will center around breathing, cognitive tricks, and positive affirmations. Mindfulness, yoga, and other breathing exercises can assist you in doing this too. Whatever your ritual, it’s worth remembering that this needs to be something you can call on wherever you are. If you’re at home playing online poker, then performing ten star-jumps and reciting the words to Viva La Vida might work for you.
At the live felt in a casino, this same ritual could lead to you being escorted from the premises, especially if they’re not a Coldplay fan. Maybe it’s to breathe deeply three times, consult a few words of encouragement on your cell phone, and clench and unclench your toes. That’s what Bruce Willis does in Die Hard when the plane is coming in to land. If it’s good enough for Bruce, it’s good enough for us.
7. Focus on the Next Hand
If you want to overcome a bad beat quickly in poker, then playing the next hand well as quickly as possible can sometimes be the answer. Investing the chips might be painful, but that immediate switch of focus on new cards and possibly new opponents is a naturally cleansing thing for a poker player. Right back on the horse, you could win the next hand, of course, but you might also distract yourself successfully enough to process the bad beat’s emotional hit without realizing it.
8. Know When to Fold ‘Em
Kenny Rogers once sat on the set of a mocked-up train carriage surrounded by antiques and with a straight face, told us that we needed to know when to fold them. This is simplistic advice in the music video for The Gambler, but while the slightly Wild West-tinged guidance should come with a heavy dose of salt, there is some truth in it. If there’s the potential for a bad beat and you’re not sure how to play a hand other than to put yourself in the firing line of it, it might be worth folding the cards and walking away. Just don’t hit the whiskey bottle like the old man in the Kenny Rogers song.
9. Stay Calm and Walk Away
If you’ve tried everything else in our guide to overcoming bad beats and still need a solution, there is only one that remains, and that is to walk away. Pick up your remaining chips if you have any, keep your dignity, act polite and friendly, and leave the table. The renowned poker writer Tommy Angelo once said, ‘Quitting is the easy part. The hard part is standing up.’ You have to leave the felt and commit to pressing the quit button to do so. Sometimes it really is the only sane choice.
10. Check Your Account(ability)
Do you have a special poker-playing friend in your life who you can unload a bad beat on and get great advice delivered in a sympathetic manner? If not, then you should try to find one, but we’ll spin this on its head and suggest that you should be the friend you’re after. Then whoever you help is more likely to be there for you when you’ve just bubbled a poker tournament, lost a cash-game buy-in, or lost with aces against pocket deuces again to the same guy who did it one orbit ago!!!! It always helps to share a problem, and it can be so much easier to dissect it with someone next to you.
Dealing with bad beats in poker is a challenge that every player faces at some point in their journey. However, by keeping perspective, understanding the odds, putting bad beats to work, finding your focus, and following a recovery ritual, you can not only weather these storms but also use them to your advantage.
Post-match analysis and seeking accountability from fellow players can further enhance your skills and resilience. And, remember, it’s crucial to stay calm and know when to walk away when the going gets tough. These strategies not only improve your poker game but can also have a positive impact on your overall outlook on life.
So, the next time you face a bad beat, take a deep breath, regroup, and get back in the game – because the journey is often more rewarding than the destination.