How to Deal With Bad Poker Beats

Lots of players have a hard time handling a“bad beat”. Check the CardsChat forum and you’re likely to find more than one thread asking for advice on how to avoid going on tilt after a perceived bad beat.

But what exactly is a bad beat and – given we all come across them – how can you make sure your game is strong enough to ride them out?


What Is a Bad Beat?

bad beat in poker is when a player with a strong hand loses to a player with a much weaker hand thanks to them hitting a lucky card (or two).

It’s a great feeling to be a 95% favorite heading to the river, but we mustn’t forget that 5% chance of losing still exists. And when it does happen, it’s a feeling that every poker player knows only too well.

But if you are going to lose control every time someone hits a two-outer on the river to beat you out of a pot, you are not going to have a fun – or profitable – poker career. Learning to control your emotions is key to your ultimate success as a poker player, whether you’re a cash game player or a tournament specialist.

There is nothing worse than investing several hours in a tournament, getting close to the final table and losing 70-80% of your stack to a reckless player who risks their entire tournament life by chasing an unlikely draw.

The same can be said for a cash player who has been at a table for hours, building a huge stack of chips before losing it all to a lucky player who calls a huge turn shove and hits a gutshot straight draw on the river.

Yes, the player may have made a statistically bad play, but that's just part of poker. It may be hard to swallow at the time, but it’s important to remember that you actually want players at your table who are willing to risk a lot of chips chasing a gutshot.

When you play a hand perfectly and your opponent hits a two-outer on the river, you've just got to put it behind you; focus on making the correct decisions, again and again, not on the outcome of one hand. If you let a bad beat affect your decision-making in the aftermath, you have compounded your losses.

Poker player Phil Hellmuth considers a poker bad beat

Phil Hellmuth is not known as being the best at dealing with bad beats. (Image: Chris Wallace)

Handling Bad Beats

Here are seven tips to help you learn to handle bad beats like a pro (well, like some pros!).

Remember That Bad Beats Work BOTH Ways

It is not skill when you hit a two-outer on the river, and it's not luck when your opponent does the same. It’s just poker.

In the long run, we all get the same luck – bad beats and all. Keep track of how many times you hit a card on the turn or the river to come from behind and win a hand you were losing. Knowing that you have done this to others will help you understand the cards are not against you.

Catch Your Breath

Playing online? Take a break. Get a drink from the refrigerator, take out the trash, brush your teeth – find some quick little chore away from the table to get your mind off the unlikely beat you just suffered.

This is where your time bank comes in handy. You don’t need to click the ‘Sit Out’ button, just let your time bank expire. If you are deep in the tourney, you may have as much as 90 seconds or two minutes of time saved up, which means you can take a 3-4 minute break and probably miss no more than a couple of hands. When you feel settled again, sit back down and resume playing.

If you're playing live, leave the table, go to the bathroom and splash cold water on your face. Text a buddy about the “lucky idiot” next to you, then return to the table ready to play your A-game.

Tighten Up

Many players force themselves to tighten up for a few hands and only play extremely strong starting hands, like AA/KK/QQ/AK, until the urge to shove all their chips passes.

This is not the worst idea, but it still means you’re not playing your regular game and have been affected by the bad beat. If you are not in the right frame of mind, regardless of what your cards are, you’re less likely to make good decisions.

Be Logical

Another tip is to focus more on the process than the results. For instance, let's say you got it all-in preflop with QQ against a player with QJ suited. You are more than an 80 percent favorite to win the hand. But this means the other player will win about once every five or six hands. In other words, it's going to happen more than you think, and it's going to happen to you sooner or later.

This is what the pros call variance. At moments like these, you have to ask yourself, “Did I make the right play?” Getting it all-in when you are an 80 percent favorite is never a bad play, regardless of the result. Don't let variance undermine your confidence.

The pros at the World Series of Poker almost never show emotion, whether they’ve just taken a bad beat or raked in a big pile of chips. They know that losing control generally precedes losing all your chips.

Check Yourself (Before You Wreck Yourself)

For many, the first sign they are going on tilt is when they feel the need to berate the player who just sucked out on them. If you feel this urge coming on, check yourself.

Sure, you might temporarily feel better by disparaging your opponent’s abilities, but it'll only make you look worse than you already feel. Type out what you want to say in the chat box, but delete it. Then, just type in “Nice hand.” Taking the high road will make you feel better about yourself, keep the game fun and help you return to an even keel.

Don’t Succumb to Paranoia

"The cards are against me." "I can't catch a flop." "Every time I get AA, everybody folds!" The classic, anguished cried of a player on tilt.

Of course, none of this is true: the universe hasn't singled you out for a lifetime of gloom and despair. There is no mystical force that ensures your opponents will constantly hit runner-runner flushes to beat your flopped sets. It just happens sometimes. And the more you play poker, the more you’re going to see it.

Keep Your Head

After a series of bad beats, missed flops and monster hands that only win small spots, some players lose their heads – along with the rest of their stacks, shortly afterwards.

Telltale signs to watch out for include playing bad hands in early position, c-betting every flop and shoving the river with nothing more than a King high. Of course, the strategy ultimately fails and things are more likely to get worse from this point on. Don’t let bad luck lead to bad play.


Conclusion: “That’s Poker!”

“That’s poker” may be a cliché, but it’s true. If the underdogs never beat the favorites, the game would be pretty boring – the luck factor is a crucial element in what makes poker such an irresistible game.

What’s more, learning how to master your reactions to bad beats and unexpected changes in fortune is a skill that will serve you well both at the tables and in life beyond the game. Read through the tips above and think honestly about how well you handle bad beats – could you take steps to improve your response when things go south, as they inevitably do sometimes?

The first step to conquering this challenge is realizing the challenge is there in the first place, so next time you’re playing and you suffer a bruising from the poker gods, think of it as a learning opportunity!

Improve your game by checking out even more poker strategies and guides or bring it back to basics with the poker rules for other poker variants.

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