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Bad Boys, Bad Beats, and Bad Losers in Poker

WSOP presents a clash of a large group of alpha males

by Kevin Blackwood


In July the only thing hotter in Las Vegas than the desert sun is the World Series of Poker. This annual event always attracts the best players from every corner of the planet. It’s an understatement to point out that many of these individuals have big egos. And having so many alpha males under the same roof creates some memorable clashes, much like two rams fighting over a one-way bridge.

A common result is many players blame Lady Luck and bad beats for their early exit when they crash out of a tournament. An oft-repeated quote from Phil Hellmuth is “If there weren’t luck involved, I guess I’d win every one.” And Mike Matusow considers himself “the most unlucky poker player in the world.”

 World Series of Poker

Now it is true that catching hot cards at the right moment and avoiding the brutal bad beats play a critical role in the short run. Otherwise, the World Series of Poker winners would never include unknowns like Jamie Gold last year. However, over time, the cards always even out and everyone gets dealt the same number of good hands. What separates the winners from the losers at poker is how skillfully those cards are played. Yet the problem for many players is that they are unrealistic about their own ability and think it is only bad beats that keep them from the recognition they deserve (and the titles they should have won).

Winning and whining
The consensus of gambling experts is that dwelling on your bad beats prevents you from playing your best game. There are notable exceptions—Phil Hellmuth talks trash, complains often, whines like a French Bordeaux, yet still ranks in the upper echelon of poker and is a consistent winner. However, for every legitimate superstar like Hellmuth, thousands of other players erroneously believe the only thing keeping them from being the world champion is bad luck.

However, gambling has a funny way of playing with your memory. As a result, many players develop a victim’s mentality by minimizing their good fortune and focusing on the times they were unlucky. This skewers their perspective, fueling a belief that life has dealt them the short end of the stick, and they become unrealistic about their own poker prowess.

The problem
One of the greatest feelings in poker is when you have the absolute nuts on the river and another player moves all-in. You just can’t lose! Unfortunately most hands have a high degree of risk. It’s surprising how often you can get busted even with powerhouse starting cards like pocket aces. And many times the bad beat you received wasn’t all that unlikely. Here are a few examples with the following scenario: you are short-stacked in a tournament and go all-in against a player who has a tower of chips higher than the Empire State Building.

A: You look down at your cards and find the Weapons of Mass Destruction—two black aces. Short-stacked, you decide not to slowplay and go all-in. The chip leader, an aggressive maniac who makes Gus Hansen look like a timid Girl Scout, calls with just the 8-7 of diamonds. How big a favorite are you to win this hand? And what is your likelihood of surviving if this same scenario takes place three hands in a row?

B: This time you’re dealt big slick (A-K) in the small blind and a wild player in the big blind raises you all-in. Since you know he loves to bluff, you quickly call. He meekly turns out the worst possible poker hand—2-7 off suit—and your spirits soar. You feel like you’re a near lock to double up. What are your actual odds of winning here and what would be your chances of winning this same hand twice in a row?

C: Once again you are dealt two aces, this time both red. However, before it is your turn to act four players in front of you go all-in. Though astonished, you still make the automatic call. Amazingly, the other hands are a pair of red tens, two red jacks, two red queens, and two red kings.

You quickly become elated as you realize there is zero chance a fluky flush can beat you and almost no possibility of someone hitting a lucky straight. What are your odds of winning this hand?

The Solution
Question A: The chance of you winning this hand is about 77 percent, which still means you will lose almost one out of every four hands. And if you went all-in with this same match-up three times in a row, your chance of still being alive in the tournament drops down to 45 percent! That means that more than half the time you will have been eliminated even though you started with the best possible hand in poker.

Question B: Despite the apparent mismatch of this hand, you are still only about a 2-1 favorite to win. And if the same situation occurred twice in a row, you would only have about a 44 percent chance of still being in the tournament.

Question C: Even in this dominating position, you will lose over half the time as the chance of your aces surviving against these four players is only 45%. So even with a big hand, don’t be too surprised when you receive bad beats. Over the course of a long tournament, you’re often sent to the rail on a monster hand where you were a big favorite.

Lessons Learned
I believe there is a certain mentality and discipline required to becoming a successful gambler (Alan Cunningham and John Juanda are two good examples). Great players rarely blame someone else for sending them home early from a tourney and see no value in dwelling on bad beats. Instead of moping over bad luck, the best pros shift attention to their own play and make sure to tighten up any potential leaks in their game.

The next time some yahoo at the table delivers a bad beat to you, just remember Howard Lederer’s advice—over time you will make money if you have the best hand when you push in your chips. So instead of cursing your opponent for outdrawing you, just be happy there are still players out there who are willing to call an all-in bet with just 8-7 against your pocket rockets.

Keeping your emotions in check during the heat of battle is critical to success at the poker tables. One of the players I admire most is two-time WPT champ Howard Lederer. He maintains a steady keel even when an apparent winner suddenly becomes a loser. Here are a few tips the “Professor” offers to help you deal with the turn of an unfriendly card.

• Bad beats happen. It wouldn’t be poker otherwise, so I always try to focus on the present and forget about any previous bad beats.

• Good players receive more bad beats than they dish out, because they typically have the best hand when all the money goes into the pot.

• It’s helpful to remember that when someone calls you with a much weaker hand, you made the right play and had positive equity in that situation. In the long run that translates into winning poker—even if you ended up losing that particular hand.

Kevin Blackwood has written three books, including Play Blackjack Like the Pros and Casino Gambling For Dummies. More information about his books can be found at

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