Variance & Bad Beats

Many people think poker is a game of chance, but in fact it's a game of skill, where making the correct play in every situation will lead to success in the long run. Put simply, if you play better poker than your opponents, you will win over time. Luck can play a major role in the short term however, and is something we have little control over. Even if you are playing correctly and making all the right moves, you can still lose if you hit a run of bad luck. The key is to learn how to handle situations like this, and make sure that it doesn't have a negative effect on your game.

The 'Bad Beat'

Many inexperienced players may claim to have been dealt a 'bad beat', when in fact they have simply been beaten by a hand that was only marginally weaker than theirs. A genuine bad beat occurs when you have a hand that is a clear favorite, and gives your opponent very little chance of catching up, but in fact they do end up hitting the cards they need.

  • A typical example of a bad beat:

Player A has , player B has . Both players are all-in on a flop of . At this point, player A is a 98 percent favorite to win the hand. Player B needs the next two cards to be a ten and a queen (to make a straight), two kings for a full house, or the two remaining jacks for a split pot. The turn is a , and the river brings , meaning that Player B wins the hand with a full house.

However, often what a player thinks is a bad beat is actually due to a lack of knowledge about the odds of individual hands that they are sure should have won the pot.

  • Consider this example of a so-called 'bad beat':

It's the late stages of a tournament. Player A is in the big blind holding . Player B is on the button and decides to go all-in with for his last few chips after everyone else folds in front of him. Since Player A has a very good hand, he makes the call. The board then runs out and Player B wins the hand with a pair of sevens.

Did Player B really get lucky? Was it a bad beat for Player A? Let's take a look at the probabilities. is a favorite against before the flop, but only 60% to 40%. Therefore, loses in four out of ten cases, based purely on mathematical law. This means it is NOT a bad beat.

It's interesting to note that players often remember bad beats more than those situations where luck was on their side. There is also a common misconception that there are more bad beats dealt online than in the live game, but this is not true. Statistically speaking, they occur at the same frequency whether you play online or in a casino, but because you can play more hands per hour online, the probability that players will experience what they perceive to be bad beats will inevitably increase.

The way to get over a bad beat is to remember that you will make money from your opponent in the long run if they keep making the same bad plays. Instead of getting angry, exploit their weakness for maximum profit. The laws of probability and mathematics mean that the player who keeps putting all his chips at risk with the worse hand will lose in the long run, which actually makes them the kind of player you want at your table. It's for this reason that poker strategy author Matthew Hilger said "Bad beats are a good poker player's friend." (2004).

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