Everybody who has ever been dealt a poker hand has a bad beat story. Actually, these are far more often told than any other type of story. You did everything right. You had the perfect hand at the perfect time. You already made plans how to spend the money... and then something went wrong. The Villain caught a legendary one-outer on the river and crushed you. Some Donkey who should’ve folded on the flop got the nuts on the turn and destroyed your moment. It has happened to every single one of us. And it has cost us.
So, we all need a foolproof strategy to protect our hands from the bad beat. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid bad beats. And you shouldn’t really try to.
There are two types of bad beats. The first is when you get dealt a monster hand and somebody just comes on top of you with an even more monster hand. Consider for example where you start with pocket kings and the flop comes K, J, J. You bet, somebody goes all-in and naturally you call, only to see your opponent holding pocket Jacks. Cue nausea and rage.
The second type of bad beat is when you get called with a very inferior hand, which through chance improves enough to beat you. I recently had a set of 10s on a rainbow flop, only to get beat by a runner-runner spade flush. Cue misery and cursing the poker gods.
These kinds of hands cost you a lot of chips, but they are inevitable. They are a law of nature, and that law is called the law of large numbers. When you hold the kings full of jacks, there is a 220 to 1 chance someone has quad jacks. It’s a very small probability, but it’s positive. When you play a lot of hands, it is guaranteed to happen at some point. The probability of getting beat by a runner-runner flush is actually much higher, so it will happen even more often. Poker is, after all, about probability and chance, and those are the chances you’re betting (and hoping) against.
The unnerving part is that there is practically nothing you can do. It is almost impossible to fold the kings in the first scenario I gave. Even if you get a perfect read on your opponent, you can still put him on a number of hands, only one of which beats you. You also can’t let go a set when you are ahead just because there is the probability of a suck-out, as in scenario two – you’d just be a weak player afraid of all the possibilities. These types of hands will generally be the most profitable hands you play, but sometimes you’ll feel the pain of the bad beat. And with time, you will remember the one bad beat much more clearly than the ten times you have won big pots in similar situations – the human memory just has such good recall for stress and pain. The good part of all these bad beats is that statistically, you will also bad beat other people, so in the end things will even out. That’s the law of large numbers working in your favor this time.
The most important thing is to learn to separate a real bad beat from a really bad play. The two are often confused. I have seen players slow-play a top pair on the flop, get beat, and then curse their luck. That’s not a bad beat – it’s letting your opponents see free cards and letting them take your money. It’s bad poker. Luckily, that’s the avoidable part.