Wish me luck, because judging from the last couple of days, I think I'll need it. I've had a few atrocious beats in the last few days, and it'd be nice to be able to catch some hands and play some good, calm poker for a change.
After the last bad beat, I sat down and wrote a little essay, just stream-of-consciousness type stuff to make me disengage my emotions and start thinking about my poker with my head instead of my heart. So here it is, Dealing with Suck-Outs for Dummies.
It's interesting to watch how players handle bad beats. While I was down at the Aussie Millions, I watched a table where a player with a pocket pair of Jacks called an all-in bet by a player with pocket Kings; but the caller spiked a Jack on the river, putting Mr Kings out. He straightaway launched into a tirade of swearing, cursing and generally antisocial behaviour, and kept on like that for something like a quarter of an hour. Admittedly, he had $10,000 invested in the tournament, and being bounced out because of bad luck is never fun. But it certainly made me think about what you can tell from a poker player when they get a bad beat, and about exactly what happens to your own poker when you get a bad beat. In the last few days I've had some horrendous beats; I've lost 33,000 in chips in three sessions. It's made me think a lot about the psychology of loss in poker.
The first bad beat I had I wasn't doing particularly well anyway. I'd begun with 13,000 in chips on a 100-200 table, and had been whittled down to 7,300. Then I pick up a great hand in the small blind, ♠J ♣J. Jacks aren't exactly a monster - the odds of an Ace, King or Queen, and no Jack, appearing on the flop are about 59% - but they're great pre-flop, and justify aggressive betting, especially if you have a player in front of you who's raised. J-J, like all pocket pairs, is the sort of hand you should be aiming to play heads-up, and especially given the better-than-even odds of a flop that contains an Ace, King or Queen: J-J is a statistical favourite over any unpaired hand except A-K suited, and a huge favourite over any paired hand except A-A, K-K or Q-Q (and your opponent will only have one of those hands once every 74 hands in heads-up play anyway), but pocket pairs of any sort don't do well in multi-way pots. (Even A-A should be taken to a heads-up confrontation if at all possible.) So Jacks should be bet aggressively pre-flop, and as many people forced out as you can. If an opponent makes a call, the chances that they have an Ace or King become very good, which should be figured into your post-flop calculations if an Ace or King comes on the board, but on the whole Jacks is a great way to start a hand. So the hand begins, two people fold immediately; a player over the table raises to 400, the minimum raise. This makes me think he's got either an Ace or maybe a medium pair in the hole. Two more fold, another player calls 400, and the action is then around to me; I reraise to 1,200. There's one more fold after me, and both of the remaining players call.
The flop comes ♠9 ♠2 ♣5. This is fantastic for me, as it means that if my opponents happened to have an Ace or King, they've been left stranded with nothing but Ace-high after the flop, and even if they did happen to pair up, the best they could do is nines, which is pretty dismal. There's no practical straight possibility (anyone who held 3-4, even suited, would usually fold pre-flop to a raise of 1,200), and even if he has a flush draw his chance of filling is only 33%. There's always the possibility of hidden trips - especially with a flop like this, since people with low pairs (such as 2-2 or 5-5) are likely just to call pre-flop and hope to hit trips - but the odds are small, and I don't think there's much chance of hidden trips out there, because of my healthy reraise pre-flop. (People with small pocket pairs might be tempted to call a minimum raise pre-flop, but with a pocket pair, the chance of making trips on the flop is about 7.5 to 1 against, so most people won't call a large reraise to try and catch trips.) So because there are two people left in, I check. Now this might seem like an odd move when I'm pretty sure I have the best hand, but when two others are still in, chances are that one or the other of them will try to make a raise and steal the pot, and once they've committed their chips, the other one will be out and I can make my move when it's come to heads-up. And that's exactly what happens; the player over the table raises to 1,000. This is a pretty small raise into a 3,600-chip pot, so I'm thinking he's hit a pair of nines, probably to an Ace kicker; whatever he has, it won't be especially impressive. The other player folds. I'm just about certain that I have the best hand at this stage, so I go all-in for 6,100. Over-the-table calls; the total pot is now 16,000. I turn up my J-J; he turns up ♥8 ♠8, which means I made the right read. The turn comes ♦Q. I'm dancing in the street at this stage, as the only way he could win the pot is to catch an 8 on the river, which is a 1 in 22 chance - less than 5%.
Of course, bugger me dead if that's not exactly what happened. The river comes ♣8, and I'm busted. Yesterday's beat wasn't quite so bad - I was all-in for 11,200 with ♥A ♦K against ♣Q ♦T and ♥9 ♥T and the board came ♠6 ♠T ♣3 ♦9 ♣K, which gave my opponent two pairs, tens and nines - but it was still bad enough.
All this got me going all introspective, but in truth, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. There's nothing like a bad beat to make you think about how you've played poker. In retrospect, I don't think I made a bad decision in either of those instances. In the second case, admittedly perhaps I should have just called the pre-flop raise of 2,300, and waited to see how the flop came; but in the first case, I played everything correctly, and still got done like a dinner. If you're going to be a good poker player - amateur or professional, it doesn't matter - this is a realisation that you need to come to. Just because you get your money in with the best hand doesn't mean that your hand will remain the best long enough for you to collect off it. I've seen a guy go all-in with the Ace-high flush on the turn, only to have it beaten on the river when the ♠8 gave his opponent a straight flush. In his best WPT finish, Kenna's 6-6 was a slight favourite (about 55% to win) against Alex Kahaner's K-J off-suit, and his advantage became significantly greater as the board showed 5-4-2-T, but the river came a King, meaning that Kahaner had made the 13% shot to win the event and busting Kenna out in second place, despite the fact that Kenna played virtually flawless poker throughout the final table.
In a sense, it's good to be reminded periodically that although poker is, in the long term, a skill-based game (that is, once the advantages of luck have levelled themselves out, the skilled player has a significant advantage over the unskilled player, whereas in a true gambling game like bingo or roulette they don't), in the short term the advantages conferred by luck will very often outweigh those conferred by skill. Even pocket Aces will be beaten by 7-2 off-suit about once in eight times. There's no such thing as a sure thing in poker (although you can come close: the best possible chance pre-flop is K-K versus K-2 off-suit (where 2 is the same suit as one of the pocket Kings), which is an 18.6-to-1 favourite, or 94.9% to win pre-flop!). Bad beats are an unavoidable part of poker, and even more so the more you play. Every so often, your Aces will be cracked. Once in a while, your sevens full of tens will run into quad tens. I've seen it happen. But more than unavoidable, I've come to realise that bad beats are also an essential part of poker. Learning to deal with success is pretty damn easy, but learning to deal with failure isn't so easy. You have to let the disappointment and frustration of a significant short-term loss go past you, and keep looking at the long-term picture, since it's this long-term timescale where the advantages of being a skilled poker player are most important. Success in poker comes from learning how to deal with failure at many scales: the minute-by-minute, hand-by-hand failure of a single session, to how your poker skills hold up over weeks, months or even years. Bad beats are one of the best ways to make you think about your game. The trick is being able to use that level and depth of analysis in your winning moments as well, and to play well enough in your good hands that the occasional bad beat doesn't matter in the big scheme of things. On top of that, if you can deal well with bad beats, then you've learned how to get your emotions in check and play quiet and intelligent rather than courageous and impulsive poker, which is itself a step towards moving your poker to the next level.