Imagine you’re driving in a NASCAR race, and you’ve been leading from the start, leaving your rivals in the dust. As you enter the final lap, victory is in sight. You can almost taste the trophy…when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a car zooms past, crossing the finish line before you and snatches the prize away from your hand, maybe even thumbing his nose in the process, leaving you asking (and maybe swearing), ‘just what the heck happened…?’

That is basically, in a nutshell, the essence of a bad beat: You’re sure you have the winning, can’t-beat hand, until some guy (and if it’s a fish or donk – it makes it all the worst) hits his card on the river, making his boat or quads of 2’s, knocking off your trips or pair of aces & kings.

Bad beats in poker are as ubiquitous in poker as women with plastic surgery in Beverly Hills.  Everyone gets them. The secret is – not let it get you on the tilt.

A “typical” bad beat might go like this…

You’re holding a pair of 10s while your opponent holds AK. The flop shows 3-Q-J, leaving you still in the lead with your pair while your opponent has a straight draw and can also win with a pair of A or K. Now the turn brings a 5, which helps no one and now the board is: 3-Q-J-5
You still have the lead, while your foe has only 8 cards to win the hand (3 aces, 3 kings, 2 tens), which are approximately 16%.
Here comes the river…bringing in a 10. So now you have three of a kind, and although your opponent only had 16% to win the hand, the very 10 that gave you trips also made his straight and won him the pot on the river.

Here are some memorable poker bad beats…

Chris Moneymaker vs. Humberto Brenes – 2003 WSOP Main Event

Chris was saved from elimination on the river five times (!) on the way to the title, including this one. Opponent Humberto Brenes held pocket aces. With a king high flop, Moneymaker went-all in but looked bad with his pocket 8s and about to be eliminated. However, the turn gave him another 8 and after a blank river, he eliminated Brenes. Moneymaker would go on to eliminate Phil Ivey and eventually take the WSOP title.

Daniel Negranu vs. Bill Shulman  – WSOPE Main Event

Negranu held QJ against Shulman’s pocket Aces, who raised $250k. Negrenau answered with a call. The flop brought a J, which still wasn’t enough for Negreanu against Shulman’s aces. Shulman raised $300,000; Negreanu  re-raised $900,000 on Shulman, who then went all-in. Negreanu called back. The turn brought out a J – giving Negreanu the edge, and being a card away from the title. Now only an ace would save Shulman…which he promptly got on the river, leaving both players stunned.

Chris Ferguson vs. Phil Hellmuth – National Heads-Up Championship

Hellmuth called with A-3.  Ferguson, with 9-2, raised 20 $28,000. Hellmuth called. The flop came 2-5-9, giving Ferguson two pair, while Hellmuth has an inside straight draw. Hellmuth called, and on the river hit his straight with 4h. After Ferguson checked, Hellmuth added a $40,000 bet into the pot, leaving his opponent to consider his situation carefully. Eventually he raised $80,000 and Phil answered back by going all-in. After some thought, Ferguson called.  With only a 9% chance at hitting his card on the river (either a 9 or a 2), the river came out: 9.

Sending the huge stack of chips to Ferguson and Hellmuth, shocked with disbelief, to the deck. So shocked, in fact, that he didn’t go off on one of his trademark, post-loss tirades…

Phil Hellmuth double-whammy bad beat

In the 2002 WSOP, Phil Hellmuth faced Robert Varkonyi, who, holding Q-10, raised $8,000. Hellmuth felt he had a strong hand with AK (who wouldn’t?) and so re-raised $17,000. Varkonyi went all-in with his remaining $98,000 and Hellmuth, after some deliberation, called. Varkonyi hit his pair and won the hand, but bad beat didn’t stop for Hellmuth there: he announced that if Varkonyi would win the event, he’d shave his head. Sure enough, his antagonist won the event, and Hellmuth had his head shaved in front the whole crowd.

There are countless stories of bad-beats and ‘miracle’ rivers. Every player gets ‘em. The trick is how you react to them.  After the initial outburst of profanity (silently, of course – unless you’re playing online) do you let it get to you? Does it anchor your tilt? Or does it toughen your poker head?

If you want to succeed in poker, you need to learn to take bad beats in stride: you know you’ll get them – lots of them, probably – just remember there will be days you’ll be on the other side of the beat.