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Bankroll Management

Variance and Bad Beats

A closer look at what really constitutes a "bad beat" in poker, plus an introduction to the notion of upswings and downswings, and how they should not adversely affect your game.


Many people think poker is a game of pure chance, but in fact it is a game of skill. Making the correct decisions in every situation will lead to long-term success. If you play better poker than your opponents, you will win over time. The luck factor only plays a part in the short term. 

The problem is that 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 downswings like this, and to make sure that your game is not adversely affected by factors outside of your control. 

The short-term effect of luck in poker - both good and bad - is known as "variance". Good players accept variance as part of poker, and work on reducing its influence on their own game.


A "bad beat" is the name given to an occurence in poker where a markedly worse hand beats a better one, through fortune alone. The person suffering the "bad beat" plays the hand correctly, gets their money into the pot when they were a long way ahead, but is still beaten by the turn of a card beyond the player's control. 

However 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.

Example: A genuine bad beat
Player 1 has  while Player 2 has . Both players are all in on a flop of . At this point, Player 1 is a 98 per cent favorite to win this hand. The only way Player 2 can win this pot is if the turn and river bring a ten and a queen (to make a straight), two kings (for a full house), or the two remaining jacks (for a split pot). 

If the turn is the  and the river the , Player 2 wins the pot and Player 1 can legitimately claim to have suffered a bad beat.

Example: Not such a bad beat
Often what a player thinks is a bad beat is actually not so bad when the genuine odds of winning the hand are examined. For example, in the late stages of a tournament Player 1 is in the big blind holding . Player 2 is on the button and decides to go all in with  for his last few chips after everyone else folds in front of him. Player 1 has a very good hand and makes the call. The board then runs out  and Player 2 wins the hand with a pair of sevens.

Did Player 2 really get lucky? Was it a bad beat for Player 1? Not really. 

Player 1's  is a favorite against  before the flop, but only by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. loses in four out of ten cases, based purely on mathematical law. This does not constitute a bad beat.

It is 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 best way to recover after 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 that player the kind you want at your table. As the author Matthew Hilger said: "Bad beats are a good poker player's friend."

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