An Idiot's Guide To Poker: How to become impervious to bad beats


Imagine a stranger coming up to you in the street with a proposition.

"Give me hundreds of pounds," says the stranger. "In fact, give me lots of hundreds of pounds, and in return I will make you a better poker player. I will make you near-impervious to bad beats. I will greatly improve the technical and emotional aspects of your game. We can sit down together and devise a strategy for your future poker career, rather than this thing you're doing now, just aimlessly wandering around from game to game in the poker wastelands. There's other stuff I can do too, but I'm a stranger in the street and can't go into too much detail right now. What do you say?"

What would you say?

Weirdly, this happened to me earlier in the week. Okay, not quite like that - strangers don't tend to approach me in the street, they tend to run shrieking from me in the street - but hopefully you get the picture. I paid lots of hundreds of pounds and I'm now a far better poker player - sleeker, more confident and primed for the future. 

How? Well, first you need to take a good hiding from the poker gods. This week they have beaten me to a pulp. It began Saturday. On Saturday I starting playing full of vim and ended up a sobbing husk. It wasn't that I played badly - I didn't, I was full of vim - but in key moments luck abandoned me. 

My AA went up against A6 and A4 all in pre-flop on the bubble of a final table - a final table with a chunky first prize  - and somehow got mangled. Queens got beaten up by eights when the chip lead looked mine. I crashed out of tournament after tournament unable to win a flip: nines would lose to KQ, KQ would lose to nines, ace-queen would lose to jack-ten, jack-ten would have no chance against sevens…and on and on, until I began to think I was the anti-hero in a poker play by Beckett. 

Sunday was worse. On Sunday out of the first eighteen times I went all-in pre-flop, I lost fifteen times. I won twice. I drew - AQ vs J9 - once. Most of those were genuine 50/50's, though a handful of times I was a 60% or 80% favourite.

It's okay, I said to myself, this happens. Just keep playing well and the good times will trickle back. On Monday and Tuesday I kept playing well. The good times didn't trickle back. 

On Wednesday I wrestled my game to the ground and had a long, hard look at it. It seemed fine, or as fine as it's ever been, but there was plenty of room for improvement. 

If I can't win flips, I thought, I'll do my best to avoid those situations and work on my small ball game. On Wednesday and Thursday then I hid from flips, preferring to see flops cheaply in position and then outmanoeuvre my opponents by c-betting mercilessly, three-barrelling with muck, check-raising fearlessly on dangerous boards, min-raising turns with air when scare cards hit and then potting rivers if I thought my bluffs could squeak through. Of course in the later stages of tournaments there would be times when all the chips had to go in pre-flop. Mostly, I would lose here.

By Friday, I felt like a much better poker player although the bad luck still leapt out of the shadows. I lost a tournament-defining pot when I was a 97% favourite on the flop when all the money went in and shrugged it off, revelled in it almost. Bad beats mean nothing, I thought, I'm twice the player I was a week ago, I thought, and that's what counts - not losing a few pots here and there. 

And the future? Well, I have a plan, a plan that can hopefully negate these smudges of misfortune. I would be delighted to share it with you next week. Until then, run well. 

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Read more from our poker writer Steve Rowland