The Tsunami

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The Breaks: Bad Beat Psychology

Several months ago, I made a post on Facebook saying that whenever someone told me a bad beat story, I’d send them a link to the following video:

(I’ve watched a bunch of old episodes of Columbo over the past few days. That, combined with my old school rap reference here, really makes me feel like I was born a few years too late – lol)

My main uses for Facebook and Twitter seem to be (in no particular order):

1.) Self-promotion

2.) Engaging in debates

3.) Posting an occasional (or more than occasional) jackassy comment

4.) Referencing something I like (article, video game, music, movie, whatever) so that others who stumble upon my comment may discover something awesome

Regarding #4, I think I might repeat some recommendations from time to time. Hopefully, it’s a sign of me really enjoying something when I enjoy it rather than a sign of early Alzheimer’s. Regarding #3, my Kurtis Blow jackassy comment deserves to be elevated to a full blog post. Here it is:

Not much remains to be said about bad beats in poker. Investing emotional capital in results outside one’s control is illogical. ‘Nuff said – I’m not going to waste hundreds of words flogging that dead horse. However, as one who likes to theorize and generalize, I think it’s important to understand bad beat psychology (and the converse, which I creatively call reverse bad beat psychology).

  • Bad beat psychology = responding to bad outcomes
  • Reverse bad beat psychology = responding to good outcomes

Fundamentally, bad beat and good beat psychology focus on outcomes (something we can’t always control – even when we think we’re in control) rather than process (something we can always control – at least, hopefully, to some extent). Overcoming bad beat psychology and reverse bad beat psychology is an important part of personal maturation. Furthermore, understanding bad beat psychology and reverse bad beat psychology can help you interact more effectively with others (since effective communication entails knowing what level your target audience is operating on).

One view of life is that we’re in a constant struggle against entropy. Somehow, we’ve been wired to devote energy towards preserving structure and order. No doubt, some of us are better at this than others. But regardless of how skilled you are at circumventing entropy, you’re always going to be a slave to events outside your control.

Maybe I should have used a less negative word than “slave.” Events outside our control aren’t inherently good or bad – they can be either. Unfortunately, the bad events outside our control can be anywhere from annoying (e.g. losing a $1,000 pot when you’re a 70% favorite when the money goes in the middle) to extinction-level (e.g. giant meteor strikes Earth).

The most primitive instances of bad beat and reverse bad beat psychology stem from prioritizing outcomes over process. In all aspects of life, we (hopefully) engage in processes that seek to achieve positive outcomes. As a result, it’s tempting to use outcomes as a proxy for measuring the effectiveness of processes. Unfortunately, statistics to determine causal relationships between processes and outcomes can be difficult or impossible to obtain. In the short-term, the best process can result in good or bad outcomes. In the short-term, the worst process can also result in good or bad outcomes.

When we can’t obtain reasonable sample sizes, we can’t care about outcomes (even though we’re always trying to maximize our chances of achieving them). However, this statement can be taken too far. For example, getting the wrong answer to a math problem IS NOT OKAY as long as you used the correct general process. That kind of bullshit is just one example of why education in the US currently sucks. To make sure that I don’t contribute to the United States’ decent into the abyss of mediocrity, I’m going to change the wording of this paragraph’s opening sentence: because causal relationships between processes and outcomes are difficult to establish, we have to be really cautious when it comes to attaching importance to outcomes.

Having decoupled processes from outcomes, we now can link bad beat and reverse bad beat psychology to an essential part of our existences. If you’ve achieved the poker zen that I allude to in my Killer Poker Analysis segment on thinking in terms of strategy vs. strategy, you should have a healthy view regarding process vs. outcomes when you play poker. However, does this healthy view permeate into all other aspects of your life?

Fundamentally, winning at life is about managing one’s risk when it comes to events outside one’s control. Because we all have different preferences, we all manage our risks differently when it comes to:

  • Choosing which events outside our control we potentially expose ourselves to
  • Having contingency plans in place for when things outside our control happen

If you were an online poker player in the US when Black Friday happened, what percentage of your income was derived from online poker playing? Did you have any other skills in the event of government intervention or tougher game conditions? If you’re deciding to move abroad to continue playing for most/all your income, do you have any other skills in the event that games become less beatable over time?

(As an aside, note that I think moving abroad is a smart move for some – but not all – who were deriving even large chunks of income from online poker in the US prior to Black Friday. Basically, the decision is a function of your options, your life circumstances, and personal preferences. For me, moving abroad made no sense. I love thinking about poker and I like playing poker, but I don’t have the drive to grind long hours. I prefer online poker to live poker, but live poker does have the benefit of getting me away from my computer. Meanwhile, I love Vegas and live in a home that’s completely paid for – monthly HOA dues excepted, but they don’t kill you on those in Vegas like they do in So Cal. I have virtually no living expenses. And given skills that I’ve honed over the years, I was able to luckbox my way into finding a well-paying position with a company that allows me to do enjoyable work, interact with awesome people, and further hone my analytic and programming skills.)

Meanwhile, forgetting about online poker playing specifically, keep in mind that nothing in life is guaranteed. All we do is surf probability waves. Governments that are supposedly for the people turn into governments that act at the behest of special interest. Businesses that are now booming can disappear overnight. Regardless of how you make most of your money right now, do you devote any time to expanding your knowledge and skills? Success in a dynamically changing world requires an ability and willingness to prepare and adapt. At the most fundamental and important level, survival requires the same ability and willingness to prepare and adapt.

Bad breaks happen. However, most are surmountable.  Regardless of where you currently are in life, do yourself a favor. Vigilantly prepare when it comes to preparing for events that are outside your control. Read textbooks. Learn new skills. Be a student forever – both in and out of your area(s) of present expertise (you want to be a “Jack of all trades and a master of some,” not a “Jack of all trades and master of none”). Sure, doing all this doesn’t guarantee anything in the face of adversity. But doing the best that we can is better than doing nothing at all and bemoaning the random misfortunes that come our way.

For inspiration, here’s a current short-list of stuff on my to-do list. I guess it helps that I simply enjoy learning. But even when life is as close to perfect as possible, you still have to be prepared:

  • Finish work on my fourth book, Tournament Endgame Strategy (with Matthew Hilger)
  • Read some of the latest poker literature (like The Raiser’s Edge, which has at least some content related to what’s being covered in Tournament Endgame Strategy)
  • Start becoming fluent in Mandarin (I got some great books last time I was in Taipei)
  • Further improve my ability to program in C
  • Learn C++ and C#
  • Go coast-to-coast through all 4 volumes of Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming
  • Begin picking through math textbooks – my bookshelves are filled with books (some that need reviewing; some that need initial reads)

May Your EV Always be Positive!

Tony Guerrera


Feel free to repost this as long as you include the following author box (including hyperlinks):

Tony Guerrera is an established poker author, an instructor at PocketFives Training, a member of Team Moshman, and host of the popular poker strategy podcast, Killer Poker Analysis. Tony blogs about decision optimization on and off the felt at


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