What Is a Bad Beat in Poker?

Man With Face in Hands With Poker Table Background

As a boy, anytime the words “not fair” were uttered by me or my siblings the response from our father was an unwavering “The only fair is the State Fair and it only comes around once a year”.

Well, in the poker world “unfair” seems to come around plenty.

Sort of like death and taxes being certainties, in poker you’re certain to get bad beats. Also, similar to death and taxes because there goes your money and here comes that dead inside feeling in your stomach.

In elementary terms, a bad beat is when a poker hand that’s favored to win, loses to an underdog hand that catches cards to beat it.

For example, in a no-limit hold’em game or tourney, you go all-in pre-flop with the best possible at that moment; Ace, Ace.

Imagine one player wasn’t dissuaded by your huge bet and calls, going all-in behind you. They flip over 5 & 6 of clubs. The 5 & 6 of clubs isn’t a hand to go all-in with pre-flop. Of course they justify it in their mind because after all they’re suited.

So, we’ve got your aces against 5/6 suited. You are thrilled to see their hand, and because the pot is huge thanks to their call, you’re basically reaching to the middle of the table to start raking them up and stacking. What you fail to realize, being a beginner, is that it’s not over til it’s over.

Now, while your “pocket rockets’ look like a cinch and get pulse up, unfortunately they’re only about a 77% favorite to win. That means for every 4 hands you go all-in with pocket aces against a 5/6 of the same suit, you’re going to lose once.

Don’t Define Me

The term “Bad Beat” isn’t defined by Webster. What constitutes a bad beat in poker is therefore subject to interpretation. Generally a bad beat is considered to occur when a hand that is an overwhelming favorite loses to an inferior hand that gets needed cards to win.

If you lose a 50/50 or race situation, that’s not a bad beat. That’s not even bad luck, it’s called “the way she goes”.

Say you go all-in before the flop with pocket 9s and are called by Ace and Queen of hearts.

In this scenario, you and your 9s will win 52% of the time. Even after the flop and turn are dealt, your 9s may be holding steady. Then bam, river card is a Queen and you lose.

That’s a common beat, incredibly common. It’s essentially a coin toss, so regaling your fellow poker players with the tale of your defeat will not garner any sympathy. Who am I kidding? Neither will tales of a legitimate bad beat.

Bad Beats need to be a slightly more miraculous and painful than simply losing when you’re a slight favorite to win. Going all-in with pocket 10s and losing to pocket 5s, would be a bad beat. Mostly because your 10s are an 80% favorite to win the hand.

It’s important to keep in mind, especially for your mental well-being, that even a somewhat strong hand of say, Ace/King against a Queen/Ten hand will only win about 66% of the time.

Particularly brutal bad beats come when you get all your money into the pot when you’re ahead on the flop or turn. After all, if four of the five community cards are already dealt and you’re way ahead, it’s easy to assume that one remaining river card won’t slaughter you.

Closeup of Texas Holdem Pocket Aces

Unfortunately, it can and it often does exactly that. Say you started the hand with a pocket pair, (say pocket 7’s), and end up getting three of a kind after the turn. And let’s say your opponent has a flush draw – he has two hearts in his hand, and there are two hearts on the board. With only the river card to come, your set of sevens, will win 84% of the time.

Those times when that winning flush card comes for your opponent, which it will 16% of the time, can be so incredibly disheartening.

It’ll make you want to yell obscenities and storm out of the casino. When in reality, you were just a participant in a soulless, cold, uncaring mathematical string of probabilities.

Another devastating bad beat comes when a player goes “runner runner” on you. What this means is that you are well ahead after the flop, but the resulting turn and river cards give your opponent two cards they need to snatch victory away from you.

A runner-runner bad beat would be when you flop a full house, only to see your opponent go runner runner to catch the exact two cards he needs to make a full house that is higher than your full house.

More commonly, you’ll experience a runner-runner bad beat when someone catches running cards to make an odd straight, or a flush on you.

While losing cold hard cash to a bad beat in a regular game hurts, bad beats are especially painful when you experience one during poker tournaments.

One minute you’re sitting there Ace/Ace dreaming of that final table and significant check and the next you’re sulking in the parking lot asking yourself, “What happened?”.

Does It Hurt

“The bubble” is the term for when a poker tournament is at the point where all remaining players will be paid winnings. Consequently, the “bubble boy” or the person “on the bubble” is the player who finished just one spot away from the money.

In the World Series of Poker Main Event, they usually pay a certain percentage of the finishers – typically around the remaining 10% of the player pool.

So with, say, 8,000 entrants, the last 800 remaining players get paid. The guy with the unfortunate distinction of finishing in 801st place, the bubble boy, receives nothing.

As you can imagine, suffering a bad beat to become the bubble boy is not only rare, but perhaps the cruelest bad beat of all.

I’d like to note here that the most incredible and unique bad beats have their own name, “coolers.” The definition of a cooler hand in poker, is when a rock solid hand loses to an even more amazing hand.

Closeup of Poker Dealer Chip

As an example, one cooler would be when a player with 4 of a kind, loses to a straight flush. These are the bad beats that are typical qualifying hands to win the large bad beat jackpots found in poker rooms and casinos around the country.

A rare and especially hateful, but not impossible bad beat is a combination cooler/runner-runner hand in which a player flops 4 of a kind, only to see his opponent catch runner-runner cards to achieve a higher 4 of a kind.

While this is a bad beat, the sting will be lightened as the loser would win a big chunk of cash as part of the bad beat jackpot.

What if he loses this way in a card room without a bad beat jackpot? Well, he’s got a legitimate bad beat story to tell.

Conclusion

Bad beats have been around since poker’s humble beginnings and good or bad they’ll be here to the end.

A bad beat can be a devastating psychological blow, and can easily send a player on tilt.

Some professional players, see Phil Hellmuth, are notorious for his pronounced reactions to bad beats.

However, enduring a bad beat means that the losing player or victim was “getting the money in good” and in most instances would win by playing the same hand the same way.

Therefore, the more stoic poker players accept bad beats as an unpleasant but necessary drawback to a tactic that pays an overwhelming majority of the time.

There’s a line from possibly the most popular poker movie of all-time, Rounders that goes “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.”

I can confirm that while I am in every sense a recreational player, I’ve won and lost some big pots and the ones I lost stay with me more than the  wins.

In fact, I took a particular beat holding Ace/King suited and flopped the nut flush. My opponent called my all-in bet and hit a full house on the river. I walked straight to my car, drove the 8 hours home only stopping once for gas and didn’t leave my house for a week.

That loss hurt so bad that I didn’t step through the doors of another casino for over 4 years. You can learn from my misfortune and my mistakes.

Poker is fun, if it weren’t you wouldn’t play. So, for every bad break there’s a good break coming your way. That’s one of the beautiful sides of poker, the math never changes.

Don’t go on tilt because an opponent caught a huge break. There are only 52 cards in a deck and one of them had to come up.