The best piece of advice I ever heard for how to recover from a bad beat came from a TV commercial.
It was 2005, I believe. Full Tilt Poker released a bunch of really well-made ads featuring their best-known professional players. In one of them, Howard Lederer has just lost a big pot to some bozo. The bozo launches into an absurd celebration — he jumps and cheers, he does a Michael Jackson moonwalk, he rubs the chips on his body sensuously, he openly taunts Lederer, getting right up in his face. Through it all, Lederer sits stoically unmoved. The spot ends with Lederer, in a voiceover, giving the poker lesson for viewers: “He’s not thinking about the next hand. You should be.”
I wish I could embed that video on this page, but I was unable to find it anywhere. But if you saw it, you probably remember it, and if you didn’t see it, you can probably imagine how it looked.
I have reflected back on that simple piece of advice far more times than I can count. It’s most important to me when, as in the ad, I’ve just lost a big pot — especially if it happens on a bad beat to my own bozo. Now I have a choice: I can replay in my mind the last hand, seeing over and over again the awful falling of that one-out card on the river, torture myself by reliving the pain that it caused, and wallow in misery, feeling sorry over how unlucky I got. Or I can force myself to think about the next hand.
What is there to consider about the next hand? Plenty. Everything has just changed. For one thing, you and the bozo now have very different stack sizes than you did before. How does this change the math on what range of starting hands you can play profitably? If you’re in a cash game, should you rebuy? If you’re in a tournament, are you now so short-stacked as to be in fold-or-shove mode?
There are more questions to ponder. How did the last hand change your table image? Will the other players now be expecting you to blow up and go on monkey tilt? If so, how can you exploit their assumption?
What did you learn from that hand about how the bozo plays? How can you exploit the weaknesses he just revealed? Or will he now change his play, either because he now feels invulnerable, or because he realizes he got incredibly lucky and he had better not make the same mistake again? If so, how will his tendencies shift, and how can you take advantage of the change?
But you don’t need to have lost a big pot to start thinking about the next hand. A similar array of questions arises if you had won it, too.
Did you make a bad call and then get lucky? If so, will that change how the other players think of your game? Conversely, maybe you had your opponent crushed the whole way, and now the other players will be inclined to give you too much respect. If so, can you increase your bluffing frequency? Is the loser of the pot steaming? Is he a vengeful type who will be gunning for you personally? Or did he go bust and leave? If so, what information can you glean about the new player who took his place before he even plays his first hand?
Heck, you don’t even have to have been involved in the big pot to start asking yourself these questions about those who were in it. How have the stack sizes shifted? How will their moods and playing styles be affected by what just happened? Are the players chatting about what happened, who played well and who didn’t, and how they would have done things differently? What does this conversation reveal about their playing styles and how deeply they understand poker strategy?
In fact, you don’t even need to wait for a big hand to go down. You could be asking yourself a series of questions to reorient yourself before every single hand!
There are always going to be key pieces of information that you need at your fingertips in order to make every decision in the next hand, so take a few seconds and update them in your brain. What is your position relative to the button and relative to players you want to either target or avoid? Who has bigger stacks than you, and who has smaller ones? What is your table image based on all recent events, and how can you use it to your advantage? Who is tired, fresh, happy, or angry? Who is playing tight and who is loose? Who is drinking heavily, or already drunk? Are you still thinking clearly and playing your A-game, or is it time to think about calling it a night?
Poker is a war of information. If you gather more information than your opponents do, analyze it more carefully than they do, and use it more effectively than they do, in the long run it is inevitable that you will take their money. The interval between the end of one hand and the beginning of the next one — even if only a few seconds — is prime time for gathering and analyzing new data, and formulating plans for how to put it to work.
If you’re doing that, your mind will have no room for self-pity over a bad beat, and you’ll be ready to play the next hand optimally. While the other guy is basking in his joy of victory, you’ll be preparing to win, which is a whole lot better than stewing in the agony of defeat.
Editor’s note: Here is the video to which Robert refers above:
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.