A friend of mine told me about a hand that knocked him out of a tournament recently. He had AK against 88. The flop came a King and the guy rivered an 8. My friend bemoaned to me that he lost the tournament to a guy who was over a 20 to 1 underdog. “Wow, that’s really unlucky!” I said. I felt really horrible for my friend who had gotten knocked out on such a long shot. Bad Beat, right?
The problem was that when I saw the tournament on TV it turned out that all the money had gone in before the flop. That means the hand was a race, basically either hand was even money to win. Granted, a King did flop and the guy did hit an 8 on the river. The order the cards fell is certainly painful. It is always hard to have your hopes raised so high only to have them dashed when the river takes the tournament away from you. But the fact is that when the money goes in before the flop it is a 5 card hand. 5 cards are going to hit the board no matter what and the order those cards hit is, frankly, irrelevant.
Why do I bring this up? Does it really matter if my friend wants to say he lost to a 20 to 1 shot instead of an even money shot? Yes, it really does. Critical thinking is one of the most important aspects of being a good player. This includes looking with a critical eye at every session of poker we play and not allowing our emotions to get involved in our evaluation and recounting of the poker we play.
Bemoaning your bad beats is terribly unproductive. Poker has luck involved. That is a plain fact. Sometimes the vagaries of statistics bite you and a big favorite will lose. Your opponent may only have a 5% chance of winning a pot but, guess what? That 5% is going to hit sometimes and sometimes it will be in a crucial situation. I know it is not fun but it happens to all of us. Obsessing about bad luck, and in the case of my friend, recreating history to be worse than it was is counterproductive. Pondering your ill fate takes you out of the game. It makes you feel like a loser. It undermines your confidence. And as a true competitor you need to always play with supreme confidence. You need to feel like a winner at all times.
Rather than focus on bad luck, you should always focus on the play of hands. Perhaps you could have played the hand you lost differently and avoided the bad situation. In the case of my friend, he moved in before the flop. Wouldn’t it be more productive to explore the possibility of a flat call before the flop and a move-in after the flop when the board hit a King? I am not saying that is the right play, but exploring it as a possibility is certainly more productive than just moaning about the loss. The fact is that I probably would have moved in pre-flop as well, in which case you just shrug your shoulders at losing the race. But a flat call certainly would have won the pot so it is worth exploring the option.
You shouldn’t just explore hands you lose either. Sometimes we play hands we win poorly. Sometimes we play them well. Sometimes we play hands we lose poorly. Sometimes we play those well too. Focusing on the win or loss itself is not worth it and will undermine your ability to improve your game. Focusing instead on the play of the hand…well now you have my attention. That is the fastest road to improvement.
As poker players, we all have a tendency to overemphasize skill when we are winning and bad luck when we are losing. Don’t wallow in your bad luck when you are running poorly. Instead, take a good hard look at how you could have played differently. Sometimes you will find you just got unlucky. Other times you will find that you made mistakes that created the bad luck you might otherwise be unproductively wallowing in. Likewise, don’t celebrate your immense skill when you are winning. That is just as bad as wallowing in your bad luck. Take a cold hard look at how much of your good luck streak is a result of your playing really well and how much of it is just things mathematically going your way. So many times you will find that you were playing just as well while losing as while winning but you happened to win all your 50/50 shots on the winning streak while losing them on the losing streak.
Remember poker is a game that requires us all to be honest with ourselves. That kind of honesty is challenging in both our personal lives and our professional lives. But in poker, in particular, the kind of cold-hearted evaluation that eliminates emotional involvement in the outcome is supremely important to our growth as expert players.