Bad Beats – Seneca and Yerkes-Dodson

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

How do you deal with a bad beat? Do you shrug or tilt?

Phil Ivey or Phil Hellmuth?

Gus Hansen answers the question, “How do you handle a bad beat?”

“Some people don’t, but the best way is to just go ahead with the next hand, don’t worry too much about it, it’s just cards. It happens to everybody and sometimes you take and sometimes you give. Don’t worry too much about it,  just try to play as good as you can the next hand.”


1. You know you’re going to lose some time

2. You know it’s going to be unfair

3. You know you have been upset in the past when this happened

4. Therefore you are likely to be upset again in the future.

It’s not a surprise that you will have a bad beat at some time.

People will be upset. It has been happening for over 2,000 years;

Is any one surprised that he is cold in winter? That he is sick at sea? That he is jolted about on the highroad?” – Seneca – ‘On Anger’ AD 41

Seneca believed that a great deal of unhappiness was caused by ‘magic thinking’. People refuse to accept the inevitable;

You know something will happen yet still get upset when it does – it’s not rational. Deal with it.

Rationally you should have a process for dealing with this.

Why It’s Not Good to Tilt


TheYerkes-Dodson law shows that performance increases as anxiety/ arousal  increases to an optimum point beyond which performance declines rapidly. i.e. you perform better as you deal with a difficult situation until you reach a point where you rapidly decline. You manage the stress and anxiety well – then there comes a tipping point.

A strategy

You need a strategy – a strategy for dealing with failure. The strategy is about honesty and realism. The measure you use is ‘increase the speed of recovery’ – How quickly can you get back to full speed after a setback.

The strategy needs to be about honesty and  realism.

 Managing your anxiety

The more anxiety you can manage the better your performance, the better you can progress along the Yerkes-Dobson curve.

Anxiety is defined as the anticipation of pain. It’s not the actual pain. Poker players get anxious, a lot. The anticipation of a bad beat can often be worse than losing itself. So;

1. focus on NOW. Try not to think about 10 minutes ago or 10 minutes in the future.

2. focus on others – not yourself.

Both these strategies make it easier to take the pressure off yourself. You can regain control of the situation. No-one can  make you ‘tilt’ – only you can do this to yourself.

It won’t be easy – As you and Seneca know you won’t get it right first time. So, don’t be hard on yourself. Try gain – it gets easier.

This article first appeared in ‘Poker Shark’ – November 2011


Dealing With Upset


There are times as a human being, or as a poker player when you will be upset. You may be upset with yourself, your opponents, the dealer, the cards, Lady Luck, just about anyone or anything. The usual time players get upset is when they’ve had a ‘bad beat’;

bad beat n. – comic —  When a very strong hand that is a statistical favourite to win loses to a much weaker hand that hits a lucky draw

Some “bad beats” aren’t really that bad—Your AK v 2 3 sounds like a bad beat, yet, statistically AK will only win 2 out of 3 times.  But sometimes a bad beat is a bad beat and this can, naturally, lead to some form of upset. The upset may take form of an internally (bad mood) or externally (a sulk or a rant). These techniques are rarely satisfactory and do nothing to achieve the objective of getting back “off tilt”.

A very useful way of getting off tilt is to understand why you were upset. It may seem straightforward but it really isn’t.

There are basically only 3 reasons people get upset. By understanding the emotion and rationale behind your upset you will be able to adjust more rapidly.

The first cause of upset is linked to a BROKEN AGREEMENT.

This can be written or unwritten, formal or informal, spoken or unspoken. It will include lies and perpetrations. This tends to occur in personal relationships.

If this occurs during a poker game it is usually best to move away from the poker table and attempt to resolve it in private. I don’t mean a gun fight or anything like that, but a discussion. For instance if you believe a colleague has lied to you or broken some kind of agreement you need to resolve it. If you don’t resolve it there will always be a friction and a difficult relationship between you – a “history”. This will invariably put you on tilt against them.

The second cause of upset is UNFULFILLED EXPECTATIONS. This would be the situation where you expect something from the game, people in the game, the organisation of the game, etc. that doesn’t happen. For instance you may expect a player to behave in a certain way at the table and they don’t. This will affect you. You now have a number of options:

  1. Address the situation
  2. Leave the situation
  3. Sulk, tilt and lose all your money

The order of the above is the preferred order.  If you can address the situation—do it. If you need to use others to help—use others. It will continue to affect you even if you think it doesn’t. You may not realise it until you’ve left the game and can think rationally about the situation.

The final cause of upset is BLOCKED GOALS. This is the one that is the most personal to you, and the one you can deal with most effectively.

This situation occurs when you’ve set yourself a goal, a target, and you don’t achieve it. Someone, or usually yourself, has stopped you reaching it. In this situation it is tempting to blame external factors for your lack of success: it’s the dealer’s fault, the opponent, the room, my table position, luck.

“Madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Once you’ve recovered from the initial upset it would be useful to look at yourself. Did you set a realistic target? Have you the skills to achieve this? Did you just have a run of bad luck? Do you consistently have a run of bad luck? Thinking about questions like these will give you some ideas to improving your game and perhaps adopting a more realistic approach to your game. It may be that you need to improve on some facets of your game in order to reach the next level. Or you could genuinely have had a run of bad luck. This happens.

If you keep having bad luck, and keep losing when you shouldn’t, you need to break out of that cycle. Looking at the cause of the upset will really help. Remember Einstein’s definition of madness:

“Madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Perhaps, eventually you’ll be able to handle triumph and disaster as well as Berry Johnston did at the 1985 WSOP Main Event:

“There were three players remaining: chip leader, Bill Smith, TJ Cloutier and Berry Johnston, nearly even in chips. TJ had Berry covered by a few chips, and Berry was all-in with A-K against Cloutier’s A-J,” Mike recalled. “The flop came A-7-3, and a jack came on the turn. TJ won that pot to knock Berry Johnston out of the tournament. I’ll never forget it because Berry handled that bad beat as well as anybody could possibly imagine. He didn’t moan, he didn’t cry, he just shook his head a little bit, ya know? And he got up, shook their hands, and wished them good luck. He walked over to his wife, who wasn’t much of a poker player, and she said, ‘Oh, honey, are you out now?’ ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Oh, good.  Now, do you want to go get something to eat?’”

This article first appeared in Blind Straddle – December 2011