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