Updated on 09/17/2011 10:49PM

Good advice on bad beats


Bad beats. Poker players and horseplayers are united in their dread of bad beats. What is a bad beat? Well, the definition differs slightly from the felt to the turf, but the important idea is this: A bad beat is the win you almost, and should have, had. The horse that jumped a shadow. The fish that got away with that miracle river card.

The difference is that in racing you'll sometimes hear players complaining about a bad beat when all that really happened was that they lost. These are really just instances when the bettor didn't get the outcome he was looking for. Maybe the jockey didn't give the best ride of his life or maybe the horse got nosed in a photo, but it also may be that it really wasn't the right horse. For a good player, the losers are balanced by the winners.

As veteran horseplayer Dave Cuscuna is quoted as saying in the book "Six Secrets of Successful Bettors," "You'll get a lot of stories from gamblers about bad beats: how unlucky they got when some horse they had with a six-length lead saw a shadow and jumped over the rail and ended up in the infield lake. Is that bad luck to have the right horse? Yeah, I guess it's bad luck and you had the right horse. But somewhere in there, you had the wrong horse and you won when the right horse ran into the lake too. You told people you were smart because you made money. In the long run, all that stuff washes itself out."

The poker concept of the bad beat is really the better one. In poker, losing when you nearly win isn't enough to qualify as a bad beat. A bad beat occurs when you are getting the best of it, and you still lose. You've got kings as an overpair to the board in a hold 'em game, and the guy who calls you down hits a runner-runner inside straight to beat you. At a spread limit hold 'em home game earlier this week, my pocket pair became three-of-a-kind on the flop, but the turn and the river were both hearts so I lost to a flush. I was a 95 percent favorite to win, my opponent had no business calling, and I still lost. That's a bad beat.

This leads to an interesting juxtaposition: In racing, bad beats tend to happen to poor or average players more than good ones. That's because of lot of these so-called bad beats are really just instances where the player didn't bet the right horse. The good horseplayers don't sweat these because there's another race coming up and another chance to have a winner. The poor players tender to wander the grandstand looking for anyone who will listen to their sob story. Throw a dart in the grandstand and you'll find one of these guys, probably on line at the ATM machine.

In poker, it's just the opposite. Poor players don't often get the best of it, so they don't suffer the bad beats. It's the good players, and even more often the great players, who have to deal with bad beats. In tournament play, this is no doubt a source of frustration, especially in an age when 5,619 people play in the main event at the World Series of Poker - it's very easy to have the best of it and get busted, thus ending your tournament. But in cash games, if you take a bad beat, it's often a sign of good things to come. As noted cash-game pro Clonie Gowen told me recently, "In cash games, whenever I see someone make a critical mistake, even if it's just cost me a big pot, it makes me happy inside. Because I know that money is coming back to me. That player is not going to be capable of keeping that money if he's making critical errors."

The important thing to remember about bad beats is that good bettors aren't defined by them but by what they do afterward. You need to take a deep breath. Maybe you need to talk about it to one of your friends to process what happened and see if there's any lesson to be learned. At times, you might need to call it a day and go home, have a nice dinner, and get some sleep so you can show up next time with your batteries recharged.

What you cannot do is keep on playing if you're still dwelling on the bad beat. The surest way to get busted at the poker table is to take yourself out of your game by playing too aggressively. And it goes without saying that the path to racetrack ruin is paved with indiscriminate betting. Do yourself a favor. When you take a beat, bad or otherwise, look at the situation the way Clonie Gowen does: Don't think about the last hand, think about the next hand. And that goes double for the horses.

Peter Thomas Fornatale is co-author of "Six Secrets of Successful Bettors" (DRF Press).