You've paid $20,000 to enter one of the most prestigious tournaments in history. You're a few minutes into the tournament, a heads up match, and you look down to find 8-6 suited. The flop comes T-9-7 rainbow, giving you a straight, and your opponent bets and raises until you're both all in. He turns over T-9 for two pair. You feel great about your chances until the dealer burns and turns and delivers a fatal blow: a 9 of clubs on the turn giving your opponent a full house. You were about 81% to win that hand after the flop.
Two days later you enter a $10,000 buy-in tournament. You slog your way through 8 hours of play and at the end of the first day, you pick up 4-4 in the small blind. You've got a slightly below average stack at about 17,000. A middle-position player raises to 1,600, two players in late position call, and you decide to call from the small blind, hoping to flop a set. The big blind calls as well. Five-way action, with a pot of more than 8,000. The flop comes 4-6-7 with three suits. You bet 6,000, have about 9,000 in reserve that you promptly call after one of the middle position guys raise you all in. He turns over 9-9. Your friend at the end of the table says, "Don't worry, man, I folded a 9." The dealer burns and turns. You stare at the board in disbelief: the 9 of clubs. Again.
Poker can be the coldest, most terrible game. The "bad beats" feel, well, bad. Gut wrenching, throw up in the corner, tear your hair out, call the paramedics bad at times.
Here is a really simple fact I try to keep in mind: great players experience more bad beats than bad players. Great players get their money into the pot with the best hand and the suckers are forced to draw out. As a corollary, great players rarely deliver a bad beat: they almost never get their money into the pot drawing slim.
Here's the bottom line in Hold'em: you're almost never quite as far ahead as you think you are. Ac -- Kc vs. 7h -- 2h? The Ace-King will take a "bad beat" about 30.697% of the time. That is almost 1 out of 3 times. How about Ac -- Ad vs. 7s -- 7h? Pocket Rockets are only a 4-1 favorite, winning 79.823% of the time.
At the World Series of Poker this year, there will be about 5,000 entrants in 2005. If you're a normal, every day player, about 1 out of 221 hands, you'll be dealt pocket Aces. At WSOP dealing speeds, you'll pick them up about once every 5 hours or so.
For this thought experiment (Descartes, anyone?), assume that every 221st hand you play, you pick up Ac-Ad. You raise, a "sucker" at the table with exactly the same number of chips as you loves his hand and re-raises, and you move all-in and he calls. You are all in with the best hand. A dominating best hand. He turns over Ks -- Kh and is CRUSHED to see your Aces. You are 81.255% to win before the flop.
Over the course of 7 days of play, 10 hours of play a day, you face this situation 14 times. 14 times you'll have to "not get unlucky" in order to win the tournament. What are the chances?
From this little table, you can see that you only have slightly better than a 50% chance to survive the first three of these confrontations! 46.35% of the time, you will have taken a bad beat and be joining me and the rest of the poor saps at the Palms Hotel's Ghost Bar, where we will seriously consider throwing ourselves off the 55th floor.
Should you be crowned the next World Champion, you'll very likely have survived many of these "all-in" confrontations. Chris "Jesus" Fergusson, the 2000 World Series of Poker Champion, told me that a few days after he won the bracelet, he went back and "did the math" on every hand where most or all of his chips were on the line. At the end of his tournament, he had nearly $6,000,000 in chips. Chris calculated that, in expected value, he should probably have closer to $25,000 in front of him. In short, Chris was all-in several times in the tournament with the worst hand, and he was all-in several times in the tournament with the best hand. Bottom line is this: being all-in gives you an opportunity to be all-out.
Bad beats are a part of the game. Anyone that tells you differently just doesn't understand the mathematics of probability. Surviving and getting to the final table is, indeed, a skillful pursuit, but there will be many, many times where "chance" will determine your fate more than skill. No Limit Hold'em is a little like Russian Roulette -- 1 out of 6 chambers in the gun is loaded. You can keep pulling the trigger, but eventually, well, you'll be toast.
The key to this very difficult game, from my perspective, is to realize that the bad beats will happen. If you're going to take a bad beat, do your best to make sure that your opponent has fewer chips that you have! Remember this:
You cannot go broke in a poker tournament if you're never all in against a bigger stack.
Melissa, Melissa, Melissa
I've received literally hundreds of emails since my last column ran. Surprisingly, most of them lacked any poker content or questions. Two examples:
"Phil, did you ever get those pictures of the Brazilian girl, Melissa? Please forward them to me . . . -- Bob the Pervert in Idaho
"Phil, please tell me that Melissa sent you pictures. Please. I want to live vicariously. Do not send them to me, though, because my wife shares this email account and she'd kill me." -- Tom in Alaska
There were at least 7.3 requests for Melissa's picture for each and every legitimate poker question.
Yes, she sent pictures.
No, I'm not sharing.
I took the bad beats at the start of the column and I'm using these pictures to heal the associated wounds. Interestingly enough, she was a 9. Not the 9 of clubs, mind you, but a solid, solid 9. Bad beats may happen in poker, but this wasn't one of them.
I'm all in.
Phil Gordon is a World Poker Tour Champion, host of Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown, author of Poker: The Real Deal, and plays online exclusively at FullTiltPoker.com.