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This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Fran Ferlan.
Facing a pot sized bet can be a difficult spot to play.
We are faced with a big decision, often in marginal situations, and have to
decide then and there whether or not to continue and potentially put our
entire stack on the line on consecutive streets, or give up right away and
relinquish our equity.
The problem becomes even more complicated when the bet we face comes from an
erratic and unpredictable opponent, aka the fish.
What the hell are they doing this with? Why are they donk betting? Do they
have the nuts or complete air?
You want to find out, but it’s expensive to do so. And it’s very difficult to
put them on the exact range, let alone narrow it down to a couple of hands.
Facing a Pot Sized Bet By a Fish
So what do we do in a situation like this? Unfortunately, the answer is all
too familiar: it depends.
But that’s not really helpful, so let’s break it down in this article.
But before providing some answers, let’s first define the questions and narrow
it down to make our lives easier.
This article will focus on facing a pot sized donk bets in single raised pots
and 3-bet pots from recreational players on the flop and turn, because:
A) it’s a spot in which players tend to struggle the most, and… B) because these situations are more common than facing a C-bet against
fish, as fish usually call more than they raise.
Also, when playing against fish, you should be the preflop aggressor most of
the time anyway.
The article was written with cash games in mind, but is applicable to other
formats to some extent as well.
Definition of a Recreational Poker Player (Fish)
For the purpose of this article, a fish is a recreational player that plays
too many hands (typically 40% or more). If you play online you can
use a HUD
to show you this right on your screen.
They also play fairly passively both preflop and postflop (with the exception
of aggro-fish, more on that below) and makes huge fundamental mistakes and all
kinds of crazy nonsense plays.
Or in other words, our most beloved customers.By the way, if you don’t know the basic strategies to consistently beat these kinds of players, check out the brand new BlackRain79 video with the best 14 beginner poker tips:
A few more quick definitions, so that we are on the same page here:
A single raised pot (SRP) is a pot in which there was a raise preflop, and the
other player(s) just flat call instead of 3-betting.
A 3-bet pot is a pot in which a player re-raised the original raiser and other
player(s) call. A 3-bet pot will usually have a much more shallow stack-to-pot
ratio (usually 5 or less).
By the way, if you need a reminder on SPR and how it affects your preflop
strategy, BlackRain79 already has you covered in a
What is a Donk Bet?
In a broader sense, a donk bet is a bet made out of position against an
earlier street aggressor. For example, you raise preflop on the button,
villain calls in the small blind, and fires up a bet on the flop.
It isn’t necessarily a derogatory term, as there are situations where it might
be a correct play.
But as this article will hopefully demonstrate, when fish make a pot sized
donk bet, it’s rarely an optimal play.
We already said that our decision on what to do against a pot sized bet
depends on a lot of factors. So let’s break them down, starting with how
committed we are to the pot.
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SPR and Pot Commitment
The smaller the SPR, the more committed we are. If the stack-to-pot ratio is 3
or less, we are committed with a top pair hand or better.
This will happen often either in 3-bet pots, or when fish are playing
shortstacked (i.e. their effective stack size is significantly less than 100
bb, because they bought in for a minimum of 40 big blinds, for example).
So when we face a pot-sized bet against a fish on the flop with a made hand,
we should be inclined to get all our money in the middle, preferably as soon
Top pair hands go up in value in shallow SPR pots, as opposed to speculative
hands that perform better in deeper SPR pots.
The reasons we shouldn’t try to slowplay in this situation are abundant.
First of all, implied odds are bigger on earlier streets than the later ones,
so fish are more likely to call us down with all kinds of crazy draws, like
gutshot draws, backdoor flush draws and so on.
They don’t care about the math, and the risk-reward concept is only vaguely
familiar to them.
Secondly, the board runout might scare them off. If they have a top pair or
second pair on the flop, they might end up with a third or fourth pair by the
river, and won’t be as willing to pay us off.
And lastly, fish have extremely wide preflop calling ranges. The wider the
range, the harder it is to connect with the flop.
Fish are also notoriously impatient, and if they have little money left
behind, they’ll often just roll the dice and try to get lucky with their
suited junk, fourth pair, ridiculous draws and so on.
So with a top pair hand or better in a small SPR pot, your best bet is just
get all the money in as soon as possible and hope your hand holds up against
It won’t always be the case of course, but as long as you’re getting your
money in with a mathematical edge, you’re good. You did your job, and the rest
is up to the poker gods.
Effective stack sizes: 80BB.
You are dealt K♥Q♥ on the BU.
A loose passive fish min-raises to 2x in the CO.
You 3-bet to 7x. Blinds fold, fish calls.
Pot: 15.5 BB
Fish bets 16.5 BB
You should raise.
Let’s consider the previous action, the flop texture and villain’s potential
A fish min-raised in the CO, which means they probably like their hand
somewhat, but since they play north of 40% of all hands, we can’t narrow their
range too much.
We go for an isolation 3-bet and the fish calls. Their range is capped,
meaning we can probably eliminate AA, KK, and AK.
We flop top pair decent kicker and face a big bet. We need to make a decision
right then and there. Commit or quit.
Folding is out of the question, of course.
SPR is 4.7, i.e. on the smallish side of the spectrum. We aren’t necessarily
automatically committed, but in this spot against this particular opponent we
pretty much are, so we should play for their whole stack.
A number of hands that would give us action against which we’re ahead of is
through the roof. Any Kx hand, like KJ, KT, a bunch of drawing hands, like QT,
QJ, JT, J8, T8, T6, 86, 85, 65, maybe even 9x hands like Q9, J9, T9, 98 and so
Remember, we are playing against somebody that plays nearly half of all hands,
so they can have ALL of those hands in their range and then some.
Sure, there are some hands that have us beat, but those are just a small part
of their overall range.
We are quite comfortably ahead most of the time, and should get our money in
and let that edge play out.
We can call here as well, but a lot of turn cards can kill our action.
Remember, implied odds are bigger on the flop than on the turn, so we should
take advantage of that.
What About Drawing Hands?
Having a top pair hand against a fish and facing a pot sized bet in a shallow
SPR spot is pretty straightforward, and these hands basically play themselves.
There’s not much more to do than get the money in and hold your breath.
Here is a hand that BlackRain79 recently reviewed on YouTube that talks about this in more detail:
But as we know, most hands miss most flops.
We don’t have a made hand on the flop more often than we do. We usually either
miss or have some sort of a drawing hand. Also, effective stacks can be quite
deeper, particularly in cash games.
This is where it gets a little trickier, and we need to rely on math to make
an educated guess on how to proceed.
When we face any bet on the flop, it can be extremely useful to memorize certain pot odds in relation to the bet size. That way, you don’t need to
waste any brain power to calculate the pot odds in every single situation.
Poker is essentially an extremely complex math problem, so it’s useful to use
some shortcuts in order to make better in-game decisions.
One such shortcut is to remember that when you face any pot sized bet, you are
getting 2:1 pot odds on a call, which means you need to win the hand 33% of
the time on average for your call to be profitable.
So if your equity is 33% or more against your opponents range, you can
But how the hell can you know if your hand is good 33% of the time? You can’t.
In order to know that definitively, you’d have to know your opponent’s exact
range, which is virtually impossible.
What’s more, that’s only the part of the equation, because you also need to
take into consideration a number of other factors, such as implied odds,
action on future streets, board runout etc.
Too many unknown variables, too little time.
To avoid such paralysis by analysis, let’s try to simplify once again and
focus on what we actually know.
We can’t accurately predict the fish’s range, but we don’t really need to. We
can rely on our intuition backed up with a little bit of math once more.
If we have a drawing hand, again, it might be worth memorizing how often we’ll
hit our outs.
The Rule of Four
We can use the rule of four to quickly guesstimate our equity, by simply
multiplying our number of outs by 4. This rule becomes less reliable the more
outs we have, but it’s accurate enough for most in-game situations.
Here are the chances of improving your draws from flop to river you should
A flush draw completes 35% of the time.
An open-ended straight draw completes 32% of the time.
A gutshot straight draw completes 17% of the time.
So we see that calling a pot sized bet on the flop with a flush and open-ended
straight draw can be outright profitable.
Of course, we won’t always be drawing to the nuts, so even if we do improve,
it doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily win the hand, so these percentages are only
There are many other factors that determine whether or not our play is +EV or
not, but since a lot of those factors will be unknown, we can always fall back
on the fundamental math to try and make an informed decision.
But like we said, it’s only a piece of the puzzle. It still doesn’t answer the
cardinal question of poker: what the hell are they doing this with?
We need to have at least a vague idea of our opponent’s ranges in order to
apply our mathematical knowledge somewhat successfully.
To do so, we need to know what kind of opponent we are facing. Not all fish
are created equal, and it would be a huge mistake to apply a
one-style-fits-all strategy when playing against them.
While it’s true they might share certain traits, it doesn’t mean they all play
the same in all situations. Here are a few rules of thumb to keep in
First of all, the looser the villain, the wider you can call. The higher the
villain’s VPIP (voluntarily put money in the pot), the more junk they’ll have,
and it will be less likely they’ve hit the flop in any significant way.
Also, when it comes to recreational players, the higher the VPIP, the
worse player they tend to be. A 90% VPIP fish is certainly going to play worse
than a 40% VPIP fish.
Next, the more aggressive the fish, the wider you can call. As we’ve said
before, not all fish are of the passive variety.
Some of them like to spew chips around and make all kinds of wild bluffs,
betting and raising erratically, and what’s worse, getting away with it a
large chunk of the time.
While they can be frustrating to play against, these kinds of players can
actually be your biggest source of income.
But only if you remain patient and keep your ego in check.
Also, from time to time you might need to call them down with a hand you won’t
be quite comfortable calling with otherwise, like a second pair, or even an
Ace high in some situations.
Effective stack size: 100BB.
You are dealt A♣K♠ in MP.
A loose and aggressive fish limps UTG.
You iso-raise to 4x. Folds around, aggrofish calls.
Aggrofish raises to 9.5BB
You should call.
As opposed to the previous example, we have a much bigger SPR of about 10, so
we aren’t automatically committed to the pot, and we have a lot more
maneuverability post flop.
Folding is out of the question in this spot, as we are drawing to the nuts
with four Jacks, as well as a TPTK (top pair top kicker) with any Ace or a
If we hit any of our outs, we can be comfortably ahead of the villain’s range,
which is extremely wide in this situation, considering their player
Like in the previous example, it can consist of any number of hands like top
pair weak kicker, second pair, third pair, gutshot draws, backdoor flush draws
and so on and so forth.
Too many to even consider counting here.
We aren’t necessarily ahead with our Ace high hand, but we have a large chunk
of equity we aren’t willing to give up. We can consider raising, but if we do,
we might only get action from hands that have us crushed. And what if the
villain comes over the top with a shove?
Certainly not an optimal spot for us.
By flatting, we allow them to keep barrelling on future streets with all their
crazy bluffs, while also controlling the size of the pot.
Then we can assess the best course of action on future streets. We have
position and a skill edge in the hand, so we should utilize it.
Answering blind aggression with aggression of our own should be done only if
we can conclude with some certainty that we are comfortably ahead with our
hand and that we can get action from weaker hands.
What Should You Do Versus a Turn Pot Sized Bet?
Here’s where things get a little trickier, because there’s more information to
If you encounter a turn pot sized bet, you should consider all the info
mentioned before, as well as previous action, but you should bear in mind that
turn ranges tend to be stronger, and there’s a lot less junk in their range at
They will still rarely have the absolute nuts, and practically never have
complete air. What this usually means is they probably picked up some equity
on the turn.
You should tread carefully, but if you’re already pot committed, this
shouldn’t change your plans too much. That’s why it’s important that you
decide on the flop whether or not you want to take your hand to the felt.
As a rule of thumb, if you call one street, you should usually call the
consecutive one as well. So if you call a flop bet, you should be prepared to
call the turn bet as well, otherwise you’re better off folding right there on
Bear in mind that the higher their VPIP, the more ridiculous hands you can
expect in their range.
These are all just guidelines of course. No two players are completely alike.
So take all this advice with a grain of salt.
So What is Their Actual Range?
Finally, let’s answer the cardinal question, what are they doing this with? As
we’ve seen, it depends on a lot of factors, and most of the time we shouldn’t
overthink it and play it straightforwardly, especially in shallow SPR
But if we’re playing in deeper SPR pots, we should take more factors in
consideration, including our opponent’s range.
Here’s the bottom line:
When you encounter a pot sized donk bet from a fish, they usually have a
mediocre or a drawing hand. They probably don’t know what to do with it.
They don’t want to fold it, but they aren’t particularly stoked about it
either. So they try to “buy” the pot right there on the flop, hoping a big bet
size would scare off their opponents.
They will almost certainly never have the nuts, and they will never have
complete air either.
Why? Well, it all comes down to fish psychology. Fish have a strong propensity
to be deceptive.
They like to slowplay their huge hands in order to trap their opponents, or
make huge bluffs, because that’s what poker is all about, right?
Outplaying people and owning souls. It certainly isn’t about odds and
percentages and all that boring stuff.
So if they have a really strong made hand on the flop, like two pair or
better, they will often slowplay it, because they don’t want to scare you
And if they missed the flop completely, they’ll just give up a lot of the
time, because that’s about as far as their technical game knowledge
They see their hand, they have some rudimentary understanding of the flop
texture (i.e. they can see if they hit or miss), and that’s about it.
So when they fire off a bet, you can narrow down their range to something like
top pair weak kicker, second pair etc. And if they have a drawing hand, they
will rarely be drawing to the nuts.
They will usually have a gutshot draw, backdoor straight and flush draws and
all other kinds of nonsense.
Facing a pot sized bet from a fish can be a difficult spot to play. We are
often faced with a big decision with a limited amount of information, and
their range is outright impossible to predict.
Now, you don’t necessarily need to study a bunch of advanced poker strategy to beat these kinds of players. But in these situations it pays to have a default plan and stick with the
First thing we should consider is the effective stack size and size of the pot
to determine our commitment to the pot. If we have a made hand (like top pair
or better) in the small SPR pot we should aim to get the rest of our stack in
the middle as soon as possible.
Getting involved in shallow SPR pots with fish and trying to take their whole
stack is something we should aim to do often anyway.
If we have a drawing hand, we should memorize how often our draws complete in
order to assess whether or not we can continue playing profitably. Counting
our outs and using the “rule of four” will work in a pinch.
Some factors to keep in mind are our draw strength, the number of outs,
implied odds, our opponent type and so on. The more factors work in our
favour, the faster we can play our hand.
As far as our recreational players’ actual range is concerned, it varies
wildly. A lot of the time even they don’t know what they are doing. But when
they fire off a pot sized donk bet, we can usually narrow it down to some kind
of mediocre hand.
They will almost never have the absolute nuts, but they won’t be bluffing with
absolute air, either. The reason for this is that fish love to be deceptive,
so they’ll often slowplay their huge hands lest they don’t scare off their
So you can narrow down their range to something like: top pair weak kicker,
second or third pair, weak straight and flush draws and so on.
Also, the bigger their VPIP, the weaker their overall range, so you can call
them down more widely.
If they fire off a pot sized bet on the turn, we should be more careful, but
hopefully we’ve put the majority of our stack in by now. All the general rules
When playing against recreational players in general, the best approach is
always to keep it simple and stick with the fundamentals. Play your hands as
straightforwardly as possible, and don’t worry about being too predictable.
Save your fancy plays for players that actually pay attention.
Keep in mind that most of your money in poker won’t come from your superior
skills, but from your opponent’s mistakes, so act accordingly.
Lastly, if you want to learn the complete BlackRain79 strategy for crushing
small stakes games, make sure you grab a copy of his
free poker cheat sheet.
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Something that people ask me all the time is if you can prevent bad
beats at the poker table.
I am sure you are sick of getting so many bad beats in poker. So am I!
So, is there anyway to make them go away?
It is completely natural to ask this question because bad beats are actually
one of the hardest parts of the game to deal with.
Sometimes they come in bunches and it can be very difficult to handle this
from a mental perspective.
It causes people to go on tilt, play poorly, throw away all their winnings,
and then go down the dark rabbit hole of thinking that every poker site is
rigged against them.
So what can be done? Can we find a way to avoid bad beats once and for all?
This is what we will be investigating today here on the blog!
Can You Prevent Bad Beats in Poker?
Alright, so let’s just get right into it.
I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but short of going all-in every time
you hit top pair or better, there is really no way to avoid bad beats in
Because the thing with fish (recreational poker players), is that if they want
to make the call with their bad hand, then they are going to make the call.
And no matter how far behind they are in the hand, it is very rare in No Limit
Texas Hold’em for somebody to be drawing completely mathematically dead.
They almost always have at least some “outs.” They might only have two cards
remaining in the deck to save their life.
But the cold hard reality of poker is that those two cards will drop on
the river once in awhile. Yes, even right before the final table of a big
No matter how far a bad player is behind, if they call with their 5% equity,
it WILL hit sometimes. And it is also very mathematically possible for this to
happen several times in a row.
So this is something that you need to be prepared for in poker.
A seemingly endless series of seemingly impossible bad beats will happen to
you sometimes in this game.
Trust me, I have played 10+ million hands of online poker. It won’t even seem
believable at times. There is no point in even trying to make sense of it!
The difference between the biggest winners and everybody else though is that
the former are able to control their emotional reaction to these bad beats
They do not go on destructive tilt. They are learn to control their emotions
in the moment or they quit for the day once the frustration and tilt starts
Example Bad Beat Poker Hand
Let’s look at a poker hand that was recently sent to me to help us understand
these bad beats better.
In this hand we are dealt A♦5♥ in the small blind.
Now, let’s be real, this isn’t exactly a great hand.
Sure, it is always nice to have an Ace in our hand because it can make a very
strong top pair. But ideally we would like to have a much stronger kicker than
a 5, or to have suited cards.
But the situation is a bit different in this hand because we are playing 4
handed (only 4 players at the table) and there are several recreational
players in the hand.
So when two players limp into the pot preflop in front of us like this, I do
like the decision to raise it up.
Why Not Just Complete the Small Blind Preflop?
Now, some of you might be asking, why not just complete the small blind here?
It is a reasonable approach and I couldn’t blame anybody for doing it. But as
I proved in my first book Crushing the Microstakes, it is statistically much more profitable to raise rather than to limp
Of course, if you really just want to avoid variance altogether, folding
preflop here isn’t a terrible option either.
But I think when we are 4 handed versus multiple fish, we would be giving up
value by folding a hand like this preflop.
The biggest thing I would like to see in this hand though is a larger raise
We need to remember that when we are out of position like this (small blind),
we need to charge them more in order to see a flop against us.
This is because we will need to act first on every postflop street: flop, turn
and river. And this is another huge, huge proven statistical disadvantage in
So instead of 12 cents, I would like to see us raise it to something like 16
cents or 18 cents here. Give these recreational players a real decision on
whether to continue on in the hand or not!
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Flopping a Monster Hand – Two Pair
Alright, so we have successfully flopped a monster hand, two pair. We have A♦5♥ and the flop comes: A♠K♦5♣Now what?
Well, versus multiple players like this out of position, and first to act on
the flop, I actually prefer a check raise here.
And the reason why is because we are likely to get a bet out of somebody after we check,
which means that we can raise it up when the action gets back to us.
This traps the most money in the middle of the pot when it is very likely that
we have the best hand.
Just betting out here (as hero decides to do) isn’t the worst option in the
world either though, and I do like the larger bet sizing used here.
But overall, when we are out of position versus multiple opponents and we flop a monster hand like two pair or better, I do prefer a check raise because it gets more money in the pot.And of course, when we have a big hand in poker, we always want to get the highest amount of chips in the middle as possible.
Raised All-In on the Turn – Bad Beat?
When we catch another safe looking card on the turn (8♥) I think it is
definitely a wise decision to keep betting big here.
This is something I have discussed numerous times here on the blog and in
my poker books
It is really important to make big value bets like this against the weaker
players at the lower stakes. Because they are likely to call with a really
Now, when the recreational player shoves the turn on us here, I am not going
to lie, it sucks.
Recreational players do not make this play very often as a bluff. It is almost
always something at least reasonably strong.
So I actually would be inclined to lay down a one pair hand here most of the
time, especially with the deeper starting stack sizes.
With two pair though, there is no way I am ever folding. And that is because there are just too many value hands that we are ahead of.
Obviously that is not the case in this hand though.Our opponent turns over 8♠8♣ and laid a pretty sick bad beat on us. He/she only had two cards in the deck to win the hand when they called us on the flop.This is definitely one of those frustrating bad beat hands that can set many people on tilt.
How to Avoid Bad Beats Like This
So was there any way that we could have avoided the bad beat in this hand?
Honestly, not really.
Short of just shoving all-in on the flop, there is nothing we can really do here,
because as stated before, bad players are going to call, if they want to.
And if we shove the flop to protect our hand here, he just folds and we win a
tiny pot. Not exactly the key to a winning poker strategy!
So this is why bad beats are just a part of the game that we unfortunately
need to accept.
We need to remember though that the vast majority of the time this player will not hit his/her miracle 8♥ on the
turn or the river and will therefore just be spewing their chips to us.
We always need to remember this.
We also need to remember that when the bad players get lucky like this, it is
actually a good thing. Because if they could not get lucky sometimes, then they
wouldn’t keep coming back again and again to lose more.
In fact, I like to view bad beats like this as a sort of tax that we all need to pay as
We all have to pay the bad beat tax sometimes. It’s for a good cause though!
These recreational players will always be the primary source of your profits at the poker table, and if they couldn’t get lucky once in awhile, they would simply go away.
What Should You Do When You Get a Bad Beat?
So let’s talk instead about how you should react when you receive one of these inevitable bad
beats at the poker table.
Well, most people get mad, they start “steaming,” go on tilt and throw all
their money away. Worse yet, they will often jump up stakes to chase their
losses and lose their money even faster!
You need to react differently to bad beats than most people if you truly want
to get ahead in this game and win big.
Most people do not win at poker because they react poorly to bad beats and
tilt away all their profits.
You can study all of the most
advanced poker strategies
out there, but if you cannot learn how to control your mental and emotional
reaction to bad beats, you will never win big in poker.
So what can you do?
1. Focus on the Math Behind the Hand
The first thing you need to do when you receive a bad beat is to focus on the
math and the logic behind the hand.
Did you get all the money in good as the statistical favorite in the hand? By the way, you
can just use a program like
to check this for yourself.
If you can answer yes to this question, then there is absolutely nothing for
you to worry about.
Because the one thing you can’t do in poker is fight the math and expect to
win. If you got your money in good, then it will pay off for you in the long
This is why the fish always lose big in the long run, because they are always climbing an uphill battle, fighting the math, getting their money in bad.You on the other hand, as a winning poker player, get the money in good, which pays off over the long run with big profits.
And that is the only thing that actually matters in poker.
2. Take Some Deep Breaths or Leave the Table for Awhile When You Get a Bad
So now that you understand the math behind the bad beat, and you rationally
understand that you did everything you could in the hand (and they just got
lucky), it is time to control your emotional reaction.
In order to do that, I recommend taking several deep breaths or even walking
away from the poker tables for a few minutes if needed.
I actually use all sorts of mental game strategies away from the poker tables such as meditation, yoga, exercise and visualization both before and after my sessions.
The bottom line is that you need to learn to control your mental and emotional reaction to all the bad beats that you will take so that you can continue playing a solid winning poker strategy.
3. Learn to Laugh Off the Bad Beats
And now finally, you can learn to just start laughing off all the bad beats.
Because the truth of the matter is that so long as you play poker, you will
take bad beats. In fact, you will take tons of them.
So there is no point in getting excessively emotional about any particular
You got the money in good, the fish got lucky. It’s time to laugh it off and move on.
Honestly, this is what the pros like
do in order to consistently keep playing good poker even when they get
multiple bad beats in a row.
You need to learn to have a light hearted approach to this game because bad
beats will always be a part of poker as long as you play it.
There is no point in getting so emotionally invested in every single bad beat like most people do. Because that is precisely why most people lose at poker.They can’t see the forrest through the trees.
So is there any way to prevent bad beats in poker?
But at the end of the day, if they want to call you down with their bad hand, then they
will. And that means that they will also hit their miracle turn card or river card sometimes.
It is just a simple mathematical fact that we must all accept when playing
poker. As long as they have a chance, then they have a chance.
But the vast majority of the time, they are just throwing their money away to
us. Because you cannot continue to chase long odds in poker and expect to win over the long run.This is why the fish lose big-time over the long term. And this is also why you should learn to celebrate your bad beats. Because it means
that you are playing in some good poker games!
Lastly, if you want to learn the complete strategy that I used to crush the micro
stakes online poker games for some of the highest winnings ever recorded, grab a
copy of my free poker cheat sheet.
This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Fran
When looking at a high-stakes professional poker player losing a half a
million dollar pot, or busting out of a huge tournament “in the bubble” and
taking it in stride, the word “stoic” might come to mind.
While colloquially referred to as someone who is calm and emotionless in the
face of adversity, this kind of definition doesn’t quite do justice to the
original philosophy of Stoicism and doesn’t really tell the full story.
Like most things, the original meaning and the ideas have changed and molded
with the times, and what we’re left with today is a superficial understanding
of what once was.
There is a lot more to being stoic than merely showing (or even feeling) no
emotion and accepting your cruel fate. It’s not about suppressing emotions
either, for doing so tends to backfire, sooner or later.
The surface-level understanding of Stoicism would indeed have us picture a
totally cold and detached person, but it’s just a facade.
It’s not about the appearances, it’s about the underlying principles beneath
the surface that guide our thinking and behaviour.
What is Stoicism and How it Can Make You a Better Poker Player
Stoicism is a holistic philosophy that encompasses physics, logic and ethics.
It surmises that the path to a good life is to be found in pursuing virtue,
using reason, and living in accordance with nature.
According to the Stoics, the four main virtues were wisdom, courage, justice
and temperance (or self-discipline). Certainly great things to have at your
side, especially when things don’t go your way.
And they won’t.
Anyone who has played poker for some period of time can attest to that.
Quite simply put, stoic philosophy emphasizes virtues as a means of achieving
what they called Apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; literally, “without
passion”). It’s not to be confused with apathy.
The most accurate translation would be equanimity, similar to the Buddhist
concept of the enlightenment, (i.e. a state of stability and composure in the
face of adversity).
In practical terms, it means reacting logically and reasonably to external
events beyond our control, rather than our decision-making process being
hijacked by emotions.
That is not to say to be emotionless or robotic, but clear-headed, objective
and aware. Awareness being the key.
Poker and Stoicism – The Hidden Connection
The less aware you are, the more likely you are to react negatively to
external events beyond your control. The poker fish are the best example of
They don’t make their decisions based on odds, probabilities, previous action,
player types, ranges and so on. A lot of
advanced technical poker knowledge
is completely foreign to them.
Sure, they might be familiar with some concepts to a certain extent, but
knowing that something exists and being able to apply it effectively are not
the same thing.
I might have some theoretical knowledge about internal combustion engines. It
doesn’t mean I have the slightest clue how to go about fixing my car.
Poker is deceptively simple, and fish are notorious for overestimating their
skill level and playing in games they have no business being in.
You will often hear players say something along the lines of: I’m not a math
person. I’m more of a feel player. This is mostly a BS excuse.
Sure, intuition and gut feelings are not to be underestimated, but they are
usually the consequence of acquired knowledge and reasoning that isn’t quite
It can be useful at times, but it can also be dead wrong, because emotions can
be unreliable at best, and highly destructive at worst.
Example of How a Poker Amateur Reasons Incorrectly
You may think someone who is overbet shoving on the river is bluffing because
they’ve been overly aggressive and have been pushing you out of pots for more
than an hour
So you decide to make a hero call, only to be shown the absolute stone cold
The problem is you only considered a piece of the puzzle, and built a
narrative around it. You didn’t consider previous action, bet sizing, their
probable range, the board runout and what have you.
You were probably more motivated to get even, or to make a sick call, or show
you won’t be pushed around. Probably a combination of those actually.
Either way, you let emotions (anger or pride) guide your decision-making
process, even if you weren’t quite aware of it at the time.
You did make a conscious decision, and there was certainly merit to your line
of thinking (i.e. the villain WAS overly aggressive and could have been
bluffing), but it’s not the whole story.
It’s a single piece of the variable that stood out to you because of previous
events and your personal involvement.
And that’s the core problem:
We might think we are making rational decisions, and we aren’t even aware of
the ways our decision-making process is compromised before it’s too late.
How to Mitigate the Negative Effects of Emotional Based Reasoning in
If we could mitigate the negative effects of emotions and let the rational
part of our brain take the wheel, poker would be a fundamentally different
(and quite easier) game.
This is where a little bit of stoic wisdom can come in handy. This article
will provide some insight into the mind of one of stoicism’s most stellar
personalities, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius was quite an impressive person. He was dubbed the Philosopher
king by his contemporaries and was known as the last of the five good emperors
He ruled from 161 to 180, and his reign will mark the beginning of an end of a
period which will later be called Pax Romana (lat. Roman peace), the golden
age of the Roman empire.
As one of the most prominent Stoic philosophers, a lot of what we know about
Stoicism today can be ascribed to Marcus Aurelius and his capital work, “The
Meditations,” a series of letters and notes he wrote to himself as a means of
The work was never written to be published, but his ideas survived to this day
in one form or another long after the emperor’s passing almost two millennia
All the quotes cited come from The Meditations, so with the history
lesson aside, let’s get into the actual tips, starting with the cornerstone of
1. Some Things Are Out of Your Control
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you
will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
As poker players, there is a lot we can do to improve our results, and how
much we win or lose depends greatly on us. We choose the game to play, we
choose a site, a table, a seat.
We choose the stakes, when to play, how long, what cards to play, how to play
in a certain spot and so on.
We are just not entirely sure about the outcome in a lot of situations. And it
certainly can be a deal-breaker to many people who want to be in control of
their life’s outcomes, and playing dice just isn’t their particular cup of
But for the rest of us degenerate gamblers, it’s a cruel reality that we need
to make peace with in order to survive this brutal game.
You need to be aware that the prospect of loss is ever present, and disasters
are just waiting to happen.
And there is absolutely no way around it, no matter how good you are.
Sometimes you will do everything right and lose anyway. It’s beyond you. But
the way you react when things don’t go your way is the true mark of character.
Everyone can play well when the deck keeps hitting them, but as soon as things
go south, their game collapses along with their fortunes.
And this is what makes poker a lucrative endeavour for some, and a losing
investment for most.
The key Stoic takeaway is this: True wisdom is identifying and separating
what’s within our control and what isn’t, and focusing exclusively on the
former. So how do we do that?
With another piece of advice from Marcus Aurelius…
2. Stay Present
“At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand, as a Roman and
human being, doing it with strict and simple dignity, affection, freedom,
and justice — giving yourself a break from all other
You can do this if you approach each task as if it is your last, giving up
every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity,
and complaint over your fair share.” – Marcus Aurelius
Making peace with things beyond our control and focusing only on what is
within our control means letting go of past and future.
The past is fixed and impossible to change, the future is uncertain and
impossible to predict. That is not to say that Stoics were just living in the
moment, partying non-stop and to hell with the consequences.
Quite the contrary.
They did in fact think extensively about what their life would and could be
like, and what was the best course of action to take in order to live a
They also meditated on what has transpired already, but not to dwell on past
mistakes and misfortunes, but to learn from them.
But when they weren’t pondering life’s biggest questions and were engaged in a
certain activity, they were all in on it, for they believed that anything that
is worth doing is worth doing well.
Otherwise, why are you doing it in the first place?
So the next time you sit down to play poker, make sure you are focused on the
task at hand. Remove all distractions like your phone, email, Netflix
Make sure you are not to be disturbed, either by external forces or by your
own internal turmoil of any kind. Leave the past, the future, and your ego at
the door and play to the best of your abilities.
Focus on every hand individually, street by street, action by action. Pay
attention even when you’re not directly involved in the hand.
Don’t let your mind wander off. You can’t expect to have great results if you
keep missing key pieces of information. Information is power, and every little
piece of it helps.
Stay inquisitive, stay present.
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3. Expect Adversity
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with
today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.
They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.
But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have
recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the
same blood and birth, but the same mind… And so none of them can hurt me.
No one can implicate me in ugliness.
Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him… To feel anger at
someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.” – Marcus Aurelius
People are here to take your money and you are there to take theirs. It is not
a cooperative endeavour. Poker in its essence is closer to a Hobbesian
nightmare than to a utopia.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world. It’s fair in so far that the rules regulate the
behavior of the participants, and the participants adhere to those rules. It
has evolved a lot from the lawless gunslinging days of the wild west, but at
its core, it’s still you against everybody else and vice versa.
Sure, there is a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect between players,
especially in live games, but at the end of the day, you are still there to
take their money and prevent them from taking yours, and you are to use any
means necessary to achieve that, as long as it is within the boundaries of
rules and fair play.
The Stoic takeaway here is that other people will be out to get you in some
way or the other, and sometimes they will get the better of you in some
particularly nasty way.
They may keep 3-betting you light because you
overfold to 3-bets out of position.
They can get frustrated with your aggression and keep calling you down and
hitting their miracle gutshot draw on the river.
Or they can go on an insane monkey tilt and shove 63 offsuit preflop you snap
call with your pocket queens and the board runs out like this: Q♥2♠9♣4♠5♥
The universe won’t always cooperate with you. The cards won’t always fall your
way, and the people will be out to get you. And they will get you
It won’t be fair and it won’t be pretty, and you won’t see it coming. Just
remember that the universe isn’t conspiring against you. Which brings us to
the next point…
4. Don’t Take Things Personally
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and
you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius
Poker is random. People aren’t used to randomness, and they don’t interpret
the world as such. We are pattern seeking creatures, and if we don’t find a
pattern, we are more than happy to make one up.
Chance isn’t conspiring against you. Things don’t happen TO YOU. They just
happen. This kind of thinking might sound fatalistic, but it’s actually quite
a relief once you actually internalize it.
The law of large numbers pretty much guarantees that a series of highly
unlikely and highly unfortunate events will happen. And sometimes they’ll
happen in a quick succession. And they will happen to you.
People aren’t equipped to deal with large sample sizes and long term
probabilities. This is something that only
professional poker players
typically learn how to deal with.
Most amateurs instead are overly focused on the present moment, this
particular situation, this particular hand, this particular bad beat.
Or a series of them. And since we are also incredibly gifted in pattern
recognition and narrative building, we don’t analyze cold hard data on a
We are reacting to what’s happening to us in the moment, and what’s happening
is we’ve lost a huge pot in a particularly vicious way. And it keeps
happening. And it’s happening to ME.
We are all protagonists in our own stories, and it’s quite apt to jump to the
victim narrative. It’s a way of ego protection, and it’s a normal instinctive
It takes some serious brain power to overcome it, and it’s anything but
It might be worth remembering that bad things happen to everyone. One of the
great things about poker is it doesn’t discriminate.
Play it long enough, and you’re bound to run extremely hot at times, and
extremely cold at others. Sure, some people will run worse than others,
but on a long enough time line, the survival rate of everyone drops to zero
So it’s more about the journey, and how we deal with the inevitable obstacles.
Some do it better than others, because they…
5. View Obstacles as Opportunities
“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel
bitter: not “This is misfortune,” but “To bear this worthily is good
fortune.” – Marcus Aurelius
You will get unlucky sometimes. You will do everything right and still fail
miserably. But so will everyone else. What separates the winners is the way
they approach failure. They don’t fear it.
Because if you don’t risk failure, you can’t succeed. And if you never fail,
then you probably don’t ever try anything new or challenge yourself in any
If everything is coming easy to you, you might want to watch out, cause you
might just be going downhill at a slight slope.
The winners are those that take the best out of disaster, and use it as a way
to better themselves. They use it as fuel to improve, to see their
shortcomings and work on them consciously and deliberately.
Where some people see disaster, some see an opportunity. It’s a matter of
perspective. Remember that everyone will get their fair share of fortune and
The ones that deal with it the best will be the ones that will rise on top.
The next time you get your aces cracked by a whale with
of 78/5/1 and lose your whole stack, think how much better you could react
than a vast majority of the player pool you’re competing against.
Because bad beats and coolers happen to everyone, fish included. And the fish
are the ones that are more likely to start tilting like crazy and spewing
their chips. Because they see a disaster.
And a shark sees an opportunity. It’s nature. And the Stoics were all for
living in accordance with nature.
6. Be Grateful
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to
be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” – Marcus Aurelius
Ending on a more positive note, be grateful for the fact that we’re able to
play this great game in the first place.
When you lose, remember that it is a privilege of the few to be able to afford
losing money playing cards. And the fact that some people are able to actually
make money in the long run is a miracle in and of itself.
It pays to count your blessings every once in a while. Sometimes you win,
sometimes you lose, but it’s the reality of life.
There is nothing to do but to ride it out as best we can, and rejoice in the
fact that we can play a silly little card game every once in a while.
Being calm and composed in the face of adversity is something we should all
strive for on the felt, as well as away from it.
But we humans are tragically ill-equipped to deal with poker, with our insane
monkey brains running amok with all sorts of complex emotions and
The idea that we can sit down at a table with a bunch of complete strangers
and take each other’s money back and forth for hours on end without tearing
each other to pieces is nothing short of a miracle.
However, in order to not just be able to do so, but to make sure we are the
ones who leave with said money, it might be prudent to keep our insane monkey
brain in check.
Fortunately for us, the great minds of antiquity have a few tips on how to go
Firstly, we need to accept and recognize that things are either in our control
or beyond it, and it is up to us to differentiate between the two, and focus
exclusively on what we can control.
And what we control is our mind, in this particular moment.
This moment is all we have, for the past and future don’t really exist but in
our mind. So we should get the best out of today, this hour, this minute, and
leave our regrets and anxieties behind.
Expect things to go bad, because they will.
When you plan for the worst, nothing can surprise you. It’s not about being
pessimistic, it’s about being aware of potential adversity and challenges.
It’s harder to fall in a hole if you see it up ahead.
Don’t take things personally. Things are things. The universe isn’t out to get
you. You aren’t cursed.
When you face an obstacle, embrace it. Instead of saying, this is a disaster,
say: this is an opportunity. Ask yourself: how can I make the best of the
situation? What can I learn from this?
Finally, be grateful, even for the difficulties, for they are there to make
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