What is a Bad Beat Hand in Poker? – A Definition and Some Examples

By Steve Beauregard

They say the only things certain in life are death and taxes. The only thing certain in poker life is that you will receive bad beats, which are sort of like both death and taxes in that a bad beat costs you money and makes you die a little inside.

The simplest definition of a bad beat is when a poker hand that is a favorite to win, loses to an underdog hand that catches up and beats it.

Let’s say for example, in a typical no-limit hold’em game or no-limit hold’em tournament, you go all-in before the flop with the best possible hand at that moment: Ace, Ace.

Let’s say that your enormous bet did not scare at least one player, who calls, shoving all of his chips into the pot. He flips over the 5 and 6 of hearts. The 5 of 6 of hearts is a bad hand to go all-in pre-flop, but as many an amateur has said when trying to justify playing a bad hand, “But they’re sooted!”

Get ready for the bad beat
Get ready for the bad beat

Back to our aces vs. 5 and 6: you’re happy to see the hand, and the pot is now so large, you’re licking your chops, practically reaching out to stack them already. You’re doing this because you’re a new player, and don’t realize that it ain’t over until Joy Behar sings.

So while your pocket aces (often called “pocket rockets”) look pretty and get your heart racing, in reality they’re only a 76.76% favorite to win. In other words, for basically every 4 times you go all-in with pocket aces vs. a 5 and 6 of the same suit, you’ll lose once.

(Go here to see the normal buy in amount you’d need to play $1/2 No-limit Texas Holdem in a casino)

Bad Beat Definition

There is no set, definite definition of what exactly constitutes a bad beat in poker, but it’s generally accepted that a bad beat only occurs when a hand that is an overwhelming favorite loses to an inferior hand that gets the needed cards to pull out a win.

Losing in a typical “race” situation is not a bad beat. (A “race” is a poker term for when you get all the money in pre-flop when it’s a basically 50/50 chance you’ll win).

Let me explain: Say you hold pocket 9’s, and go all-in pre-flop, and get called by a player holding the Ace and Queen of spades.

In this situation, you and your pair of 9’s will win 52.21% of the time. So let’s say the flop and turn are dealt, and your 9’s are still good, however the nasty, ugly river card is a Queen, beating your hand.
This is a standard beat, extremely common. It’s basically flipping a coin, so telling this story to most poker players will not generate any sympathy. (Actually, neither do most legitimate bad beat stories).

A bad beat has to be a little more miraculous and painful than losing when you’re only a slight favorite to win. Going all in with pocket 10’s, and losing to pocket 5’s, for example, would be a bad beat, as your tens will win 80% of the time.

It’s important to keep in mind, (especially for your mental health), than even a seemingly strong hand of say, Ace/King versus a Queen/Ten hand will only win about 2/3rds of the time.

Some of the most brutal bad beats occur when you get all the money into the pot when you’re ahead on the flop or turn. After all, if four of the five community cards are already dealt, and you’re way ahead, it’s easy to assume that one, remaining river card won’t kill you.

But it often does. Say you started the hand with a pocket pair, (say pocket 7’s), and end up getting three of a kind after the turn. And let’s say your opponent has a flush draw – he has two hearts in his hand, and there are two hearts on the board. With only the river card to come, your set of sevens, (a “set” is when you’re holding a pocket pair and get a three of a kind on the board), will win 84% of the time.

Those times when that that winning flush card comes for your opponent, which it will, 16% of the time, can be so incredibly frustrating, it’ll make you want to scream and cuss and storm out of the casino – when in reality, you were just a participant in a soulless, cold, uncaring mathematical string of probabilities.

Another devastating bad beat occurs when a player goes “runner runner” on you. What this means is that you are well ahead after the flop, but the resulting turn and river cards give your opponent two cards he or she needs to snatch victory away from you.

One example of a runner-runner bad beat, would be when you’re flop a full house, only to see your opponent go runner runner to catch the exact two cards he needs to make a full house that is higher than your full house.

More frequently, you’ll experience a runner runner bad beat when someone catches running cards to make an odd straight, or a flush on you.

While losing cold hard cash to a bad beat in a cash game hurts, bad beats are especially painful when you’re experience one during some special situations in poker tournaments.

Worst Bad Beats

“The bubble” is the term used when a poker tournament is at the point where all remaining players will be paid winnings. Consequently, the “bubble boy” or the person “on the bubble” is the player who finished just one spot away from the money.

For example, in the World Series of Poker Main Event, they usually pay a certain percentage of the finishers – typically around the remaining 10% of the player pool. So with, say, 8,000 entrants, the last 800 players standing get paid. The guy with the unfortunate distinction of finishing in 801st place, the bubble boy, receives nothing.

So you can see that suffering a bad beat to become the bubble boy is not only rare, but perhaps the cruelest bad beat of all.

It’s important to note here that the most very special and rare bad beats have their own special name: “coolers.” The definition of a cooler poker hand, is when a very strong hand loses to an even more amazing hand.

As an example, one cooler would be when a player holds 4 of a kind and loses to a straight flush. These are the bad beats that are typical qualifying hands to win the large bad beat jackpots found in poker rooms and casinos nationwide.

A very rare, but not-unheard of bad beat is a combination cooler/runner-runner hand in which a player flops 4 of a kind, only to see his opponent catch runner-runner cards to achieve a larger 4 of a kind.

While this is a bad beat, the sting will be ignored as the loser would win a big chunk of cash as part of the bad beat jackpot. But what if he loses this way in a card room without a bad beat jackpot?

Then he’s got a legitimate bad beat story to tell.

(Photo courtesy of John Morgan via Flickr).