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Poker Strategy With John Vorhaus: Well, That Happens

Vorhaus Explains How To Let Go Of Bad Outcomes


John VorhausYou’re dealt pocket kings and get all raisy-crazy preflop — as you should — only to face the dreaded ace on the flop. Well, that happens.

You flop middle set and get meatgrindered by set-over-set. Well, that happens.

Your A-2 in Omaha eight-or-better holding goes down in counterfeit flames when the river comes deuce to kill your low. Well, that happens.

Your nut straight dies an agonizing death at the hands of a runner-runner flush draw. Well, that happens.

Bad outcomes happen to everyone every day. The question is not, How can I avoid bad outcomes, for bad outcomes are inevitable. The question is, What do I do about it now? For years I have mostly just said, “Well, that happens,” and let those words be my mantra. When the words are working — when they’re feeding me the tranquility and perspective I need to stay off tilt — they’re worth their weight in gold — or chips, as the case may be.

Take those pocket kings. Sure, they’re a terrific hand — but no longer terrific when an ace hits the board and World War III breaks out in raises. If you’re holding those kings at that point, you’ve got two choices. You can curse the awful unfair unfairness of it all, pretend the ace is not an ace, and let your own pocket kings plunder your own stack, or you can say, “Well, that happens,” make the fold you know you have to make, and glide on into the next hand with a peaceful smile on your face.

Are you capable of saying, “Well, that happens?” By that, I mean can you really, genuinely, let go of bad outcomes? Many players think they can, but they can’t. They pay lip-service to the idea of tranquility, but they don’t really have it. When a foe draws thin against them and gets there, they know enough to say, “Nice hand, sir,” and keep their anger and resentment hidden. That’s good, but it’s not enough because there’s a world of difference — and it makes all the difference — between keeping your anger hidden and not having any anger to hide. When you can correctly bet the best hand into some yahoo who catches a three-outer to beat you, and genuinely feel no pain at that outcome, then you’re living in the fluffy pink world of “Well, that happens.”

Believe me, it’s where you want to be.

People get so bent out of shape when they lose. They get caught up in a negative-feedback loop of:

Bad outcomes, generating
Bad outlook, begetting
Bad play, and leading to more, yes,
Bad outcomes.

They put themselves on tilt by not being able to take setbacks in stride. We love playing against these people because we know that they are our secret allies in the conspiracy of their own destruction. But it’s vital that we not let ourselves get similarly bent out of shape. It’s crucial that we just stay cool. “Well, that happens” helps with that. “Well, that happens” trains us to push past the past.

So how do you acquire this mindset? How do you manifest not just the appearance of tranquility but the fact of it? First, acknowledge that the anger is there and it’s real. Acknowledge that you hate the bad beat, and resent the suck-out artist, and revile the dangblasted dealer who seems to give everyone the cards they need but you. Don’t pretend these feelings don’t exist; they exist in all of us, save the Buddha (and even Buddha had his bad days). Accept that your play is colored by emotions. This is the first step toward neutralizing the toxic effect those emotions can have.

Next, practice an alternate strategy. For me this means writing the words, “Well, that happens” on a note card and placing it behind my stack of chips. Every time I look down, there it is, reminding me that the road to perfect poker, at least in an attitudinal sense, is really only three words long. I like to say it out loud. No matter how big the pot nor how bad the beat, I require of myself to say only and exactly, “Well, that happens.” It’s my shortcut to stability, and it’s yours to use, free of charge.

The “Well, that happens” way is a slow change, but it can happen. Let your attitude shift by slow degrees. Know that your temper and your righteous indignation won’t magically vanish overnight. But keep at it. Keep saying and thinking and trying to believe, “Well, that happens,” until eventually the phrase, and the attendant emotional state, become second nature to you. Somewhere along that line you’ll leave your angry old self behind and became a person who no longer struggles to take bad beats in stride.

Eventually you won’t even see them as bad beats. You’ll begin to see them as exciting opportunities to practice your well, that happens mindset. This is perverse, I know: rooting for bad beats just so you can prove to yourself that bad beats beat on you no more. But you know what? It helped me and it’ll help you. Try it and see.

Then again, maybe “Well, that happens” aren’t words that resonate on your frequency. Okay, fine: What strategy can you cook up to defeat the enemy of your own emotion? It may be some different useful reminder written on a note card, or some cold water on your face, or a timely phone call to a friend. Whatever your strategy is, I encourage you to take the time to think one up because poker only seems to be about cards and odds and bets and pots. It’s really about head and heart and fortitude and spirit. Above all, it’s about tranquility. Dial that in, and everything else pretty much takes care of itself. ♠

John Vorhaus is author of the Killer Poker series and co-author of Decide to Play Great Poker, plus many mystery novels including World Series of Murder, available exclusively on Kindle. He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from