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In poker, a bad beat occurs when a hand, which was at one time a big favourite to win, loses. Typically the term is only applied in this way when the player holding the eventual winning hand misplayed it spectacularly.Alternatively, the term is also applied when a particularly strong hand loses to an even stronger one. In some casinos there is a “bad beat jackpot” awarded whenever a player suffers a particular beat.

A typical example of the first type of bad beat, in No Limit Texas hold ’em:

• Alice (the hero) holds A♦ A♣ – pocket aces, the strongest possible starting hand.
• Bob (the villain) holds Q♣ 8♥ – a weak hand.

The players have the same amount of chips. Before the flop, Alice raises to 15 times the big blind, placing a fifth of her stack in the pot, and only Bob calls. The flop comes A♥ 8♠ 7♠. Although Alice has the nuts at this point, making 3 aces, she is concerned about possible draws to a straight or flush, and goes all-in with a bet that is twice the size of the pot. Bizarrely, Bob, who has only middle-pair, calls.

At this point, Bob’s chances of winning are precisely 1 in 990. [1] He can only win if both the turn card and the river card are eights. Since this is a bad beat story, the turn and river naturally bring precisely that, and Bob scoops the pot, leaving Alice cursing Bob’s appalling play – he should not have called such a big bet before the flop, nor on the flop.

Bad beats can be infuriating, but mathematically “Alice” actually wants “Bob” to play in this manner. Bob took a gamble that should not have worked; his odds were 989-to-1 against. It worked this time, but if he continues to play in such a careless manner, he will almost certainly lose more than he wins. He is essentially giving away his money—and if Alice is careful, it will all go to her. Thus, the more stoic poker players accept bad beats as an unpleasant but necessary drawback to a tactic that works the vast majority of the time (989 of 990 instances, in this case). Nevertheless, a bad beat is often a profound psychological blow, and can easily lead to a player going on tilt. Professional player Phil Hellmuth, among others, is notorious for his pronounced reactions to bad beats.

In online poker rooms, bad beats often lead to accusations that the random number generator is “rigged”, even though such beats occur in offline games.