Why You Struggle vs Bad Poker Players (Brutal Truth!)

Why You Struggle vs Bad Poker Players

This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Fran Ferlan.

You’ve been told that the best way to make money playing poker is to play against the recreational players, aka the fish. 

You already know you need to play tight, play in position, and value bet your hand relentlessly, so you do just that.

You get dealt pocket Aces, isolate the fish preflop, bet the flop, bet the turn, shove the river, only to find out that your opponent called you down with a fourth pair and spiked a set on the river. 

You lose your whole stack and your patience along with it. Yet another session ruined by an idiot donkey. And it keeps happening again and again. 

So what gives? 

Playing against these players should be profitable, yet they keep getting lucky against you, and you keep losing money. 

Should you jump the stakes where players play more logically and don’t make such asinine mistakes?

Not exactly. 

Before you jump the stakes where players “respect your raises”, you might want to find out why exactly you’re struggling against bad poker players, and more importantly, what can you do about it, if anything.

1. Poker is Designed to Keep the Bad Players Playing

In a way, poker is designed to keep the bad players coming back. Even though poker is a skill game, it does have a short-term luck element involved. 

This means that even the players that have absolutely no clue what they are doing can get rewarded from time to time for their ill-conceived plays. 

In psychology, this is called intermittent reinforcement, and it’s particularly effective in developing compulsive behaviour, or gambling in this instance. 

In other words, players will keep coming back to play because they will win occasionally, regardless of their knowledge of the game (or lack thereof). 

For example, they’ll play any two suited cards on the off chance of hitting a flush, or chase an inside straight draw without having any clue about the pot odds and the actual chance of hitting their miracle card on the river. 

Instead, they’ll do certain actions based on superstitions like feeling lucky, or something like: I missed my last four draws, so I’m bound to hit the next one.

No and no. In poker, the odds of certain events occurring are always the same, and don’t change based on previous events. 

If you missed your last four flush draws, you’re equally likely to miss the fifth time as well.
Still, this doesn’t prevent some players from actually believing such claims. What’s worse yet, sometimes they will actually be rewarded for their misconceptions. 

This can be frustrating, of course, but that’s what makes poker profitable in the first place.

In fact, bad players getting rewarded for their poor judgment is something you should celebrate. It means they’re more likely to repeat the same mistake in the future. 

Would you rather they learn their lesson and stop making mistakes?

Of course not. Because this is precisely why most people lose at poker.

2. Your Poker Skill Edge is Not as Big as You Think

Another reason you might be struggling against bad poker players is the fact that edges in poker are not nearly as pronounced as you might think. 

Even if you have a significant skill edge over your competition, poker fish virtually always have some sort of hand equity in a given situation. 

It’s very rare indeed for a player to be drawing completely dead (i.e. having no chance of winning the pot whatsoever).

I explain this in much more detail by the way in my recent ultimate poker odds cheat sheet. 

Since a single hand is played across multiple streets (or betting rounds), there’s almost always a chance of a player outdrawing you. 

In fact, it’s often the case that both players have roughly the same amount of hand equity, give or take a few percentage points. 

So even if your hand is a statistical favourite to win, it’s rarely so far ahead that losing can be unexpected.

This is something that Daniel Negreanu discusses in much more detail in his advanced poker training program.  

Here Are a Few Examples to Help Illustrate the Point

You have A♣K♣ and a totally out of control fish on an insane monkey tilt is shoving all-in preflop every hand he gets. 

You snap call and he flips over 98. Your hand equity is only 66%, which means you will lose one out of three times.

Or say you have AK and the flop comes:


And your opponent has something like 76

You are a favourite with 63% equity, but it still means you’re going to lose one out of three times.

As Nathan discussed in his latest video, amateurs make all sorts of basic betting mistakes.

But this still does not take away their equity (chances of getting lucky against you, no matter how small it is).

A 5% chance for example, will hit 1 out of every 20 poker hands. Slim odds yes, but it will happen sometimes.

There are countless more examples like this by the way of bad poker players "getting lucky." I could go on and on!

And in some other poker formats like Pot Limit Omaha, there are situations where drawing hands are actually a favourite to win against made hands on the flop, due to the insane amount of outs they can have. 

Talk about getting rivered every time!

The point is, you’re rarely so far ahead in poker that losing with the best hand is a surprise. 

But as mentioned, this is what makes the game profitable, because a lot of bad players will, in fact, put money in with the mathematical disadvantage.

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Even though the edges are small, they are still significant enough for a superior player to come out on top over enough iterations. But only if they can accept the fact that they will lose from time to time.

It’s like playing roulette. When you’re betting on red or black, you don’t have a 50% percent chance of winning. 

Since there’s also a green zero on the roulette wheel, sometimes the ball won’t land on either black or red, and the casino wins. So your chances of winning are more like 49%. 

This one percentage point may not seem like a lot, but that’s exactly the point. 

This tiny edge allows the casino to be profitable. If you keep playing the roulette for long enough betting on red or black, you’ll eventually end up broke, and the casino will take all your money. 

There’s no way to beat the house over the long run. That’s just the way the game is set up. That’s why there are no professional roulette players. 

On the other hand, poker can be beaten over the long run, because you’re not playing against the casino, you’re playing against other people. 

If you have a skill edge over them, by using a proven winning poker strategy, then you will beat them more often than not. 

But not as often that they won’t be willing to keep coming back for more. So consider yourself a casino running a business the next time a fish sucks out on you. 

Imagine the croupier yelling and berating a customer when they won on the roulette or blackjack table. They wouldn’t. They’d smile and congratulate them. 

Anything else would be bad for business.

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3. Strength in Numbers - All Poker Fish Are Actually One Giant Fish

If you’re struggling against bad poker players, it could be a sign that you’re actually playing in profitable games. This might sound counterintuitive, but hear me out. 

The more recreational players there are in a given game, the more likely it is for some of them to get lucky against you. It’s simple arithmetic.

Consider this very common situation. A recreational player open-limps into the pot. Recreational players behind him are more likely to limp behind. 

You make a big raise hoping to pick up a lot of the dead money, only to get five calls and a huge multiway pot. 

Even if you’re holding pocket Aces, your hand equity goes down significantly because there are so many players involved in the pot.

How to beat bad poker players

In fact, as you can see above, if you get 5 callers when you have pocket aces, you odds of winning the pot could be as low as 26%.

Or to put it another way, you will lose almost 3 out of 4 times. And Pocket Aces is the best hand in the entire game!

I actually wrote an entire article on your odds of having your pocket AA cracked by the way, if you want to learn more about the ugly truth.  

Now, this sort of thing is annoying to be sure, but these are exactly the types of player you want at your poker table. 

While they will get lucky against you sometimes (and the more recreational players, the more likely it is for one of them to beat you), over the long run, these players will be your primary source of income, even though it may not seem that way in a given moment.

Think about the action movies where the hero is involved in a gunfight against dozens of goons armed to the teeth. 

He’ll usually come out on top without so much as a scratch, but life isn’t a movie. In real life, a hero won’t be able to dodge bullets, and he will get shot, even if he’s the deadliest sharpshooter around.

Same thing with poker. Even if you’re the most talented player at the table, you still have to dodge bullets from all the other players, and chances are, you’re going to get hit with a lucky shot sooner or later.

When playing poker, all you can do is put your money in with a mathematical advantage, and hope for the best. 

Getting annoyed and frustrated if the best hand does not win every time can only cause you to lose more than necessary.

If you struggle with tilt and frustration from bad beats, see my complete guide to dealing with poker variance.  

4. Why Do You Struggle Against Bad Poker Players in Particular?

Playing poker against bad players can be frustrating, especially when they keep getting lucky against you. 

Still, it’s far easier and more profitable to endure a couple of bad beats than to play against opponents that actually know what they’re doing. 

Remember, skilled players can get lucky too. I’d rather play poker against a lucky incompetent player than a lucky and competent one. 

Since recreational players will get lucky from time to time (that’s why they play the game in the first place) and there’s not much you can do about it, it might be worthwhile to consider why you are struggling with them in particular. 

More precisely, what is it about them exactly that irks you. The answer has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with how you approach the game. 

Articulating the problem for yourself is the first step to actually solving it. 

Do you feel like they’re stealing your money? 

Do you think they shouldn’t be winning as often against you because your level of poker knowledge and skills are way above theirs? 

Do you believe it’s not fair for you to lose because you made the right play and they didn’t? 

Is it all of the above, or something else entirely?

There are no right or wrong answers here. Whatever the reasons might be, they probably do have some merit. 

But they still don’t change the fact that when you play poker, you sometimes lose to inferior competition, and there’s nothing you can really do about it.

What you can change instead is your perspective on the issue, and rework some of the faulty thinking that is causing you frustration in the first place. 

To do so, you need to figure out what is actually bothering you. It’s definitely not the fact that some idiot donkey called your bet with incorrect pot odds and hit his backdoor flush.

It might be the money lost that’s bothering you. If so, are you playing with the money you’re comfortable with losing? 

Are you playing the right stakes within your bankroll? Are you chasing losses in the games you shouldn’t really be playing?

If you think you’re a better poker player than your opponents, your pride could be wounded. 

In these situations, it’s often the case that your ego is protecting you from taking a good hard look at your game and seeing you might not be as good as you think. 

It’s easier to say your opponents got lucky than to admit you don’t really have a firm grasp on light 3-betting or triple-barrel bluffing. 

If you really are better than your opponents and are beating your limit over the long run, an occasional bad beat shouldn’t bother you as much. 

In fact, you should welcome it, because it means you’re playing in a profitable game. If it bothers you to the point it affects your decision making, you’re playing in the wrong game.

Maybe it’s not the money lost, and maybe you really are better than your opponents, but you keep getting the short end of the stick over and over. 

If that’s the case, you probably didn’t come to terms with the nature of variance in poker yet. To say that it’s not fair is an understatement. 

It’s brutal, it’s punishing, and it’s definitely not fair. But as bad as it is, you can always make it a hundred times worse.

How to Beat Bad Poker Players (Final Thoughts)

In short, there is not much you can do about bad players getting lucky against you. All you can do is put your money in with a mathematical advantage, and hope it holds up. 

Over the long run, you’ll win far more than you will lose, but only if you accept the cruel reality that you will lose sometimes, even if you did everything right.

And even if you have studied all of the best advanced poker strategy available these days as well. Fishy players will still beat you sometimes.  

Remember that poker is designed to keep the bad players playing. 

This means they will get lucky sometimes, because they basically always have some sort of hand equity. It’s very rare indeed for a player to be drawing completely dead in a given hand.

What’s more, the edges are sometimes only razor thin, and there are a lot of situations where the winner of the hand is basically determined by a coinflip, i.e. both players have roughly 50% chance to win the hand. 

But even if your edge is as small as 1%, it’s still enough to be a profitable long term winner. Long term being the key word, of course.

So while there’s little you can do to increase your chances of winning coinflips, something you can and should do is to improve how you react to situations when cards don’t fall your way. 

Everyone can play well when the deck is hitting them in the face, even the fish.
When playing poker, struggle never really ends. The only thing you can do is struggle better than the rest.

Lastly, if you want to know my complete strategy for crushing bad poker players, grab a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

Why You Struggle vs Bad Poker Players (Brutal Truth!)