by Barbara Connors
If ever a concept appeared to be a perfect fit for the game of poker, it’s schadenfreude. A German word now commonly used in English, there’s no precise translation but essentially it refers to feeling pleasure from the misfortune of others. Schadenfreude is the opposite of compassion—instead of experiencing pity and a desire to help when we witness a fellow human in distress, we feel a secret (or not-so-secret) sense of delight.
Given the dog-eat-dog nature of poker, a certain amount of schadenfreude is probably inevitable. It only seems natural that poker players would feel some positive emotions when an opponent is down on his luck. After all, it’s a see-saw kind of game and his loss is your gain—if not literally then at least in a figurative sense. Because even when your unfortunate opponent’s lost chips are being added to the stack of a rival player, there is still something soothing about watching somebody else lose.
You may have been sitting for hours without dragging even a single pot and may have watched more than half your stack get eaten away by a series of bad beats and cold cards—but the injustice of it all becomes more bearable after you’ve watched an opponent get crushed to the felt by a terrible suck-out. You may be nursing a tiny stack in a tournament, doomed to bust out well before the money, but it still feels good to out-last another opponent even though you both go home with exactly the same goose egg. The sting of having your aces cracked by a five-outer doesn’t feel quite as harsh after you see another premium pair get cracked by a two-outer. It always comes down to the same thing: At least I’m not as bad off as that poor slob. That’s the essence of schadenfreude.
Since there is never a shortage of bad beats and miserable losers at any given poker game, there is ample opportunity to experience schadenfreude in poker. Plenty of opportunities to feel better about ourselves at the expense of some losing player. But this kind of gratification is shortlived and—unless you were the one who put the beat and got the chips—a false comfort. In and of itself, schadenfreude does nothing to actually improve our situation at the poker table. It doesn’t help us to make better decisions, doesn’t improve our focus, and doesn’t prevent us from going on tilt. At best, schadenfreude is a transitory egobooster, a shot in the arm when we’re feeling low. At worst, it’s a distraction and an invitation to self-delusion.
If game conditions aren’t good, if you’re playing without a sufficient bankroll, or if your opponents are just plain better than you, the temporary pleasure you get from schadenfreude will do more harm than good in the end. Watching your opponents lose might make you feel all warm and fuzzy and superior inside, but it also distracts you from the unpleasant reality that it’s only a matter of time before you join the parade of losers. A superior opponent is a superior opponent, and he’ll always be the favorite to grind you down in the long run—no matter how many times you watch him lose a tough pot with a secret feeling of glee in your heart. Poker is an unforgiving game and if we can gain a momentary sense of comfort from the misery of our opponents, who’s to say that feeling is wrong? The trick is to keep it all in perspective. Schadenfreude is a distraction from the real business of poker, the business of trying to make the correct decision, again and again and again, in an ever-changing landscape. In that challenge, our worst enemy is not the luckless slob on the other side of the table. In that challenge, our worst enemy is within. And no amount of schadenfreude can help us win.
Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at email@example.com.