by Barbara Connors
Poker has always been a contentious game. After all, it involves a group of people who gather together with the express goal of taking each other’s money. So things are bound to get a bit combative from time to time. At least in theory, this is all just part of the game, in the spirit of honorable competition among our fellow players. In theory, what brings us together at the poker table is not merely avarice but a true love of the game. But all this noble theory has a tendency to fly out the window once somebody else starts taking your money.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that poker players can occasionally feel a bit...antagonistic towards each other. In some cases, that antagonism can become seething personal hatred. The trigger for this acrimony can be any number of things—irritating table talk, a playing style that rubs you the wrong way, or in a live setting, bad personal hygiene— but more often than not it boils down to a supposedly inferior opponent who keeps getting lucky and beating you out of pots.
Bad players suck out. This is a good thing. Let the fish get lucky once in awhile! It keeps them delusional and happy and coming back for more. Most of us know this. But unfortunately that knowledge doesn’t always help when a terrible player, or at least someone we think of as a terrible player, steals a pot that “should” have been ours. Knowing that this loss is just a tiny, temporary blip on the giant radar of poker life doesn’t always stop the envy and feelings of injustice. It’s hard not to take losses personally, and it’s even harder when the losses keep mounting up and most of them are coming at the hands of one obnoxious opponent.
Of course some more colorful poker players go out of their way to be hated by engaging in trash talk. With a constant patter of mocking, belittling, insulting, goading commentary that’s designed to enrage. They want our hatred. Like the Emperor Palpatine, encouraging Luke Skywalker to “Let the hate flow through you!” these players want nothing more than to push us over to the Dark Side. But for a poker player, is that ever a good place to be?
Perhaps for a select few. In other types of competition such as chess or sports, there are players who gain strength from hating their opponents. It feeds the competitive spirit, helps them to focus. But for the vast majority of poker players, the opposite is true. Every time some trashtalking nitwit succeeds in making you angry, the end result is that he wins and you lose. How can you possibly make objective, clear-headed decisions when you’re in a hand against someone you despise? If a big chunk of your mental and emotional energy is occupied with revenge fantasies— catching him in a big bluff, or better yet, bluffing him off half his stack—what are the chances you can accurately judge the strength of his cards in any given hand?
We’ve seen it happen. A player gets bluffed by an opponent he hates. Then in subsequent hands, the thought of being bluffed again by that same loathed enemy becomes so distasteful, so utterly revolting, that he will call down one hopeless hand after another rather than risk being fooled by his nemesis again. So pointless, so avoidable, so stupid.
Every time we sit down in a poker game we are surrounding ourselves with people who want to beat us, lie to us, take our money, and generally make us look bad. Any opponent who doesn’t is not playing the game right. It’s their job to do all these things. That’s why we call them villains. Hating the villain can be a lot of fun when you’re watching a movie. But in a poker game, it can get you killed.
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.