On Whining About Bad Beats

Jeff Madsen

Today, let’s have a little riff on the psychology of bitching, whining and complaining about bad beats.

Bad beat stories have been discussed to death on chat rooms and poker forums. A consensus has emerged:

I. They never get you the sympathy you think you deserve.

But there's a deeper story here:

II. Complaining about your misfortunes at the table is likely to backfire and result in more abuse being dumped on you.

The first is obvious. You don't get sympathy because no one cares. Every poker player alive has had their flopped nuts cracked by a two-outer and doesn't give a rat's ass that it just happened to you. I used to get really ticked at players, especially ones who repeatedly tell these stories and, worse, wouldn't listen to mine.

I finally developed a simple rule. I will listen and nod the first time I get assaulted by someone. But that's their only shot at it. If they come back for a repeat performance, I hand them a card that I carry with me. It reads, on one side:

"Your bad beat story has touched my heart. Never before have I heard a story like that. You have my sincere sympathy. Now fuck off and stop bothering me."

And, just to drive the point home, I flip it over so they can see:

"Pardon me, but you have evidently mistaken me for someone who gives a shit. Here's a quarter. Go call someone who gives a fuck."

Okay, that's one way to take something vaguely annoying and make it amusing. But it's the second point that I want to get to.

There's a lot of psychology going on here, in the bad beat stories themselves as well as the range of responses that people have to the person telling them. Let's get our intuitions rolling by considering two "real world" situations.

Case 1 -- A bad beat to a neutral person: A tornado totally leveled his house and smashed his car. Here, suffering garners sympathy; this person's pain draws others to empathize.

Neighbors, friends and total strangers rally around in a chorus of support. In fact, he can complain about the injustice of it and they will listen and acknowledge. No one doubts his sincerity; no one wishes further pain on him.

Case 2 -- A bad beat to a member of a discriminated group: Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The inner-city poor took the brunt of the disaster. At first, their suffering drew support and concern.

But further complaints of neglect and injustice were often not greeted with sympathy but with continued scorn and not-so-subtle prejudice. This reaction against those clearly suffering was so dramatic that it shocked many.

But most psychologists weren't shocked. For some time we've known that despised individuals and groups who are suffering often garner, not sympathy and support, but further abuse. When we dislike the one in pain, we are quite comfortable with increasing the pain.

In fact, as recent work by Roland Imhoff has shown, this pattern is found even when, initially, there were no negative feelings about those suffering.

I hope you can see how these findings apply to the teller of bad beat stories.

The whiners, the complainers end up getting treated like a despised minority.

We may briefly see ourselves in their eyes, we may even feel a fleeting dollop of empathy, but basically we view them as weak, pathetic creatures who haven't yet learned the lessons of life, poker life. They deserve what they get.

So, even in those cases where the poor sucker you've cornered to bitch at seems to be sympathetic, he's probably not. In fact, he is almost certainly increasing the level of disdain he holds you in and looking to inflict even greater pain on you the first chance he gets.

For the poker player the lesson is dead simple. Stop bitching; no more bad beat stories. Not only are you not getting the sympathy you are looking for, you are lowering your reputation, damaging your image and making it more likely that opponents will want to pummel you more, just to see you suffer.

Is there any upside here? Yes, but it's one that is tough to pull off. It is possible to use whining and bitching as a weapon to put others on tilt or, more subtly, to make them try to target you.

It is a fundamental mistake in poker to try to "get" someone for it almost invariably leads to errors and misplays because you're focusing on the wrong things. I'll have a future column on this.

If interested, you can find Imhoff's research here.

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