Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2011) in Poker Player newspaper.
You wouldn’t think that sympathy has much to do with whether you win or lose at poker. But it does. And that’s the focus of today’s self-interview.
Question 1: Can you get opponents to sympathize with your bad luck and let you win?
Sometimes you can induce an insincere show of sympathy by telling other players how bad you’re running. Don’t count on it happening, though. Often when you explain that you’ve missed 23 flushes in a row, you’re going to be met with, “That’s nothing. Last year, I missed 540 in a row.”
You need to understand that playing poker in a live game is a lonely experience. Nobody is aware of how horrible a run you’re suffering, except you. Others aren’t really paying attention. So, you might instinctively realize that truth and force the issue, determined to make them aware. Irrationally, you feel that sharing the misery will alleviate some of your hurt. It won’t.
Opponents don’t want to share your misfortune. The best you can hope for is a false sympathetic comment, uttered without conviction, like, “that’s really bad,” or “I hope your luck improves.” Of course, what you were hoping to hear is, “Oh, that’s awful. I feel so bad that you’re going through that. Let me know if there’s anything I can do. And please call me if you need to talk.” Then they’ll take it easy on you at poker and help you survive. Doesn’t happen.
Question 2: Haven’t you ever felt sorry for other players?
Often. As regular poker players, we experience a lifestyle that outsiders don’t understand. It’s an adventure we all share. Instead of steady incomes, we watch wild swings that make our bankrolls unstable. Up, down, up, up, down. If you counted, you saw that there was one more “up” than “down” there. And that’s important, because if you’re skillful enough, the swings you experience will result in more money won than lost – and you’ll be successful at poker.
Still the swings are unsettling, and we learn to live with them. But, when the cards are cruel, it hurts and we suffer. I understand that. And, yes, I frequently feel sorry for others who are struggling through temporarily terrible luck. Been there. Done that. And I know how it feels.
But, even beyond sympathy, I have empathy for those opponents who are running bad.
Question 3: What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy?
Big difference. You sympathize when you’re sorry that someone else is having a bad time, but you don’t necessarily understand what that feels like. You empathize when you put yourself inside the other person’s reality and feel the same pain. When you empathize, you know why you’re sympathizing. You feel it.
In poker, sympathy is being sad that someone else is losing; empathy is knowing what losing feels like to them.
Question 4: Why does that difference matter to a serious poker player?
Poker’s biggest winners empathize. They have near-total psychological mastery of the game. By being able to put themselves in their opponents’ places, they better understand behavior. That makes it easier to read tells and even manipulate those opponents.
But, here’s the secret. Although the most-successful poker players empathize with opponents they conquer, they never let those feelings soften their strategy. They go after all the money, all the time. They strive to make opponents’ pain worse! And they’re able to imagine that pain and actually feel it. They sympathize and they empathize.
Now, you think that’s cruel, right? You think it’s ridiculous to make someone else’s pain worse when you understand it and feel it, too.
Fine. But, let me tell you something. At the poker table, your mission is to win all the money you can, no matter how much pain you cause. But if you feel sympathy, there’s hope. After you quit the game and have cashed out, then you can give the money back, if you still want to. It’s your money and you can do whatever you want with it. But the purpose of poker is to win it in the first place.
Question 5: So, could you summarize how sympathy in poker relates to profit?
Sure. Try to understand what opponents are feeling. Try to feel it yourself. Nothing helps more in understanding other players’ tells or their probably tactics.
But never seek sympathy yourself. When you do, you’re merely emphasizing that you’re unlucky. And that inspires opponents to play better against you, because they think you can be beat.
Just as in any other life endeavor where people can be influenced, your image matters in poker. In life, those with commanding and likeable images make more sales, get better deals, and acquire leadership positions. So, let me ask you a question. Can you think of a successful person who habitually seeks sympathy or dwells on misfortune? Me, either.
One more question. Think hard. Can you remember any major winning poker player who consistently complained about losing? Me, either.
The secret is to talk about your success and good fortune. That’s the key ingredient in a winning image. And if you’re running poorly, keep it to yourself.— MC