Poker Strategy

Why we love to see Phil Hellmuth lose

Why we love to see Phil Hellmuth lose

It would seem that the human mind is wired to find joy in the misery of others. The Germans even have a word for it: Schadenfreude.

Defined as the emotional experience of pleasure in response to another’s pain or misfortune, Schadenfreude is not as wild – or sociopathic – of a concept as it might initially seem. If you’ve ever caught yourself having a good laugh when Phil Hellmuth takes a bad beat, that’s Schadenfreude in action. It’s not just in poker either; we can find Schadenfreude in every facet of life, from sports to business, and especially in the often-toxic dynamics of social media.

There’s a raw element to it, likely rooted in our ancient past where the misfortunes of others might have directly translated to an advantage for our very survival. In a way, Schadenfreude points to a more primal time, where the stakes were life and death and the downfall of another could mean more food on your table (or the rock you were using in place of one).

But as is the case with Hellmuth, Schadenfreude can also act as a sort of cosmic balancing force – correcting what is wrong with the world in the flash of a river card. That’s because when we see someone transgress in a way we deem unacceptable or unnecessary (like berating an amateur player), seeing that same person suffering misfortune makes us feel like the scales of the universe have been momentarily balanced. It’s not that we wish the person ill in the truest sense of the word, but there is an intoxicating feeling of justice that fills our heart when it appears that fate has punished those we deem wicked.

However, more important than justice (or as the philosopher Nietzsche once called it “revenge for the impotent”), Schadenfreude actually has a strangely unifying power. It connects us, both as poker players and humans, to the collective experience of suffering. It proves to us, in its own unique and often subconscious way, that we are not alone in our struggles. Schadenfreude not only shows us that even the best (or former best) aren’t immune to the injustice of the cards, but it also provides us with the comfort of knowing that the things that separate us from the legends of the game are not as distant as they may sometimes seem. We’re all human, after all, subject to the same swings of fate and fortune.

If you ever feel guilty for internally celebrating another poker player’s untimely tournament exit, don’t be too hard on yourself. Although it has some negative undertones, Schadenfreude is a completely natural response that allows us to experience a more meaningful connection with the realities of being human. In a world that can often feel chaotic and unfair, celebrating the non-debilitating sorrows of others provides us with a (relatively harmless) outlet for our pent-up emotions. By internally embracing our Schadenfreude while remaining a kind human being externally, we not only connect ourselves to the thread of suffering that underlies the human experience, but remind ourselves that, ultimately, we are all in this together.

So, the next time Hellmuth stacks off with aces on a 9TJQ board, go ahead and allow yourself a brief moment to revel in his misery…I know I will.

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