Why poker players think other poker players suck at poker

Every few months you have a weekend where everyone on poker Twitter cannot help but pick a fight. That was this weekend. The theme of the weekend was everyone sucks but me. A lot of high profile players felt the need to point out how bad their peers were at the game.

We had Doug Polk, so perplexed at how badly he felt Fedor Holz and WIktor Malinowski played against each other that the only logical conclusion was he was watching a rigged match. Then it seemed everybody wanted to point out how bad they thought Phil Hellmuth was. Many could not fathom his performance on High Stakes Poker and others were discussing how poorly they felt he would do in High Roller tournaments.

My favourite tweet of the weekend was this by Marle:

To point she made was that poker, despite the intellectual rigour associated, still has a bombastic element with a lot of name-calling and mud-slinging. I think the chess comparison also perhaps points to why so many poker players feel compelled to comment on each other’s ability.

We can’t deal with unknowns

It all comes back down to variance. I truly believe that we are not evolutionarily wired to fully understand upswings and downswings, no matter how close we can get to GTO and how mathematically cultured we are. Poker players experience the extremes of luck more so than any other skilled pursuit. Humans have an innate sense of justice that poker cannot possibly live up to.

So it is perfectly natural that none of us can have a truly accurate assessment of another player’s game. I’m not just talking about our innate bias to notice the times a player got lucky and dismiss the times they got unlucky or played a hand well. I mean that we never get to see the majority of hands a player is dealt, even when they are against us. We don’t know if a player made a brave bluff against us or was value betting a monster. We don’t know all the big laydowns they made when they had the second-best hand. We don’t know if that crazy play they made on the river was because they are a maniac or if they were doing it for balance or image reasons.

There are so many unknowns in poker and humans have a need for cognitive closure. We do not like loose ends and we struggle with ambiguity. It is an inevitable part of the human condition that we need to fill in the gaps and create a narrative about what happened. It is also a very human tendency to try and protect our own self-identity. All of this leads to, in my opinion, the urge to assume our opponents played badly more often than not and tell others about our assumption.

None of this is a problem in chess, where it is quite clear cut who the superior player is the majority of the time. There is no ambiguity in chess rankings, but plenty when you are comparing somebody who has won a lot of bracelets to a high stakes cash player. Chess fans you will have to help me out here, but I can only assume that chess does not have the same culture of grandmasters telling each other how much they suck?

Expect more trash talking this year

One group of players I think fall less into this trap is the streamers. Broadly I think the Twitch streamers are much more humble and less judgemental of their peers. It makes sense in that streamers have the bravery to show every single hand they play, not just to an audience of fans but also essentially to their opponents. That is about as vulnerable a position as it gets in poker, to both be open to so much ridicule and also to give away so much information that could be used against them.

None of this is to say poker players shouldn’t talk smack or critique each other’s games. It’s not the worst thing in the world that poker has a WWE style trash talking element, it makes for good TV now and then which cannot be too bad. I personally like the discussion of ‘who is better than who’ in poker. For example, I have always found the ‘is Phil Hellmuth good’ discussion interesting because, as the latest bet from Daniel Negreanu lays clear, it is a good allegory for the GTO vs exploitative debate.

Human beings have biases and no matter how good they are, poker players are not immune from that. With the recent uptick in heads-up challenges I think we are about to enter a golden age of good poker players saying other good poker players suck at poker.

Are you guilty of bad mouthing your fellow players? Let us know in the comments:

Barry Carter

Barry Carter

Barry Carter is the editor of PokerStrategy.com and the co-author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 & 2, Poker Satellite Strategy and PKO Poker Strategy

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