Maria Konnikova Learns How to Live With Luck in ‘The Biggest Bluff’

Posted on July 20, 2020 - Last Updated on July 16, 2020

We all know that luck considerably influences our lives, even if sometimes we might try to convince ourselves otherwise. No matter what choices we make, we can’t control everything.

Understanding just how much luck matters in life, and even more importantly, how to handle the existential challenge of having to live with that truth, is the focus of Maria Konnikova‘s latest book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, available now via Penguin Press.

The Biggest Bluff is the result of what became a three-year adventure during which the New York-based writer studied and played tournament poker. For Konnikova, the game provided an effective way to investigate not just how luck matters in life, but how we humans tend to respond when luck rises up to interfere with our preconceptions about how much control we really have.

As anyone who has played poker well knows, skillful play tends to outweigh luck over the long term. The players who make the best decisions most often tend to win more than those who make poor decisions. But as poker players also know, you can still make the right decision and lose, or make the wrong decision and win.

Just like in life, the rewards in poker aren’t always handed out as one might expect. We can’t always control outcomes, but we can control how we respond when those outcomes don’t fit with our expectations.

That’s just one of many lessons entertainingly presented in The Biggest Bluff, a book with a lot to offer not just to poker players but to anyone interested in learning how to deal with life’s many uncertainties.

Here’s what readers can expect from The Biggest Bluff, followed by some conversation with Konnikova about the book’s early reception.

From Sherlock Holmes to con artists to poker

For those familiar with Konnikova’s previous work, her using “poker as a lens into the most difficult and important life decisions we have to make” (as she puts it) might have seemed a strange choice.

Konnikova has degrees from Harvard and Columbia, among them a Ph.D. in psychology. She has written for a variety of publications, including:

  • The Atlantic
  • Scientific American
  • The New York Times
  • The Paris Review

She is also a regular contributor to The New Yorker.

Konnikova has previously written two books. Both were bestsellers, and neither have anything to do with poker at all, at least not superficially.

Her first, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013), uses Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories to explore how we might improve our own analytical skills. Then in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It… Every Time (2016), Konnikova examines con artists’ scams and explains why even intelligent people get fooled by them.

Before embarking on The Biggest Bluff, Konnikova had never played poker at all. In fact, she says she didn’t even know for sure how many cards are in a standard deck.

But she knew of poker’s potential, guided in part by her study of game theory and how its early practitioners found poker an especially fruitful game to mirror life. The fact that poker involves bluffing and deception makes it more “like life” than other games. And, for Konnikova, the way both skill and luck matter in poker made it an especially apt context in which to investigate her topic.

Fellow New Yorker Seidel among Konnikova’s poker guides

The book starts with Konnikova recognizing how much luck has affected her own life, going all the way back to her birth in Russia and moving with her family to the US as a child.

Her poker education takes place both at the tables and in consultation with some of the game’s best players. Poker Hall of Famer Erik Seidel is foremost among her guides. A fellow New Yorker, Seidel is a perfect choice of mentor for Konnikova. He is one of the most talented and accomplished poker players around today. He also shares Konnikova’s own intellectual curiosity and eagerness to address larger questions than how to respond to a huge river check-raise.

Seidel’s lack of ego compared to other players is also a plus, something Konnikova points out in one of the book’s many lyrical passages. “In the world of poker, Erik is the dragonfly,” she writes. “He doesn’t strut or preen. He doesn’t announce his presence with a roar. He just watches quietly — and then changes his hunting approach based on what he’s observed in his prey.”

Seidel’s stealth-like hovering coupled with a dragonfly’s high success rate as a predator inspires Konnikova’s description. It also inspires her at the tables, encouraging her to be more attentive, more adaptable, and more self-aware.

While Seidel provides the bulk of teaching, Konnikova consults with others as well as she advances through her poker apprenticeship.

Dan Harrington teaches her the value of learning how to handle loss (or the “art of losing.”) Phil Galfond helps her see how a poker hand is like solving a puzzle (“Your job is to put together the pieces.”) Andrew Lichtenberger shares advice about how to increase her focus and stay in touch with her own and the table’s “flow.”

Isaac Haxton, Jason Koon, and Patrik Antonius are also among Konnikova’s supporting (and supportive) cast as well. So are others, like mental game coach Jared Tendler, behavioral analyst Blake Eastman, and Columbia ethics professor Michael Slepian, who specializes in the psychology of secrets.

Lessons in poker, lessons in life

As a result, the different chapters often read like short essays that highlight individual lessons. This instruction starts out as poker-specific but ultimately proves applicable beyond the table.

For example, after some early stumbles, Konnikova manages to make the money in a few low-stakes tournaments and comes away feeling satisfied. That is, until Seidel explains to her how min-cashing is not a winning approach to tournaments, and how she needs to adjust her play and set her sights higher if she hopes to be genuinely profitable. She then applies that lesson to other areas where Konnikova realizes she “settled” too quickly, such as when negotiating over payment for an article.

Poker’s connection to other areas of human existence inspires more illuminating discussions about the game and more interesting comparisons. Poker is like learning a language, Konnikova realizes. It is also like engaging in warfare, or telling a story, or solving a crime, or playing jazz.

Meanwhile, Konnikova also tells the story of her progress, from playing low-stakes online poker games in New Jersey, to live tournaments around the world, to the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas. Some may already know her story, which includes going well beyond just occasionally min-cashing to notching some impressive results that even experienced players would do well to achieve.

Her results aren’t the primary focus. That is just one of several ways The Biggest Bluff differs from other poker narratives that chronicle memorable hand histories and at-the-table battles. In this way, her book is, in fact, a logical follow-up to her earlier books that also investigate human psychology in unique and entertaining ways.

‘This book was written for me before I entered the game’

Talking to Konnikova, she reiterates how The Biggest Bluff was not just intended as a “poker book” for poker players, but for a wider audience, including those completely unfamiliar with poker.

“That is who the book is written for,” she says. “The book was written for me before I entered the game.”

Some asked her whether they needed to learn poker before reading it, and she would tell them no. She’s been gratified to discover some in that category have told her they now want to learn poker after finishing The Biggest Bluff.

“That’s kind of what I had hoped, that it would inspire some people to look at the game in a new light as a way of extending their minds,” she says.

Early reviews, mostly written by non-poker players, Konnikova points out, have been very positive. “I think a lot of people have gotten it, that it isn’t actually a ‘poker book,’ but that poker is just a way to discuss a lot of other ideas,” she says.

There have been a few outliers, of course (“that just comes with the territory,” she says.) As happened with The Confidence Game‘s study of con artists, Konnikova has heard from some telling her she’s “glamorizing a ‘bad’ subculture.” With Mastermind, she even faced some pushback from a few ardent Holmes fans not appreciating her “using” their favorite detective to address other areas of interest.

Poker community judges ‘The Biggest Bluff’ well played

Konnikova had similar trepidation about how the poker community would respond to The Biggest Bluff. In that regard, she has been pleased with the poker community’s positive response so far.

“I have to admit that I was the most nervous about how the hardcore poker community would receive it,” she says, recognizing how her newness to the poker subculture could automatically work against her among certain people.

“I’ve been very gratified to see that the poker community has seemingly embraced it and that a lot of players really enjoyed it,” she says. “It’s really nice to be getting messages from players I really admire telling me that they thought I did a great job.”

Such positive early response has been doubly satisfying given the less than ideal circumstances for publishing a book at this particular time. Indeed, the timing of Konnikova’s book’s release itself, amid a pandemic which necessarily has made book tours and other types of promotion impossible, shows how much things we can’t control (or luck) can affect our lives.

Konnikova grinding WSOP.com NJ

The original plan had been to release the book in late June during the World Series of Poker, with Konnikova in Las Vegas for several book-related events. Instead, she is actually back in New Jersey this week, playing in World Series of Poker Online events on WSOP.com NJ.

Konnikova has been able to adapt; a skill she developed at the poker tables. She also has the confidence of a poker player who knows she has made good decisions and knows better than to fret over things she cannot control.

“I couldn’t put everything in,” she says, regarding decisions over what to include and what to omit from the story. “I had to make choices to make the book flow,” she explains. “But at the end of the day, I stand behind the choices I made. I think I did my best to represent the journey accurately.”

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