One of the classic lines from “Rounders,” the definitive poker movie, is “If you can’t spot the sucker at the table in the first half-hour, then you are the sucker.”
Maria Konnikova says “Rounders,” co-written by her friend, Brian Koppelman, was the only poker she had seen played before embarking on her own professional career. Somehow, she ended up not being the sucker.
Konnikova, 36, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and creative writing at Harvard and a Ph.D. in psychology at Columbia. She is the author of two New York Times bestsellers: 2013’s Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and The Confidence Game, released in 2016. She’s written more than 90 articles for The New Yorker on psychology, science, and social issues.
But Konnikova quit her day job to learn how to play poker and to chronicle her experience in a book, called The Biggest Bluff of All: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, now available from Penguin Press.
Unlike many players, it wasn’t “Rounders” or the Chris Moneymaker fairytale World Series Of Poker victory in 2003 that inspired Konnikova to start playing cards. It was reading the work of renowned mathematician John von Neumann in Theory of Games and Economic Behavior that piqued her interest.
Von Neumannn wrote: “Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do.” That was another lesson from Rounders, playing the man (or woman).
From The Biggest Bluff:
For poker, unlike quite any other game, mirrors life. It isn’t the roulette wheel nor is it the chess of mathematical elegance and perfect information. Like the world we inhabit, it consists of an inextricable joining of the two. … In the end, though, luck is a short-term friend or foe. Skill shines through over the longer time horizon.
A series of personal misfortunes led to Konniva pondering the question of how much in life is actually earned, and how much is pure chance. Few people have the ability to appreciate the difference or to think in probabilistic terms.
An example she gives is the 2016 Presidential election. Nate Silver, like every other forecaster, got it wrong, estimating that Hilary Clinton had a 71 percent chance of winning. When she lost, Silver got a lot of heat for his “wrong” projection, as people ignored the fact that 29 percent is a lot of equity.
“To the vast majority, 71 is synonymous with 100,” Konnikova wrote. “Clinton is winning.”
No poker player thinks 71 percent is a sure thing.
Luckily for Konnikova (or was it skill?), she convinced one of the game’s greats, Erik Seidel, to be her mentor. She had help along the way from other elite players like Phil Galfond and Ike Haxton. Seidel stressed to her the importance of bankroll management, a key skill that ruins many talented players. Other key lessons included using her image, as a woman in a game that’s 97% male, and not being afraid to bluff. Another: Don’t be results-oriented.
She put in tons of work, as study became a full-time job. She would take two hours to watch 40-minute training videos: pausing, writing notes, rewatching, writing questions to ask Seidel.
Her first official live score was a $2,215 cash in a $100 Aria tournament in March 2017. After months of moderate success, she broke through in a big way, winning $84,000 for first place in a PokerStars Caribbean Adventure event in January of 2018. That led to a sponsorship with PokerStars. Two years later, she hasn’t had to find a new gig outside poker (unlike this writer, who was a full-time poker player from 2016-19).
Deadspin caught up with Konnikova last week to talk about her book.
(Interview has been edited for length and clarity)
DEADSPIN: What were your expectations when you started on this journey?
MARIA KONNIKOVA: Yeah, so that’s a really good question. And I think the answer is I really didn’t have any. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know anything about poker, I didn’t know anything about the world that I was entering. I didn’t know anything about my skills in terms of poker. I remember very early on having this conversation with Erik and he said, it seems like you have a good background for this but we won’t know until you actually play. Because who knows, you might end up sucking.
And I actually kind of sold the book knowing that and thinking the outcome doesn’t matter. I’m going to focus on the process, I’m going to focus on learning the skill and chance and trying to do my best, but I might end up failing. It would have been a different book, but it would have still been a book. If it ends up poker was really just not for me, and I completely froze every time I was at the table, that also taught me something important.
So to me it was one of these things that I couldn’t have expectations because I just didn’t know anything.
DS: If I had known you at the beginning of this project and knowing how smart you are and knowing you’re getting lessons from Erik Seidel and also Phil Galfond, I would have said your chances of succeeding were really, really high. And then when you add on how much work you did, I would have thought you were probably going to be really good. That said, even given that I think it’s fair to say you ran pretty hot. Talk about how much it changes your entire life trajectory.
MK: For sure, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that I acquired some skills, I worked really hard, but I also ran really well at a few key moments and everything would have been very different had that not happened. Skill alone is never enough. No matter how hard you work, you need to get lucky, too, I think any good tournament player will tell you that.
For the first two-thirds of the year, I was working hard and for a while I wasn’t getting any results. And then I started getting good results after I doubled-down and got more training, and really tried to break through. I made some final tables. Couldn’t win anything though.
This isn’t in the book, but I spent an entire two months leading up to PCA in 2018 working on heads up poker. Because I ended up second in Dublin in this turbo event, and this guy who beat me was piss-ass drunk. He was just chugging Guinness after Guinness after Guinness, and it just really made me mad I couldn’t beat him because I should have.
I asked Phil, “Who are the best Run It Once coaches?” I started looking at a lot of videos. I started looking at a lot of Kevin Rabichow stuff, I took Doug Polk’s Upswing Class, I took copious notes, just worked my ass off on leading up to PCA.
And I think that really helped me become comfortable enough to win. That said, I sucked out a number of times in that tournament. I wrote down every hand at the final table, when I was reviewing them I was like, “Holy shit, I got it all in preflop with 7s vs. Aces, that should have been it.” I should have been out in fifth place or sixth place.
I got insanely lucky. And a few of those moments happen throughout to bring me through to that heads-up place, where I could use the skills that I had gained. I remember when there were just three of us, I ended up acquiring so many chips without a single showdown just by shoving preflop and people weren’t adjusting enough to me. I knew exactly what I was doing, and I had that confidence.
And the fact that I was lucky enough to win, that changed everything. No one cares if I come in second. It’s a different story, there’s no headline. There’s no, “Journalist wins second place.”
So that enabled me to get my sponsorship with PokerStars, which made me spend the next year traveling full time. I spent eight months of the year traveling.
DS: As a writer, did you find it fascinating how much poker has its own language, and how you can readily tell how skilled people are by the way they talk about poker?
MK: Yes! Absolutely. It’s a fascinating phenomenon. The way people describe a hand, how they relate an experience: You really do start being able to see just how much they actually understand, vs. how much is just blowing smoke.
DS: How did learning poker change your outlook on life, not just luck, but logical thinking?
MK: It’s changed my outlook in many ways. First of all, and this is what I expected it to do, and it did it: It helped me improve my probabilistic thinking and actually internalize what a lot of these things felt like because that’s not something we actually get to do. I think that’s important because our minds don’t deal well with probabilities. And we don’t deal well with uncertainty. We really like to feel like we have complete information, that we can kind of control things. Poker is such a good exercise in letting go of that.
Let me try to figure out which factors are actually some things I can do something about. Let me put my emotional energy, not just my time, into making myself as good as I can be. Realize now I put myself into a position to do well, to make a deep run and to win, but I might not because of … card distribution … and all of these different things that I can’t control. And I have to be OK with that.
I focused on me, and my decision quality, and on the process. And I’m constantly revising that because I think people get complacent. They think, “Oh I learned all there is and I’m good now, I can stop.” No, you can’t because life changes, the game changes, whether you’re talking the game of life or the game of poker.
DS: I’m a little jealous. When most people start playing poker you always get better by talking with your friends, and it depends on how good your friends are. What you didn’t go through was picking up the bad habits. Erik totally nipped that in the bud immediately.
MK: It was so incredibly useful to not develop bad habits in the first place. It was so useful to have Erik as my coach and my inspiration because I saw what was possible.
DS: It’s a tough concept to learn that results don’t matter. Because we’re so driven in society by results. What are you doing now, are you playing?
MK: I’m just focusing on the book launch. My husband and I made plans to go to New Jersey in July so I could play in the World Series online, so I’m planning on keeping this going. And if they open the Canadian border I might go to Canada to do the GG (Poker series in August).
DS: Not having the world series is a major blow to you and your book.
MK: A bigger blow is obviously everything else going on. It puts things in context and at the end of the day, it’s what my book is about, you just have to deal with it. There’s nothing I can do. So I’ll focus on controlling what I can and not bitch about the bad luck. We’re so lucky that i have a place to live, that I have food and I’m healthy right now, and I just want to focus on being thankful for that.
DS: One observation I have about you is that every picture I see of you playing poker it looks like you’re having a ridiculously good time.
MK: I am! I had no idea if I would like it or not. I started enjoying it more as time went on. At some point I just realized, “Wow, I have a chance to basically play a game full time. This is amazing.” One of the things I can control is the energy at the table and my energy. And if I bring my all every single day, if I’m positive, if I’m smiling, if I’m optimistic, if I bring the energy every day, it’s just going to make the experience better for me and everyone else. No one wants to be at a table where everyone’s just depressed as hell.
So to me, that actually became very incredibly important and I was very conscious about it. And I just stopped being conscious of it, because it became just a natural way of being and I just enjoyed the game more. I was really taking it and thinking, “This is amazing, think how lucky you are to just be sitting at this table.”