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Life Lessons From the Poker Table

Insights into living amidst risk and uncertainty.

Clifford Photos on Pexels
Source: Clifford Photos on Pexels

A review of The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, by Maria Konnikova.

In the summer of 2018, Maria Konnikova, a contributing writer for The New Yorker, author of Mastermind and The Confidence Game, and a Ph.D. in psychology, decided to train for the World Series of Poker, and along the way, learn how to make good decisions, at cards and in life. Having never played a single hand of No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em, she persuaded Eric Seidel, a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, to be her mentor, with an assist from psychotherapist Jared Tendler.

In The Biggest Bluff, Konnikova tells the story of a journey that ended with a major title. Beautifully written, chockful of eccentric characters, and at times, deeply personal, her book contains lots of insights into the series of gambles amidst risk and uncertainty we call living. Here are a few of them:

Formed rapidly, first impressions, Konnikova reminds us, have an enormous impact on decisions that should require more evidence and systematic thought. Faces, she reveals, are not reliable indicators of whether someone is bluffing. Studied long enough to reveal a pattern, the motion of hands is better than chance in predicting whether the cards a player is holding are strong or weak. These insights taught Konnikova to stop and think before taking an action so that her own hand gestures would not convey any meaningful information.

Poker players, Konnikova emphasizes, are not the only people to overreact to “hot hands” (positive recency) and “bad beats” (negative recency). People who have an “internal locus of control” tend to think, more than they should, that they affect outcomes. Winning can lead to over-confidence; winners don’t think they’re due for a change. People with an “external locus of control,” on the other hand, think their actions don’t matter much. Instead of concluding that bad beats are due to end yesterday, losing should stimulate us to analyze our own decisions, understand other opportunities will come along, and focus our minds and emotional energy on things we can control, the prerequisites for resilience. Complicating matters even further, Konnikova points out that while “hot streaks” are a fallacy; they can lead to confidence that is self-reinforcing. And she cites the Dunning-Kruger effect: The less competent you are, the more likely you are to overestimate your competence.

In life as well as poker, Konnikova suggests, focusing on minor tokens (“min cashing” at a tournament or participation trophies), rather than “the podium finish,” lead to “playing scared,” getting bluffed out, “instead of trying to aggressively accumulate chips to make a real run for the real money.”

Most of all, The Biggest Bluff is a psychologically-informed meditation on luck. Poker, Konnikova claims, pushes us to confront luck to the limits of our understanding of “how far it can take us — and where it inevitably breaks down.” Luck, she acknowledges, comes most often to those who are alert and well-prepared for clues that chance presents.

But it is also true, as E.B. White wrote in 1943, “In every tablet there are as many grains of luck as of any other drug. Even intelligence is rather an accident of nature, and to say that an intelligent man deserves his rewards in life is to say that he is entitled to be lucky.” There is no skill in birth and death, Konnikova agrees. And in between, “we don’t know what the next card will be — and we don’t even know when we see it if it’s good or bad.”

“Because life is life,” she concludes, elegantly and eloquently, “luck will always be a factor in anything we might do or undertake. Skill can open up new vistas, new choices that allow us to see the chance that others less skilled than us, less observant or less keen, may miss — but should chance go against us, all our skill can do is mitigate the damage.”

Nonetheless, although the biggest bluff of all is that skill can ever be enough, this “useful delusion” allows us to push ahead rather than give up. Although we cannot know how, if at all, we will manage, “we must convince ourselves that we can. That in the end, our skill will be enough to carry the day. Because it has to be.”