Sharp observers of human behavior have long been intrigued by poker, a game that consistently pits human biases against probabilistic thinking, with a little bit of luck sprinkled in. A few years ago, the writer and psychologist Maria Konnikova found herself drawn to the game, curious about what it might teach her about her own decision-making and biases.
The answers to that question are in The Biggest Bluff, Konnikova’s recently published account of her successful attempt to go from novice to professional poker player and document her lessons along the way.
Her journey was supposed to take a year—but the game had other plans. “It became a new life,” she writes. “From novice, I turned champion. From amateur, I went pro. And all along the way, I watched with a mix of wonder and pride as my life changed for the better.”
We caught up recently over email about what she learned about overcoming destructive biases, mindfulness, and what poker can teach us about living through this tumultuous moment. For me, it was a powerful reminder that the only thing I can kind of control is myself—but sometimes, that’s enough.
Elizabeth Weingarten: You talk about the ways in which playing poker made you keenly aware of how you’d been conditioned to act in traditionally feminine ways—to be less aggressive and more passive. And this is something that surprised you; as a professional woman you thought you had overcome this socialization. You write, “Part of the reason that there are so few women in the game is that, in an environment that’s 97 percent male, the biases we’ve had to negotiate all our lives are put on a massive scale. There’s a lot to overcome internally if we’re to make it with the best.”
What were some of the keys to overcoming this for you? And what advice would you give to women who aren’t about to become professional poker players but still want to disrupt those behaviors?
Maria Konnikova: It was a process of constant awareness—and of working through, beforehand, how I would respond in certain situations. First, I had to identify what the underlying issues were that were holding me back. In this case, it was wanting to be liked, wanting to avoid conflict, not wanting tension at the table, and being afraid that my aggression wouldn’t work as planned (something I must have learned in the non–poker world: often, women are penalized for being aggressive).
Then, I had to figure out how the issues manifested themselves. I had a lot of poker-specific situations here, but it’s applicable to any area of life: figure out what the most common situations are that cause you to exhibit the issues you’ve identified earlier.
Poker forces you to realize that you can’t control everything. But you can control yourself—and often, that’s what matters.
Next, I had to write out how, specifically, I would react in the moment when these issues happened—a sort of modified form of Gollwitzer’s implementation intentions, if-then plans for what I will do if certain situations arise. It’s crucial to take the time to do this, because in the moment, you will be too emotional to think of the right response.
And then, it was practice, practice, practice. Do things that make me uncomfortable, over and over. In poker, it helped to play smaller stakes than usual to feel more comfortable trying new behaviors. In other areas, I’d recommend trying lower stakes situations, where the outcomes don’t matter quite as much. And then gradually move up.
You write about the crucial importance of observation, and of being present, in poker and in life, writing: “You’re not lucky because more good things are actually happening; you’re lucky because you’re alert to them when they do.” As a psychologist and a journalist, you are clearly an astute, mindful observer. How did poker sharpen or change this skill? What did it teach you?
In poker, if you don’t pay attention, you’re not going to make nearly as much money as you could—and you could end up losing a lot more than you otherwise would. Having real money tied to the necessity of observation forced me to, in a sense, pay attention to paying attention more than I’d ever previously done. I’ve been a big proponent of mindfulness for many years. It was the core theme of my first book, Mastermind. I meditate daily. But mindfulness is hard. It takes constant effort. Seeing the effort actually pay off financially, and seeing how my bottom line was hurt when I slacked off, helped me be far more aware of when and how I’m paying attention than ever before. Having a real stake in a behavior does wonders for performance.
I was struck by part of the book where you write about the parallels between knowing the characters in a story, and knowing the characters around a poker table: “As a writer, you always need to know what motivates your characters … If you haven’t thought through the motivation, the behavior will be off … Their stories will veer into the unbelievable. In poker, it’s much the same thing.”
Being a writer clearly influenced the way you saw poker. But how, if at all, has studying poker influenced the way you write?
For one, I now have a treasure trove of character studies for my work! I also think I’ve become much more aware of the logical flow of my writing, of how the shape of things holds together. In poker, you constantly dissect the logic behind certain actions—and learn to spot inconsistencies where they arise. I now do this much more naturally in my own work.
Another sentence that struck me, particularly in this national moment we’re in: “There’s a false sense of security in passivity. You think that you can’t get into too much trouble—but really, every passive decision leads to a slow but steady loss of chips.” We’re in a tumultuous, emotional moment in this country—where many people are both craving security and certainty, and at the same time waking up to the dangers of being passive or complacent. What, if anything, could poker teach us about making the right decisions right now?
Focus on the things within your control: your actions, your decisions, your reactions, your emotions. And the rest is beyond you. You can’t save the world in a global sense. But you can do your part on an individual level, by following the best advice, practicing distancing, and wearing masks, being kind and considerate, donating money when you can. Poker forces you to realize that you can’t control everything. But you can control yourself—and often, that’s what matters. If everyone did this, all of a sudden, we’d see changes on a much bigger scale.