How to Play the World
Maria Konnikova: The Biggest Bluff. Penguin Press, 2020.

How to Play the World

New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova explores herself by learning to play No Limit Texas Hold ’Em.

A contributor to The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova also wrote Mastermind and The Confidence Game and worked for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal and other publications. As you might draw from that list, Konnikova’s authorial persona is that of a New York intellectual, except that she’s fascinated by hustles, street cons and the psychology that fuels them. Her studies of decision-making led her to wonder what she might learn from poker. Her answers are fascinating: Playing poker, she believes, gave her better decision-making skills, deeper self-knowledge and more resilience. She didn’t merely learn how to play poker, but “how to play the world.”

Konnikova’s book falls into a limited but compelling genre: the first-person poker memoir by a poker dilettante. This genre features poetic prose like Positively Fifth Street by James McManus and gossipy confessionals like Molly’s Game by Molly Sloane. They commence with a journey none of the authors thought they would take and for which all claim to be ill-prepared. Yet, each author finds big-stakes No Limit Texas Hold ’Em captivating. They detail the rich metaphors the game provides. This demands a certain narcissism, because the primary subject is not poker, but how poker changed the authors. So, to enjoy her journey, you have to vest in Konnikova as much as Konnikova does. Fortunately, she makes that easy.

The worst hand or the best hand

In academia, Konnikova learned that people overestimate their skill relative to their luck. They ignore facts in favor of their own perceptions. Poker, which involves psychological interplay expressed through bets, raises, calls and bluffs, enabled her to study these traits within herself.

Poker stands at the fulcrum that balances two oppositional forces in our lives – chance and control.

Maria Konnikova

You can win with the worst cards or lose with the best. Luck, Konnikova reminds the reader, comes and goes. Skill, she insists, wins out. The author makes one point over and over: mastering the game requires time and study.

Making good decisions

Konnikova gives herself one year to enter the World Series of Poker (WSOP). Top player Erik Seidel agrees to be her mentor. She details his Zen-like teaching style. As with her other mentors, she never writes a negative word about Seidel. Konnikova watches many hands, reads poker books and reviews strategy. Seidel tells her to time her aggression and to remain in control.

If we lose early, we have a shot at objectivity. But when we win at the start, that’s when we see the illusion of control playing out in full swing.

Maria Konnikova

Seidel’s advice, from which Konnikova draws multileveled metaphors, is to play with “less certainty, more inquiry.”

Assess each hand

An apparently over-awed Konnikova compares Seidel to a dragonfly, which has a 95% success rate catching its prey. Seidel is observant and calibrates each move, the author marvels. This is, of course, what every successful player does.

Konnikova beats an aggressive opponent, and it’s impossible not to enjoy her rejoicing. She reports that the best strategy is to win as much as you can with your best hands and lose as little as possible with your worst ones. Konnikova details her odyssey to this insight in ways that makes it feel hard-earned.

A man’s world

Only 3% of professional poker players are women, Konnikova laments. She finds that men underestimate her aggressiveness, but she regards that as an advantage. Konnikova loses and chastises herself. She realizes that she wanted to be liked more than she wanted to win. This is a moving moment, and one on which Konnikova builds her most telling insights about larger social processes.As a woman, you have such an uphill battle that you have to be doubly exceptional to survive.

She vows to be good poker player, not a good female poker player.

Bad beats

Konnikova details the “gambler’s fallacy” – when you lose, you believe you are “due” a win. But, she notes, probability has amnesia: Every coin flip has a new 50-50 chance of being heads or tails.

Bad beats focus your mind on something you can’t control – the cards – rather than something you can, the decision.

Maria Konnikova

Bad beats engage Konnikova. When you’re trapped in negative thinking, she discloses, you aren’t figuring a way out of a bad situation. She urges readers not to focus on outcomes, but on the decisions that produced those outcomes. She slowly realizes that the more you learn, the harder the game becomes. The better you get, the worse you are. This paradox of increased knowledge is not new territory, and Konnikova likely finds it more compelling than her readers will.

Tells

Konnikova asks Blake Eastman, a behavioral psychologist turned poker player, to analyze her “tells” – small but revealing habits – so she can do a better job of deceiving other players. He advises her to minimize her hand gestures.

People, she reveals, behave differently in different situations. Konnikova presents this as an insight, but it hardly qualifies. Determined to be ready for the World Series of Poker, she goes to Las Vegas for two weeks to prepare. She learns she needs to select which games to enter, choosing those in which she has a statistical advantage and where her skills match the level of play. Here her narrative gains steam. She writes less about her inner processes and more about the poker games she plays.

Here’s a free life lesson: seek out situations where you’re a favorite; avoid those where you’re an underdog.

Maria Konnikova

Konnikova understands she exhibited the “Dunning-Kruger effect”: The less competent you are, the more competent you think you are.

Luck and skill

Konnikova meets players with lucky charms. While knowing that such tokens are nonsense, she learns, nonetheless, that believing in luck can improve your confidence. But superstition, Konnikova avows, invites chaos. Luck emerges randomly and always comes to an end.

Chance is chance, Konnikova underscores. What is lucky for one person can be unlucky for another. Context is pivotal. The future belongs to those who can adapt and change. And, she learned, in the end, you get more rewards from skill than from luck.  

Konnikova writes in a driving vernacular voice, though she hits the same points repeatedly with the same phrases. She proves reluctant to detail the very context she regards as crucial – the war of poker itself. Despite her powerful intellect and sophisticated worldview, her detailing of her own processes slows the narrative. However, a surprising benefit emerges: Konnikova’s relating of her life-moments of indecision, social cowardice, conformity and hesitation provide a powerful, memorable and valuable emotional punch.

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