The Biggest Bluff
A long time ago, I spent a rainy afternoon in a VW bus with three friends learning to play poker. We were in Montauk, at the easternmost tip of Long Island, and had nowhere else to go, so we slid open the side door to the van and watched the rain pound into the ocean. We had a bottle of gin, a bag of pretzels, and about six bucks between the four of us, so we used matches for poker chips. They all knew how to play poker; I’d only ever played crazy eights and spit. Needless to say, I lost a fortune.
Perhaps the gin interfered with my friends’ ability to explain to me the nuances of the game; certainly none of them were the guru-level poker teacher that Maria Konnikova found in Eric Seidel, whom she approached with a proposition: teach her how to be a world-class poker player in a year. That proposition forms the basis of The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned How to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win.
Konnikova, who is a journalist with a PhD in psychology and several books to her credit, set out to learn poker because, as a psychologist interested in human reaction to risk, poker “stands at the fulcrum that balances two oppositional forces in our lives — chance and control” (20). Seidel, who appears in the Matt Damon movie “Rounders” and is considered by many to be the GOAT of poker, took her on as a student because he was intrigued by Konnikova’s combination of expertise — her work as researcher in psychology — and ignorance — she isn’t entirely sure how many cards are in a deck.
What follows is an amazing story that, as the title suggests, is about much more than poker. Seidel proves to be a phenomenal teacher, who forces Konnikova to go much more slowly than she wants to: she reads about poker and poker theory (where her confusion about what a merged three-betting range is, or a three-flush board mirrors my own), meets various poker experts, and plays in online games for tiny sums of money to give her some actual practice. Due to the inconsistencies of rules about gambling, online poker is illegal in New York but legal in New Jersey, so Konnikova spends months sitting in cafés in Hoboken and Jersey City, playing poker — and losing. The problem is not that she loses, Seidel tells her. Losing is inevitable. The problem is that she doesn’t have any good reasons for the decisions she made: “I was so preoccupied by everything…including the little timer counting down how much time I had to act, that I left my thought process behind” (73).
How often do we make what we think are rational decisions only to realize that what we’re really doing is relying on the things we can remember — snippets of advice about this or that — or, even worse, reacting because we worry about how others might perceive us? When we lose, the instinct is to think about how unfair it is that we lost; we look for someone or something to blame. Instead, Konnikova writes, the task is to see disaster as the teacher, “the antidote to the greatest of delusions, overconfidence” (61).
Slowly, Konnikova improves; she builds up the reservoir of experiences that lead to better decision making — experiences that also include learning about herself, not just the game. To be good at poker necessitates an unflinching examination of the self; what learned behaviors — responses triggered by old feelings and hidden wounds — might be at work in faulty decision making? In the male-dominated world of poker, Konnikova comes to reflect on her own social conditioning: “it doesn’t pay to be aggressive while female” (101). She has to force herself to be aggressive but, at the same time, resist the jibes of the “big swinging dicks” (a term she borrows from Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker), who condescend to her at the poker table. When she starts to win regularly, it’s those players who become a pleasure to beat.
And yet, the big swinging dicks are, in a sense, easy to avoid. It’s the over-confident self that is the real danger at the poker table, Konnikova writes, and she cites the Dunning-Kruger effect: “the more incompetent are, the less you’re aware of your own incompetence. People go quickly from being circumspect beginners wo are perfectly aware of their limitations, to “unconscious incompetents,” people who no longer realize how much they don’t know and instead fancy themselves quite proficient” (161). She doesn’t say so, but that description would seem to fit most of the Trump White House, or at least those who aren’t outright crooks.
As Konnikova starts to win, she exults in building her own bankroll, which raised a question that the book doesn’t answer: who bankrolled her to start? It was never clear if her family put up her initial cash, or her publisher, or if she were gambling with the advance on this book. But given that one of the motivations for the book was that she and her husband were trying to survive on her freelancer’s income, I wondered how she was able to afford the ongoing small losses of her novice poker attempts?
Ultimately, though, Konnikova gets good — really good. And in a storybook ending, she wins the 2018 PCA National, just on schedule. When she wins, though, she worries that perhaps her win was just attributable to a run of good cards — did she just get lucky? She decides to go to world’s center of gambling, Macau, to test her skills. She plays in Macua and survives, showing us (and herself) “just how far agency can take us — and where it inevitably breaks down” (293).
I didn’t learn how to play poker from this book; I think if I were to get back in that VW bus with my friends, I’d still lose. But the advice the book gives, like learning to examine events without judgement, without dwelling on what Seidel calls “bad beats” — those moments where you think “if only I had…” or “why didn’t I…” Instead, Seidel says, we need to reset, reflect on the process, and move forward.
Konnikova reminds us, at the end of the book, that believing in our own skills is the “biggest bluff of all.” Like the t-shirt says, shit happens. It takes skill to mitigate what happens when the shit hits the fan. Real skill requires self-reflection and acceptance of responsibility — and emerges with the awareness that skill alone isn’t going to make everything okay. The world, after all, is not a rational place.
She and Seidel agree, at the end of the book, that poker is a beautiful game. I’m not sure it’s a beautiful game — but it’s a pretty damn good book.