If you play poker, you must own this book. If not…there are a lot of psychological lessons which you’ll find interesting, although they tend to interrupt the narrative of the book. Also, if you don’t play poker, or are a newbie, at the end there is a glossary that will help you out, not that you need to know everything to understand the story.
So you’ve got a Ph.D. psychologist, Maria Konnikova, whose family is down on its luck, who decides to learn and play poker in order to write a book. She reaches out to Erik Seidel, a majordomo in the poker world, and he mentors her and…
She wins money.
Proving that all you amateur poker players out there have something to learn. I’d like to tell you about Konnikova’s victories, but I don’t want to ruin the book. Suffice to say there are the math whizzes, but they don’t necessarily win.
Konnikova focuses on poker, Texas Hold’em, because it’s the closest representation of regular life you can find. In chess, you can see everything, whereas in life, you never can. And in Texas Hold’em, the sky’s the limit, you can bet as much as you want, begging the question…are you sure about that? Come on, you’re spewing facts all day long, but if someone came along and said they’d bet 100k on it, would you be so convinced?
So the first lesson Seidel gives is…
“Less certainty. More inquiry.”
He says this over and over again. That the game, the world, runs on information, and you want to gather as much as you can before you make a decision.
This was my father’s mantra…ASK QUESTIONS!
Most of us, males especially, are worried about image, how we’ll look. That’s another thing covered in this book, if you’re worried about others’ perception, if they’ll laugh at you, chide you, you’re already a loser. That’s one of the reasons Jason Flom is so successful, he’ll ask anybody anything, he doesn’t always profess to know, while so many elite players are afraid to say this, to their detriment.
So there are lessons about fakers, and bullies.
Konnikova is playing at the Golden Nugget, or maybe it’s Planet Hollywood, and a guy says he’s a newbie and knows nothing. A sham, he ends up taking everybody’s money. Welcome to the real world, where you may not see this person ever again, where the factual rules aren’t broken but the emotional ones are, but there’s no court for emotional transgressions.
Seidel insists Konnikova start online. And when she ultimately goes to Vegas, to play in the secondary market. The big swinging dicks play at the Aria, you want to be prepared, not that everybody at the table at the Aria is. You see, they’re distracted. Checking their phone, missing minor, yet critical, information.
Konnikova says there are none. She thinks she can read people, but she finds out she’s completely wrong, not to trust her instincts. She ultimately goes to the experts, scientists who’ve studied the game, and learns that the only tell is in people’s hands! In other words, you’re confident you know what a person is thinking based on their attire, their head movements, but you’re totally wrong.
As for paying attention 24/7, it’s the little things that pay dividends down the road. You see how someone acted previously, even if you weren’t in on every hand.
And don’t play every hand. Sure, there are some who are legendary aggressors who win, but most don’t. You’ve got to choose your moment.
And beware of bullies. This truly resonated with me, especially in Hollywood. There are gonna be people who put you down and have you questioning yourself, that’s their game, you put your tail between your legs and fold. You’ve got to be strong in your opinion, you’ve got to stand your ground, the bullies are not going to like it, but it’s the only way you’re going to win.
And if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the fire.
The first time Konnikova is in the World Series, she ends up catatonic in the bathroom. This is what those who’ve never competed at an elite level don’t know. That skill is one thing, being able to demonstrate it when it counts, keeping yourself steady and together, is oh-so-hard.
But the biggest lesson is…
Konnikova has an incredible hand. But after going all in, she’s loses to someone who has the only cards that could beat her. And Konnikova goes to the Aria, to tell Seidel her story, and he immediately holds up his hand and says…I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT!
Don’t we live for our stories, how we got unjustifiably screwed? But the truth is there’s always chance, there are no guarantees, sometimes you’re gonna give it your best effort, based on the best information available, and you’re still gonna lose. The key is not to dwell on that, but to continue to march forward, keep your equilibrium and soldier on. That’s so difficult. To keep an even keel. To not focus on the losses. But you need to acquire this skill to survive not only in poker, but in life. You lose your job…happens to everyone. Just start looking for another one!
Here are some quotes:
“I’ve let them get to me. I didn’t want to be pushed around – but I wasn’t comfortable doing the pushing around, either. And the result is this mess of a hand. I’m hopeless at this game. And apparently, I’m hopeless at life. A gutless female who wants to be liked more than she wants to win. Maybe I don’t want to go to Vegas, after all. Maybe the WSOP (World Series of Poker) is better off without me.”
You can only win if you want to, if you’re willing to do what it takes, go on offense. You cannot win in life playing defense all the time, no way. And in a man’s world, you cannot win by being demure and avoiding confrontation, you’ve got to have a backbone, stand up for what you believe in, what’s right. Furthermore, the cascade of negatives can truly put you in a frame of mind where you can never win.
Oh yeah, one of the worst things that can happen is you win early, thinking it was your skill as opposed to your luck. So many times early winners fade away, because they didn’t focus on the development of the skills they need to survive.
“And you learn best when you’re playing every day.”
That’s how I got to be a great skier, going each and every day, whether it was raining, snowing or ten below zero. Forget the 10,000 hours I needed to achieve that skill, it’s the 1% that makes all the difference. So when you’re in a tight situation, you survive. Like skiing in France on a cat track in the shade, with no one in sight, and coming around a corner and finding sheer ice interspersed with dirt and rocks. To the right, a wall, to the left, a drop-off, and I’m going so fast there’s no way I could stop, so…I just let the skis run, even though this put me in a situation where I was out of control…I just kept my cool and figured somewhere down the line the terrain would change and I could save myself, and I did.
It’s about the fine edge, that’s what makes the difference between a winner and a loser. Oh sure, a weekend warrior can ride the tram at Big Sky, and maybe even survive on the double blacks. But if things go wrong… But if you’ve skied every day, you can recover from a mistake.
And if you’re not passionate about the pursuit to begin with…GIVE UP, or make peace with the fact you’re an amateur.
“In an age of constant distraction and never-ending connectivity, we may be so busy we miss the signals that tell us to swerve before we’re in the bad beat’s path.”
I’m into my iPhone, I love the digital age, but if you’re not focused on what’s important, you’re gonna lose. No distractions during the game, antenna wide open, receiving signals. Furthermore, most people don’t want to get in this zone, because they still might lose, they’d rather laugh and consider themselves an amateur, saying they could win if they wanted to, when the truth is they can’t.
“But here’s where something of the Dunning-Kruger effect creeps in. Yes, that one. The one that shows that the less competent you are in an area, the more likely you are to overestimate your degree of competence. That the less you know about a topic, the more you think you know – as long as you know just enough to start feeling a bit fluent in its vocabulary.”
This happens to me all the time, people confront me with their truth when I know it’s false. I used to correct them, now I never do, because they can’t handle it, they usually just double-down on the falsehood.
Life is like an onion, you keep peeling back the layers. The winners get all the way to the nub, the losers peel back the first skin and think they know everything. Never take the first source as gospel. Keep questioning. It drives my compatriots mad, if it’s important to me I’ll research and ask the same damn questions over and over again, to see if I get the same response, I want to find out how sure the person is in their conviction.
“First dates are about dazzle. You play each hand, even when you’d rather fold and crawl back home admitting defeat.”
First, you must take the risk, if you do not play, you cannot win, but you will never win every time, be prepared for rejection. And when you’re trying to make a good impression, you can’t lay back, the opposite of poker. You’ve got to be aggressive, lay it all out there, even if you’re wincing inside, unsure if you’re winning or losing.
“You can’t control what will happen, so it makes no sense to try to guess at it. Chance is just chance: it is neither good nor bad nor personal.”
In other words, you can give it your best and still lose. And you’ve just got to accept this and move on.
I’d love to tell you “The Biggest Bluff” is an easy read. But the narrative is interrupted by the psychology, as if Konnikova was proving to her publisher she was delivering on her pitch. I found the narrative more interesting than the lessons. More story, less insight. But just when you get bogged down in the lessons, Konnikova goes back to the narrative.
You can make millions in poker, but don’t expect any respect:
“And he (Dan Harrington) tells me that those views may never change, no matter what I do. He recalls the moment he told his mother he won the World Series of Poker. ‘Well, what do you think, Mom? I won a million dollars. I’m world champion of poker!’ he remembers telling her. And she replies, ‘Oh, that’s great Danny. You know we have a cousin Pádraig Harrington. He’s a golfer, and he just won eighty thousand dollars in the Spanish Open.’ Dan persists. ‘Mom, I won a million dollars. I’m world champion.’ And she has one answer. ‘Listen, Danny, he’s doing well on the European tour.'”
I’ve got no patience for poker. Cards are not my thing. But having read this book I’m certainly convinced that winning is no accident, that it takes skill.
And if you truly want to fix your problems, go into therapy. But for some insight into how the world works, there’s no better instruction manual than this book.