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• Last updated: October 8, 2020

Podcast #637: What Poker Can Teach You About Luck, Skill, and Mastering Yourself

Maria Konnikova, who has her Ph.D in psychology and studies human behavior, had never played poker when she approached Eric Seidel, a renowned player of the game, asking him to show her the ropes. Eric agreed to be her coach and Maria spent a year working towards the World Series of Poker, playing in numerous tournaments and winning a major title and hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way. But the real prize she was after in this experimental endeavor wasn’t money, but insight into the intersection between skill and luck, and how much control we humans have over our fate.

She got those insights in spades, and shares them in her latest book: The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win. Today on the show Maria explains why the poker table may be the best place to learn about the balance between chance and skill, and why we have such trouble untangling those two forces. We then get into how gambling has long been an interest of philosophers and led to advancements in probability theory, as well as why understanding the dynamics of betting allows us to improve ourselves. Maria then shares how she learned to detach herself from the outcomes of hands and concentrate only on what she could control, and how liberating it is to separate process from results. She describes the connection between poker and Sherlock Holmes, and how the game helped her not just see things but observe them. We then delve into the biases that get you off track with your goals, and the simple technique you can use to overcome them. We end our conversation with Maria’s conclusions on the respective roles luck and skill play in our lives.

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • How Maria got into poker (it wasn’t for a love of the game) 
  • Skill vs. luck 
  • Why Texas Hold ‘Em is the perfect game to study skill vs. luck 
  • Why philosophers have enjoyed discussing (and playing) poker 
  • How betting changes your decisions 
  • Why probabilistic thinking is more accurate than black/white thinking 
  • What poker teaches about fairness 
  • Separating process from outcome 
  • What Maria learned about paying attention from playing poker 
  • Which question to ask before assessing any decisions — whether yours or others
  • Maria’s big takeaways from learning about poker 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of The Biggest Bluff.

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Maria’s website

Maria on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Maria Konnikova, who has her PhD in psychology and studies human behavior, had never played poker when she approached Eric Seidel, a renowned player the game, asking him to show her the ropes. Eric agreed to be her coach and Maria spent a year working towards the World Series of Poker, playing in numerous tournaments and winning a major title and hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way. But the real prize she was after in this experimental endeavor wasn’t money, but insight into the intersection between skill and luck and how much control we humans have over our fate. She got those insights in spades and shares them in her latest book The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself and Win.

Today on the show, Maria explains why the poker table may be the best place to learn about the balance between chance and skill, and why we have such trouble untangling those two forces. We then get into how gambling has long been an interest of philosophers and led to advancements in probability theory, as well as why understanding the dynamics of betting allows us to improve ourselves. Maria then shares how she learned to detach herself from the outcomes of hands and concentrate only on what she could control, and how liberating it is to separate process from results. She then describes the connection between poker and Sherlock Holmes and how the game helped her not just see things, but observe them. We then delve into the things that get you off track with your goals, and the simple technique you can use to overcome them. And we end our conversation with Maria’s conclusions on the respective roles luck and skill play in our lives. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/poker.

Maria Konnikova, welcome back to the show.

Maria Konnikova: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: So we had you on last time to talk about your book The Confidence Game, which is about the psychology of conmen. You got a new book out called The Biggest Bluff, and it’s about your experience of taking a year of your life to learn how to play professional poker. And you study psychology, it’s what you do for a living, how you can apply psychology. What made you decide, “I’m gonna take a year of my life, I wanna learn how to play poker”?

Maria Konnikova: It’s not a love of poker, or at least it wasn’t initially. I had zero interest in the game, didn’t know anything about it really, and don’t like games in general. Everyone’s like, “Well, you must have played chess when you were growing up.” I’m like, “Actually no. Not all Russian girls play chess when they’re growing up.” I wanted to write about luck and the role that luck plays in our lives, and I wanted to write something that would help me learn more about the line between skill and chance, the things we control, the things we don’t control, and to try to figure out how we can learn to tell the difference and how we can maximize our skill and minimize bad luck, which is inevitable. Bad luck is gonna happen to everyone at some point. And I needed a way into the topic, and so I was reading anything I could find that had to do with luck and came across John von Neumann’s Theory of Games. Learned that von Neumann, who’s the father of Game Theory, was a huge poker player, and that poker was actually the inspiration for Game Theory.

And the way he wrote about poker was really interesting to me. He wrote that it was the game that best mirrored decision-making in real life because it was a game of incomplete information, of things that I know, things that you know, things we both know. And the goal is to make the best decision we possibly can, given this limited information, knowing that we’re not going to know everything, knowing that our decision is going to inherently be probabilistic. There’s no such thing as 100%. That it’s not like chess where you can always find the right move because all the moves are available, you can see everything and theoretically can calculate it. In poker, that’s not the case. And he said, “That’s life, and if I solve this, I’ll have the key to some of the most complex decisions in the world.” And this really intrigued me. And so I thought, “Well, this poker thing sounds interesting, let me read about it.” And when I started reading about it, everything just fell into place. I thought, “This is it. This is my book. Why don’t I take up von Neumann’s challenge, so to speak? Why don’t I learn to play the game? Get someone really, really good to teach me, start from scratch, and use my journey in this new world as a way of answering those questions that had brought me to von Neumann and to Game Theory to begin with.”

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about this question about skill and luck. What makes it hard to disentangle what we can attribute to our own skill and what we can attribute to just dumb luck? ‘Cause I think oftentimes we confuse the two.

Maria Konnikova: Absolutely. And in real life, it’s really, really difficult to tell the difference because life is noisy, it’s messy. There are so many variables that you can almost always find something to blame if things go wrong. Say, “It’s not my fault, this happened or that happened. I couldn’t have predicted that.” And when things go right, we can almost always find a way to take credit and say, “Yeah, I did that. I’m so good, I’m brilliant, I’m talented, I deserve this. This is great.” And that’s what makes this question so incredibly challenging because in many ways, improving yourself, improving your decisions, becoming someone who is more thoughtful and more self-aware requires you to be honest and to actually learn to tell the difference and learn to take credit for the things you should take credit for it, but also take blame for the things you should take blame for, and not take credit for things when you just get lucky. And that’s really, really hard. A lot of people who are very successful say, “Sure, maybe I got lucky here and there, but I worked really hard and it’s all my skill.”

Actually, one of the things that I learned early on when I was starting to work on this book that really pissed me off was this interview that Oprah gave one day, and she said that luck had nothing to do with her success. That it was a lot of hard work, a lot of other things, but that luck had absolutely zero to do with it, and that she thought the word luck should be taken out of people’s vocabulary, that it was a word that shouldn’t exist. And that really pissed me off because you have to acknowledge how lucky you have to be to get anywhere in life, and how important of a factor it is. And in poker, it’s much more clear-cut. There’s instant feedback. It’s a game, so you’re in a circumscribed environment so there are fewer variables. And you can really start parsing, “Okay, well, these things were the result of my decision. This is something I did, this is what I thought, these were the variables I took into consideration, and here’s what happened. What do I control? I control my thought process, I control what I choose to do, how I choose to play my hand, how I choose to react, how I choose to act. I don’t control the cards, I don’t control what’s dealt to anyone, I don’t control the cards that are coming from the deck. That’s luck.”

And so it becomes a way of clarifying the difference and of being able to separate if you want to improve and become a good player, and if you don’t, you’re going to lose all your money, so it’s actually you’re very incentivized to think clearly, and it becomes a way of separating the process, which is skill, from the outcome, which is chance, which is luck. And the two things are not one and the same. In real life, we tend to look at the outcome and use it as a proxy for process. If the outcome is good, we’re like, “Yeah, great, I made the right decision.” If it’s bad, we say, “Okay, something went wrong.” But that’s not true. You can make the right decision, you can think clearly, do everything correctly and get unlucky. And vice versa, you can be absolutely wrong, act for all the wrong reasons and really luck out and have a good outcome. Poker teaches you the difference between the two and teaches you that, yes, you have to be very, very skilled, and over time, the most skilled players will win. But in the short term, luck is huge, and you also have to get lucky if you’re going to win immediately.

Brett McKay: So you’re a PhD in psychology, let’s bring this in, isn’t this idea that whenever we misattribute something to our skill or luck, is that part of the fundamental attribution error?

Maria Konnikova: That can be, yeah, because the fundamental attribution error deals with attributing something to environment versus person or the other way around. And it turns out that, depending on what society you grow up in, people tend to judge other people incorrectly. In the US, we often blame the person for something that’s really the environment because we live in a country where it’s the American dream and individualism and all this stuff. But in Eastern cultures, a lot of the cultures that are more community-based, people actually often misattribute things to the environment rather than the person. So originally, the original work on the fundamental attribution error was all about misattributing to the person, but it’s only because it was only done in the United States, and then people realized that it actually had much more to do with cultural biases and cultural ways of thinking than it did with a fundamental thing that the human mind did. So it’s something that we’re really socialized to do, but it is a bias, and it’s something that happens very automatically, especially when we’re judging others.

Now, when it comes to ourselves, it’s no longer the fundamental attribution error. That’s really about perceiving other people. It’s about something that is known as locus of control, which is work that was done by Julian Rotter in the ’50s. And he found that people differ in how they describe what’s happening to them. Some people who have an internal locus, they think that they have agency and that they’re the ones in control, and so they’re the ones who are actually doing things. And then if you have an external locus, you see the world and things that’s happening to you, so things are happening and they’re outside of your control, they’re in the environment. And we don’t always have an internal or an external locus. He found that people switch their loci depending on what’s happening. Some people, when it’s good, have an internal locus, when it’s bad, have an external locus. Some people, it’s flipped. And it’s a really, really interesting way of learning about how someone views the world, how someone views themselves, how they view chance, how they view skill, how they view the role that they have in their own success and in their own decisions.

Brett McKay: So when you decided to learn poker, the first decision you had to make was what kind of poker you’re gonna play, ’cause there are different types of poker out there. There’s stud… You went with no-limit Texas hold ’em. Why do you think that’s a great type of poker to explore this intersection between skill and luck?

Maria Konnikova: Well, first of all, hold ’em has a really precise balance of known to unknown information. And this wasn’t an insight that I came to on my own, this was Game Theory teaching me that you need to really create an environment that mirrors how we normally make decisions. And in some forms of poker, there are way too many unknown variables. You have five cards or six cards or however many cards that are known only to the person holding them, and then it becomes too much of a guessing game, it becomes too much about luck because there’s way too much unknown and it’s very difficult to parse all of those variables. On the flip side, you have variants of poker where there’s just one hole card, which is the private information that only the player knows, and that becomes too much like chess because there’s too little unknown information, so that becomes much more solvable and so also not as useful. And then in hold ’em, there are two hole cards, the private cards. And von Neumann and his followers found that that seemed to best mimic the balance of known and unknowns that we experience in most strategic decisions in life.

And then the element of no limit versus limit is very important because in a limit game, you are limited, as the name implies, in how much you can wager at any given point, and that’s not life. In life, there are never limits. You can always do what you want, theoretically. Sure, there are laws, there are norms of behavior, but nothing’s stopping you from risking anything and everything on any given decision. And so no-limit is the variant that best mirrors that element in life because in no-limit, there’s no limit placed on what you can wager. You can wager all of your money, you can wager or everything at any given point in time. And so when you’re looking at decision-making that you want to use as a proxy or a model or a laboratory environment for making decisions in life, no-limit is a really good way of looking at it because life really is a game of no-limit.

Brett McKay: And there’s also types of Texas hold ’em that you talk about. There’s a distinction between cash games and tournament games.

Maria Konnikova: For sure. And I probably reveal my bias in the back.

Brett McKay: Right. But what’s the difference and how do you think it influences how people play the game?

Maria Konnikova: It’s actually a very different game. And at the beginning when I was just starting out, my coach, Eric Seidel, said that I needed to choose one because if I was going to really focus on playing well and on being really, really good at one thing, I couldn’t both do tournaments and cash games because the strategy was so different. The main difference is that in a cash game… So when you think of poker that you see on TV, in movies, and the James Bond films, Rounders, that’s all cash games. And what that means is that every single chip has an actual dollar value. So say you sit down at the table and you buy in for $100, you put $100 on the table and you say, “I wanna play.” You’ll get $100 worth of chips and each chip will be worth some exact amount, and that amount will never change. And if you lose that $100, you can say, “I want more. Bring me more money, I want more chips.” And you can get up at any point you want, you can stop playing at any point you want, and the bet sizes are always going to be the same, the blinds, which are the blind bets that people have to make just to force action so that you’re not sitting at a table where everyone is just folding every single hand, it’s just kind of the minimum table stakes.

Those are always gonna be the same. So if you sit down at a game of $1/$2 which means the small blind is $1 and the big blind’s $2, that’s what it’s always going to be the entire time you’re there. Tournaments are completely different. The chips have zero cash value. They’re only there as a way of keeping score, and your goal is actually to win the tournament, and that means to gather all of the chips in play. So say you buy in for that same $100. In the traditional tournament format, which is called a freeze out, if you lose, you’re out. If you lose that $100 buy-in, you can’t buy back, you can’t do anything, you walk away. You’ve busted, in poker terms. And you might get 100 chips, you might get 1000 chips, you might get 10,000 chips for that $100, it doesn’t really matter. Every single person gets the exact same amount of chips. And then the people who end up accumulating more chips are doing better than the ones who are losing chips, but it’s just a way of keeping score. And you can’t walk away at any given point in time. You can’t top up, you can’t stop playing, you have to just keep going. And the stakes keep rising, so if at the beginning you sat down and it was $1/$2, in half an hour it’s gonna be $5/$10 and then it’s gonna be $10/$20.

And your chips become less and less valuable as that happens because their betting power diminishes as the blinds go up. And so it’s much more dynamic, it’s much more of a drama. There’s a beginning, there’s a middle, there’s an end. The strategy changes as the different parts of the tournament progress, and it’s much more lifelike in that it puts you in so many different emotional situations, it puts you to so many different tests that you’re not going to necessarily experience in a cash game.

Brett McKay: So one thing you talk about… Well, we’ve already talked about it a little bit, poker, gambling, it’s very… Philosophers or economists or game theorists have used this to explore decision-making, but you see this intersection of philosophy and gambling going back centuries. You even make the case that poker was invented by a philosopher trying to explore probability. And then even Kant, the guy who came up with his Kantian duty stuff, he talked about that betting, adding stakes can actually help us make better decisions. Can you talk to us a little bit about the intersection of philosophy and game? ‘Cause I thought that was really interesting.

Maria Konnikova: I found it absolutely fascinating as well, that so many great minds were drawn to poker. And the first person you mentioned, Cardano, he was this fascinating Italian character who was a philosopher, he was an economist, he had all sorts of interesting theories and he had what may be the earliest description of the game that would become poker. And he’s also in some ways the father of Probability Theory because in playing poker, he realized that the way to win wasn’t to consult the stars or the soil. He was living at a time where this was the way to go, where astrology was the science of the day and people really did make decisions based on just consulting that, and that was the way to play anything. That was a way to play life. And he realized after he started losing money and after someone cheated him out of a lot of money, that, “Hey, there’s a way to actually beat these guys, and it has to do with cards, the number of cards. It has to do with the probabilities. It has to do with the math. It has to do with the information that you can actually use.”

That’s concrete. And so he started basically, he invented probability in order to win at a game of cards, and he was incentivized to do it because he’d lost so much money, and so this really formed not just an incentive, but kind of this eye-opening epiphany for him, obviously I’m putting moments in his mind, but I don’t know if they actually existed. But that’s the sense that I got, that he all of a sudden realized, “Wow, there’s a whole new way of looking at the world, there’s a whole new way of making decisions and the reason that I’m coming to this conclusion is because of this game, and I see this because I’m losing, because I’m losing money, because I lost my clothes because this guy completely obliterated me. And so now I’m actually very motivated to figure out how I can consistently win.” And he did, and it was very funny though. He lamented that the only way to really win consistently was to cheat, and then he has this whole big part of his book about cheating and about how to mark cards and figure out if someone is marking decks and dice and all of these things.

And that’s true, and that’s such a profound insight in both probability and philosophy and life, that the only way to get certainty is to rig the deck is to actually cheat, because otherwise life is probabilistic. Decision-making is probabilistic. We can never know with 100% certainty that we’re going to win. All we can do is make the probabilistically best decision to put ourselves in a position to win. And that’s a statement that can really be the foundation of a lot of philosophical thought. And it really makes you realize that, yeah, we do have a great amount of agency, much greater than we thought, you don’t have to trust in the stars, you can actually start figuring things out and figuring out how you can use information that’s available to make better decisions. And yet, there’s going to be the stuff that you can’t control, and unless you’re willing to cheat, you’re never going to be in a situation where you are guaranteed a certain outcome where you’re guaranteed to win. And I was really struck by the fact that this thread seemed to continue throughout philosophy, as you say, Kant also played cards and was a gambler, and he has this really amazing passage where he talks about betting and this thing that people really shudder…

The reason why my Russian grandmother hated what I was doing when I decided to play poker because I’m wagering money and this is sinful. This is terrible. Kant said, “No, this isn’t sinful. This is the best teaching tool I have ever found, and this actually rights a lot of the wrongs that you see in the world, where people are way too over-confident, over-state their opinions and just spout BS without pausing to consider. Should I really be saying this? How certain am I? How right am I?” What he added to this conversation was that betting is the key reason why we’re able to improve, and he has this wonderful example of a doctor who’s making a diagnosis, and you have to remember that medicine even to this day, is certainly not a precise science. There’s a lot more science to it than in Kant’s day, but there’s never certainty, and back then there was much less certainty, and we knew a lot less about the human body, so a lot of diagnoses weren’t necessarily definitive. And he said, “Well, if you go to a doctor’s office and the doctor gives you a diagnosis, they don’t say, “I’m not sure.” Usually, they’ll just say, “This is what’s wrong. This is what you should do.”

He said, “So why don’t we force doctors to actually put money on their diagnoses? Put money behind their opinions? How much are you willing to bet that your diagnosis is correct? $10, I’ll put it into our currency 100, 1000, 10,000.” And what he notices is that when you start forcing people to put real money on what they’re saying, suddenly they start recalibrating their certainty. Suddenly they’re willing to admit that they might be wrong, that they’re not 100% certain even though five minutes before they were going on and on about how, “Yes, this is definitely it, this is the only thing possible.” All of a sudden they’re ike, “Okay, well, maybe, you know, I don’t know, maybe I want bet even $100. Maybe I’m only $50 certain maybe I’m only $10 certain.” And it forces you to realize that there’s a lot of variables, there are a lot of things that you don’t know, and you have to actually be willing to literally put your money where your mouth is. And that’s a powerful teaching mechanism, it’s a powerful mechanism of honing your thought process and of being less hubristic, of actually being humble and realizing that, “Wow, a lot of the things that I say so confidently, maybe I should be a little less confident in them, maybe I should actually stop and consider that I might be wrong.” And I think that that’s a very powerful lesson in the modern world.

Brett McKay: Well, this being of probabilities, so your poker, you’re having to calculate probabilities, the problem with probabilities is like the human brain isn’t designed to calculate a problem. It took a guy in the Renaissance to finally develop probabilistic thinking, so we’ve only been doing it for a sort of concretely or explicitly for a few centuries, like here’s a perfect example of why we’re bad at probabilistic thinking, so if someone hears I do this too, it’s like, “Oh, there is 75% chance this is gonna happen,” interpret it as, “Oh yeah… It’s pretty much gonna happen. It’s more than 50%, so it’s gonna happen,” but that’s not the case. Why are we so bad at probabilities and how did you get better at thinking probabilistically?

Maria Konnikova: That’s a really important question because it is one of the biggest shortcomings of our decision abilities, the fact that, yeah, we look at 75% and we just round it up. Because the human mind really loves certainty and really loves just black and white, clear-cut answers, cause and effect, this is what’s gonna happen, and doesn’t like uncertainty and doesn’t like ambiguity, and doesn’t do well with it. And I think from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes all sorts of sense that we would take drastic conclusions from the environment, it turns out that that’s the way that we learn, we learn from doing, we learn from experience, we don’t learn from descriptions from people telling us something and hearing 75%… That’s a description. Whereas, “Oh, this happened to me.” That’s experience, but unfortunately, in real life, our experiences are completely skewed, so we never actually get to feel what 75% feels like because it either happened or it didn’t, and the distribution isn’t a real probabilistic distribution. It’s personal and it’s personalized, and so if you think about people centuries ago, thousands of years ago, when they encountered, say, a tiger in a certain location and ran away and said, “Okay, we’re never going there again,” those are the people who survived, not the people who were like, “Well, I did the math and it seems like the tiger is probabilistically, only going to be there 1% of the time, and so we should really… We’re safe, we can go back.”

Well that person might have been eaten by a tiger, that’s not a very smart way of reacting to the situation, in the moment at that time. And so we just never really learned how to make the distinction between what happened to us, what happens to someone we know and what we just heard. And we don’t internalize things unless we’ve experienced them or unless someone close to us has experienced it. And this is something that has really preoccupied me for a long time, it’s actually… It was the… One of the things that I studied when I was in graduate school was making decisions in risky and uncertain conditions, and I really despaired because I saw how bad people were, and I couldn’t figure out a way around that, poker is actually a way around that. Had I known what poker was back when I was in grad school, I would have definitely used it in my studies, because in poker, your learning probabilities through experience, because you’re playing and you’re actually experiencing it yourself and you’re getting immediate feedback on what you’re doing and whether it seems right or it seems wrong, you’re losing money you’re winning money, the feedback is there, the feedback is constant and you’re sampling correctly. Unlike in real life where your experiences are skewed and one-off in poker, you’re playing tens, hundreds, thousands of hands.

And so you actually start feeling… And of course, as you say, you have to calculate the probability, so if you’re just kind of sitting there on thinking that you’re not gonna learn a lot about this, but if you’re taking it seriously and if you’ve actually calculated certain probabilities, you start feeling what 75% feels like what 90% feels like, what 98% feels like. And you start realizing, “Well, 75% is very, very far from 100%, because that 25% happens often, and I made the right decision and I got my money in as a 75% favorite and I lost. And I lost again, and I lost again. Wow, I lose an awful lot at 75% favorite, and yet it’s the right decision, and I should keep doing it over and over because I will win more often than I lose, but I lose a lot.” You start realizing that 1% is a lot, that even… That 2% that all these tiny percentages are a huge amount of time, because if you play things out many, many, many times, it adds up and Probability is not evenly distributed. It has no memory, I think in the book I said, has amnesia.

And I think that that’s the way you need to think about it. It doesn’t remember what happened last time, and so there’s no such thing as fairness, like, “Oh well, I should win now,” no. Sometimes you just keep losing and losing and losing, and you learn what that feels like, and that’s why poker is actually such a powerful teaching tool. It teaches you not only what these percentages feel like, but it teaches you that probability isn’t normally distributed, that there’s no memory in what happens next, that every single event is completely independent. And those are two very, very powerful lessons that otherwise our brains just are not very good at taking in.

Brett McKay: And to learn those lessons about probability through poker, you have to actually… You have to fail a lot in the learning process, but failing sucks, like losing… I’m sure a lot of money doesn’t feel great when you make bad decisions in life and they don’t turn out, or maybe that you make a good decision, they don’t turn out great. That still hurts. So how did you learn to detach yourself from the outcome of a hand in poker.

Maria Konnikova: I had really, really good teachers, and I had people along the way who could help me learn to detach myself at the beginning, it’s not something you do normally. My coach, Erik Seidel, one of the first lessons he taught me was that I actually wasn’t allowed to tell him what the outcome of the hand was. I remember this so well, I was in Vegas and I was in a tournament and I ended up busting out of the tournament, and I had the absolute best hand when we put all our money in the middle, and then this other person ended up beating me because that lucky card came out, and I lost and I was out of there, and I was so confident that I was going to win. That it was really devastating. So I ran to him and I started telling him the story, and he just shut me up. He said, “I don’t wanna hear it.” And I was really upset. I was like, “You’re my coach. You’re supposed to listen to me.” He said, “No, because the outcome does not matter, do you have a question about how you actually played the hand, do you have a question about your decision process, do you have a question about what you did?” And I had to acknowledge that the answer was no, that I knew exactly what I was supposed to do and that I did it, that I got my money in as a favorite, that I was going to win more often than I was going to lose, and that’s all you can hope for.

And so I said, “Well, no, I don’t actually have a question.” And he said, “Then that’s it, that’s the end of the conversation,” because when you focus on the outcome, when you focus on what in poker is known as bad beats, you’re doing something that’s very detrimental to yourself and to other people. He called it, “Putting your trash or dumping your trash on someone else’s lawn,” because you’re just taking the stuff that doesn’t matter, this negativity and you’re putting it on other people. But it’s even more detrimental to you because it’s toxic to you, because it means that rather than thinking through the hand, rather than thinking through the decision, rather than thinking through the elements that are within your control, you’re thinking about something that’s totally outside of your control, you’re thinking about outcome, you’re thinking about luck, and that’s weighing you down, that’s taking your emotional resources, and it’s inhibiting you from learning because rather than focusing on the things that you can learn from, you’re focusing on the exact wrong part of the equation. And while at the beginning, I was really mad at him for not letting me vent, I couldn’t be more grateful that he just nipped that habit in the bud, because it’s incredibly liberating to separate the process from the outcome.

When we were talking earlier about internal versus external locus of control, this is kind of the most internal thing you can do. Why don’t I spend all of my time thinking about the things that are actually within my power, that I have agency over, things that I can change, things that I can work on, rather than those external things, the externalities, the noise, the variance, the stuff that’s completely outside of my power. And that’s just gonna bring me down, that’s going to mentally bring me down, emotionally bring me down, it’s going to make other people not wanna be around me because I’m so negative, and then I’m gonna be experiencing more and more bad beats because rather than try to analyze my thought process rather than trying to analyze what I might have done wrong and what I can do next time, or what I did right and should keep doing even though I didn’t do well, rather than do that, I’m just focusing on what ended up happening, and not only am I not improving, but I’m also putting my trash on other people’s lawns. And so that was a very, very powerful lesson and I needed someone to tell me, it’s not like I learned it by myself.

So I think throughout this entire journey, I do wanna stress that it’s important to have guidance, it’s important to talk to other people, it’s really, really difficult to do anything and to learn anything in a vacuum. I think we need to acknowledge that there are people who are better than us. And seek those people out, seek out the smarter people, seek out the people who have been doing whatever we wanna learn how to do longer and be humble about it, be willing to acknowledge that, “Okay, I’m learning… I don’t know, I’m going to make lots of mistakes, I’m gonna fail a lot. And that’s okay, let me talk through it with someone who can help me get better.”

Brett McKay: And have you noticed that this is carried over to other domains of your life? Think you’ve gotten better about separating process from outcomes?

Maria Konnikova: Oh, absolutely, it’s actually become somewhat of a mental habit that I think is potentially a little bit annoying to people, because not only do I separate process from outcome, but I also calibrate my probabilities as precisely as I can. So I’ll often say something like, “Oh, well, you know, I’m 65% sure of this,” or “I’m 80% sure,” or something like that. And so I’ll actually say how certain I am, and I’ll actually say what I think in terms of my content, how much I’m willing to bet on it, so to speak, and yeah, I am much more focused, the process. And that’s actually been one of the most liberating things that poker has done for me, because I never realized how often I dwell on the bad beats and let it get me down, especially these days, there’s just so many horrible things going on in the world, and it’s so easy to lose yourself in it, to lose yourself in the noise, to lose yourself in the news and the very important stuff, but stuff that you personally can’t do anything about. A2nd what I’ve started doing instead is flipping it on its head and thinking, “Okay, well yeah, there’s a lot wrong. What can I control, what can I do? What are the things that I can focus on where I actually have agency, where I can actually make a difference?” and that’s a very… To me, that’s been a very powerful mind shift.

Brett McKay: So your first book that you wrote was Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Homes, and one takeaway or one thing that Sherlock Homes is known for is his keen ability of paying attention and noticing things that other people don’t notice, what did you learn about paying attention by playing poker?

Maria Konnikova: Yeah, I’m so glad that you drew that connection because I realized part way through the book that they’re really… Part way through writing the book, that there really were a lot of similarities between what Sherlock Holmes does when he’s solving crimes and what Erik was trying to teach me to do in playing poke or this, paying attention. And by the way, Holmes would be a killer poker player, I’d never sit down at the table with him. But it’s this process of constant presence and mindful awareness, Sherlock Holmes… The reason I even wrote my first book was because of one single scene in the Sherlock Holmes books, and it’s a scene where Holmes asks Watson was how many steps lead up to 221B Baker Street where they live, and Watson doesn’t know. And Holmes says, “That’s the difference between us. You only see, I both see and observe.” That single quote from Sherlock Holmes was the inspiration for Mastermind, my first book, because I just… I was blown away when I was little and when I revisited it as an adult by that separation between simply seeing and seeing and observing. So just going through life, being mindless, letting things happen and making the active decision to also not just see, but observe to be present to pay mindful attention. And at the poker table, it’s a lesson that’s reinforced so strongly that you actually have to internalize it much more than when you learn about it theoretically.

So theoretically, I was very well aware of the need to pay attention, mindfulness, all of these things. This brings us, again, back to Kant. If you’re not incentivized, if there’s no money on the table, if there are no stakes, then you oftentimes don’t have to actually take theory and put it into practice because it’s hard, it’s hard work. Paying attention is hard work, it seems like the easiest advice in the world, and yet it’s some of the hardest advice to follow because our brains aren’t wired to pay attention. Our minds are actually wandering machines. That’s what we do, the default mode network, which is the network in our brain that’s active when we’re not doing anything. It’s constantly scanning the environment and looking for threats and looking for changes, looking for anything out there, and so in the modern environment, that means that we’re just constantly flitting from one thing to another, and all of these things are vying for our attention, and that’s the default.

It’s really, really hard to focus on just one thing, to be present and to not let your mind wander. That takes effort, it takes energy, it takes just a very conscious desire to do that. Poker is the first time where I was actually forced to do that because I realized that if I didn’t do it, I’d play much worse and I’d lose money and I actually wouldn’t improve, whereas if I paid attention, if I actually brought my focus to the table, I would not only improve my decisions, but actually see better outcomes. Because over time, those decisions will translate into outcomes, even though in any immediate case, you need to learn to separate the two.

And so I learned because of the poker table, because of how much it mattered whether I was right or wrong, I learned how to really, really focus on people, on what was happening, on what people were telling me in the words they weren’t saying but what their bodies were saying, what the dynamics were. I just learned to really be aware of everything and everyone around me, and also to be much more aware of myself, my own mind, the thoughts in my head, the emotions I was feeling, what my body was telling me. Because being aware and paying attention doesn’t just mean paying attention to others, it also means paying attention to yourself. And so the irony, I think, is that the most mindful of zen-like thing I’ve ever done isn’t meditating and all of these habits that I picked up while I was studying mindfulness and writing about Sherlock Holmes, but at the poker table. That it’s actually, I think, the greatest exercise in mindfulness that I’ve ever undertaken.

Brett McKay: There was a point in your preparations, so you were trying get ready for this big tournament, and there’s a point… And all throughout this, your coaches were telling you, “Don’t do this if you don’t feel ready,” but you were like, “I got a book I gotta write.” And you had this sort of debate within yourself. It’s like, “Well, should I push ahead or should I hold off?” And that brings up some… I think that’s something that poker can teach us about our own decision-making with status quo bias or goal lock. What did you learn about those human biases when you were grappling with that decision?

Maria Konnikova: That they’re really, really hard to fight. I’ve made a really big mistake. [chuckle] I didn’t listen to my coaches, and I actually experienced firsthand how strong those biases are, how strong your status quo bias is. “Keep doing what you’d always planned on doing, don’t change course. Changing course is a sign of weakness.” How strong the planning fallacy is, which is when your plans aren’t mapping onto reality and yet rather than change the plans, you hold on to them because you’re like, “No, no, I couldn’t have planned wrong to begin with, so I’m going to keep going.” In poker, you realize how strong a lot of these biases are and how difficult they are to actually change. So here I was, I’m someone who studied all of these decision biases. The subject of my dissertation was, like I said, decision-making under conditions of risk and uncertainty, and I saw all of these things playing out. I knew all about the status quo bias and all about the planning fallacy and all of these things, and yet somehow I didn’t apply it to myself because I was just so motivated for other reasons to keep going and to stay on course. And I didn’t listen to what I knew, I didn’t listen to my coaches, and when I knew that asking a question would yield an answer I didn’t want, I didn’t ask the question.

So I just made every single mistake, and I ended up playing an event I was not ready for, losing a lot of money, and actually learning a lot from the experience because I realized that, “Wow, you knowing theoretically once again about something is not the same thing as being able to execute on it practically.” And in hindsight, and here’s hindsight bias, it becomes very, very clear that I should have changed course, I should have done this, I should have listened, I should have done that. But hindsight is 20/20. And in the moment, all of these factors were theoretically available to me. It’s not like this was hidden information. But I rationalized it away, I chose not to see it. And it just shows how strong our powers of rationalization are and how much we oftentimes believe what we want to believe rather than what the world is telling us. And that was a very painful experience because I lost $10,000, which is an awful lot of money. And because of that though, I learned from it and I’d like to think that I’m much less likely to commit these sorts of mistakes in the future.

And I regrouped. I changed plans. I actually sat down and talked to my coach and we made an entirely new game plan. I moved down in stakes, I started playing much cheaper tournaments that were much more affordable, and I basically said, “Okay, I made a really big mistake. Let’s see what we can do now moving forward.” Because the other bad thing that you can do is something called the Sunk Cost fallacy, which is that you just keep going after you make a mistake, you don’t acknowledge it and you put good money after bad, good emotions after bad, good time after bad, whatever it is you’ve already invested. And so at least I didn’t do that. At least I realized that, “Okay, yeah, these were all sunk costs, this was my lesson, this was the price I had to pay. Now let’s see how I can really do my best to get past it, to improve, to work on the things that once again are within me to control so that I can hopefully get to a better outcome in the future.”

And so I kept going, I kept going past when my original deadline was for the book. I changed the book. I told my editor, “You know what? This didn’t work out. I need to keep going.” And I was lucky that editor said, “Yeah, whatever. Do what you need to do, take as much time as you need.” And so I just regrouped and changed all of my expectations, and I think that’s one of the smartest things that I could have possibly done. I wish I had done it sooner, but I don’t know that I could have done it sooner. Sometimes you really do need to learn from your own experience.

Brett McKay: That’s one of the frustrating things about biases, ’cause I’ve read all these books about… I know all the biases, but then I still… Even though I know it, I’ll catch myself after the fact, “Oh my gosh, I just did status quo bias,” and it’s so frustrating. And I don’t know how you… I guess that’s where a coach comes in. It’s like a third party can let you know, it’s like, “Hey, you’re doing this because you’re probably not thinking about it while you’re in the middle of the decision.”

Maria Konnikova: Absolutely. I think it’s so important to have someone else to talk to because you do not see yourself objectively. We can’t. We see ourselves subjectively. We can become better at it. And one of the things that’s actually really helped me throughout this process and something that I’ve learned that I now apply to other areas is even if you don’t have a coach, even if this is something where you’re making a decision in daily life, you’re choosing to do or not to do something, and it’s something personal, and it’s not like you’re actually going to be talking through this with a coach who is helping you and make better decisions in your life… Maybe you do have a life coach, but a lot of people do not. I don’t. And so what’s really helped me is to think as if you’re going to have to describe this decision process and explain it to someone else. Apart from Erik Seidel, I also worked with Phil Galfond, who taught me something really, really important. Phil Galfond is also an amazing poker player, so he taught me to ask a question before any action, and that question was, “Why?” He said, “Always ask why. Why are other people doing what they’re doing?” If you can figure out the why, you can figure out how to react to them and how to beat them if you’re at the poker table.

But also ask yourself the why. Ask yourself why you’re doing something. And if you take that to your decision process and take a moment to reflect before you do anything and say, “Why? Why am I doing this? What are the options? Why am I choosing this option? Why is this option better than the other options?” And in my mind, if I knew that I was actually going to have to explain a decision to Erik or to Phil, I ended up making better decisions because it stopped me from doing things just because. Because I knew that they wouldn’t buy that, that’s a bad why, that’s a bad reason. And so if you think before you act and think, “Okay, I’m gonna have to explain this to someone.” So choose someone in your mind, you don’t actually have to do this, but imagine that you’re going to have to talk them through why you’re doing something, all of a sudden, a lot of the biases that you didn’t realize you were using are going to come out.

You’ll realize, “Oh wow, I was just doing this because I always do it. I was just going with a default effect, status quo, whatever it was. Uh-oh, that’s not a good reason because I know about these biases and I know that’s not a good reason. Do I have another reason for doing this? If not, then maybe I shouldn’t do this. Maybe I should consider something else.” I think that that conversation with yourself, picturing and projecting what you would say to another person that you trust, that you respect, whose opinion you care about, I think that that’s a way that you can help yourself improve even when you’re not actually working with a coach.

Brett McKay: Do you think you’ve gotten a better grasp of the skill luck question now that you become an international poker tournament champion?

Maria Konnikova: I do, I do. And I think it’s both… I’d like to think that it’s an optimistic answer, even though some people might disagree because you realize that a lot of life is luck, and that in the immediate term in any given situation, in any given interaction, in any given decision, luck is king. That’s the truth, and you have to get lucky, and there are things that are totally outside your control. However, there are so many things that are within us to control, and there are so many things that we can focus on, and over the long-term, skill will be ascendant if you can make it to long-term. And so it’s taught me to let go of the things that are outside of me and to accept them, to accept that they’re always going to exist, and to try to just try my hardest to maximize those things that are actually skill, that I can actually work on, that I can actually do. And that means working much more on myself, on my own decisions, on my own emotions, on what I choose and don’t choose to do.

And also, I think understanding how big a role luck plays in lives makes you a better person and a less judgmental person. You realize how lucky you are and that you should use that luck to help other people who aren’t as lucky, who weren’t born in the right place at the right time, who weren’t born to the parents you were born to, who weren’t born in the country you were born to. There’s so much luck in birth, and that’s not something that you have any control over, and that’s something that determines the course of your entire life. So I think that it’s a powerful lesson in using luck when you have it, spreading it out and trying your best to help people who weren’t as lucky as you were.

Brett McKay: Well, Maria, where can people go to learn more about the book and the rest of your work?

Maria Konnikova: I have a website, MariaKonnikova.com. I don’t update it nearly as often as I should, but I do tweet a lot. So on Twitter I’m @MKonnikova, and I’m also on Instagram as GrlNamedMaria, but “girl” doesn’t have an I in it. It’s just G-R-L because someone else stole the username that I wanted.

Brett McKay: That happens sometimes. Well, Maria Konnikova, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Maria Konnikova: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Maria Konnikova. She’s the author of the book The Biggest Bluff. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about her work at her website, MariaKonnikova.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/poker, where you find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or IOS. You can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support and until the next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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