The Current

What playing poker taught this journalist about decision making and luck

Following a run of bad luck, journalist Maria Konnikova wanted to learn more about what humans can and cannot control, so she decided to learn the game of poker.

Maria Konnikova says that removing emotion from decisions can help at the poker table and beyond

Maria Konnikova's new book, The Biggest Bluff, chronicles her time learning poker in order to understand the decisions we make. (Landon Speers/Penguin Random House)

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Following a run of bad luck, journalist Maria Konnikova wanted to learn more about what humans can and cannot control — so she decided to learn the game of poker.

About a year later, she won her first major international poker championship title and went on to have a short career in professional poker. In the process, she learned a lot about herself.

"We really need to learn to separate our decision from the outcome — the things we can control from the things we can't control — and to focus our emotional energy, to focus our time, to focus our skills on the things that we can control," Konnikova told The Current guest host Rosemary Barton.

That lesson is chronicled in Konnikova's new book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win. 

In the summer of 2016, Konnikova set out to learn the ins and outs of poker — a surprising decision for the New Yorker writer. Konnikova, who has a doctorate in psychology and studied the role emotion plays in decision making, admits that she previously had no interest in poker and hated casinos.

Konnikova says that removing emotion from decision making can help us navigate the poker table and beyond. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

But she was inspired to try it out after reading the work of mathematician John von Neumann whose work on game theory was inspired by the card game. Poker, he theorized, could help simulate real-life decision making.

"It's a game of incomplete information. There are cards I have, there are cards you have, there's everything in the middle that we see in common," Konnikova explained. "Now we need to make the best decision we possibly can knowing that we don't know everything."

"We might make a really good decision right now, and then the cards go against us and we lose. But that doesn't mean we made a poor decision," she added. 

Mentored by a master

Early on, Konnikova enlisted the help of a master in the world of poker, Erik Seidel, who was hesitant to take her on.

His lessons didn't include tips on what moves to make, she explained. Rather, he focused on teaching her how to make decisions, read other players and control emotions.

With no experience under her belt, the best way to cut her teeth, he said, was to take on fellow players virtually.

"Online poker has really changed how people can learn the game because now, in a day, you can get the sorts of experience that would take a week at a live game. In a week, you can get an experience of a month," Konnikova said.

Erik Seidel, pictured here in Aug. 2011, is a world champion poker player. He coached Konnikova on the ins and outs of the game. (Jeff Bottari/Getty Images for Epic Poker)

That seat at the virtual table gave her the opportunity to get a feel for certain scenarios and test out new tactics. 

Online games also gave her a glimpse into her opponents' life. From the user names and avatars they chose, to the profanity they used in the game's chat room, Konnikova learned something about the psychology of poker.

Though virtual poker offered some lessons, it was live games that she wanted to be part of.

"That's where most of the psychology edge lies, because you can see people, you can see dynamics," she said.

'Identify what you're feeling'

In The Biggest Bluff, Konnikova explores the role that luck plays in life — especially when it comes to winning a game of Texas hold 'em.

Konnikova argues that while luck may factor into winning games in some cases, long-term research suggests that more often than not, the "best" player will win even when they have a losing hand.

"Anyone can be dealt a great hand once," she said.

"If I sit down with my coach, Erik Seidel, who is a million times better than I will ever be, and we play one game, I might beat him. That doesn't mean I've suddenly become amazing."

She says that in order to make good decisions, one has to focus on rationality and watch out for something called "tilt." Tilt is the idea that a player has let emotion — positive or negative — into their decision making.

"Every single person tilts. It's part of being human, and what you need to do is learn to identify what makes you tilt," Konnikova explained. "What are your triggers? What are the pressure points that are actually going to make you be emotional?"

"I'm not saying stop feeling. What I'm saying is learn to identify what you're feeling and learn to account for it. Learn to take that out of the equation."

Konnikova says we can apply the tools of self-control "be they at the poker or away from the poker table to make us better decision makers."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Alison Masemann.