The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova has shaped a successful writing career out of her pursuit of the hidden narratives in human psychology. In the years since she earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University, she has written about the subject from just about every angle: work habits, electability, how to tell when someone is lying, and the healing art of the unsent angry letter. She has detailed the cultivation of keen observational habits in Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, and explored the nature and nurture of human deception in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time. In her new book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, Konnikova chronicles her 12-month education in high-stakes, no-limit Texas Hold’em, and her subsequent rise from poker novice to international champion.

In the wake of several personal and professional challenges, Konnikova yearns to understand the nature of her family’s streak of bad luck. First, Konnikova’s mother loses her job. Then her grandmother dies after a freak accident at home. Next, her husband loses his job, and, breaking the proverbial rule of three, she is diagnosed with an autoimmune condition that leaves physicians stumped and Konnikova isolated and in pain. There must, she hopes, be some way to make sense of this apparently random sequence of unfortunate events.

Poker—a game she’d never played, let alone mastered—offers an apt metaphor. Konnikova writes, “Poker, unlike quite any other game, mirrors life. It isn’t the roulette wheel of pure chance, nor is it the chess of mathematical elegance and perfect information. Like the world we inhabit, it consists of an inextricable joining of the two. Poker stands at the fulcrum that balances two oppositional forces in our lives—chance and control.”

“How to Play the World”

In order to understand the roles chance and control play in both the game of poker and the distressing state of her personal life, Konnikova goes all in. She puts her job at The New Yorker on hold and gives herself one year to learn the rules, strategy, and psychology of poker, and to earn the brass ring of poker cred: a respectable showing at the World Series of Poker.

In order to get there, Konnikova needs a coach, someone who knows the game well but who also understands that her pursuit of mastery has little to do with money, math, or methodology. It is, by her own description, personal. Konnikova sets her sights on one of the few professional poker players she has heard of: Poker Hall of Fame inductee and World Series of Poker champion Erik Seidel. One of the best players in the world, Seidel isn’t interested in money or fame. Though he’s never coached a player, nor expressed a desire to do so, Seidel is intrigued by Konnikova’s pitch, academic pedigree, and approach to the game, and agrees to take her on.

The year goes well for Konnikova—so well that her experiment evolves into a lucrative career as a professional poker player. To date, Konnikova has earned $311,368 in live poker and won the 2018 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure National, where she pocketed $84,600.

Konnikova meticulously chronicles the steps she takes to get to the World Series of Poker—a tournament she competes in for three years straight starting in 2017—from her first discoveries (that there are 52 cards in a deck) to her competitive gaffes (losing more than half her chips by stubbornly refusing to fold). She is willing to do the sort of postgame analysis of her progress that’s excruciating yet crucial in order to achieve deep learning and rapid growth.

The Biggest Bluff is a great read, and not just for poker fans. Yes, the poker talk is dense, but for readers unfamiliar with the difference between a shark and a fish, there’s a glossary in the back. Ultimately, The Biggest Bluff focuses less on the mechanics of poker than on the machinations of life. As Konnikova writes, “This book isn’t about how to play poker. It’s about how to play the world.”

Jessica Lahey is the author of The Gift of Failure and the upcoming The Addiction Inoculation