The Biggest Bluff

by Maria Konnikova

Cover image

Publisher: Penguin Press
Copyright: 2020
ISBN: 0-525-52263-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 335

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After a particularly unlucky year for her family, Maria Konnikova was reading about the balance between luck and control in life and discovered, to her surprise, that John von Neumann, one of the foundational thinkers of computer science, was fascinated by poker. He found most card games boring because they relied on luck. Poker, however, he thought was the perfect balance between luck and skill: enough skill to make its effect undeniable, but enough luck that one could not control the game fully regardless of skill.

Konnikova decided on a research project: spend one year learning No Limit Texas Hold'em from one of the best poker players in the world, with a goal of competing in the World Series of Poker. She had studied the description-experience gap during her doctoral research in psychology and wanted to see if the experience of randomness in poker would teach her something the description of the randomness of life could not. Before starting this project, she didn't know the basic rules and had never watched a game. Erik Seidel agreed to mentor her, and The Biggest Bluff is her account of that experience.

This book is simultaneously frustrating and fascinating in ways that I don't think can be untangled without making it a far different book. Fitting, I suppose, for a book about how our brains entangle luck and skill.

First, if you're looking for a book about poker play, this is not one. Konnikova rarely talks about specific hands or tournaments in more detail than her overall trajectory. That was a disappointment. In the few places she does describe some of her betting decisions, analysis of the other players, and tournament strategy, her accounts are engrossing and suspenseful. I would have happily read a book chronicling her poker tournaments and the decisions she made, but this is not that book.

What The Biggest Bluff is instead is a psychological and philosophical examination of the process of learning poker. Konnikova uses her experiences as launching points into philosophical digressions. Even the lessons that have limited surface utility outside of poker, such as learning to suppress body language to avoid giving away information, turn into digressions about interpersonal dynamics and personality types. There are interesting tidbits here, but I've read a lot of popular psychology and was more interested in the poker. My frequent reading experience was impatiently waiting for Konnikova to finish lecturing and get back to her narrative.

What Konnikova does do though, at a level that I haven't seen before before in a book of this type, is be brutally honest about her mistakes and her learning process. And I do mean brutally: The book opens with her throwing up in a casino bathroom. (This is not a fun book to read if you don't like reading about stress reactions and medical problems. There aren't many of them, but they're... memorable.) Konnikova knows and can explain the psychological state she's trying to reach, but still finds it hard to do in the moment. Correctly reacting to probabilities, cutting losses, and neither being too over-confident or too scared is very hard. Most books of this type elide over the repeated failures in a sort of training montage, which makes the process look easier than it feels. Konnikova tries to realistically show the setbacks and failures, and I think succeeds.

That relentless introspection and critical honesty is the best part of this book, but I think it's also behind the stream of consciousness digressions about psychology and philosophy. It's a true portrayal of how Konnikova makes sense of the world. A more polished and streamlined book about the poker would have been more dramatically engrossing, but it might have lost the deep examination of how she combines poker with her knowledge of psychology to change her thinking.

The one place where I think that self-reflection may fall a bit short, which I want to mention because I thought it was a missed opportunity, is around knowledge of hand probabilities. Konnikova makes a point, early in the book, of not approaching poker through the memorization and mathematics route and instead trying to find a play style that focuses on analyzing the other players and controlling her own emotions. This is a good hook, but by the end of the book it's not entirely true.

The point that I think she was trying to make is that her edge against other poker players at her same level comes more from psychology than from calculation of precise odds in rare situations. This is true. But by the time she reaches high levels of play, she is using statistical simulators, practice tools, and intensive study just like any professional poker player. There is a minimum level of pure knowledge and memorization required that cannot be avoided. It's clear from the few things she says about this that those tools became more interesting to her as she became better at poker, and I wish she would have dug more into why and how that happened. How much of her newfound ability to make decisions and stick to a plan comes from emotional changes, and how much from that background store of confident knowledge? Or maybe those are different ways of looking at the same change?

I did appreciate Konnikova's explicit acknowledgment at the end of the book that poker did not, in the end, provide some deep insight into the balance of luck and skill in real life. Learning poker instead gave Konnikova more personal ability to make a plan for the things that she can control and let go of the things she can't. I'm glad that worked for her, but since reading this book I have noticed former poker players who think life is more knowable than it is.

Poker combines random chance with psychological play against other people, but it does so in a way and to an extent that is quantifiable. You can make the correct play and still lose a hand, but you can also know when this has happened. When you're used to analyzing the world through that frame and real life fails to provide that certainty, it's tempting to impose it anyway and insist your simplified models are more accurate because they're more comprehensible. But poker is a game, not a model; being more predictable and more constrained than real life is part of what makes it fun. The skill that Konnikova learned from it has a potential downside that she doesn't talk about.

I'm not sure how to sum up this book. Konnikova's internal analysis and honesty is truly admirable and illuminating, but it left me wanting to read a different book that was more focused on poker narration. I know there are lots of those books out there, but I doubt they would be written with Konnikova's self-awareness and lack of ego. However, they would probably also lack the moments that made me cringe or that were deeply uncomfortable to read.

My feelings are mixed. But if you want popular psychology wrapped around a deeply honest account of the process of learning poker, I suspect this book is one of a kind.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-25

Last modified and spun 2020-12-26