Poker has taken the spotlight during the Coronavirus pandemic and the game gets a bit more publicity this week. Bestselling author, New Yorker writer, and now poker player Maria Konnikova releases a new book this week and her life in poker is a major focus.
For those not familiar, in 2017 Konnikova looked to explore how luck plays a role in people’s lives. Her research led to poker followed by tutoring from one of the biggest names in the game – Erik Seidel.
That eventually led to nice tournament success. The highlight was winning a $1,650 event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for $84,600. For a time, Konnikova even served as an ambassador for the site.
She now documents her life in poker as well as an exploration of psychology and philosophy in The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win. The book is published by Penguin Press and debuts Tuesday. Konnikova spoke with USPoker about the book, learning the game, and playing online poker.
Taking a seat at the poker table
At first, Konnikova didn’t even know the rankings of hands. She seemed an unlikely person to jump head-first into major tournament poker.
“I didn’t know anything about poker,” she says. “I wanted to write a book about luck. I wanted to explore the role that luck plays in our lives, and how we can learn to tell the difference between what is luck and what is skill.”
Her studies of game theory had her returning again and again to poker. It seemed the more she studied, the more the game intrigued her.
“You realize that the game of poker was best suited to model human decision-making because it’s a game of incomplete information,” she says, “and everything about life is a game of incomplete information.”
Three years later, Konnikova is now a regular at the tables. The book takes readers on her own personal journey, but mixes in much more. The author attributes much of her success to Seidel’s help.
“I was incredibly lucky that I decided to work with Erik Seidel,” she says. “He was my first choice and said yes. He introduced me to poker. He introduced me to this world and he loves the game. He instilled that love to me and introduced me to the most phenomenal players who love the game. They could do anything and be anything, but they chose to be poker players.
“I think that my experience in the poker world was colored by that from the get-go, and I really did fall in love with the game. I think that there are so many great minds in it.”
That isn’t to say everything has been rosy during her time at the tables. In the book she makes note of some rough treatment from other players. However, Konnikova didn’t let that deter her.
“I think it’s a fascinating world,” she says. “Sure, there are some assholes, but there are assholes everywhere. I came from the media and there are assholes in the media world. It’s not like poker has an exclusive right to assholes. There are some things that I would change, but I love the game and love the people in general.”
Online poker as a starting point
While Konnikova has found success in some major tournaments, she began at the online poker tables. A native New Yorker, her location made this a fairly easy starting point.
“Before I played live, Erik made me start off playing online,” she says. “I started off going to New Jersey multiple days a week to play. It’s really great to get experience, but I don’t like it nearly as much [as playing live] to be perfectly honest. And it’s exhausting.”
Some of that had to do with the frustrations of having to travel to play. She doesn’t drive and has to rely on mass transit. Running deep in a tournament can also mean a long stay in the Garden State, requiring a late trip home.
She stuck at it, however, but needed some education initially on the state of online poker. Playing online was critical to her quick learning curve.
“Among everyone I consult, there is a consensus: I have to play online if I want to improve on any sort of manageable timescale,” she writes in Biggest Bluff. “The only problem is that online poker is illegal in New York, my home state.
“At first the news confuses me. We have lotteries galore. And fantasy sports ads greet me all over the city. Surely poker is more skill-based than all of the above?”
As her poker tale progresses, Konnikova and her readers learn plenty about the skill needed for poker success. And she’s not quite finished with online poker.
Back to the online poker tables
Like other players, the Coronavirus pandemic has sidelined Konnikova from major tournaments. The new book would have actually debuted at the World Series of Poker, but those plans are now obviously scrapped.
Trips back to New Jersey are now back on her poker schedule. That includes some bracelet hunting.
The new WSOP Online series debuts on WSOP.com on July 1 and offers 31 bracelet tournaments. Konnikova would love to snag her own bracelet, which would also be a nice addition to her book promotion.
Like others, she has her own opinions on adding so many bracelet events online. But that won’t stop her from playing.
“I don’t think online bracelet events should necessarily exist because I do think there’s a lot of potential for cheating and shenanigans online,” she says. “That said, it’s happening so why not see if I can go out there and play a few events. It almost seems lazy not to.”
Getting more women into poker
In recent years, there has been a push by many in poker to get more women in the game. Females usually make up only 3-5 percent of a tournament field, and Konnikova experienced this disparity first hand.
Biggest Bluff tracks Konnikova’s play in this mostly-male pastime. She offers some advice for other women interested in getting in the action.
“I think that it’s really important to realize that yes it’s 3 percent female and a 97 percent male world,” she says. “Yes, when you first get into it, it may feel uncomfortable. But keep your eye on the bigger picture.
“This can be a really beautiful game and if you persist, if you get better, and are able to move up in stakes in the poker world, you will become more comfortable and people will become nicer and friendlier.
Konnikova had her own experiences in this regard and details some of those in the book. She hopes some women will find inspiration in her own story.
“That’s probably why a lot of women don’t end up playing poker because it’s not hospitable,” she says. “I had a lot of bad stuff happen to me. I’ve been called everything under the sun. I’ve been propositioned. Lots of nasty things have taken place and had I not had Erik and that entire group – Phil Galfond, Jason Koon, Isaac Haxton, and all these incredible guys who had my back – had I not had seen how many good, decent, and amazing people were in the game, I may have quit.
“I may have been discouraged. I think some people when they walk into a casino, if one of their first experiences was like one of my first experiences, they’ll walk right out and never come back. I hope my book shows them that there’s more there.”
* Poker table photo by Joe Giron/WPT; Maria Konnikova photo by Landon Speers