Like all primates, humans play. Play can be for the shear joy of it, a way to grow and learn, or even a way for the very talented to make a living. These games fall along a spectrum from games of perfect information like chess or go to games of pure chance like roulette. Life itself seems to fall somewhere in the middle. We certainly lack perfect information when we are trying to make decisions. But neither is our life completely based on fortune, good or bad. Life is somewhere in between. We have some information and our choices do make a difference, but there are also many things that we have no control over. The trick in life is to determine the difference in order to make better decisions. Maria Konnikova, a PhD in psychology, in her book The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win shows how, to her, poker is the perfect game for learning this balance.
This book isn’t about how to play poker. It’s about how to play the world.Maria Konnikova, The Biggest Bluff
Konnikova is not the first academician to make this argument. In 2018 Annie Duke published Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts. Duke was also a professor of psychology before going pro in poker. Her book is more of a business book, and she is a corporate speaker and trainer. Konnikova’s book is in the same vein but has broader appeal and is much more personal.
The book is the story of how she decided to become a professional poker player to write a book. She admits that this was a gimmick to start with, a way to motivate her and time box her writing process. But she began to become deeply enthralled with what she was learning and what it can teach us about life.
She takes on a teacher and mentor from the start, who teaches her about the game and how to play it. She was such a newbie she wasn’t even sure how many cards are in a deck (52). She tells the story of going from crossing the Hudson River to play online poker legally in New Jersey to playing to winning at the World Series of Poker. Along the way, she entertainingly educates the reader on the science behind what she is learning and how to apply it in our everyday lives.
One of the core takeaways for me is the idea that we cannot properly judge our decisions based on the outcome. We can make the optimum decision based on all the available evidence on hand and still end up on the losing side, of life or a poker hand. Luck, good or bad, is an inevitable part of our lives in every aspect. We need to better understand when we are making good decisions based on what we know. Too often we get lucky and, naturally, attribute it to our wonderful decision-making. Conversely, we often berate ourselves for poor decisions when the outcome is undesirable while the real culprit is something beyond our control or ability to predict. The key is learning how to separate good decision-making from luck, and Konnikova, through her experience at the poker table, shows how to do this in this excellent read.