Maria Konnikova’s novice-to-fame poker odyssey, “The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win”, released last week by Penguin Press, serves up the well-written tale of an outsider with no actual poker knowledge — but considerable other mental skills — who decides to take a year of her life to see if she can not only learn and succeed at the game, but to understand why and what poker really is, in a quest of knowledge and personal improvement.
It’s an intriguing concept, if not the first such attempt at such a deep dive into the game. And in the hands of Konnikova, a skilled writer and psychologist by training, it comes off as a slick and entertaining read. From her initial approach to famed veteran pro Erik Seidel to her breakout success at a PokerStars Caribbean Adventure prelim just a year later (which led to her signing on for a short-term stint as a Team PokerStars pro), The Biggest Bluff chronicles Konnikova’s study-intensive efforts to become as good as possible, as fast as possible.
Sometimes, as the story illustrates, the journey is indeed the destination, though here it’s a twinned journey: As much as it’s a story of learning the game, it’s also a psychoanalytic treatise, with Konnikova herself as the test subject. Add in the occasional dose of poker and gambling history, and the recipe is complete.
After the prelude, which finds Konnikova literally crashing out of her first-ever WSOP Main Event in 2017 — this due to a flare-up of her chronic migraines — her tale begins with her approaching Seidel, the Poker Hall of Famer and owner of eight WSOP bracelets. Both Konnikova and Seidel are New Yorkers, and Seidel’s interest is piqued when he learns more about Konnikova’s psychology background. It’s an area of special interest to Seidel, and he signs on to teach the would-be player.
Seidel teaches Konnikova not only how to play the game, but how to think about the game in a way few others could, and together they create an intense schedule of study and play, first online (on New Jersey sites, where Konnikova soon travels daily) and then in live events. The online sessions are to teach her the game’s mechanics, and the later move to live play begins the more stringent challenge — the reading of people.
Most of us already know the outcome. It all goes well for Konnikova, a few major bumps along the way notwithstanding. In The Biggest Bluff, we also meet any number of interesting characters from poker’s elite sphere. The insights into the quiet and reticent Seidel are worth the purchase price alone; he’s one of the game’s deep thinkers, and his observational and analytical skills have kept him at the top of the game for decades.
Yet it doesn’t stop with Seidel. Konnikova tries to soak it critical poker thinking everywhere on her self-inflicted, year-long deadline. That soon includes nuggets of poker wisdom from numerous others, including “Action” Dan Harrington, Ike Haxton, Andrew “LuckyChewy” Lichtenberg, and many others… and even a sadly fading Paul “X-22” Magriel. Konnikova tries to dissect the essence of everything being offered, to then find her own path to making herself a tough, dangerous player.
For Konnikova, that also involves heavy, heavy doses of introspection. That’s her point of entry to the whole concept, this poker-pro thing, and how her experiences will fit into her psychology mindset and education. There are some potholes along he road, and she discovers her character changing as well.
“You take much less shit than you used to,” her husband tells her several months into her project.
The Biggest Bluff offers the occasional glimpse at some of poker’s other naked truths, both good and bad. The good, for example, is the reality that the game itself is an equalizer: Anyone who can afford the stakes can play. The bad: Konnikova runs headlong into some of the sexism that still permeates poker. There’s even the off-the-wall, as in a blind reference in the book’s later pages to the Phil Ivey mini-baccarat edge-sorting scandals. Ivey’s not mentioned by name, nor are the casinos, just the general tableau. Few details are offered, yet the context is about someone reversing the odds in a house-edge game, subtly implying (but never stating directly) that the casinos ought to have known right away they were being hustled.
There are some minor literary bumps. The weakest point of The Biggest Bluff is that sometimes the psychoanalysis is taken too far for the average reader, with the same theoretical arguments reiterated ad nauseum. Overall, the book is well-edited, but a few of the psych passages and chapters could have lost a third of their wordage without losing any of the punch. Yet that is Konnikova’s comfort zone, her home territory, and so they remain. One other weak point is how Konnikova manages to afford the globe-trotting necessary to play in all the tourneys that appear in her tale. Though she serves up her own financial instability, including the loss of work for both her husband and mother, her year’s venture takes her to Las Vegas and the WSOP, Spain, Ireland, Monte Carlo, even Macau. Having sufficient wealth to be able to do this sort of writing project then, is a different sort of reality than that facing many of her hoped-for readers. It’s a nagging incongruity.
Yet these are just quibbles. Overall, The Biggest Bluff has earned a spot in the upper tier of first-person poker adventures.