For poker players, understanding variance comes easily. It becomes second nature. On some days, aces get cracked and draws miss, while on other days, you leave with a bruise under your eye from getting hit in the face by the deck.
The upswings, and inevitable downswings, give poker players an insight into luck, and more specifically, how little control they have over it. Card players have an inherent sense of knowing that you can do everything right and you can still come out on the losing end of things.
This idea drew Maria Konnikova to poker. While earning her doctorate in psychology at Columbia University, she became infatuated with the concept and ultimately realized that poker encapsulated the idea perfectly.
“It’s actually at the heart of what I was studying in grad school,” said Konnikova. “In grad school, I was just interested in self-control, and risky decision making, and basically how people think. And what their reactions are when you take control away from them.”
This was the basis for her dissertation at Columbia, and it yielded some enthralling results.
“I learned some fascinating things,” said Konnikova. “The fact that very smart people are often last to see when they’ve lost control when the world has changed. They are just so used to controlling everything that they can’t admit it. They can’t just accept the fact that there are elements that they can’t predict and that the world has changed around them.”
She successfully defended her dissertation and got her graduate degree in 2013. This after already earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard in both creative writing and psychology.
Fast forward a couple of years to 2015. Konnikova had already published her first book, Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, and she was putting the finishing touches on her second book, The Confidence Game, while being a regular contributor for The New Yorker.
Amid all her success, Konnikova endured one of the worst years of her life. She developed an undiagnosed autoimmune disease, her perfectly healthy grandmother passed away in a freak accident, and her husband lost his job.
“It was just one thing after the other,” she said. “So, I was like, ‘Man, chance can be a bitch.’”
Her husband eventually got another job, Konnikova’s health returned to normal, and then she realized that this was the concept she wanted to focus on for her next project.
“It just makes you realize what a thin line there is and how much depends on luck,” said Konnikova. “At that point, I knew I really wanted to write about this. That I wanted it to be my next book. But that’s not really enough. That’s an idea. That’s not a book.”
Insert poker into the equation and now she had the perfect vehicle to convey this message. She began reading about chance and stumbled upon John Van Neumann’s Theory of Games. As an avid poker player himself, Neumann used game theory to try and solve poker.
It was a method to try and make the best decisions possible based off incomplete information, just as everyone does in day-to-day life. You can’t possibly know exactly what the future holds, so it’s much tougher to make the optimal decision.
“I mean, Van Neumann actually believed that if you solved poker, you could prevent nuclear holocausts,” said Konnikova. “That you could prevent nuclear war because the insights that you could gain from that kind of framework would prevent people from going into the wrong sort of theoretical spiral.”
Now she had a topic. A focal point for her book while still maintaining its philosophical overtones. She decided to spend a year of her life playing poker for a living and document the experience.
There was only one problem. She knew nothing about the game. Less than nothing.
In her own words, Konnikova “didn’t know how many cards were in a deck.” She needed to find someone who could help her learn not only the rules of the game, but also how to thrive. After all, she was giving up all of her other sources of income for at least 12 months.
Lucky for her, one of the best poker players in the history of the game was living in her city. She reached out to Erik Seidel and set up a meeting to pitch the idea of a man with $37.75 million in career tournament earnings teaching a complete newcomer.
“How I heard of him I think is how a lot of newbs to poker have heard of Erik Seidel, which is originally through the movie Rounders,” said Konnikova. “I’d seen the movie and really enjoyed it, but didn’t get any of the poker parts of it. But I thought it was a fun movie. I remembered the guy in the visor.”
As she started digging deeper into his poker career, she realized the “guy in the visor” was the perfect fit for her. Not only had Seidel spent several decades competing at the very top levels of the game, but he was also number one on the all-time money list at the time, and he possessed a thought process that Konnikova believed would translate best to her own.
“I knew from the outset that I needed some whose approach was going to be more psychological,” she said. “Because if you’re going to be learning a new skill, if you’re going to be immersing yourself in something new and you want to do as well as you can as quickly as you can, I think it’s very smart to capitalize on your strengths.”
Another important factor was Seidel’s demeanor. The soft-spoken New Yorker always has his emotions under control and has been free of any real scandal throughout 32 years playing the tournament circuit.
“I wanted someone who was nice,” said Konnikova. “I’m not going to spend a year with an asshole… He doesn’t have a schtick, he’s not loud, he basically says nothing. It’s hard to find a video of him on YouTube saying a single word… He had a nice vibe, he had a nice aura.”
The two met for the first time at a restaurant, hit it off, and just like that, Seidel was on board.
Konnikova had her book idea, and she had her world-class coach. The last piece of the puzzle was getting it sold. She worked feverishly on putting together a proposal while still working for The New Yorker and sharpening her poker skills by traveling across the Hudson River to New Jersey to play online.
“At the very beginning, I was still juggling multiple things because I had no idea how this would work,” said Konnikova.
Penguin Press ultimately bought the proposal, and it was off to the races. She took a book leave from The New Yorker and officially gave up traditional income streams for a year of trying to make a living on the felt.
“I designated a part of my advance towards poker expenses. This is my income. This is it,” she said.
With Seidel as a mentor, Konnikova had a distinct advantage over other complete beginners. Instead of diving through poker books written a decade earlier, she could pick the brain of arguably the best player in the world.
But that didn’t mean that she was skipping any steps. When she made her first trip to Las Vegas with Seidel to play her first live tournaments, she wasn’t jumping into big fields. She was playing $30 and $40 nightly tournaments at the smaller poker rooms on the Las Vegas Strip.
Seidel wanted to teach her bankroll management and force her to work her way up the ranks from the bottom. He wouldn’t even let her play the nightly tournament at Aria because he thought the competition was still too tough for her.
“He actually forced me to build my bankroll organically,” said Konnikova. “We originally put down a few thousand dollars in terms of outlays and he didn’t let me spend anymore until I could earn it.”
She eventually won one of those nightly tournaments and finished second in another. Then Seidel gave her the go-ahead to play the slightly bigger nightly tournament at Aria. Her first attempt didn’t go as planned, but in March of 2017, she finished runner-up in it for her first recorded career cash and $2,215.
From there, it was seemingly off to the races for Konnikova. She traveled with Seidel to Monte Carlo the following month and cashed another three times throughout the series for a total of $4,479, even finishing in the money in her first tournament with a four-figure buy-in.
Moving up in stakes was a blessing for Konnikova. She spent nearly a decade being educated at a pair of Ivy League schools, learning about psychology from some of the greatest minds in the world. By increasing her buy-ins, she was able to find and play with many people who had similar backgrounds.
“I think some of them didn’t realize how unwelcoming they were,” said Konnikova about some of the regular players she ran into playing nightly tournaments in Las Vegas. “They’d be drinking and they’re just not used to having a female at the table, and they’re there to have fun. They don’t really understand how their behavior and their comments were reflecting on me and how I feel about it. I did not love that.”
But despite the success in Monte Carlo, Seidel was worried that she still had some leaks. She had some cashes but none of them were especially deep runs. Seidel was worried that she was possibly playing to cash instead of playing to go deep and win the tournament. They went back to the drawing board and worked on playing more aggressively.
With Seidel’s tutelage also came his network of poker geniuses. Konnikova had access to the minds of the likes of Dan Harrington, Jason Koon, Phil Galfond, and several others. Meeting those great poker minds allowed her to see what the game could be like after she broke through from the small-stakes to the mid- or high-stakes, getting away from some of the seedier gamblers.
“These guys are just totally brilliant and it’s so inspiring,” she said after watching the high rollers play. “And the crazy thing was that as I got to know them because I actually would spend weeks in Vegas at a time and see them every single day, they took me under their wing. They started teaching me. Jason Koon was like, ‘Okay. Today, you can sweat with me.’”
“It was just like this insane masterclass of what poker could be. How welcoming people could be. How warm and just smart and wonderful the game could actually be. And so, I saw that potential right away.”
After the European trip, it was time for Konnikova’s first World Series of Poker. It was scheduled to be the culmination of her temporary time as a poker pro with an entry into the $10,000 buy-in main event.
She survived day 1 of the tournament but ultimately failed to cash. Still, in the few weeks she spent in Las Vegas, she cashed in a $1,500 no-limit hold’em six-max event, the $365 The Giant, and even the Millionaire Maker.
Konnikova decided to continue grinding throughout the rest of 2017 and really made her mark once the calendar flipped to the new year. She flew down to the Bahamas for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, where she ended up winning the $1,650 no-limit hold’em PCA National Championship for $84,600. It was her first five-figure score and the largest of her career to date.
The win brought her story to the mainstream. An author who had been playing poker for less than a year just won a tournament at one of the biggest stops on the circuit. Shortly after her victory, PokerStars signed her to a sponsorship deal and she was made an official team pro.
Just as her poker career was taking off, it was nearing the end of the road for the timeline she laid out for this experiment. It was time to start putting words on paper.
But Konnikova didn’t feel like her journey was over just yet, and after talking with her newfound poker network, she decided that perhaps she wasn’t ready to stop playing. The book wasn’t finished. She wanted to keep moving forward with poker, but she had a deadline.
She went back to her publisher and told her she needed more time to grind tournament poker and put together a better story.
“I picked the right editor,” said Konnikova. “I went to a lot a lot of different editors with this. There was an option for the book ultimately, and I ended up going with the person who I thought really got what I was trying to do… And this was the moment of truth where I was like ‘Holy shit. He really got it.’”
Her editor didn’t push back in the slightest. He let her keep going and knew that it was for the good of the final product.
“He was like, ‘This is incredible, go where the story takes you,’” said Konnikova. “This isn’t a time sensitive project, it’s not like someone’s going to scoop you on journalism for your story. He was like, ‘Go for it. Take all the time you need. I’m here when you’re ready.’ And he just backed off.”
More than three years and $311,368 in career tournament earnings later, Konnikova’s book, The Biggest Bluff was released on June 23.
The published book doesn’t mean that the poker world has seen the last of Konnikova. Even after her win at the PCA, she still questioned her ability. She was still unsure if it was her hard work and skill, or beginner’s luck that carried her to that title. And that doubt is what propels some of the greats to keep going.
“I still have it,” said Konnikova about doubts in her game. “But even more importantly, Erik [Seidel] still has it. And if Erik doubts himself, then by God everyone should be doubting themselves, because if there’s one person with no reason to doubt himself, it’s Erik.”