Episode 009:

Courage and Cutting Your Losses

with Dr. Maria Konnikova

July 13th, 2021

Listen or subscribe to our podcast on your favorite podcast provider!

Episode description

How do we decide when to play it safe and when to take the risk? Award-winning author, journalist, and professional poker player, Dr. Maria Konnikova, talks with our guest host, Annie Duke, about how poker parallels uncertainty in life, the hidden downside of avoiding risks, how to decide what to do next professionally, and how her fascinating career trajectory resembles a constellation more so than a straight line. She also reveals what you often need besides smarts and hard work to get where you want to go.

Maria Konnikova is the author, most recently, of The Biggest Bluff, a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book of 2020. Her previous books are the bestsellers The Confidence Game, winner of the 2016 Robert P. Balles Prize in Critical Thinking, and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, an Anthony and Agatha Award finalist. Maria is a regularly contributing writer for The New Yorker whose writing has won numerous awards, including the 2019 Excellence in Science Journalism Award from the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. Maria’s writing has been featured in Best American Science and Nature Writing and her works have been translated into over twenty languages.

While researching The Biggest Bluff, Maria became an international poker champion and the winner of over $300,000 in tournament earnings—and inadvertently turned into a professional poker player.

Maria also hosts the podcast The Grift from Panoply Media, a show that explores con artists and the lives they ruin, and is currently a visiting fellow at NYU’s School of Journalism. Her podcasting work earned her a National Magazine Award nomination in 2019. She graduated from Harvard University and received her PhD in psychology from Columbia University.

Annie: I’m so excited to welcome my guest today, Maria Konnikova. Maria is an award-winning author, journalist, and strangely professional poker player, which is a lot of what we’re going to talk about today. Her books include The Biggest Bluff, The Confidence Game, and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. And she is also a regular contributing writer for the New Yorker. While researching her latest book, The Biggest Bluff, Maria became an international poker champion and the winner of over $300,000 in tournament earnings, inadvertently becoming a professional poker player along the way, which is something that we’re going to delve into how that becomes inadvertent.

Maria also happens to have a PhD in psychology from Columbia University and is currently a visiting fellow at the NYU School of Journalism. Needless to say, Maria knows a lot about decision-making and I have never been so excited for our conversation. Thank you for coming on today.

Maria: Oh, of course Annie. It’s a pleasure.

Annie: So, obviously we just touched on like a few of the things in the bio, but you were a writer, then a Ph.D student, and then continued to write and then you become a professional poker player as one does. So can you just tell us a little bit about how you ended up… I mean, obviously you sort of bounced around. What is your background? How did you sort of start down this path?

Maria: Yeah. You’ve correctly noted that I’ve bounced around and it’s so funny because whenever people ask about, oh, you know, career trajectory and what were you planning for?, I want them to take a step back and actually take a look at my career trajectory, which has been all over the map. And I think that’s fine. And I think that you can’t call it a trajectory. It’s more like this weird zig-zaggy constellation that you never know what direction it’s going to go in next. That’s the way I think a lot of things in life are. And one of the things, as you know, that poker teaches you, is that the future is uncertain. You really can’t predict it as much as you want to think that you can. As an undergrad, I studied both psychology and writing and I always wanted to be a writer. I mean, that was always where my heart was. That’s always what I wanted to do. Even in psychology, I was studying language.

So I actually studied with Steve Pinker as an undergrad, looking at cycle linguistics and how we can kind of look at language as a lens into who we are. And I ended up having six or seven jobs in the first year out of college including bartender, advertising, copywriter, talk about bouncing around, that was certainly a year with a lot of bouncing. First female hire at an all male website magazine digital publication that was targeted to the millennial bro. That was interesting, that that did not last long. And then finally wound up in television for a number of years that was kind of the job that stuck and through that all I wanted to write and I just kept finding that I didn’t have time and that this was not a fault of poor planning or allocation, but the job I was doing was 24/7, weekends.

It was just, it was constant. And I was drained. And so the honest answer about my PhD is that I wanted to go back to an environment where I’d both be intellectually stimulated and be able to study something that was really exciting to me. And also have time to write, have time to be with my own thoughts.

And Columbia was a very deliberate choice because I wanted to study with Walter Mischel, who unfortunately died since then, but I became his last grad student, and people who don’t recognize the name, probably still know his work. He’s the marshmallow guy, the person who designed the marshmallow studies of delay of gratification. You know, can you wait for the marshmallow or do you eat it right away? And kids who waited ended up having much better life outcomes in all sorts of areas, you know, from education to health, to marriage, happiness, all sorts of things. And I wanted to work with him because I thought I could learn a lot from him.

And I was very honest with them. Honesty is not always the best policy in academia. I would actually say that it usually is not when what honesty means is, hey, I don’t actually want to go into academia.

Annie: Right. Right.

Maria: And so I ended up becoming really interested in decision-making and self control and how people make decisions in uncertain environments.

And so what I ended up studying and doing my dissertation on was this concept of the illusion of control, so when we still think that we have control of events, even when we doubt, where that kind of blurring of control and chance comes, and what happens when you throw smart people into stochastic environments, what happens when you put them into situations where probabilities matter, where there’s not just uncertainty, but ambiguity, where information camp keeps changing, what happens to them? How do they fare? And we learned some really interesting stuff, and it was one of these things where you learn and the more you learn, the more dispiriting it is for your own ability to make decisions, because you look at these smart people and they keep falling for all these biases, the illusion of control, all these things, and you think, there’s really no hope for us. So that’s where I ended up academically speaking before going back to writing.

Annie: So there’s something that I hear. And I just want to know if I’m hearing this correctly, that it feels like you’ve done just a wide variety of things, right? You’re at Harvard. You’re studying with Steve Pinker, which by the way, people don’t know this, but we have a lot of very strange overlap, coincidences. So when I was in graduate school, I was studying with someone named Lila Gleitman and Lila Gleitman and Steve Pinker were actually intimately related because they were working on different sides of a question about how children learn their first language. So I’ve known Steve since I was, gosh, I want to say 21.

Maria: And I’ve known him since I was 18.

Annie: Yeah, there you go. And you actually once sent me a picture, you ran into him at the train station. And you said, look who I found and I really enjoyed that. And then obviously you end up at Columbia, which is where I did my undergrad and just a lot of very strange [coincidences] anyway, we’ve remarked on it and we’ll get to more of those as well because there’s some other things that we overlap on, but what I hear and tell me if this is a fair reading of it, is that a lot of times, when you look at somebody’s career path, in your case, career zigzag, and you say, oh, that seems like there were a lot of unrelated things happening there that generally it’s, because you’re kind of thinking about it, not by what are the features, what are the things that this person is trying to really express in themselves, right?

Because what I hear from you is you have a love of writing and you want to be able to express that, which I imagine is how you ended up in television with Charlie Rose in the first place. Right, but that is actually really important to you to be able to express in different ways. And obviously having worked with Steve Pinker, you also have this curiosity in exploring partly through your writing.

How does the mind work? How does the world work? And that as you’re thinking about what you’re doing, you’re trying to figure out do these features of things that I’m doing overlap enough with the things that excite me? And that you can find those features in different ways and exploring those actually helps your thinking and helps you accomplish what it is that you’re trying to do more fully and with more excellence in the first place.

“And that as you’re thinking about what you’re doing, you’re trying to figure out do these features of things that I’m doing overlap enough with the things that excite me?” — Annie Duke

Maria: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. For people listening to the podcast, I was vigorously nodding during what Annie was just saying. I think that what’s always kind of governed my decisions in terms of life is not where do I want to go in 20 steps?

Because I can’t plan that far ahead and I don’t know what life is gonna look like, but does this seem interesting? Does this seem fulfilling? Does this seem like something that I’m curious about and that will help me expand who I am? And if the answer is yes, wonderful. And if I thought the answer was yes, and it ends up that the answer actually wasn’t I’ll quit.
So I have quit multiple jobs. And actually the last time I worked in an office was before grad school. I wrote my first book when I was in grad school and then have been writing full-time ever since. And obviously poker also does not involve being in an office. But it’s not like I went to journalism school because I wanted to become a writer.

I think that the mentality of thinking, you know, I need to do X to do Y is a little bit misguided because people end up studying things, not because they’re interested in them, not because inherently there’s something there that arouses their curiosity, but because they think it’s going to be useful.

And what I find time and time again is we have no idea what’s going to be useful. We don’t know what we’re going to end up using in our lives, what knowledge we’re going to end up using, what experiences we’re going to end up using. I mean, so much from my background that I draw on today, I would have had no clue that that would be kind of the useful thing.
And if you had told me even if you’d met me on the street in 2015 and said, Hey Maria, do you know that in a few years, you’re going to be playing poker full time? I would have laughed in your face and said, ha, that’s the funniest joke I’ve ever heard, what’s poker? Obviously I knew what poker was, but it wasn’t an interest or a passion of mine in any way, shape or form. So I’ve been very open to doing things if there are features there, as you say, that seemed like they will do something and teach me something. The other test I always have whenever I’m kind of looking to see what I do next is: does it terrify me? And if the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no then maybe I shouldn’t do it because it probably means it’s not a great opportunity to grow.

“So I’ve been very open to doing things if there are features there, as you say, that seemed like they will do something and teach me something. The other test I always have whenever I’m kind of looking to see what I do next is: does it terrify me? And if the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no then maybe I shouldn’t do it because it probably means it’s not a great opportunity to grow.” — Maria Konnikova

Maria: So, I love that. So you sort of use that as a peg to figure out, when I’m doing things, I want to make sure that I’m learning. Is that a fair way to put it?

Obviously people can do things that they’re really good at that they’re going to excel at, but they’re not going to learn and grow from it. So there seems to be a core value for you.

Maria: Absolutely.

Annie: So you write a book during graduate school having already worked on the Charlie Rose Show, you go to graduate school, you’re working with the famed, Walter Mischel, you take a semester off to write a book, as one does, you finish your PhD, as promised you don’t become an academic, you become a regular writer for the New Yorker.

Maria: After lots of rejection, by the way. That’s also important to note. It’s not a clear path. People have no idea how many years I submitted to the New Yorker and got rejection letter after rejection letter, before I finally had my first piece accepted. So keep trying. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Annie: Get your shots on goal, right. Something will go in. That’s such a good point. Thank you for clarifying it.

Maria: So, sorry for interrupting. But I wanted it to be clear that it took many, many, many years.

Annie: I obviously said it as if like, “Oh, and you know, then all of a sudden,” but it’s kind of that thing about when do you quit, right? Don’t get discouraged by one rejection, particularly in your case, you love writing, so it’s not a huge cost to you to write those things and submit them. Right. And then hopefully at some point someone says, oh, and then you become a contributing writer and that’s pretty spectacular. Then you write another book, which is a bestseller, which is The Confidence Game.

So I want to circle back to that, but I want to first go further into the future into The Biggest Bluff and say, having come off of that you’re a contributing writer at the New Yorker, you have two best-sellers, things seem to be going great for you and then you get this cockamamie idea, oh, I’m gonna, I’m gonna go see what poker has to tell me. And I’m just curious as to how you came to that conclusion, where did that idea come from?

Maria: Yeah, it was completely out of left field. It’s not like I sat down and said, you know, I think I want to do poker now or I think I want to write a book about poker now.

I wanted to write about luck and the role it plays in our lives and how we learn to tell the difference between what is and isn’t luck, what is and isn’t skill, where the limits of our own control are. And we talked a little bit about what I studied in grad school. So definitely the limits of our control are something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. And I went through just a phase of personal, bad luck of things, just not going well for me, I got really sick. My grandmother died in a freak accident. My husband lost his job. My mom lost her job.

Just a lot of things happened all within one, two months just all at once. And it just was a time for me to just really stop and reflect. Think a lot of people can probably sympathize with that right now, a year into COVID. But when things just suddenly feel so completely outside of your control and it’s a moment where you really realize how lucky you have to be in life in order to get where you’re going. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, unless you are also lucky. And unless you also have all of these intangibles cooperate and there’s nothing like seeing your health breakdown to realize, oh, well, I can do yoga every morning and eat a healthy lifestyle and cook all my own food and it doesn’t matter.

Sometimes your body will be like, huh, screw you. And when it’s all going well, you kind of take it for granted and you think, oh, this is great, I’m working hard, I’m doing well, as I should. No, there is no should. Right. Life owes you nothing. And it’s necessary to work hard, but not sufficient.

Annie: We all know that when people are doing well, it’s “I worked so hard.” My son used to do this, right? He’d do well on a test and it would be, “I studied really hard. I worked really hard. I did my job. I read the stuff, I answered the questions.” Great. But then when he didn’t do well on a test, it was, “The test was really hard. There were things on the test that…”

Maria: “They didn’t tell us!”

Annie: “They didn’t tell us that was going to be on the test. It was so unfair” or it would sometimes be “Everybody did really poorly and you can ask everybody” or my favorite one was “That teacher hates me. You can ask all my friends. They’ll confirm it.”

Maria: Yup, absolutely. Absolutely.

Annie: I love this idea of this acknowledgement that it’s so easy to get sucked into when things are going well, feeling like it’s all your own doing. Right. Instead of understanding, yes, there is no question that there is a skill element to it and it’s how are you executing on the opportunities that are there for you? But I think that we lose sight, particularly when things are going well of how strong an influence luck still has on what’s going on.

Maria: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so this is what I wanted to write about because it’s true of even very smart people and people who really do understand that luck is a factor in life.

I’m someone who definitely understands that luck plays a big role in life. And still, I realized that I’d been taking a lot of things for granted. And so that’s not a book though. That’s a philosophical idea. And so I sat down with my agent and she said, “Okay great. What’s the book? What’s the story?” And so I needed something and it took forever actually to figure out what the story was. I pitched so many things and she would just say, “No, no, no.” I was like, “Oh, what about I can look at a ship that comes into Ellis Island and track several people there whose lives came out in very different ways. And see what the role of luck was and I had lots of ideas like that which are kind of cool, but they were…”

Annie: And relates to your life.

Maria: Yeah, for sure.

Annie: For those who don’t know, you were not born in the United States.

Maria: No. Yes, I was born in the Soviet Union and my family left while it was still the Soviet Union and got political asylum in the U.S. so that was a personal take on it, but still, I was trying to figure out how do I write about it? And she just kept shooting these things down, and then…

Annie: Did you ever have a moment where you said, hey lady, I’ve written two best-selling books. Why do you keep rejecting me?

Maria: Oh yeah, no I almost fired her. Not really. I love her. She’s wonderful, but I was really frustrated. But she was right. Like it wasn’t the one she could tell that there were things that were wrong. That’s why she’s a really good agent. She’s happy to push me and to and to make me keep going. I almost wrote about daily fantasy sports because someone told me that it was going to be kind of the next big thing and they were right. And it was, and I got some great material. I reported on it for about a month until I realized, wait a second, I hate sports.

Annie: Oh no!

Maria: But I knew it. I knew I hated sports going in.

Annie: Did that end up in the New Yorker though?

Maria: No, it didn’t end up anywhere.

Annie: Oh, okay.

Maria: That’s great for someone else to write about. I just realized I had no interest in writing about it. It’s a great book, but not for me. And so I ended up coming to poker through game theory.

So someone recommended… all of this time I’m reading and I’m reading and I’m reading. And I read a lot when I’m researching and someone recommended that I read John Von Neumann. And so I did and I probably didn’t understand 90% of it. Theory of games and economic behavior is not the easiest reading, but I did understand that Von Neumann was a poker player.

Right. And that game theory actually came out of poker. So here’s this guy who’s a brilliant mathematician, brilliant polymath, really you know, father of the computer, one of the inventors of the hydrogen bomb, father of game theory, brilliant mind, and he is obsessed with this game. And the reason he’s obsessed with it is because he thinks that it holds the key to strategic decision-making. That it’s actually the perfect way of looking at decision-making in life and the kind of the analogy he draws as poker as a game of incomplete information, life as a game of incomplete information, it really spoke to me.

“[John Von Neumann] thinks that [poker] holds the key to strategic decision-making. That it’s actually the perfect way of looking at decision-making in life and the kind of the analogy he draws as poker as a game of incomplete information, life as a game of incomplete information.” — Maria Konnikova

And there’s one quote in particular that really kind of was my aha moment in terms of maybe I should check out what this whole poker thing is. And he wrote I might misquote it slightly, but something along the lines of real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception of trying to figure out, “What does this man think I need to do?” and that’s what games are about in my theory. And to me, as a psychologist, that really spoke to me, I was like, wow, there’s this mathematician, math is his life. And here he is acknowledging that math isn’t enough. That actually to figure out decision-making in the real world, you also need to figure out how do we account for the human? How do we account for those interactions, those dynamics between people? And he thought that poker could help. So I decided to see what this whole poker thing was about. And something just clicked. When I started reading about poker, I thought, this is my next book. Why don’t I learn how to play poker, get someone really good to teach me, spend a year doing it, and use it as a metaphor for life.

And so that was kind of the origin, not a love of poker, not a love of games, I actually hate games for the most part. It’s probably not something I should say, but I’m not a games player. That’s not something I grew up playing. I hate board games. Whenever I see Catan or any of those games coming out, I just want to crawl under a rock and pretend I’m not there. But I thought that poker was going to teach me something really interesting about decision-making, about life, about myself, that it could be a way into a lot of these questions that I was asking and it turns out it was, and so much more. And not to mention that I fell in love with the game because of its possibilities and what it was teaching me.

Annie: Can you tell us a little bit about first of all, who Erik Seidel is? And second of all, How on earth did you get him to agree to this? Because just so people know, Erik is about the most publicity shy person on the planet. So I would love for you to just tell us, why did you choose him? Why did you have him in mind and then did you apply The Confidence Game? What you had learned from The Confidence Game to get him to say yes?

Maria: So Erik Seidel is one of the greatest poker players of all time, if not the greatest, because he’s someone who’s been around since the eighties and has been winning consistently at the highest levels since the eighties. And no one else has done that, literally there’s actually no other example of that.

And at one point he was number one in all time earnings. Now he isn’t anymore. I think he’s number four or something like that, but it doesn’t matter because that’s outcome. That’s being very outcome oriented. And those things are skewed by individual results. But I actually first heard of him through the movie Rounders and for people who don’t know anything about poker, but have seen Rounders, he was the guy in the red visor.

In that hand where Matt Damon keeps watching over and over with Johnny Chan where he’s the kid who comes in second in the main event of the World Series of Poker, but that was his first major tournament. And he came in second and he was able to replicate that over and over and start winning major titles starting with the next year.

But that’s who he is. And as you say, he’s very publicity shy, so there’s really not much you can learn about him online. I did learn, one of the reasons I approached him, was that he seemed nice. So there’s a lot of footage of poker players, especially the older ones who’d been around for a long time. And I was looking at videos. I was doing things like Googling best poker players of all time. Let’s see what happens. No, that’s literally what I was doing to try to find a good coach. And in the videos, he just always looks nice. He’s humble; he’s quiet; he looks thoughtful; he seemed like someone I’d get along with. And that’s important when you’re asking someone to coach you and as to why he said yes, I mean, certainly an element of luck and lucky timing and lucky lots of things, and lucky that he is who he is. I didn’t know anything about him. But I really tried to think about what it would take for me to take on a mentee.

And it was a lot because I don’t have time to take on any mentee. And I thought what would the ideal look like? And how can I be that ideal in this situation? The ideal looked like someone who would also be bringing something to the relationship and was clearly enthusiastic and was doing it for good reasons.

So I think what I tried to do was, so I prepared, as if I were going for a job interview of my life, when I met Eric for the first time I printed out all of these psych studies that existed about poker. Everything I could find I printed out for him so that he would know that I could give him this stuff that was just in psych journals and that he wouldn’t have had access to.
And I explained to him why I wanted to do this and that I really was not going to take a lot of his time, which is hilarious because I ended up becoming a part of the Seidel family for multiple years. And being an honorary Seidel for quite some time from how much time I took from their life.

But I think the combination of my willingness to put in the work and also the fact that I wasn’t a poker player, I think that that challenge and the opportunity was really enticing to him. I wasn’t a poker player who came to him and said, I want to improve my ROI which he would have said good for me. I was someone who was interested in poker because of the psychology, because of the other elements of it. And I knew what I was bringing to it was I was going to be writing about it for a popular audience and he loves the game and he wants to share a love of the game with others.

And so I think he saw it as a long game that yes, that it would take some time from him, but that if I could write about it well, and if I could do a good job, then it would ultimately be good for poker.

Annie: Yeah. I love that and also just to reiterate, he is incredibly nice. I just want to say that, I mean, aside from everything else he is, he’s incredibly nice.

Maria: Oh, and he didn’t say yes right away, by the way he said, we’ll see, he said, let’s see if it works out. Let’s see how it works. So it worked out.

Annie: Well, obviously it worked out well. So back in the 90s before you were playing poker and there was no internet poker, generally what would happen is at the highest limits of the game, somebody would come in who was just usually someone who was in a later stage of their career or later stage of their life. They had made a bunch of money and they were looking sort of in their retirement to have fun. And there were a few people like that and the game would form around them. And I always try to explain to people that everybody was winning in that situation. So to your point that people have different goals when they’re sitting at a game, right?
Like when I go and watch a movie, my goal is not to make money. My goal is to be entertained and I’m willing to pay a certain amount of money to be entertained in the same way I might pay a certain amount of money for a good bottle of wine and I expect no monetary return for that, that you can approach poker in the exact same way as a way to have fun and socialize.

And for the people who were playing with us in the 90s, they just wanted to play with the best players in the world. And they actually weren’t interested in making money. They were interested in being entertained. Particularly we think about poker as you’re going and it’s a game and you’re trying to win, but we need to understand, like there are different ways to win. And that’s part of the decision process as well, in terms of the way that you approach the game.

Maria: Absolutely. And also for someone like me and someone I’m guessing like you were in the 90s, whose goal is to make money and who is playing seriously, it’s really crucial to identify what people’s motivations are because it affects how you play.

It actually changes the game theory tree. But you can’t these days, everyone uses solvers, including me and kind of maps out these trees that run thousands of Monte Carlo simulations for John Von Neumann to figure out, you know, game theoretically, what are you supposed to do? But poker is not a solved game. And your game theory is approximate and your inputs greatly affect what your simulation throws out. If you don’t give it certain options, it’s not going to know that those are possibilities. If you change the ranges of hands for people who don’t play poker, that’s kind of your thinking about what possible hands people can be holding to start the hand, you know, given certain assumptions, if you change that, that completely changes the output and knowing the human, the psychology, the motivations of the people you’re playing against and what makes them tick, how they’re thinking about it, why they’re at the table that affects your game theoretical tree, that affects your inputs, that affects how you play. And I think that that’s really important to remember as the game becomes more and more mathematical, that psychology is still there. The psychology is part of the math.

Annie: So one of the things that I’ve thought about just kind of as a basic, as things have moved into solvers is that, for example, when you’re thinking about what you call Nash equilibria. So John Nash, who was a student of John Von Neumann, and people should know John Nash from A Beautiful Mind. Russell Crowe played him.

Maria: I’m going to interrupt you again just to say that it’s so funny what names people do and don’t know if Russell Crowe plays, you people know who you are. Von Neumann didn’t have a movie.

Annie: He had no movie, so people don’t know. But John Nash in that movie, as people recall, was schizophrenic, but he’s a Nobel Laureate. There’s many Nobel Laureates in game theory, by the way.  I think the most in economics are actually in game theory, if I recall, I may be wrong about that, but I think it’s a lot though.

But anyway, Russell Crowe is playing John Nash. John Nash is actually a student of Von Neumann. So he’s studying game theory and he’s interested in a particular thing which is called Nash equilibria. And basically you can think about it as what’s the thing that I could do that’s going to accomplish two things at once.

It’s going to earn me the most money, but also it’s going to be something that the other person can’t take advantage of. Okay. So that’s actually really important, right? Because I could do something that could earn a lot of money, but somebody could figure that out and then they could actually take all of my money because of that.

So one of the things that I actually think about in that way is that that’s actually one of the key questions that you have to ask when you’re thinking strategically about the person that you’re playing against is: are they paying enough attention to me that I need to defend against them exploiting what I’m doing? Because a lot of times, if they were never going to figure out a strategy that was going to take advantage of what you were doing, there’d be something else you could do that would make more money, but you’re trying to balance those two things. And so you’re usually giving up a little bit in the short run on that one choice in order to make sure that in the long run, somebody couldn’t figure you out. And that helps you in the long run.

But that was always my first question. Is this person gonna bother to try to figure anything out about me? Because if they’re not going to bother to try to figure anything out for me, I’m just going to play pretty straight forward and just try to figure out what the most money is I could make in this second. Right. So I think that’s where we need to figure out how to marry… who are you playing against? Are they a retiree, who’s just trying to have a blast and they’re not really tracking you very much, for example?

Maria: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And people forget that when you kind of look at the decision matrix in game theory, your highest payoff is never in the Nash equilibrium.

Your individual highest payoff is always in a different box, but you end up at the Nash equilibrium. And because that payoff is unstable.

Annie: It will go away.

Maria: Exactly. That’s not a stable box and you need to get to the stable box. But in poker you can sometimes be in that unstable box for a really long time. And so, you know, it is something where you have to constantly perform that calculus and the other thing that I’ll say about Von Neumann is that, in poker, and this is why I think it’s such an important game. It’s also not enough to know all the theory and be a good decision maker. You also have to be someone who is in control of your emotions and someone who is strong mentally.

“It’s also not enough to know all the theory and be a good decision maker. You also have to be someone who is in control of your emotions and someone who is strong mentally.” — Maria Konnikova

I don’t think Von Neumann was. I mean, Von Neumann was someone who was very emotional, according to everyone who knew him. I’d read the unpublished memoirs of his wife. And it’s fascinating to see how someone who lived with him who realized his brilliance kind of saw a lot of that kind of temperament that could come out. He was someone who enjoyed drinking and he might’ve actually even been trying cause I’m just projecting to say, well, probably he was just there to have fun, but maybe he wasn’t, you know, maybe he actually would try to make good decisions, but other things got in the way. And so that’s the other thing to remember about good decision-making. It’s not enough to know, in theory, what you’re supposed to do. You also have to have the mental game to back it up to be able to execute, to not let emotions get in the way, to not let personal feelings get in the way, to not drink and let that get in the way, to actually kind of be strong in all areas.

“And so that’s the other thing to remember about good decision-making. It’s not enough to know, in theory, what you’re supposed to do. You also have to have the mental game to back it up to be able to execute, to not let emotions get in the way, to not let personal feelings get in the way…
to actually kind of be strong in all areas.”
— Maria Konnikova

And some players can’t do that. There are also some players who are great online players who can’t play live because live there are too many things that make them tilt. Great word, right? Great word for decision-making. And there are live players who are wonderful live and who can’t play online. So it’s a complicated thing and there’s no one answer and who knows we’ll never know what the truth is behind Von Neumann sucking up poker, but we know he did.

Annie: Yeah. So we know he did. But, okay. So you’re reading John Von Neumann. You find, oh, maybe poker’s my way into it. Now, before you had said, well, maybe I’ll go and I’ll trace a bunch of people from Ellis Island.

So I think that a regular person would have said, “Oh, I’ll write about poker.” You had a completely different idea, which was so I will be a poker player. That’s maybe not exactly what people would think immediately. So I’m wondering, was that like an automatic thought for you? Did you think about just writing about poker?

Maria: No, I felt like in this particular case, because I came to it from such a personal point of departure, I felt like the story would only work if it was my journey. Now it became much more personal than I intended. I ended up writing something that was much more memoir than not. And originally I didn’t know that that’s where it was going to go. But I knew that I actually had to learn it myself to figure it out, to know it. I mean, I’m not someone who’s an experiential journalist. It’s not like all of my projects are now I’m going to do a year of this.

Annie: You’re not George Plimpton.

Maria: I’m not George Plimpton.

Annie: That dates me.

Maria: I am not George Plimpton, but it felt from the very beginning, like I had to do this. Now, I had no idea if I was going to be good or not. I had no idea if I was going to enjoy it or not. I had no idea what would happen. And so initially I was just gonna kind of play up until the World Series, play in the main event, and that was going to be that and that journey obviously changed for a lot of reasons. And this is one of the themes that we’ve been raising over and over, you have to be open to change. You can’t think you know everything. And you have to realize that sometimes you don’t know what the story is, and sometimes you don’t know what something is going to look like before you start it. If you already know, then it’s probably not something you should be doing because there’s no discovery, there’s no exploration. But when it came to the World Series, I realized that I was nowhere near done. That I didn’t know enough. I hadn’t learned enough that it was just kind of the beginning. And then at some point I also started doing well and making money. That obviously helped.

“You have to be open to change. You can’t think you know everything. And you have to realize that sometimes you don’t know what the story is, and sometimes you don’t know what something is going to look like before you start it. If you already know, then it’s probably not something you should be doing because there’s no discovery, there’s no exploration.” — Maria Konnikova

Annie: I would just like to say that doing well is an understatement. So just how so let me just set the scene. Yeah. So I actually got a chance to play poker with you right at the beginning of your journey.

Maria: The second time I ever played poker.

Annie: Right. And I can say completely honestly here that I’m not sure you knew what beat what.

Maria: Oh no.

Annie: I mean, you certainly didn’t know. You didn’t know how to handle poker chips. I think you weren’t sure about whether it was your turn to bet. I mean, it was like, wait, what’s a blind. I mean, I just would like everybody to understand.

Maria: Yes, this is where I came from.

Annie: Maria knew nothing! And when I was like wait, she’s going to become a poker player, she doesn’t know how to put a chip in the pot. This is going to be interesting. And I just want to be clear that within a year, could you explain what happened?

Maria: Well, first I knocked you out of that tournament where I did not know anything.

Annie: That is true. Look, wait, but then what happened the next time?

Maria: Oh, you knocked me out. This is true. When I actually knew what I was doing. So anyway. But a year later it turned out that kind of from about a year from the time I started playing seriously learning and not from a year from the time where you and I played against each other, but after I started, actually I decided I was going to do this and started studying. I ended up winning a pretty big tournament. Yeah, it was called PCA, the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. It was one of the kind of old tournaments on the tour, part of, even though it’s called something different than, the European poker tour. So it was a big deal. And it was a really big field and I somehow managed to win through both skill and also a lot of luck. You know, one of the things, because I was writing about it, I think one of the things that actually helped me improve as quickly as I did is that I was taking a very journalistic approach. So I would, I was writing down every hand. I was writing down everything because I needed the kind of objective narrative of what happened. I needed to kind of keep track and keep notes. And that also meant that I had kind of this database of how I play and the mistakes I make and the ways I’m thinking about things. And I think that that actually really helped me improve in a lot of ways.

But because I did that, I also know that there were multiple times where I quote unquote, “shouldn’t have been in that tournament anymore where I was a big dog and lucked out.” And I think everyone always says, and it’s true that to win a tournament, you have to play well, but you also have to get lucky. Isn’t that just true of life?

Annie: It’s so true. And what I think is interesting and this kind of goes back to the point that you were making about sort of you know that you were bopping along; things were going pretty well for you. I mean, obviously you were also persistent, you submitted to the New Yorker, a gazillion times before you got it, but things were going pretty well, and then all of a sudden, right. In terms of that idea of control and us losing sight of the luck, one of the things I try to point out to people is it’s not just that in order to win a tournament, at some point, you’re going to get in when you’re a mathematical underdog, it’s that even across the times that you are a mathematical favorite, when you take all of those together, the idea that you might win enough of those in order to be able to win the tournament is actually a long shot in and of itself.

So you could think about, for example, as you know, in poker, being 60% to win a hand is pretty awfully great. I would take that every single time, but to do that twice in a row, all of a sudden you’re 36% to do that twice in a row and so on and so forth. And so as you’re sort of accruing, you know, those hands over time, the fact that you win a tournament, that you actually have, those things go your way.

So one of the things that people say in poker, which I know you hear is they’ve won every race, right? So what that means is that there’s a lot of times in poker where you get into a 50/50ish situation and, you know, poker players in general, the good ones recognize that it’s lucky when you, when you’re more than your fair share of those. And, and in order to win any tournament that has to happen.

Maria: Indeed. You cannot win a tournament without those, even if you’re Phil Hellmuth, who likes to pride himself on never going all in, in a tournament, that’s just not true.

Annie: Well, that is true. Although he did himself, at least had the qualifier, if it weren’t for luck, I would win every one. So you know, as it’s obviously an absurd statement, he’s saying that if you take the luck away, he’s better than every human being on earth. But he did, he did at least recognize that there was a luck element that might be frustrating, his ability to win every tournament that he wants.

Maria: That’s right. But you do, I mean I think it’s a really, really important point that you have to keep getting lucky. It’s not enough to get lucky once to win a tournament, especially a large field tournament, where there are hundreds of players you have to get through, you need to hold in the important spots and you need to get there in the important spots and people say, oh, well then why don’t you just never go all in, right. Why do you, why don’t you just, you know, keep those chips? Well, that’s how you lose, right? That’s how you, that’s how you just dwindle out. You can’t keep sitting there waiting until it’s a sure thing because it’s poker, there’s no such thing as a sure thing. And you’ll never last. And that’s another, that’s an important lesson.

And for me, it was actually, that was an important lesson in risk-taking that, you know, you. You do need to put yourself in those situations, if you actually want to win, if you’re actually playing to win, because that’s the only way that you amass chips, that’s the only way that you’re going to actually be able to make it through this many people for many days for the duration is if you put yourself in those situations and yes, every time you do it’s a risk, but without those risks, then you have no chance.

There’s no such thing as coasting to victory. There’s such a thing as coasting through the first day of the main event of the World Series, you can do that. Absolutely. You don’t need to take any risk. You shouldn’t take any bad risks because I don’t remember how many big blinds you have at the beginning of the minimum. 500? It’s insane.

Annie: It’s an insane number.

Maria: It’s insane. And the levels are two hours long. I mean the whole structure is insane. And so yes, there, you have to actually play much more like a cash game for people who know kind of the differences where you can afford to wait and to pick your spots, really pick your spots and to be a little more risk averse, but in most tournaments, you can’t. Even kind of early on you have to start putting yourself in those situations because that’s what’s going to win. For someone like me who is more risk averse, that was also a really important lesson for life and realizing that sometimes when you’re playing it safe or you think you’re playing it safe, you’re not, you’re actually undermining yourself and putting yourself in a position to lose because your chips are just gonna flow away. And then you’ll look down and you’ll say, wait, where did they go? I never went all in. Where are my chips?

“For someone like me who is more risk averse, that was also a really important lesson for life and realizing that sometimes when you’re playing it safe or you think you’re playing it safe, you’re not, you’re actually undermining yourself and putting yourself in a position to lose because your chips are just gonna flow away. And then you’ll look down and you’ll say, wait, where did they go?
I never went all in. Where are my chips?”
— Maria Konnikova

Annie: You know, this makes me think of this. What I find is that when people sense that they don’t have perfect information, right? That they’re there behind the veil of ignorance and that you know, that there’s risks that they might be taking on, right.

That, you know, it could not go their way. You know, I see people a lot of time saying, well, then I’m just not going to decide. And of course, what I always try to say is, not making a decision is a decision, it’s choosing the status quo. And I love what you just said made me just think about this in a way that I don’t know why I haven’t thought about the relationship between these two things before, but it has just popped into my mind. What poker does is it tells you that you can’t essentially not make a decision because in tournaments, and this is the difference between tournaments and cash games. In cash games, you just have your money and you can sit there for a pretty long time because you’re playing whatever the level is and as long as you’ve put the right money on the table, the whole point is that you can go for quite a while. But in a tournament, the tournament structure puts a time limit on your ability to not make decisions. In other words, to not choose to get involved in hands because the blinds, which is your automatic payment per round, continually increases.

“Not making a decision is a decision, it’s choosing the status quo.” — Annie Duke

So if that’s going to continually increase and your chips don’t increase along with that, then eventually you shall have no money. And so it’s just really in your face because of the structure of the tournament that just sitting back on your hands and saying, I’m just going to wait until I’m so sure I have the best hand that I can feel comfortable getting my chips in is a really, really terrible strategy because the time limit is gonna is gonna eat you up.

Maria: And it’s not just the time limit. I love having a player like that at my table because I can comfortably not give them any of my money because I know that the second that player becomes aggressive, they have the nuts, which in poker means the best hand possible. And I will fold everything. I will fold the second that’s to them and they will not make a penny from me. And so if you’re the type of person who keeps waiting for the perfect situation, then unless you’re lucky, and there’s another idiot at the table who hasn’t been paying attention at all, you’re actually not going to make money in those spots that you should, because everyone is going to know that, oh, this person now has the absolute best hand because this is the first time they’ve woken up in forever.

Annie: Yeah. And so, and then I think about that in terms of the life problem, right? There’s time limits on life too, as you said, life’s too short. So while you’re sitting, waiting until you’re absolutely sure that taking a chance or quitting a job or trying something new or going back and getting your PhD or writing a book or becoming a poker player whatever it is, while you’re waiting to be sure time is going by. And there’s a huge opportunity cost to be able to do that similar to what’s happening at poker.

There’s time limits on life too, as you said, life’s too short. So while you’re sitting, waiting until you’re absolutely sure that taking a chance or quitting a job or trying something new or going back and getting your PhD or writing a book or becoming a poker player whatever it is, while you’re waiting to be sure time is going by. And there’s huge opportunity cost to be able to do that.” — Annie Duke

Maria: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s why I think it is really important to just realize, you’ve got one life, maximize that. Don’t, don’t have your life be a sunk cost fallacy. If you’re in any sort of a bad situation, get out, know, that’s why it’s funny.

My parents got divorced when I was really young. I call my stepdad, my dad, you know, he is my dad for all intents and purposes and he’s amazing, but people, you know, would say things like, oh, it must’ve been so rough. And I would say, no, you know, I think it’s incredible that my mom had the strength to leave a toxic relationship. And it was so much better for us. And we could see what female strength looks like. And we could see what it looked like to make really scary decisions when you’re by yourself in a new country, hardly speak the language, have no money and you leave with two kids. That’s courage. That’s risk-taking and I think so oftentimes, you know, I have a few friends who’ve gotten divorced and people always say, oh my God, it’s so terrible. I’m that person who says, no, it’s a good thing. This is actually, this is good. You were, you were unhappy, you were in a bad situation. Why would you stay in that situation? Why not be happy in a different one? I know a lot of people don’t agree with that, but I actually think that it’s true in all areas of your life, toxic friendships, toxic relationships, surrounding yourself with the wrong types of people. I think it’s just really crucial to understand when the energy is off and to cut. And at some point to say, you know what, given this some time and I’m done.

Annie: And obviously when we think about poker, that’s a huge lesson from poker. The idea that you have to cut your losses. You know, that a big mistake that people make is that they stay in hands too long. You know, because you sort of want to find out and you want to play it out and you want to know, maybe I could have one and maybe I wouldn’t have lost this money. And if I just stick around, maybe it will go my way, which that type of talk should sound pretty familiar to people who are faced with the types of decisions that you’re talking about. And obviously to be good, you have to be a very aggressive loss cutter.

Maria: Absolutely. And I think that the reason I’m able to say what I’m saying right now is because of poker, the me of pre-poker, wouldn’t be saying a lot of this stuff because it took me a lot of time to get here and to realize that this was a really important lesson.

I think one of the most important lessons I learned is that your chip stack also has no memory. It does not remember how many chips were in it before this hand. That’s my way of looking at it. That’s not how Erik put it, but Erik kind of would always tell me just focus on how many blinds you have, focus on what you’re playing right now.

And so the way that I started looking at it, as you know, the chips don’t remember that they used to be in a stack this tall and there used to be this many of them. And all of those chips just went away. All they know is they’re chips. And that’s how many there are. And so it’s hard mentally, but it’s really important to try to just forget what happened and forget how much you had, because then once again, bias is going to creep in. Oh, I need to make it back. Or I need to be more risk averse because I can’t lose the rest. Or if it happens when you just made a lot of chips too, right? All of a sudden, you think you can get more reckless because you can play around. You’re the chip leader. You can splash around a bit. No, you can’t. I mean, you can be more aggressive. That calculus changes because that actually matters.

Annie: People are scared of you, you can make people go broke. There is something called winner’s tilt, which is actually sort of in the sense of illusion of control. We sort of lose sight of when things have been going well, actually this relates back to what we were talking about in the beginning, when things are going well, we tend to attribute it more to skill than luck. And when we do that, then our predictions about how likely it is that we can repeat that outcome is just completely off because we think we have more control over the outcome than we actually do. And that’s where you get winner’s tilt, right? Is that you’ve been taken, you know, maybe you took chances in the past that got you a whole bunch of chips. You’ve been on a streak. And now all of a sudden, you think somehow that your skill level is higher because you’re, you’re not seeing where the luck is and how you got to where you are, and that causes you to take on more risks than you actually should in that situation. So what just, you know, in terms of obviously what we’re trying to do at the Alliance, and you’ve been such a great friend to us, what would you expect to look different in society if the Alliance really succeeded in its mission to empower every student with decision skills?

“When things are going well, we tend to attribute it more to skill than luck. And when we do that, then our predictions about how likely it is that we can repeat that outcome is just completely off because we think we have more control over the outcome than we actually do.” — Annie Duke

Maria: I would hope that we’d have a very different society. I mean, I think that, you know, someone asked me recently kind of what I think education reform needs to look like. And I thought and what I answered was, and I think this is a little simplistic, but that basically we need to teach two things: critical thinking and how to be a nice person.
And if you have those two things like that, it’s going to get you a long way in life. And I think that we just undervalue critical thinking skills so much because people are saying things like, Oh, don’t teach fiction because that’s useless. And I want to say, are you insane? Fiction actually teaches you so much about, about thought, about people, about psychology, about empathy, you know, what are you talking about?

But in a lot of ways, learning how to think through things would prevent a lot of conspiracy thinking. Honestly, I think if everyone in society were equipped with the tools of rational decision-making, the world would be an infinitely better place. And I would add to that. We should also teach them to be nice people

“We need to teach two: things critical thinking and how to be a nice person.” — Maria Konnikova

Annie: Yeah, I agree. I mean we model what we’re trying to do actually on what the social emotional learning movement was able to do. So I think we’re, we’re covering, I think we get to cover both there. What decision-making tool or idea would you want to pass down to the next generation of decision makers? If you could give them one thing.

Maria: Oh boy, that’s a really good question and a really difficult question. I see your face here. You’re waiting for my answer.

Annie: I’m so excited to hear your answer.

Maria: I mean, this is kind of it’s, I don’t know if this is a cop out answer or not, but I think that the one tool, I don’t know if it’s a tool of decision making, but I think it is that I would pass down to the next generation at all generations is intellectual humility. Be humble and always be willing to admit what you don’t know and be willing to admit that you’re wrong. I think that that’s something that really oftentimes gets lost in the debate on, oh, we need to teach people probabilistic thinking and we need to teach people, you know, all these things.

Yeah, sure, you do, but you also need to teach them that it’s okay to be wrong. And you always need to admit the possibility that you might be wrong. I think a lot of the ills of the world come from misplaced confidence and an inability to say, “I was wrong.”

“The one tool… that I would pass down to the next generation at all generations is intellectual humility. Be humble and always be willing to admit what you don’t know and be willing
to admit that you’re wrong.”
— Maria Konnikova

Annie: Yeah. I mean and actually part of good probabilistic thinking includes that. You have to be able to look at it from different angles and realize that those probabilities aren’t the truth. They’re your judgment of what the probability is normally when you’re doing forecasting.

And then lastly, what book besides your own, which everybody should go get, what book would you recommend for listeners to improve their decision-making?

Maria: Ah, to improve, well, I mean, this one you guys have recommended before, but the book I always recommend for decision-making is Danny Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I think is amazing.

And then there’s some books that people might not think of when they think of decision-making, but that I think are just really great in terms of looking at how to write about complex topics. So one of my favorite writers is David Epstein. And his latest book Range is about learning, but it’s also about decision-making. He doesn’t talk about it in this light, but it’s really about how you become the best thinker you can be. And it’s about the triumph of generalists. And I think that that’s just amazing. And I think that the best decision makers are people who are curious and interested and learn about lots and lots of different things. And I just think he himself is a great thinker and decision-maker, so I always love learning from him.

Annie: I want to second that recommendation. I, you know, it’s, if I think about what Phil Tetlock talks about, right? Like hedgehogs versus foxes, hedgehogs [have] one big idea that they mold the world to, and foxes [ask] what are the maximum number of ways that I could look at this problem in order to try to figure it out? And that’s really what Range is advocating for, I feel. So just lastly where can people go online and learn about you and your work?

Maria: I’m most active, I think, on Twitter, where I’m @mkonnikova and Instagram where I’m @grlnamedmaria, but there’s no “i” in girl because someone else had taken that screen name already.

Annie: So I just have one question because obviously The Biggest Bluff is such an incredible story of a novice, who’s never played the game before, who seeks out the best poker player in the world, somehow convinces them to teach them to play poker and becomes a world champion. That just, I mean, aside from how amazing the book is, everybody should read The Biggest Bluff. In my head, I see it as a movie. So is that on the horizon by any chance?

Maria: Here’s hoping I don’t want to say much, but I would love for that to happen.

Annie: Well, I hope it will because it’s just like such an amazing sort of triumph of, I mean, it’s just, it’s such a great story and it’s, you know, and obviously when you went into that, it could have not worked out. So there’s a lot of luck. I mean, you’re obviously incredibly smart and you’re a very good student, but still like that doesn’t mean that you’re going to win a European poker tour championship, right? And to have that happen in the middle of that is just such an incredible part of the story. It just feels very cinematic to me. So I have my fingers crossed anyway, because I will buy a ticket to that movie.

Maria: Well, thank you.

Annie: So for listeners interested in following up on any of the materials that we mentioned today or the books that we talked about, you can check out the show notes on the Alliance site and there you’ll also find actually a transcript of today’s conversation. So, Maria, thank you so much for joining and taking so much time with us. It’s been an amazing conversation.

Maria: Thank you so much, Annie. It’s always such a pleasure talking to you. I had a great time.

Share this episode to your favorite platform!

Check out our other latest episodes

  • Episode 029:

    Changing Minds in a Polarized World

    with David McRaney

    Why do people sometimes become more entrenched in their beliefs when they are challenged? In this episode, David McRaney, science journalist and creator of the [...]

  • Episode 028:

    Rethinking the Workplace

    with Dr. Adam Grant

    Can giving advice actually be more valuable than receiving it? In this episode, Dr. Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and world-renowned author, joins host Annie Duke, [...]

Stay informed and join our mailing list