I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Maria Konnikova, a two-times New York Times bestselling psychology author, former writer for The New Yorker, and most recently, a national poker champion.
What made Maria’s story all the more compelling is that she didn’t know the first thing about poker when she decided to use he game as a vehicle to better understand the role that chance and skill play in our lives.
She didn’t even know what the turn, the river or the flop was…she was by all measures, a total noob.
But she didn’t stay a noob for long. In fact, twelve months after starting her poker journey, she won the 2018 PCA National Championship. She chronicles her journey in her brand new book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win.
What began as a conversation on her story, turned out to be a masterclass of sorts on accelerated learning.
Here’s what I took out of the conversation (you can also listen to the full conversation below).
The reason Konnikova chose poker over say, chess (like her grandmother had willed her to do), is because chess is a game of perfect information — there is always a right move.
She sighted legendary mathematician, John Von Neumann’s work on game theory, and his book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), as the catalyst for pursuing poker.
Von Neumann wasn’t a proponent of using games to model life, except when it came to poker.
This is because poker is a game of imperfect information. It’s a game of what you know and don’t know, what your competitors know and don’t know, and what the collective group knows and doesn’t know. This is a lot like life.
Von Neumann famously said that “Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do. And that is what games are about in my theory.”
It might be tempting, and easier, to just do it all yourself. But your learning curve is going to be a lot slower. Konnikova used her background as a writer and her studies into human behaviour to score the mentorship services of Erik Seidel, the Michael Jordan of poker. Seidel has won eight World Series of Poker straps and a World Poker Title. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2010.
This relationship was one of the reasons that Konnikova was able to level up her game exponentially in the short amount of time she was playing.
The lesson here is to not only seek out mentors, but also to use whatever credentials you have to open doors to those mentors in the first place. While life is a game of imperfect information, you’re certain not to tap into world-class mentorship if you don’t reach out in the first place.
I shared with Konnikova how my 13-year-old niece is questioning the value of learning languages from countries that she has no immediate plans to visit. Konnikova credits her having learned several languages as best preparing her to learn poker, which, as Seidel pointed out to her, is like a new language in itself.
“This whole idea of learnings things you ‘know will be useful’ is such a bad way to go through life. Who are you to know its useful?… can you see the future?… seriously?”, said Konnikova.
I played this soundbite to my niece later.
What Konnikova brought to the table (excuse the pun) that perhaps many of her competitors didn’t is her study in human behaviour. Konnikova has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Columbia and was able to see problems through a different set of lenses.
While her family wasn’t quite ecstatic at Konnikova leaving her post at The New Yorker to pursue poker, this cynicism started to dissipate as Konnikova started to win games. She has since amassed over US$300,000 in prize-money, which, is more than what many writers make in a lifetime. Capturing her learnings in her third book, The Biggest Bluff, was also enough to quell her grandmother’s concerns.
After she was dropped in the deep-end by Seidel, who calmly advised her that she would be playing her first competitive game at a tournament, having turned up thinking she would just be shadowing Seidel, Konnikova spent the next couple of months in Vegas playing poker. She failed, a lot. “I spent two months busting, busting, busting….and then I started to improve”.
Whatever the pursuit, more often than not if it’s a worthwhile one you should expect failure and difficulty on your way. Embrace it as a teacher. Lean into the learnings it offers you. And get comfortable with the feeling of losing, because, so many of your competitors’ egos will see them leaving the table long before they’ve hit escape velocity. Staying the course is half the battle.
Larry Bird famously shot 500 free-throws a day before heading off to school, and later enjoyed a. 886 free throw percentage in the NBA.
Similarly, after a long stretch of losing poker games, Konnikova decided to hone one aspect of her game — heads up poker, or one-on-one poker.
This gave her an advantage when there wasn’t a ‘full ring’ of players at the table, especially when Konnikova found herself in the final two or three seats on the table.
“This helped me with short-handed plays, it helped me to think differently and become more experienced in different ways”.
What became evident throughout the conversation is that Konnikova is a voracious learner. She is someone who has actually thought critically about how to learn, something many of us simply don’t do, and something most, if not all of us, simply didn’t learn at school.
She credits her ability to learn to doing away with distractions, learning how to actually focus for extended periods of time, and practicing deliberately and effectively (as opposed to shallow practice like strumming your guitar while you’re watching Tiger King).
“Hours don’t matter if you’re not using them effectively”, she said.
“If I’m watching a 30-minute video, it will take me at least two-hours to watch it. I’ll stop, rewind, write down questions to ask later, take notes…”.
Others might watch the same videos but have seven tabs open at the same time, and not really engage or absorb the lessons being taught.
She also warned of the peril of task-switching — which leads us to get exhausted quickly, and the value of handwriting notes over capturing them straight into a computer which has been shown to help us absorb a lot more information thanks to the motor-link between hand and brain.
Like another poker-playing guest of mine, Annie Duke, Konnikova championed the use of “I don’t know”. It’s okay to say ‘no, please help me’, she encouraged. Again, this is a journalistic trait that she brought to learning the game of poker.
Do away with ego and self-censoring, or not wanting to look stupid, and ask “I don’t know”. What’s the worst that could happen…you might learn something?
While most other poker players on the circuit are more concerned with playing as many hands as possible, because this is ultimately their livelihood, Konnikova was more concerned with learning. This opened her up to investing more time into addressing her weaknesses and capitalising on her strengths in ways that others who might just be after the short-term wins might not.
This is something I’ve stressed in my forthcoming book, Time Rich.
If you’re not used to sitting down and focusing on one thing for 45 minutes or so without clicking into your email, getting up to see what’s in the fridge for the seventh time (that morning!), or reaching for your phone, then focus is inherently difficult.
The best way around this is to start small, and build up from there. Use momentum. Commit to the smallest possible step, and you will find that taking the next, and a slightly larger step, is easier.
If you have to write a 1,000-word paper, commit to writing fifty, and then see how you feel. As Isaac Newton put it, an object in motion stays in motion, and so it’s always easier to keep going once you’ve started.
You might also try to reward yourself at the completion of a set task, or stretch of focused time. Again, create good incentives, and do away with distractions (put that damn phone away!).
Konnikova says that there’s never a reason to be bored. If you’re truly present, there are always things you could be learning. For example, the idea of making failed sales call after failed sales call sounds not only boring, but devastating.
But, if you re-frame this experience and focus instead on the learning, and ask questions to glean why your offer is being rejected so much, you then gain valuable and motivating insights that can bring you closer to success.
There is always something you could be learning or doing better, in any domain — you just need to open your eyes and pay attention.
While you might be compelled to visit nothing but the non-fiction aisles of your local bookstore, because you think these are more practical and readily applicable to your life, Konnikova stresses that fiction teaches us to be critical thinkers and empathetic people, among other things. I tend to agree. I’ve learned just as much on how to best navigate the world from the likes of Homer and Paulo Coelho as I have from the likes of Robert Greene and Carol Dweck.
From The Odyssey I learned about the value of persistence, and from The Alchemist I learned that you often need to go on a journey for the answers to present themselves, even if those answers were at your feet the entire time.
Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi once told the story of his hunting dog.
“That dog was just a lump of flesh with no life in her. Except for the first time when I took her to the park, and she saw squirrels. Then, she changed completely and became a living expression of what hunting meant. She became careful, precise, and elegant. She was very happy, even though she could never catch any squirrels”.
Konnikova encourages us to find out proverbial squirrels. “Follow your curiosity, do things because you think it’s interesting… because you’re excited about learning it”, not because everyone else is doing it, or because your parents told you to.
Echoing Tim Ferriss’ ‘fear setting’, Konnikova says that she likes to play out the worst-case scenario in her head, how she’d react to it and what her response plan is.
Doing so best prepares her for the worst and so as a result of this, she can take action and do the scary thing.
UFC fighter Jon ‘Bones’ Jones also says that he visualises losing — he makes peace with it, so then the only thing he can do when he steps into the octagon, is focus on winning.
Konnikova said she not only learned a lot about human behaviour from her forays into poker, but more importantly, about her own behaviour. She learned that she had internalised some gender stereotypes and was too passive at the table, not asserting herself as much as she should have been, and folding when she should have been playing.
As a result of these revelations, her husband told her that she has now “started taking a lot less shit from people”.
We should learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, because it is a feature of life, not a bug. Konnikova learned that chance plays a massive role, but that it can be debilitating to focus on it (imagine living your life thinking that no matter what you do, the outcome is always based on luck?).
Instead, she urges us to do as the Stoics did, and focus on what we can control.
And it is by focusing on what she could control that she went from poker novice to poker magazine covers, virtually overnight.