A New York Times Notable Book
“The tale of how Konnikova followed a story about poker players and wound up becoming a story herself will have you riveted, first as you learn about her big winnings, and then as she conveys the lessons she learned both about human nature and herself.” —The Washington Post
It's true that Maria Konnikova had never actually played poker before and didn't even know the rules when she approached Erik Seidel, Poker Hall of Fame inductee and winner of tens of millions of dollars in earnings, and convinced him to be her mentor. But she knew her man: a famously thoughtful and broad-minded player, he was intrigued by her pitch that she wasn't interested in making money so much as learning about life. She had faced a stretch of personal bad luck, and her reflections on the role of chance had led her to a giant of game theory, who pointed her to poker as the ultimate master class in learning to distinguish between what can be controlled and what can't. And she certainly brought something to the table, including a Ph.D. in psychology and an acclaimed and growing body of work on human behavior and how to hack it. So Seidel was in, and soon she was down the rabbit hole with him, into the wild, fiercely competitive, overwhelmingly masculine world of high-stakes Texas Hold'em, their initial end point the following year's World Series of Poker.
But then something extraordinary happened. Under Seidel's guidance, Konnikova did have many epiphanies about life that derived from her new pursuit, including how to better read, not just her opponents but far more importantly herself; how to identify what tilted her into an emotional state that got in the way of good decisions; and how to get to a place where she could accept luck for what it was, and what it wasn't. But she also began to win. And win. In a little over a year, she began making earnest money from tournaments, ultimately totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. She won a major title, got a sponsor, and got used to being on television, and to headlines like "How one writer's book deal turned her into a professional poker player." She even learned to like Las Vegas.
But in the end, Maria Konnikova is a writer and student of human behavior, and ultimately the point was to render her incredible journey into a container for its invaluable lessons. The biggest bluff of all, she learned, is that skill is enough. Bad cards will come our way, but keeping our focus on how we play them and not on the outcome will keep us moving through many a dark patch, until the luck once again breaks our way.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Las Vegas, July 2017
The room is a sea of people. Bent heads, pensive faces, many obscured by sunglasses, hats, hoodies, massive headphones. It's difficult to discern where the bodies end and the green of the card tables begins. Thousands of bodies sit in seeming disarray on chairs straight out of a seventies dining room catalogue-orange-and-mustard patterned upholstery, gold legs, vaguely square frame. Garish neon lights suspended on makeshift beams make the place look like the inside of a hospital that's trying a bit too hard to appear festive. Everything is a bit worn, a bit out-of-date, a bit frayed. The only hints of deeper purpose are the color-coded numbers hanging on strings from the ceiling. There's the orange group, the yellow group, the white group. Each placard has a number and, beneath it, a picture of a single poker chip. The smell of stale casino air fills the room-old carpet; powder; a sweet, faintly sickly perfume; cold fried food and flat beer; and the unmistakable metallic tang of several thousand exhausted bodies that have been sharing the same space since morning.
Amid the sensory assault, it's hard at first to pinpoint why something seems off. And then it comes to you: it is eerily quiet. If this was a real party, you would expect the din of countless voices, shifting chairs, echoing footsteps. But all there is is nervous energy. You can smell, hear, taste, the tension. And you can certainly feel it making a nest in your stomach. There's just one sound left in the room, reminiscent of a full-throated courting ritual of summer cicadas. It's the sound of poker chips.
It's the first day of the biggest poker tournament of the year, the Main Event of the World Series of Poker. This is the World Cup, the Masters, the Super Bowl-except you don't need to be a superhero athlete to compete. This championship is open to the everyman. For a neat ten grand, anyone in the world can enter and take their shot at poker glory: the title of world champion and a prize that has been known to top $9 million. If you happen to be British or Australian, you even get it tax-free. For professional poker players and amateurs alike, this is the career pinnacle. If you can win the Main Event, you have guaranteed yourself a place in poker history. Sit down with the best and have a chance at the most prestigious, richest prize in the poker world. Some people in the room have been saving for years to take their one shot.
It's near the end of the day. Of the several thousand people who've entered today's starting flight-so many want to play that starting days have to be staggered into flights to accommodate everyone; the dream is expensive, but it's awfully alluring-many are now out, having gone bust, in poker speak. The ones who remain are concentrated on making it through to the second day. You don't want to play the whole day only to find yourself walking out with minutes until the end and nothing to show for it. Everyone is gunning for the magic bag, a clear plastic glorified ziplock into which those lucky enough to have made the next day of a multiday tournament can place their chips. You write your name, country of origin, and chip count in excited capitals on the outside before tugging on the dubiously functioning adhesive strip to seal the damn thing up. You then take the requisite photograph for social media with the requisite chip count and add the #WSOP hashtag. And then you collapse, exhausted, into some anonymous hotel bed.
But we're not yet at the bagging and tagging stage of the day. There are still two more hours to go. Two whole hours. A lot can happen in two hours. Which is why one table stands out from the rest. Eight players are sitting as players should, receiving their cards and doing whatever it is poker players do with them. But one lone chair in the middle of the table, seat six, remains empty. That wouldn't be remarkable in the least under normal circumstances-empty chairs are what happens when a player busts out and no new player has yet arrived to take their place. Except in this case, there has been no bust-out. On the green felt in front of the empty chair sit several neat piles of chips, arranged from highest to lowest denomination, color-coded from left to right. And with each hand dealt, the dealer reaches over to take a precious ante-the forced amount that everyone at the table must pay each hand to see the cards-before depositing two cards that are then unceremoniously placed into the muck, or discard pile, seeing as there's no one there to play them. With each round, the neat piles of chips grow slightly smaller. And still the chair remains empty. What kind of an idiot pays $10,000 to enter the most prestigious poker event in the world and then fails to show up to play? What kind of a dunce do you have to be to let yourself blind down (the term for letting your chips dwindle by not playing any hands) in the middle of the Main Event?
The genius, I regret to say, was your author. While everyone at the table idly speculated about my likely fate, I was huddled in fetal position on the bathroom floor of the Rio Hotel and Casino and, for lack of a more refined term, barfing my brains out. Could it have been food poisoning from the guacamole I knew I shouldn't have eaten at the Mexican place just down the hallway during dinner break? A bad stress reaction? Delayed onset of stomach flu? Who knows. But my money was on migraine.
I had prepped endlessly. I had planned for all the contingencies-including, of course, migraine. I'm a lifelong sufferer, and I wasn't about to leave anything to chance. I'd taken preventive Advil. I'd done yoga in the morning for relaxation. I'd meditated. I'd slept a full nine hours. I'd even eaten over dinner break, even though my nerves were telling me to avoid all sustenance. And still here it was.
That's the thing about life: You can do what you do but in the end, some things remain stubbornly outside your control. You can't calculate for dumb bad luck. As they say, man plans, God laughs. I could definitely detect a slight cackle.
My reasons for getting into poker in the first place were to better understand that line between skill and luck, to learn what I could control and what I couldn't, and here was a strongly-worded lesson if ever there were: you can't bluff chance. Poker didn't care about my reasons for being on the floor. There was no one to whom I could direct a complaint, a plaintive "But it's the Main Event!" The why didn't matter. Nerves or stress, migraine or food poisoning, the cards would keep getting dealt. The message was clear. I could plan all I wanted, but the X factor could still always get me. The outcome would be what it would be. All I could do was my best with what I could control-and the rest, well, the rest wasn't up to me.
As I contemplated the merits of dying right there versus first mustering the energy to bribe someone to bag up what measly chips I had left for me, before crawling off to die somewhere a bit less sticky and odiferous than this stall, I heard the telltale sound of my phone's text message alert. It was my coach, Erik Seidel. "How's it going?" the message read. Simple enough. He wanted to see how his student was faring in this, her biggest quest. The cackling from above was definitely growing stronger. I gathered my remaining willpower to text back.
"Fine. A little below average in chips." Which was true as far as I knew. "Hanging in there." Slightly less true, but hey, I'm ever the optimist.
"k, good luck" came the reply. Oh, Erik, you have no idea how much I need exactly that. A good infusion of old-fashioned luck.
New York, Late Summer 2016
"But for its costliness and dangers, no better education for life among men could be devised than the gambling table-especially the poker table."
Clemens France, The Gambling Impulse, 1902
From across the room, I see Erik Seidel's signature baseball cap lying on the banquette by his side. I know it's his signature because I've been studying him carefully from afar. I've charted his personality-or at least what seems like his personality-from the sidelines. He isn't like most of the limelight-seeking top professionals, the players who love the camera, love the audience, love their shtick, whatever that shtick happens to be-temper tantrums, crazy aggression, incessant table chatter. He is quiet. Reserved. Determinedly attentive. He seems to play with deliberation and precision. And he is a winner: multiple World Series of Poker bracelets, the World Poker Tour title, tens of millions in winnings. I have chosen with care. I am, after all, about to ask him to spend the next year of his life with me-a marriage proposal, if you will, right off a first date. It was crucial I do my research well.
For the first time in a while, I'm nervous-really nervous. I chose my outfit with care-sophisticated but not stuffy, serious but not overly so. The kind of person you could trust and depend on, but who would also be fun to hang around with over drinks. It's going to be a complicated seduction.
We're meeting at a Hollywood version of what a French café should rightly look like. I'm early, but he's even earlier. There he is, in the far right corner of the room, folded into a bistro table that seems too small for his lanky limbs and six-and-a-half-foot body. He's wearing a dark T-shirt that offsets a pale, intent face, and is reading a magazine. To my great relief, it looks like a New Yorker, the late August edition-the one with the muted watercolors of SempŽ's ocean landscape. A poker player who reads the New Yorker is my kind of poker player. Gingerly, a hound on the scent, afraid to scare off the prey in its sights, I approach the table.
Erik Seidel is surely the most self-effacing poker champion in the world. Apart from his poker accolades, he stands out from other players for his longevity: he still contends for number one, as he has since his career first started, in the late eighties. That takes some doing: the game has changed a lot in the last thirty years. As with so many facets of modern life, the qualitative elements of poker have been passed over in favor of the quantitative. Measurement presides over intuition. Statistics over observation. Game theory over "feel." We've seen the trend play out in areas as far afield as psychology-social psychology giving way to neuroscience-and music, with algorithms and experts quantifying not just what we listen to but how, to the fraction of a second, a song should be structured for maximum pop. Poker is no different. Caltech PhDs line the tables. Printouts of stats columns are a common sight. A conversation rarely goes for more than a beat without the offhand dropping of GTO (game theory optimal) or +EV (positive expected value). Talk of frequencies trumps talk of feelings. But despite predictions that his style of play-a psychological one, based less on mathematical outputs and more on understanding the human element-would render him a dinosaur, Erik stays on top. In the bombastic, testosterone- and expletive-filled, ego-driven world of professional poker, Erik is atypical in more than his unassuming manner. He may be the only poker pro to boast a membership to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a willingness to fly cross-country to see Dave Chappelle do stand-up, or a near encyclopedic knowledge of the latest in the culinary scene from Los Angeles to Manila. He's certainly the only pro who prefers New York to Vegas-and has a part-time residence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the same area where he grew up, and not just the usual Vegas abode. His curiosity is genuine and boundless, his enthusiasm for life entirely contagious.
"Do you know Julia and Angus Stone?" he asks offhand the first time we meet.
Who? I don't even know which bucket those names fit into. Authors I've never heard of? Actors I'm woefully unaware of? Random New Yorkers Erik thinks I should know? Musicians, it turns out. I hope I am not losing his interest, that I'm sophisticated enough to pass his litmus test. My nervousness is going nowhere fast.
"They're really something special. A brother-sister duo from Australia. I've heard them play many times."
"Something special" is a phrase I'll come to know well. Birbigs: something special. The new production of Othello: something special. An offbeat, tiny sushi bar tucked far from the strip in Vegas, where we go for dinner during my first trip out to the city of sin: something special. A professional poker player named LuckyChewy: something special. I'm his junior by a quarter century, but I realize talking to him that I've forgotten what it feels like to enjoy new experiences. I get lazy. I feel jaded. I want to curl up and stay in rather than see the latest talk at the 92Y or an obscure musical act from Canada playing at Joe's Pub. (Erik drags me to both, and each time, he is right. Over the coming months, my playlist will be overhauled with his recommendations, much like my stand-up predilections, Netflix queue, and list of theater shows that I "absolutely have to see" that I will of course never make it to. He's a one-man Goings On About Town.) My ideal evening: dinner at home, some wine, some tea, a book or a movie in bed. His reply: You're in New York City, the greatest city in the world! Look at what you're missing.
He approaches poker with the same passion and constant inquisitiveness. He loves to follow the up-and-coming players, is hip to the latest apps and programs, never assumes that he's learned all there is. He refuses to plateau. If I had to assign him a life motto, it would be this: life is too short for complacency. Indeed, when I inevitably ask him the question he gets asked most frequently-what his single piece of advice would be to aspiring poker players-his answer is two words long: pay attention. Two simple words that we simply ignore more often than not. Presence is far more difficult than the path of least resistance.
Table of Contents
A Prelude • Las Vegas, My 2017 1
Ante Up • New York, Late Summer 2016 7
The Birth of a Gambler • Boston, Fall 2016 33
The Art Of Losing • New York, Fall 2017 47
The Mind of a Strategist • New York, Late Fall 2016 67
A Man's World • New York, Winter 2016 95
No Bad Beats • Las Vegas, Winter 2017 117
Texting Your Way out of Millions • Las Vegas, Winter 2017 137
A Storytelling Business • Las Vegas, March 2017 155
The Gambler and the Nerd • Monte Carlo, April 2017 171
The Art of the Tell • New York, May 2017 195
Reading Myself • New York, May-June 2017 211
Full Tilt • Las Vegas, June-July 2017 227
Glory Days • The Bahamas, January 2018 267
The Heart of the Gambling Beast • Macau, March 2018 289
The Ludic Fallacy • Las Vegas, June 2019 319
Glossary of Poker Terms 327