MARIA KONNIKOVA’S love affair with poker began when she started to ponder the influence of chance in our lives after a series of unfortunate and tragic events in her own.
Life was good for the writer and author, on the back of two successful books, Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes, and The Confidence Game, and a flourishing career beckoned.
But she was stopped in her tracks after these events, which included the death of her grandmother in a freak accident and a mystery illness which hit Konnikova. The idea that so much of what happens to us is beyond our control began to interest her.
“When you’re healthy and everything is going well you don’t realise how lucky you are,” she said when we met this summer at a Poker Stars event, the Monte-Carlo Casino EPT . “We are lucky every single day that we are healthy, that we have everything. You might have a shitty day but if you aren’t sick and if everyone’s ok then you’re lucky. But when things start going wrong you start noticing that there’s a huge chunk of your life that you can’t control no matter how smart you are or no matter how prepared you are.”
So she started to read about luck, and chance, not really sure where it would take her.
Then she stumbled on poker and such was her fascination with the psychology of the game decided to take a closer look. “There’s private information that only you have, and there’s public information that everyone has, and people are trying to leverage that and make strategic decisions around it” she says.
This caught her attention, and even though she did not know anything about poker an idea for a book began to take hold.
“Unlike most poker players, I’m not someone who grew up in a gaming household. A lot of poker players get into poker because they played a lot of games, they played cards, they played poker, when they were little, so it was something they were always exposed to. I didn’t even know what poker was.
“So I started reading about poker and thought this could work. The origins of this book are much more personal, and the way in was me learning to play poker from zero, immersing myself in this world, actually becoming a professional poker player to use it as a metaphor for life; to actually try to pick apart the skill versus chance balance. Because the thing about poker is you have both and you have to learn to tell the difference if you want to become a good poker player.
“You can’t take credit for things that are [to do with] the cards and you have to be able and willing to make correct decisions even if the outcome goes against you. You have to realise that the decision and the outcome are different, all you can do is think the best you can, make the best decision you can and then the cards can go against you but then you played well and you have to be okay with that. You can also make a shitty decision and it ends up working out, but you still made a shitty decision. You need to learn to tell the difference between that.”
She set out to become a professional, enlisting internationally-renowned poker player Eric Seidel as her tutor, and learning the game from scratch. “The first time I met him I didn’t know how many cards were in a deck and he still makes fun of me,” she laughs. “I thought there were 54 cards in a deck. He keeps joking that I’m still waiting for the Jokers to appear.”
Her plan was — and still is — to write about her experience, along with her observations about life as a poker player and what lessons can be learned from the game and those who play it.
“At the poker table you’re playing really long hours, it’s stressful, you have to make a lot of decisions quickly. Sometimes it’s not a very friendly environment so you’re under stress and it’s very emotional and so a lot of things come up because your resources are getting pared down.
“It’s like going to a therapist except on steroids, it’s like a therapy session where like all this shit you’re carrying with you is going to come out at the poker table . . . all of your insecurities, all of the things you’re worried about, it’s all going to come out in the way you play. So I’ve realised things about myself, I’ve let myself be bullied, that’s not good, I thought I was this assertive person but no in certain situations I will absolutely let myself be bullied.”