In the third installment of audiobooks on 2x speed, I would like to introduce you to “The Biggest Bluff” by Maria Konnikova.
Not your typical poker player, Maria Konnikova is a Russian-American psychologist who took on poker as a social experiment and went on to become a national poker champion, winning over $300,000 in live earnings. Her journey is all catalogued in the book, but it gives more insight into life and decision making than it does to gambling. Poker is essentially a game that explores the challenges of decision making in a controlled environment and its strategies can be applied beyond the cards to everyday circumstances.
To give some background on Konnikova and why she chose to enter the poker scene, her doctoral thesis at Columbia University is entitled, “The Limits of Self-Control: Self-Control, Illusory Control, and Risky Financial Decision Making.” She sought to understand the relationship between skill and luck, and performed an experimental study where she asked thousands of people to participate in a simulated stock market under time pressure. They had to invest a certain amount of their money into either stocks or bonds and it would translate directly into how much they were paid. Bonds were safe and consistently paid $1, while stocks incorporated the risk of losing or gaining a larger sum of money.
The results of Konnikova’s experiment showed that “People would overestimate the degree of control they had on investments. The more they overestimated their own skill relative to luck, the less they learned from what the environment was trying to tell them and the worse their decisions became.” In short, “The illusion of control is what prevented real control over the game from emerging.”
People often make poor decisions based on their intuition instead of relying on probability. We believe what it is that we want to see in the data instead of looking at what the data actually says. With experience in different scenarios, we can gain a greater understanding of probability and how it functions, helping us to separate the random from the intentional. This is exactly what poker does. It provides a playing field for testing thought processes and observing the limits of intentions as compared to the probability of chance. It also gives an opportunity to learn from failures and continually reevaluate strategies to make more informed decisions. “Less certainty; more inquiry.”
Some emphasize poker as a gambling sport and compare it to other betting games like horse racing, when it is really more a game of skill. This is because you can lose with the best hand or win with the worst. According to research from Ingo Fielder, who analyzed hundreds thousands of hands played on online poker sites over the course of a six month, the actual best hand won only won on average 12% of the time. Twelve percent! This goes to show the importance of perception and observation in poker, i.e. knowing the most information about your opponents and safeguarding your own intentions. She compared it to a general preparing for war – establishing a plan for where to attack, when to defend, and anticipating the enemy’s movements before they engage. It requires the player to track behavior patterns (aka “tells”) and create profiles of their competitors, analyzing their personality and playing styles. Personality relies heavily on context, looking at actions and reactions instead of a rigidly defined framework applying to all scenarios. “In an age of omnipresent distraction, poker reminds us just how critical close observation and presence are to achievement and success.”
You’ve likely all heard about the poker face, if not in terms of the game poker, at least the Lady Gaga song of the same name. It is a blank facial expression which looks to hide any emotion that might give away the person’s feelings. However, more can be read from the hands than the face. Not the card hand, the physical hands holding the card hand. (Confused yet? Sorry, I like wordplay…) Anyways, hands are less guarded than the face and can give insight as to the players emotional state. Smoothness and consistency of hand movement exemplifies confidence whereas unstable and inconsistent hand movement exemplifies hesitation and uncertainty.
It is also important to take into account the texture of the terrain. Is the board wet? Dry? Static? Dynamic? A wet board contains cards that don’t have much relation to each other; their values are spread apart and their suits are not the same. A dry board contains cards that are closely connected to one another and can easily form a straight. A static board is one where new cards are unlikely to change the outcome and a dynamic board is one where new cards can likely change the advantage. Each of these terrains elicits a different strategy and way of thinking that must be adaptable.
We divert for a moment with a fun fact: What do you think is the most successful hunter in the animal kingdom? Some may say the cheetah or lion or wolf because of their fast and fierce attacks. However, the most successful hunter in the animal kingdom is actually the unassuming dragonfly. What? Yes. You heard me right. The dragonfly catches 95% of its targeted prey. For reference, cheetahs on average catch 58% of their prey, lions catch 25%, and wolves catch a mere 14%. Stealth, agility, and precision allow dragonflies to spot small deviations, predict future movements, and respond accordingly – all skills relevant to poker playing.
Yet another important factor is bet size. How much are you willing to risk at any given time? What is your chip count in relation to the other players? Can you go all-in? “The ability to go all-in and the knowledge that going all-in is an option for everyone around us is the crucial variable that makes so many decisions so very difficult.” In real life you can risk whatever and whenever you wish. Real life is high stakes. You can’t just walk away from the table and you have to live with the consequences of your decisions.
Konnikova describes how she was always afraid of hanging upside down on the monkey bars, yet as a college student traveled to Georgia during a civil war and hired a personal bodyguard to assist her as she studied how leaders react in times of crisis. We choose what is important to us and what we are willing to take a chance on. We gamble everyday without even recognizing it.
If you’ve never played poker before I highly reccomend you give it a try! There’s a website for free, no betting online poker called “24/7 Poker.” You are playing against a computer and it can’t simulate what it’s actually like at a table but it’s a good starting place.
Also, if you are interested in watching some poker movies, I recommend 21, Molly’s Game, and Casino Royale. (All available on Netflix.) In her book, Konnikova mentions the 1998 movie, Rounders, with Matt Damon which is supposed to be a classic but I haven’t seen that one yet…
Life’s too short to be complacent, so go take a chance! Try something you’ve never done before! But also please be smart about your decisions – I deny all responsibility for your actions.