The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova

Why I read it

I’ve been following Konnikova on Twitter for a while, and last year I noticed that Sam Freedman (yes, you should follow him too), had recommended her latest book, The Biggest Bluff. Having seen her speak a few times on the circuit, I knew she’d write with fluency, flair, intelligence and humour, and the subject matter was of particular interest to me. The process of mastering a skill from novice to elite level – how often are we able to immerse ourselves in someone’s journey from the start?  Sure, we read about elite performers recounting, years later, how they rose to the top; I wanted to see how someone told this story from day one.

Delving into the world of professional poker also felt like a fascinating rabbit hole, so I envisaged a psychological version of a Louis Theroux subculture.

In summary

Writer, speaker and psychology expert Maria Konnikova decides to take a career break and become a professional poker player. That’s it, I’m hooked.

I’m a poker fan (that is, I spent many hours in my late teens and early twenties playing with friends), and had a natural affinity with the book’s content, and the game’s key concepts. But this book isn’t ‘about’ poker. Konnikova is learning poker, playing poker, sometimes winning poker. But, as you would expect from a psychology expert, this is a book about human behaviour.

We start with her seeking out a coach, and boy does she choose a good one, and follow from the initial online tournaments, to tons of reflections with experts, to eventually building up to the World Series tournaments. Konnikova could probably summarise the tournament progression in a single chapter, but dedicates most of the text to what she learnt about chance, reading people’s behaviour, confidence, and many other psychological insights.

Key takeaways

1. ‘Key to the game is playing the man, not the cards.’ Who doesn’t like a quote from a Matt Damon poker movie (Rounders, 1998)? You can learn probabilities to work out the chance of your hand winning, but poker is about bluffing, betting, confidence, and behaviour. In life and work, we become experts in certain topics, but if we underestimate the factor that people and our behaviour play in any situation, then we’ve missed the point (and lost the hand!)

2. Don’t assume you know more than the environment is telling you – Konnikova cites studies, conducted by herself and others, that show that we can make more poor decisions when we overestimate our knowledge or control. Furthermore, if we have a gut feeling about something, or feel invested in a choice, we often ignore statistics, reason and evidence, and continue regardless of what the environment is telling us. This is a fascinating early chapter about how our own feelings, perceptions and experiences can cloud our better judgment and the situation we are in.

3. Objective? Good decisions – I love this wisdom from coach Erik Seidel, who quotes a poker guru. The aim of poker, they propose, is to make good decisions, not to win money. Winning or losing hands isn’t important if your process was good. Did you follow the process that you practised? Did you stay calm and not get lost in the moment? In life, we won’t win every time – but if we reflect on what happened and know that we followed our desired values and methods, then we’ll win more than lose.

Favourite quotes

Well, I was pleased to read a variety of literary quotes in The Biggest Bluff.

Don Quixote: ‘the weather will soon improve and things will go well for us, because it is not possible for the bad or the good to endure forever’.  Sorry Don, but the luck won’t change in your favour just because you’re ‘due’!

W H Auden: ‘Language is the mother, not the handmaiden of thought; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before’.  I’d never read this quote, but I think it’s beautiful and such a validation of why we reflect, write, and pertinently for me, use coaching as a method to verbalise our challenges and ideas.

Favourite moment

Konnikova spends the majority of the book, and indeed her formative poker experiences, studying others. But, as she progresses and wants to increase her ability, she realises that the only person that she hasn’t profiled yet is herself. So, she hires an expert to watch hundreds of hours of her playing poker, to inform her of her tells and habits at the table, and what those could be communicating to others. Beyond this, she examines some of her innate traits, such as not being a natural risk taker and that leading to regular folding in risky hands. This chapter, I felt, was hugely personal, probably quite difficult to write and acknowledge, and it was humbling to read about someone exposing their inner characteristics. But mostly what I liked about it was that we often invest time and resources in studying elite performers or thinkers, before we truly explore our own behaviour, biases, habits, views. Have we done enough of our own soul searching and self-reflecting?

Question and reflect

  • What are the different stages to mastering something? What are we trying to master right now, and are we taking all the steps we can? Theory, practice, people, self reflection.
  • I liked the notion of ‘good decisions’ being the purpose of poker. When we accept we can’t win every time, but we can make sure we follow good processes and the best decisions available to us, that focuses us back on method and away from outcome.

Read this if:

You love entering a subculture with real depth and intrigue

You want to learn about human behaviour

You like literary non-fiction, clean prose, humour and reflection

Support bookshops and find it here

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