Never having played a hand of poker in her life, the psychologist and writer Maria Konnikova (above) decided to play the game competitively for a year to get a better grip on the roles of chance and skill in her own failing life.
At least, that’s the conceit of The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win. It doesn’t hold up. The personal challenges feel bolted on to what is simply another application of her professional training in human decision-making processes to a popular topic (her first book was Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. But that’s fine. Poker lends itself to such an application.
Poker is not pre-eminently a game of luck, like craps, or a game of enormous skill, like chess. It is balanced between things that can be controlled and things that can’t. There is room for knowledge, experience, skill, yet the luck of the draw is powerful enough to blow up the best players.
Konnikova recruited Erik Seidel, a hall-of-fame poker star, as her mentor and hit the felt (actually, she first hit the screen, playing endless games online). She learned a lot about TexasHold’em, and even won a tournament, but the reward for her efforts was what she learned about herself. How, for instance, to better understand her motives, her decision-making, her emotions, and how they were entwined. How to come to terms with the fact that skill is never enough in life. There will always be good hands and bad hands. All we can control is how we deal with what we’re dealt.