Psychology PhD turns poker pro to write a book about luck and the role it plays in our lives

Maria Konnikova, bestselling author who’s a Moscow-born New Yorker with a doctorate in psychology, is using poker as a metaphor for life as she digs into the role chance plays in our lives

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 2:18pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 2:17pm

She’s a New York Times bestselling author with a Ph.D in psychology who has used Sherlock Holmes to explore ever-present mindfulness. Now Maria Konnikova is “moonlighting” as a poker player as she digs into the role chance plays in our lives.

The 34-year-old has left no stone unturned in her bid to make it as a professional poker player, using the expertise of one of the game’s greats in Erik Seidel as a launch pad to a haul of over US$200,000 in little more than 12 months.

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It was while reading Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern that Konnikova got the inspiration for her third book, The Biggest Bluff, which she says is “really not a poker book, it’s something that’s much broader” and hopes will be finished next year.

“I knew that for this next book I wanted to write about luck and ask the question ‘what role does luck actually play in our lives and how much of our lives are we in control of’,” she said on a trip to Macau as part of the Asia-Pacific Poker Tour.

“But that’s not a book, that’s a life quest. That’s like saying ‘I want to write about the meaning of existence’. You can’t really do that so I tried to see how to get into this topic.

“I started doing a lot of reading and that’s how I came across poker in one of the books I was reading, which was the Theory of Games, the foundational text of game theory.

“In the book I learned that game theory was actually born from poker, so Von Neumann was a big poker player and realised that if he could solve poker he could basically find a rubric for solving the most complex problems in life.

“The goal was always to moonlight as a professional poker player, make 100 per cent of my income through poker and see whether I had what it takes to actually succeed, but then ultimately use this as a way to improve life decisions and satisfaction, just overall quality away from the poker tables.”

Konnikova, who was born in Moscow and is based in New York, credits Seidel with her “very accelerated trajectory in a limited time frame”.

“I was very lucky that Erik agreed to take me on as a student and I’ve been working non-stop ever since,” she said.

I think Macau is what Vegas was 30, 40 years ago where you had the hardcore, wild west mentality. This is really unlike anything else
Maria Konnikova

“One of the reasons I chose him, if someone can stay at the top of the game for 30 years, that’s not luck, that’s kind of the illustration of the whole skill point.”

While it is a work in progress, Konnikova says poker had proved the perfect “metaphor for life”.

“At least in poker, it’s a game, there are rules, you’re at the table and you can actually learn from that more controlled environment,” she said. “You have skill and you have chance. Over the long term it’s a game of skill, in the short term obviously there’s a big chance element.

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“There are lots and lots of ways it can give you insight into this balance of skill and chance and [Von Neumann] learned if you really dive into it, really learn it well and take it seriously and approach it with this cognitive awareness, it will ultimately help you figure out how to make better decisions in life.

“Poker teaches you and forces you to actually use that probabilistic thinking and that sampling of skill and chance and getting feedback which we don’t normally get in life.”

Konnikova, who has secured a platinum pass for next year’s PokerStars Players Championship, credits her trip to Macau as an “essential part of the process”.

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“If you talk to anyone and you ask them what is the heart of true poker, that true gambling spirit in the world today, they would say Macau,” she said. “I think Macau is what Vegas was 30, 40 years ago where you had the hardcore, wild west mentality. This is really unlike anything else.

“This is not Vegas, gambling really is what it’s about, in a good way. I don’t mean that at all to be disparaging, I think it’s totally fascinating to see how it can really be a cornerstone of a place and you can see how people get really sucked into it.”