Maria Konnikova: Poker and the Psychology of Uncertainty | E89
#89: POKER AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF UNCERTAINTY WITH MARIA KONNIKOVA
Embrace your inner poker mastermind!
On this week’s episode, we are chatting with Maria Konnikova, New York Times best-selling author, journalist and professional poker player. After years of solely focusing on her writing, Maria picked up poker while using her background in psychology to assist her in mastering the game.
Today, we’ll talk about how Maria got interested in poker and how she was able to become a poker champion. We’ll also discuss different psychological mindsets, how to make the best decisions, the importance of failure and more.
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Check out our website to meet the team, view show notes and transcripts: www.youngandprofiting.com
03:36 – How Maria First Got Interested in Poker
06:20 – Explanation of Game Theory
08:29 – Story Behind Maria’s Poker Coaching
12:23 – How Psychology Lends Itself to Poker
14:13 – Maria’s Fascination with Sherlock Holmes and His Message
19:51 – System Watson vs. System Holmes
22:15 – The Brain Attic Metaphor
27:15 – Memory Training Tips
30:05 – Why Maria Decided to Write a Book About Luck
32:33 – Reason to Separate the Decision Process From the Outcome
36:23 – Illusion of Control and How it Affects our Outcomes 38:33 – Importance of Skill in the Long Term
40:50 – How Maria Learned to Embrace Failure
43:37 – Concept of Tilting and How to Stay Calm
46:13 – Tips on How to Read People’s Emotions
50:35 – Overcoming Social Stereotypes on the Poker Table
53:14 – Maria’s Secret to Profiting in Life
Mentioned in the Show:
Maria’s Newest Book, The Biggest Bluff: https://www.mariakonnikova.com/books/the-biggest-bluff/
Maria’s Website: mariakonnikova.com Maria’s
Twitter: https://twitter.com/mkonnikova Maria’s
#89: Poker and the Psychology of Uncertainty with Maria Konnikova
[00:00:00] Hala Taha: This episode is sponsored by my friends at Castbox a free podcast app for iOS and Android users. Like many people. I get frustrated with the native podcast apps out there, like apple podcast and Google play. And I'm always on the hunt for something better. Castbox is the solution for me because they have the right balance of clean, attractive design, easy usability, and great features.
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So what are you waiting for? Download Castbox today and don't forget to subscribe to young and profiting podcast and leave us a review while you're there. Your listening to YAP. Young and profiting podcast, a place where you can listen, learn, and profit. Welcome to the show. I'm your host, Hala Taha. And on young and profiting podcast, we investigate a new topic each week and interview some of the brightest minds in the world.
My goal is to turn their wisdom into actionable advice that you can use in your everyday life, no matter each profession or industry. There's no fluff on this podcast and that's on purpose. I'm here to uncover value from my guests by doing the proper research and asking the right questions. If you're new to the show, we've chatted with the [00:02:00] likes of ex FBI agents, real estate moguls, self-made billionaires CEOs and best selling authors.
Our subject matter ranges from enhancing productivity, how to gain, influence the art of entrepreneurship and more, if you're smart and like to continually improve yourself. Hit the subscribe button, because you'll love it here at young and profiting podcast today on the show we're chatting with Maria Konnikova New York times bestselling author of the biggest bluff, the confidence game and mastermind.
How to think like Sherlock Holmes. Maria is also a journalist and professional poker player. After years of solely focusing on her writing, Maria picked up poker and used her background in psychology to master the game tune into this episode to learn how Maria got interested in poker and how she was able to become a poker champion after just one year of training, we'll also discuss different psychological mindsets, how to make the best decisions and the importance of failure.
Hey [00:03:00] Maria, welcome to young and profiting podcast.
Maria Konnikova: Thanks so much
for having me
Hala Taha: glad to have you on. So just to introduce you to our listeners, you are a psychologist. You are the author of three bestselling books. You're also an international poker champion. You're the first female that I've ever met.
Who's played poker professionally, or even have the first one that I've ever met. Who's liked to play poker, let alone, professionally, and you don't really seem like the gambling money hungry type. So tell us, how did you first get interested in poker?
Maria Konnikova: Yeah, that's a great question. And I'm not the gambling money, hungry type.
I'm a writer so that there goes the money hungry. And I don't consider myself a gambler at all. Even after I transitioned to being a professional poker player, because I don't see poker as gambling, but I had never had any interest in card games, didn't have a deck of cards growing up, just complete, didn't know anything about it.
And I still hate casinos by the way. But I [00:04:00] went through this period in my life where a lot of things went wrong and it made me really stop and start considering the role that chance plays in our lives and how important it is and how often we take things for granted. When we're
lucky and when things are going well, and then all it takes is for that to stop for a second. And all of a sudden we understand that oh wow. I had to do well, but I also, I was really lucky up until this point. And I wanted to write about that. So I wanted to write a book about the nature of skill versus chance, the role that luck plays in our lives.
And I started reading a lot about the topic and came to poker that way, because it turns out that game theory, which is one of the kind of foundational texts of 20th century economics. One of the major theories that looks at how we should look at chance in our lives. I learned that it came from poker and then John von Neumann who's the father of game theory was a poker player.
And that he [00:05:00] thought that poker held the key to strategic decision-making that if we could understand it we'd really have a handle on some of the most complex decisions that human beings make. And so this really intrigued me and I thought, huh, this is really interesting. If this brilliant guy thinks that poker is.
Such a good metaphor for life, then maybe there's something to the game. And so I decided to start reading a little bit about poker and when I did just something clicked and I thought, wow, this could be my book. Why don't I learn this game, immerse myself in the world and use it as a metaphor for life as a way of exploring skill and chance.
Hala Taha: I didn't realize that you actually explored poker because you wanted to write about luck and in your latest book. And I didn't realize that's actually how you got called to it. That's cool. So for our listeners who don't know what game theory is could you just explain that in a nutshell, what is game theory?
Maria Konnikova: Sure. Game theory is a way of playing in a world of [00:06:00] incomplete information. So basically you have to try to figure out what different people's incentives are, what their incentives are to act in specific ways and go down a specific decision path. And then you try to figure out, what's most likely.
So how can I try to anticipate what this person will do and how can I adjust my own strategy accordingly so that I. Get to the outcome that I want to get to. And how do I basically push the situation so that we get to my outcome? And so in order to do that, you need to understand people's values, their quote, unquote payoff structures.
What. They are more or less likely to do. And it's a combination of math and psychology. When you're talking about human beings, obviously you, because you're trying to anticipate action and figure out your best reaction to get to an outcome that you want to get to. It's when you actually look at a game theory, textbook, say it's very simple in the sense that you see a [00:07:00] lot of.
Matrices. So a lot of these little squares, two by two, which have like different payoffs in the different squares and you try to figure out, okay, which little square is gonna maximize my payoff because I want to maximize mine, which one's going to maximize theirs, which one is going to maximize both of ours.
And you try to get to the square that you want to get to. And so it's this really interesting way of looking at decision making and decision theory.
Hala Taha: Yeah, that is really interesting. And I can't wait to dig into, all your different perspectives and tips when it comes to decision-making, which we'll get to in a bit.
But first let's talk about how you learned how to play poker. So from my understanding, you were trained a few days a week by Eric Sydell. He's a poker hall of fame inductee who's won eight world series. Poker bracelets. That's like the equivalent of me wanting to get into podcasting and getting David Letterman to teach me how to conduct an interview.
So tell us, first of all, how did you meet, such a high caliber poker player and why did you decide to, get a coach, get a mentor instead of just learning [00:08:00] it on your own?
Maria Konnikova: Yeah. So I, let me answer the second part of that question first, I'm a huge believer in coaches and mentors. I think that they're important for anything.
I think that it's really hubristic to think that you can be good on your own. I think we need other people. We need other people's input into everything and we need to figure out, how do you actually, how did they become good. And so I, one of my theories in life is always try to be the stupidest person in any room, try to surround yourself with people who are better than you and smarter than you, so that you can improve so that you can get better so that you have something to aspire to.
And so it was a no-brainer when I decided to learn poker that I wanted to have someone mentor me and coach me. And after that, it was a question of who. And like I said, I didn't know anything about the poker world. I was coming to it completely fresh. [00:09:00] And so I started doing research, just randomly Googling best poker players in the world and seeing what the results were and just trying to figure it all out.
And a few names kept coming up. And Erik Seidel, his name stood out for a few reasons. First at the time he was number one in all time, money earnings for his career. Right now, I think he's number three or four. These rankings change all the time, but at the time he was number one and he was winning since the eighties.
And that just does not happen. Most poker players, as I very quickly found out, have pretty short careers, they. Shine bright. And then they burn out and no one hears from them again. And so it's really rare to see someone who is able to perform at the highest level for decades. And to me that said that he was special, that there was something there that he was able to adapt as the game changed so much.
And that was really interesting to me then finally, When you look at videos of him versus other poker players, he just seems like a nicer person than most of the [00:10:00] other big wigs. They all have their little schpeel. Some of them are just absolute jerks on camera. A lot of them look like they want the spotlight and he was just always so quiet and humble and didn't say much.
And that appealed to me because I'm a big believer in humility. And he definitely, that just comes through whenever you see him. So I just, I'm a journalist, so I'm used to cold calling and approaching people. So I just randomly reached out to him and said, Hey, I'm a writer for the new Yorker working on something new.
I think that it's something you might be interested in. I'd love to talk more about it. And that was my cold call intro. And he he said, sure, I also lucked out because it ends up that he is probably the only poker player who has a subscription to new Yorker and knew who I was and said, oh yeah, I like your writing.
I'm happy to talk. And that's how I initially met him and then worked to convince him why this was gonna be a good idea for him.
Hala Taha: Yeah. That's funny. It [00:11:00] goes to show your grit, that you went ahead and you contacted him, even though you didn't know if he was gonna say yes or no.
You had no poker experience, but she just took a chance. And I think that's a lesson that everybody listening to this right now can take a page from your book from, so you have a BA in psychology from Harvard, you have a PhD in psychology from Columbia university. That's definitely more than your average poker players experience in psychology.
So do you think that you have the upper hand when it comes to filling information gaps, as you were speaking to earlier? When it comes to having a psychology background.
Maria Konnikova: I think that it is helpful in some ways, I don't think it gives me just an absolute edge because just like game theory, poker is a combination of psychology and math and everything it's also experience.
And that's something where I'm obviously severely lacking because most poker players started playing when they were. Kids when they were teenagers and have been playing their whole life. And here I am as [00:12:00] an adult coming in without that background. And I don't have any math background. The last math class I took was in high school.
So I definitely don't have an edge there, but I do think that the psychology training was helpful and helped me ramp up much quicker than I otherwise would have been able to do because I had a grasp of. The theory behind decision-making. What I studied when I was in grad school was decision-making under risk and uncertainty.
I looked at how people made decisions under very stressful conditions how they were able to act in uncertain environments. And so that's exactly what poker is. So I definitely had. A framework to work with that I think helped a lot. And to this day, I think psychology is my biggest edge at the poker table, which is why I'm a much better alive poker player than I am online poker player, because I like being able to see people.
Hala Taha: Yeah. And I can't wait to pick your brain in terms of how to tell people's [00:13:00] emotions and read their body language and things like that, but first let's talk about your first book and get a foundation of decision-making. So your first book mastermind, how to think like Sherlock Holmes came out back in 2013. It's been translated into 17 languages, so it was quite a best seller.
Congratulations on that. When it comes to getting a foundation of decision-making, I knew that. Sherlock Holmes was a huge influence in your life growing up as a child. So let's start there. Tell us how you got introduced to Sherlock Holmes. Why you have admiration for him and then we'll dig into his way of thinking.
Maria Konnikova: Sure. So I was introduced to Sherlock Holmes as a kid, by my dad who would read to us one night, a week, every Sunday night, we had this tradition where he'd read us a book and then we'd pick up, the next week where we left off was something I looked forward to all week. It's my favorite thing ever.
And one day he Picked up this new book that [00:14:00] we hadn't seen before. And that was the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. And it made a really big impression on me. And there was this one scene in particular that just stayed with me. And it was this moment where Holmes asks Watson, how many steps lead up to 2 21 B baker street, where they live and Watson doesn't know, and home says that's the difference between us.
You only see, I both see and observe. And I just, when I was a kid, like my mind was blown by this, I thought, wow. I don't know how many steps lead up anywhere. And I still wasn't quite sure that Sherlock Holmes was fictional. So I wanted to make sure that I would be. Not be like Watson and that I'd make him proud.
And that I'd actually be able to report back how many steps lead up, from our first floor to our second floor. So for a while there, I counted steps everywhere I went, but as I grew older, I realized that, the main message of this wasn't about the steps. It was [00:15:00] about the other product seeing versus both seeing and observing and.
It's something that just was lodged in the back of my mind. And so as an adult, when. I was writing. I remember I was writing a column for scientific American about mindfulness. And this was back in, 2010. Most people had no idea what mindfulness was at the time. Not most people, but it wasn't like the popular term that it is right now.
So unless you were interested in it, it's not like it was part of the zeitgeists, but I was, I became really interested at it and I was trying to figure out how to explain it because. When you're trying to explain a psychological concept, it's really nice to be able to anchor it to something concrete.
And the scene from Sherlock Holmes just came back to my mind, this seeing versus seeing and observing. And I Googled it. I hadn't re-read Sherlock Holmes since I was little and. I re-read the story. And I was like, oh my God, this is perfect. This is exactly what I'm looking for. This is mindfulness. [00:16:00] This difference between Watson and Holmes between seeing and observing.
And so then I wrote the piece and then I started rereading all the stories and I was just blown away. I thought, oh my God, not only was Conan Doyle, an amazing writer, but there's so much rich psychology here. There's so much about the human mind. So much about the way that Sherlock Holmes was thinking.
And, at this point I obviously knew that Sherlock Holmes was fictional, but I also learned that he was based on a very real person Dr. Joseph Bell, who it was one of Arthur Conan Doyle's mentors in medical school because Conan Doyle was a doctor. Luckily he wasn't a great doctor because otherwise he never would have written the Sherlock Holmes stories.
He ended up writing them when no one came to his practice. So he was just sitting there by himself all day and no patients came so. That's how the Sherlock Holmes stories started, but he based Sherlock Holmes on a scientist, on someone who had this very scientific approach to [00:17:00] observation and to deduction.
And that was fascinating to me. And I decided that I wanted to write about it. And that was the birth of my first book.
Hala Taha: Very cool. And there's some awesome tips in there. Something that I just wanna drive home from my listeners. I think you were just touching on it, but you talk about two systems of our mind of our brains.
You caught talk about the Watson system and the Holmes system. So tell us the difference, like what is thinking like Watson and what is thinking like Sherlock Homes?
Maria Konnikova: Sure. And I will say that this is not something that I came up with. I came up with system Watson and system Holmes, but this dual process way of looking at the brain as something that's been around in psychology for a long time.
And it was really popularized by Daniel Kahneman who wanna know about prize for a lot of this work in thinking fast and slow, where he talks about system one and system two. And so I just adopted them as system Watson and system Holmes. [00:18:00] And one of them is our default way of going through life. It's seeing and not seeing and observing it's mindlessness as opposed to mindfulness it's being reflexive and acting quickly as about as opposed to being reflective and thinking through things and acting more slowly.
It's a lot it's emotion. It's gut instinct. It's. The way that is our default and much easier way of going through life, because it doesn't take as many cognitive resources. You just react and you just let things be. And then the other, the system Holmes is the much more mindful pressence effortful system where you actually stop and you reflect and you're present and you focus and you're in the moment and you really bring all of your brain to bear on a decision on a question on an action.
It takes a lot more resources. And our brains [00:19:00] are not normally in system Holmes. We're normally in system Watson and it takes a conscious effort and it takes practice to make Holmes more active. And the way that I think about it as you don't want to be in system Holmes all the time, because you're just going to be exhausted.
You can't go through life like that. But. You also don't want to be in system Watson all the time. The way that you normally are because you miss so much and you're not present, you're not focused. You don't make as good decisions. You don't reflect as well. And so I think we need to strive for a combination where we know that these two modes exist and where we.
For the most part when things don't really matter when we're doing things that are, that can be brainless, that's fine to be in system Watson. But so that we know that we have to and should be engaging system Holmes, whenever we're making important decisions or whenever we're in an important conversation, reacting to something, then I think it's important to [00:20:00] actually switch and bring all of our brain power to bear.
Hala Taha: Yeah, I think that totally makes sense. And tell my listeners, you've heard about these concepts throughout so many different interviews. Mark Manson has a version of this concept. A lot of others take this perspective of two brains and spin it in their own way. So let's talk about one more item from this Sherlock Holmes mastermind book.
It's the concept of your brain? As an attic that you can fill and soar and rearrange tell us about this brain attic metaphor and how storing information really impacts our thought processes.
Maria Konnikova: Absolutely. So I stole the brain addict metaphor directly from Arthur Conan Doyle, who gave this idea to Sherlock Holmes.
And it comes from a conversation where Holmes tells Watson that a man's brain. And let's just say a human's brain. Let's let's say man, and woman's brain and a person's brain is like an attic. [00:21:00] So you. Put things up there and the way that you put things out there determines basically what kind of person you are.
And so it's his metaphor for memory and for how the brain stores information. And so what's Sherlock Holmes tells Watson is, there there are different kinds of addicts. Your attic. There Watson is like a lumberjacks. You just put anything up there, you throw it up there. It's a total mess. My attic because I'm Sherlock Holmes and I'm wonderful.
Is very nice and precise and ordered because I actually pay attention to what's going in there. And it's a interesting way of looking at the mind of looking at memory because it actually holds up. Pretty well to modern science with one obvious exception, which is that an attic is fixed in space. Since we have to think about an expanding attic, right?
Because the human mind, isn't a physical structure and you can actually make it bigger. [00:22:00] As you need to. But what's really correct about it. Picture yourself, buying a new house and you go up and you see this huge attic. And you're like, oh my God, this is amazing. I never have to throw anything out.
And so everything that doesn't fit in your new house, you put in the attic and then whenever you want to move something, but don't want to throw it out, you just throw it up there. Then one day you come up and you can't quite open the door because it's so full of stuff. And the thing that you came up to find, you have no idea where it is because you were just throwing things up there and that's.
That's basically what a mindless sprain attic looks like because you didn't store it while you didn't pay attention to where it was going. You didn't label it properly. You just let things in there. Willy nilly. What you should strive to do at homes describes is, okay, this isn't the space isn't infinite, and this is what you're always carrying with you.
So be very thoughtful about what you put up there. Every single time you put something in your attic. Make an effort to think, okay, do I really need this? [00:23:00] If I do, where am I going to put it so that I can access it later so that I know exactly where it is and I can figure out where it is when I need it, because something that is really important to know about memory.
is Basically what's in our head is only relevant if we can access it, otherwise it doesn't matter. Otherwise we don't know it. Just think of yourself back in school, taking a test. Does it matter if you remember reading it? If you don't actually remember the information? No, because you're not going to be able to answer the question.
So you need to be able to retrieve the information when you need it. And the only way you're going to make those strong memories is when you first encode them, the moment where you first put them in your mind or put them in your brain attic. And so it's very important to try to encode memories as well as possible to try to use as much information as possible and put as many cross labels, so store something with other things that are [00:24:00] like it.
Try to figure out how you can. Invoke all of your senses, right? Because this is an actually an attic. And so you can label it with smells and sounds and emotions and experiences do all of that, actually be conscious of doing it because that's the way that you're going to be able to access these memories later on.
And that's the way that you're actually going to have the knowledge when you need to have the knowledge. Otherwise you are ahead is just going to be filled with random stuff that you didn't make any conscious effort to remember but it's there.
Hala Taha: Yeah, that's so interesting. And I think you call this the motivation to remember the need, to have the motivation to remember.
And just from my listeners, like an example of this is in high school, I had a Spanish teacher and she taught us all the countries and capitals of south America via a song. Great. And I still remember those countries and capitals because we set it in a song. But if you asked me some random states in America.
And its capital. I probably wouldn't know even though I live [00:25:00] in America. So it's just, it just goes to show that if you just make any sort of connection to what you're trying to remember, it will help you remember it. So with that, I love actionable practical tips on young and profiting podcasts. So how can we start to remember things better?
Like other than, so I just gave the example of writing a song with the information so that you remember it. What's another example of how you can like instantly make a connection and have the motivation to remember that piece of information.
Maria Konnikova: I think there are a few things there first. The very concept of motivation is incredibly important.
You're gonna remember things if you consciously are motivated to remember them. So if at the moment it's happening, you say, oh, this is important. I want to remember this. And so if you can find a reason why it's important, if you can make that connection at that moment. That's going to help you because we remember things that we actually want to remember much better.
And we also remember just things that are incredibly emotional. We might not want to remember them but we remember them anyway. So try to [00:26:00] play that up and try to realize that you're never going to have a second chance to make this memory. And so all you can do is make sure. At the moment you activate as much as you can of your senses and of your ability to actually encode this.
So what I say when I'm talking about memory, oftentimes is that every single point of encoding as a possible point of retrieval. So how do you make it free your mind so that it's easier to retrieve information while you try to encode it in as many ways. As possible. And so something that I just mentioned, but that I'll mention again, is try to use all of your senses.
So try to actually figure out, not just. Eyes, which we often rely on, but touch, sound, smell all of that. Try to actually actively encode it. How does this relate to other information that I know other experiences? How can I relate it to something that I already know that context is also [00:27:00] going to help you?
And I think that these are just ways that you can help make the encoding stronger. And it's very, it's different. So right now I'm talking. Remembering moments and experiences and things that happen because it's very different from studying for a test where you can read this book as many times as you want, and then go through this information as many times as you want.
That's not what Holmes is talking about. That's not what I'm talking about. There, you have study tips and that's not my strong suit should get an academic tutor who will tell you how to memorize lists of vocabulary words.
Hala Taha: Cool. Okay. So fast forward to 2020, you released a new book called the biggest bluff, and you released that after you played poker for a number of years and really learned more decision-making skills with your experience in poker.
So tell us, why did you decide to write this book? And did you learn anything different when it comes to decision-making after your experience with
[00:28:00] Maria Konnikova: Yeah. I think I've already talked about why I decided to write it. It was because I wanted to write about luck. So that was the origin story of my interest in poker is the exact same origin story as the book, because the book was always going to be about this journey.
And of course, I learned a lot more than I ever thought I'd learned mostly because I had no expectations and I didn't know. Anything about poker. And so I knew because I came to poker from game theory, I knew that I'd learn probabilities and probabilistic thinking and how to make decisions under uncertainty that I knew, but I didn't realize that poker was actually going to help me.
Make better decisions. In other ways, I didn't realize that it would actually go back to some of my previous work on mindfulness and teach me to pay attention again. Reteach me some of those lessons from from Sherlock Holmes in a very practical way that it would teach me how to manage my emotions when [00:29:00] making decisions that it would teach me how to listen, how to read people better.
So it really, I think was a very interactive, multifaceted approach to better decision-making. And so these days I'm much better at mental math, which is great and much better at thinking in probabilities and certainties and trying to have a very strict map for how I come to a decision. But I'm also better at the softer skills at the psychology elements that you think.
I would have mastered in grad school, but it's very different learning things, theoretically, and then actually practically I think the reason why poker is such a good teaching tool is that you're actually betting and there's money on the line and you have skin in the game. So when you make good decisions, it's great.
And when you make bad decisions, you're punished and your pocket feels that punishment, your bottom line suffers. So it's a very strong incentive to learn quickly.
Hala Taha: Yeah. So [00:30:00] speaking of decision-making skills and having better decision-making skills, you say that you need to separate your decision-making from the outcome.
Can you tell us about why it's important to separate your decision-making from the actual outcome of what you're trying to achieve?
Maria Konnikova: Sure. So the exact thing I say is that you need to separate the process from the outcome. So there's the process of making your decision, which is the information you use. How you think about it, the ways that you put it together, the reasons why you're doing what you're doing, that's a skill.
That's something that you have total control over. That's something where you can do your homework, do your research, try to figure out, okay, what factors are important? How sure am I of these different factors? What, why am I doing what I'm doing? But in anything in poker and in life, the outcome can never be certain.
We live in a probabilistic world. There's no such thing as 100% [00:31:00] certainty. And so what you're trying to do is put yourself. In a position to win, put yourself in a position where probabilistically speaking, you're going to win more than you're going to lose. So be a favorite, try to come to the best decision possible by having a good decision process.
And then. The rest is up to you. The outcome that's chance you don't control the cards that are still going to come. You don't control other people. You don't control their reactions. You don't control any of that. And so you can make the right decision and still get a bad outcome. So in poker, for instance, I can get my money in a.
75% favorite, which is amazing. I want to do that every single time. It's really rare to be that high of a favorite in poker or in life. And but that doesn't mean that I'm gonna win 25% of the time I'm gonna lose. Does that mean I made the wrong decision? Absolutely not. It means I made the right decision, but I got unlucky and oftentimes humans conflate the two and we use the [00:32:00] outcome as a
proxy for the process. So if something turns out we think it was a good decision. If something doesn't turn out well, we think it was a bad decision. That's absolutely wrong. Good decisions. Turn out poorly and horrible decisions turn out well all the time, because chance is real and luck is a real thing.
And there are business leaders and entrepreneurs and CEOs who are horrible and really made bad decisions. And then got really lucky because they happened to just hit the right note at the right time or something else happened. And then they have one really successful business. And then the next one, they drive into the ground because they actually weren't very good.
They just got very lucky. Conversely, you have some people who made really good decisions got unlucky because there were some other factors that were bad. No, one's gonna give them a second chance even though they should, because they're actually much better decision makers. So something that poker really teaches you is how to separate the two and the importance of doing that in real life.
So what I will tell everyone [00:33:00] is try not to judge not only yourself, but other people, which is much more difficult by the outcomes of their decision, try to figure out why they did what they did. Was there a reasoning sound? Was the calculus sound? Are they actually good thinkers and was their process good?
And if so, wonderful, that means they did the right thing and they just didn't hit the right side of variants and in your own life, just try to keep making the right decision over and over knowing that sometimes it's not gonna work out. And that doesn't mean that you're wrong. It just means that the world's not a certain place.
Hala Taha: Yeah, totally. So let's stick on luck for a moment and dig into the cons your perspective on luck in poker in life. You talk about the illusion of control and how it can sabotage our outcomes. Will you share a bit about that with us?
Maria Konnikova: Sure. Absolutely. So the illusion of control is when we still think we're in control and we're really [00:34:00] not.
And that happens all the time because we humans love being in control. We love the sense of agency. We love thinking that we matter. We're very egocentric. The world's about us, and it's not the case. And this is actually what I studied at Columbia. And what I found was if you put people in a stochastic environment, so an environment where there's a lot of uncertainty where the outcomes are not determined by any one thing, oftentimes people will still think they're much more in control of what's happening than they are.
And so all of a sudden the environment will shift. but they will keep doing exactly what they were doing, because they don't realize that, Hey, something else is going on and you're not actually in control of this right now. And it happens at every single level. Sometimes you have like random patterns on the screen and you have people draw.
And what they're drawing is in no way affecting what's on the screen. And [00:35:00] yet they think. That it's what they're drawing. Even when the two things don't look at all like our brains, just like imposing order and agency on our environment. And that leads us to be much more confident than we shouldn't be.
It's the problem of overconfidence because you think it's all about you and you think it's all about skill, but there's so much noise and there's so many other things going on. And it's so important to try to break through that and to try to realize, what skill gets me so far, but then there is chance and all of this variance and all of this other stuff.
And I don't control that. And I'm never going to control that. And that's okay.
Hala Taha: Yeah, that's really interesting. And it's like contradicts something else that I read. I heard you say in the past that it's not the best hand in poker, it's the best player. So to me that makes it seem like skilled really does have a lot to do with it.
And I heard a study that you cited in the past that, on an [00:36:00] online poker study that was conducted with thousands of games. The best hand, only one, 12% of the time. So it's like a mix of luck, math statistics and understandings, human psychology. Would you agree to that?
Maria Konnikova: Oh, absolutely. I think that poker is absolutely a game of skill. And so I think that over time, the skilled players are going to walk away with all of the money. So what I'm trying to say is that in any given hand, at any given moment, you can't guarantee that you're going to win. So let's say I sit down to play with my coach, Erik Seidel.
Who's much better than I'm ever going to be. If we play one hand, I might win. And that doesn't mean that doesn't mean anything. That's just complete noise. That doesn't mean that I'm brilliant. If we play one game, I might win. Because it's just one game and, I, might've just gotten amazing cards.
If we play 10 games, he's probably going to start winning more, but I still might be winning more than my fair share. If we [00:37:00] play a hundred, if we play a thousand, by the time we get two thousand, I'm broke, he's taken all of my money. So in the long-term scale, Asserts itself. That's why in these studies where you're talking about hundreds of thousands of hands, you do find that the players who are the best have a huge skill edge, and yet they're able to convince players with much better hands to just lay down their cards because skill comes out over the longterm.
But you have to realize that in any specific moment, any specific decision, the skilled player can lose. So in immediate term, chances huge in the long-term skill is huge.
Hala Taha: That makes a lot of sense. And so when you're a poker player, you definitely have to get used to losing a lot. Because like you said, there's a lot of luck chance, even if you're the best player, you might have a bad hand, you might lose.
I know that your coach, Erik told you that failure is the best teacher. So could you tell us a bit about how Erik taught you about failure and how he taught you to get used to failure and embrace it.
[00:38:00] Maria Konnikova: Yeah so he taught me something a little bit different. That failure is the best teacher. It came from his mentor Dan Harrington.
So what Dan Harrington taught me is that, and this happened quite early on in my poker career where Erik had meet Dan and talk to him because Dan actually has written kind of some of the Seminole textbooks on poker. He's very good at teaching early stage players, how to play. And I was complaining a little bit that I was working hard and I was doing everything that Erik was telling me to do.
And I was losing, I wasn't doing very well. And he said, good. He said, that's wonderful. Because that's the only way you're going to get better. And what he meant by that. Isn't yeah, toughen up. It was when you're failing, when you're not doing well, it's a huge incentive for you to go back and try to look at your process, what you were talking about and try to figure out, okay, what's going on?
What am I doing wrong? [00:39:00] What's how do I improve? How do I actually have a better decision process? How do I put myself in a position to win? Whereas if you win right away. He told me that's actually one of the worst things that can happen to a poker player, or I think to almost anyone, because if you're very, if you win right away, how will you ever know if you're good or if you're lucky.
And the answer is you won't, you'll probably overestimate your skill. You'll think that you're much better than you actually are. So you're not, and you're not incentivized then to improve, to go back, to try to go through it, to try to do the exact same thing that you are incentivized to do when you're failing.
And so it's so important to realize that. And what he also said is that, failure also is where the truly skilled players shine because if the person who got lucky starts suddenly doing poorly, they're gonna lose their shit. They're gonna figure out, oh my God, you know what's happening?
This is not cool. This isn't fair. They're going to start blaming [00:40:00] things and they're not going to be able to keep it together. Whereas the truly skilled player, can you still think when you're losing, can you still make the right decisions, even when you're losing that's the mark of a truly skilled player.
And that's how you know that you've really learned it.
Hala Taha: That's super interesting. So sticking on this topic a bit you're starting to get into emotions. You just mentioned, if you were winning all of a sudden, you start to lose you, you could end up losing your shit. So how can we stay calm?
Tell us about the concept of tilting with that is and how we can avoid it when making decision.
Maria Konnikova: Yeah. So poker is one of the best ways to learn emotional management that I've ever encountered and tilt as this wonderful term that I think everyone should use, which is basically letting emotions into your decision process and letting things that are not necessarily germane affect your thinking.
And these can be positive emotions or negative emotions. All it means, you are no longer [00:41:00] thinking logically, you're no longer thinking rationally. Now you're also using this emotional information as well. And the way that you can work on that is I think, first of all, through self knowledge and through learning how to pay attention to yourself and to your emotions and to what your body is telling you.
I actually ended up working with a mental game coach as well. Someone who taught me to. Look at myself from the outside and to try to figure out what things triggered me, how I reacted in certain situations. Most of the work on tilt is done outside of being at the poker table, because when you're already in the moment, when you're already emotional, it's too late.
It's really hard to step back from the brink when you're already there. And so the key is to learn, to identify it ahead of time and to work through it ahead of time. So I think what I would suggest anyone does is to try to figure out. [00:42:00] Okay. How do I react in certain situations? What makes me angry?
What makes me happy? What makes me sad? What makes me take more risk? What makes me take less risks in poker? How do I react to losing? How do I react to winning? How am I going to counteract it? How am I going to in the moment? Try to cool. The emotion. Try to step away. From the moment and become re-inject logic and rational thinking into the situation, because the key is to understand that everyone tilts and that you're human.
You're not a robot. You're going to experience emotion. That's inevitable. So how do you take it, acknowledge it, and then remove it from the decision process, as opposed to letting it color your decision. And that's the skill that you have to learn to develop.
Hala Taha: Yeah, it's emotional intelligence 1 0 1.
It sounds like. So in terms of reading other people's emotions at the poker table, you probably have gotten a lot of experience at least pre COVID in terms of [00:43:00] reading people's emotions. So what do you look at, at do you look at their face, their body? How do you read people's emotions?
Maria Konnikova: It's a lot of different things and it depends on the person.
I think that you need to disabuse yourself of the notion that there's any universality to how people express different things, because there is it. Almost everyone thinks that, oh, I can tell when someone's lying. I can tell when someone's this, I can tell when someone's that you can't, you might be able to tell when one specific person is, if you know this person very well, but there's no such thing.
As one psychologist once told me, I was like a Pinocchio's nose, right? It's not like. One of our facial features is going to change every single time. Something happens and people blush for different reasons. People look uncomfortable for different reasons. And so in terms of reading emotions, it's all about dynamics and situations and paying attention to people over time.
How does this person normally act I've been sitting at the same table as someone for the entire day. And I've noticed that normally they [00:44:00] sit this way and they look this way and they say that I could say this, and suddenly there's a change suddenly they're deviating from that. That's what I should be paying attention to the deviations, to the changes from baseline behavior.
That's where the information is. And even then I'm not going to be sure what it means unless I see what the outcome is, unless I see their cards, unless I see what that actually meant, did that mean that they had a strong hand? Did that mean that they were bluffing? Did that mean this? Did that mean that, and so you just pay attention over time to those types of dynamics.
But if you are looking for kind of one specific place to look, I would say it's not the face. All of our data show that you should be looking at the hands, that the hands actually give up a lot more information than any other part of the body. And I think part of that is that we all know we're supposed to have poker faces.
We control our faces pretty well. And we're used to doing that in everyday life because we don't always want to show our emotional reactions, but we pay a lot less. Attention to our [00:45:00] hands, to our gestures. We don't think about what we're doing with them now often. And so oftentimes you get information there just because people aren't as consciously aware of their gestures.
And also, you can see a lot of things on the hands. You can see pulse, you can see sweat, you can see skin conductance. You can see a lot of other things there that might help you figure out how comfortable or uncomfortable someone.
Hala Taha: For example, with the hands, what would you look for?
Give us some real examples of noticing someone's emotion based on their hands.
Maria Konnikova: Yeah. So mostly it's fluidity and strength of motion. So I write about this extensively in the book. So if anyone is interested, you can read the chapter on tells, but that's what you're looking at. You're looking at, how do the people, how do people handle chips?
How do they handle cards? How smooth as their gesture, how strong is their gesture? And you actually get a lot of information that way.
Hala Taha: Cool.
So before you started playing poker, you actually were a bit [00:46:00] intimidated to start from my understanding, because you read a study that women are told that, when they're assertive or they're viewed negatively, when they act assertive.
And so in turn, we're preconditioned to act more passively and that can also be seen in a corporate environment. Women tend to act more passively than assertive. They're called the B word. If they're overly assertive, I've even in the past been called aggressive, even just because I'm a leader and it was a project manager and how to handle deadlines.
So I think every woman has experiences in one way or another being told that they're aggressive. How did you overcome that and how did you actually turn that into an advantage? Being a woman on the poker table?
Maria Konnikova: Yeah. It's not something that I thought was going to be a problem to begin with because I done a lot of work on it.
I'd written a lot about it, and I thought that I had a handle on it myself. I thought that I was, strong female who had a lot of success and that I wasn't like that. That understanding it, understanding these [00:47:00] biases, doing a lot of work on it, helped me somehow overcome it. And then I started playing poker and poker is 98% male.
So for anyone in a corporate environment that thinks that your environment is male heavy. Try playing poker. 98% is a lot. It's it's something that you don't often encounter. And I did realize all of a sudden that I had internalized a lot of these social stereotypes that I sometimes knew what I had to do, but didn't want to do it because I didn't want to upset people.
I wanted them to think I was nice. Sometimes I didn't play hands as aggressively as I should have, even when they were really good hands because I felt bad. Sometimes I would let people bully me and I just fold because I didn't want conflict. I'd say, you know what? You just take it. I don't care. That's not a way to play poker.
It's not a way to win. That's actually really bad. And so the first step was to realize that was going on, which really upset me because it's not a way that I wanted to see myself, but after I realized it and acknowledged it, I was able to start working on it and I [00:48:00] thought, okay, fine. You can actually turn this on your head.
You can actually realize that it's a super power to be underestimated. If these people don't think I should be playing because I'm female fine. Let me try to figure out how they see me and let me use that to my advantage. So I started realizing that, oh, they're basically what I'm trying to figure out is how does each player view women?
Because they saw me as female first and as a poker player. Second. So if you saw. Women as somebody who, should not be at the table and you'd rather die than be bluffed by a woman. Okay. Then you're never going to fall to me. So I'm never gonna bluff you, but you know what? I'm gonna bet really big when I have good hands, because you're gonna call me because you'll think I'm bluffing.
Then there are the people who think that women never bluff. They're not capable of it. You know what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna bluff you relentlessly and on. So once I figured out that people were using their biases, instead of logic, I was able to start winning and start making a lot of money.
[00:49:00] Hala Taha: That's
awesome. I love that. So the last question I ask all my listeners is what is your secret to profiting in life?
Maria Konnikova: I would say my secret to profiting in life is to try to focus on what makes the most number of people, including you happy, never think how is something going to be useful to me?
Because you don't know, you have no idea what the future is gonna bring. So instead of trying to do things because you think they're useful or because you think you're gonna make a lot of money doing them or anything like that, just focus on what's gonna make you happy. What's gonna make the people around you happy and try to, I would say, try to leave the world or wherever you are, a happier place than it was before you arrived there.
Hala Taha: That's
solid advice. And where can our listeners go to learn more about you and everything that you do?
Maria Konnikova: I have a website, which is just my full name, Mariakonnikova.com. And in terms of social media, I'm most active on Twitter where I'm mkonnikova and Instagram, where I'm [00:50:00] grlnamedmaria. But girl does not have an I in it because that username was already taken.
Hala Taha: Awesome. I'll put all your links in our show notes and also links to all your different books three time bestseller. I'm sure your latest book is also doing really well. So thank you so much, Maria, for coming on the show and talk to you soon.
Maria Konnikova: Thank
you so much. It's been a pleasure.
Hala Taha: Thanks for listening to young and profiting podcast.
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