The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova


A Man’s World – New York, Winter 2016

  • Eric tricks Maria into playing in a real tournament as she thought she was going to watch him. It’s a charity event and they tend to feature aggressive play. She compares playing online to a kiddy pool and a real tournament to the ocean. Tournament poker features 97% men. Here we review society’s biases regarding women and men. Women are taught to be personable and not aggressive while aggressive behavior is valued in men. Maria is overwhelmed at first, but she starts to draw on her training and plays well. She loses all of her chips at the three-hour mark and Eric tells her she did well. Maria, however, starts second-guessing herself but feels better in the morning and heads back to New Jersey to play online.
  • During the tournament Maria realizes that buy sticking too long with a hand she is experiencing the “sunk cost fallacy.” She also experiences the “Gambler’s fallacy” which is the faulty idea that probability has a memory. There is no such thing as a Hot Hand” in poker or basketball. The law of small numbers comes next where people think that small samples should mirror large ones, but they often don’t. Finally, we encounter the locus of control. People who have an internal one think they can control their external environment. They tend to have better mental health. People with an external locus think that what they do doesn’t matter. They see themselves as victims and are more prone to depression.

No Bad Beats – Las Vegas, Winter 2017

  • After a little Las Vegas history from Maria she follows Eric to some of the smaller establishments in town where she can start working her way up from tables with lower buy-ins. While she “busts” out of her first few tables she finds that she is learning fast. At one table she is sure she has the best hand and goes all in. She is beaten by an improbable draw by another player and is devastated. When she tells Eric he lets her know that he doesn’t want to hear the details of her “bad beat.” She was simply unlucky and focusing on bad luck is toxic. You can save a lot of emotional energy if you avoid the same. Otherwise, you start to feel like a victim, which is a loser mindset. Complaining, in general, leads you into dangerous mental waters. Focus on the process, not the luck.

Texting Your Way out of Millions – Las Vegas, Winter 2017

  • Maria sits behind Eric at a tournament and watches the action to learn from it. She notices that the players are a “motley bunch” featuring players from all kinds of education and class backgrounds. Anyone can play who has the buy-in money. All players play the lottery of birth: genes, gender, and family situation as well as the lottery of outside life events as they grow up. Marie wonders how she can ever get remotely close to Eric’s level. Generally, watching someone a lot better than you can be discouraging in any discipline.
  • The key to success here appears to be one’s focus. Cellphones can be a problem in poker and in life when it comes to focusing. Also, the relationship between information and confidence is highly asymmetric. Studies show that doctors feel more confident when they have more information although their accuracy doesn’t improve. There is a risk of thinking you know more than you know simply because you have more information. Yoga and martial arts can help with focus in poker and in life. Finally, there isn’t a place for negative emotions. Not only do they make you feel bad, but they also cause your decision making to suffer.

A Storytelling Business – Las Vegas March 2017

  • Here enters Phil Galford a top player who is considered the best poker teacher. He tells Maria that poker is storytelling. It’s a narrative puzzle and it’s your job to put the pieces together. If you just focus on the technical aspects you can become proficient, but mastery will be elusive. In the game of poker, you are a detective and a storyteller. You have to figure out what your opponent’s actions mean and what they don’t mean. Omission neglect is the phenomenon that causes us to ignore what is omitted. Every action your opponent takes has a reason behind it. You take what you observe about their play and construct their story. Phil also tells her that too much studying without playing makes it hard to fully absorb knowledge. The idea that you need experience is good general advice.
  • Finally, Maria gets her first tournament win of $900. The next day she places second in a bigger tournament and wins $2,215. This cash is reported to the Hendon Mob, which tracks each player’s winnings online. When she returns from Las Vegas her husband tells her “you take much less shit from people that you used to.” This an indication of the growth that has happened as part of her learning process.

The Gambler and the Nerd – Monte Carlo, April 2017

  • In Monte Carlo Maria plays her first thousand Euro buy-in tournaments. She “cashes” in three of six and shows a profit of 1,470 euros in just over a week before expenses, which are much more. Eric tells her that he is proud, but that by playing just to “cash” she will never win. Also, good players will spot the fact that she is playing to “cash” and take advantage of her. The better you get the worse you are because the flaws you couldn’t see before are now visible and need to be addressed. Don’t let minor victories allow you to think you are doing great. Maria also learns that it’s a short walk to France where she can avoid Mone Carlo’s astronomical prices for food and lodging.
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