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

‘You can only play the cards you’re dealt’ is very much a cliché, and sometimes clichés are clichés because they’re true. If someone is 5’4 then it’s unlikely they’ll become a professional basketball player no matter how much they research diet, physiology and conditioning, or watch The Last Dance on constant repeat. Sometimes we all get a bad beat. However, poker doesn’t call on our physical attributes, and increasingly in the age of online poker, not even our physical presence.

Psychologist and TV producer Maria Konnikova’s 2020 New York Times bestseller details her journey from rookie to pro tables under the guidance of Erik Seidel –a New York pro with almost $40m in career earnings.

For her third book, following 2003’s Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, and 2015’s The Confidence Game, Konnikova approached Seidel, asking him to mentor her through the game of poker. A PhD from Columbia University, she was interested in how poker mirrors life – an environment where someone is never fully in control of an outcome, but may be able to think, strategize and rationalize in order to influence her own thinking and reactions. Every hand is a new and unique situation, how can we best adapt to those? Her story, the one told in The Biggest Bluff, is not one of improving academic performance through learning, but understanding how to turn a game of chance into a six-figure sum, very quickly.

A rags to riches story worthy of any novel, The Biggest Bluff tells the story of Konnikova using Seidel’s mentorship to explore her own perceptions, and along the way, became a successful poker player, winning over $100,000 within 18 months of first learning the rules of the game. While not many of us have psychology doctorates or could call on millionaire professionals to guide us through new ventures, online poker for minimal or even virtual stakes can apply the same principles.

Poker is accessible, even if Konnikova’s book is more of a memoir of her experiences, rather than a guide to helping you improve. Her thinking is laid bare and offers the reader insight on how to seize chances. It is assumed that you have some knowledge of basic poker hand rankings, but in the main, even those without a firm poker background can take something away, some little slice of experience the millionaire professional imbued upon the author.

Poker might not be what people would automatically think of as self-help, but table principles involve a lot of self-analysis – it’s never a good idea to be caught up in the hype; internet poker can be effective in that in our own space, we have fewer distractions. While we can’t be masters of the universe, we can take steps to master ourselves in that universe: as Konnikova states, “You can’t control what will happen, so it makes no sense to try to guess at it. Chance is just chance: it is neither good nor bad nor personal. Without us to supply meaning, it’s simple noise. The most we can do is learn to control what we can – our thinking, our decision processes, our reactions.”

Is the ‘hot hand’ a logical fallacy at a table, and in a world where one’s start point is given to them at random? Maybe over the long haul, fortune favors the bold; Konnikova muses. But the habits and discipline built up in calculating pot odds, reading our scenarios and assessing our risk can surely aid us in deciding when it’s time to be brave.

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