Book Report XII: The Biggest Bluff

Against a blue cloth background, an iPad shows the cover of The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova. Playing cards fall around the title.

What’s the best way to understand the balance between chance and control? Maria Konnikova, a psychologist-turned-journalist decided she would learn poker by committing herself to compete in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) championship tournament within one year. In The Biggest Bluff, she brings us along on her journey from complete novice to the $10k buy-in tournament.

I really enjoyed The Biggest Bluff’s adventure into a high-octane competition balanced with professional insights into human behavior. The book is an easy mix of anecdotes that illustrate the poker (and life!) advice she picks up from her mentors, as well as academic literature behind chance, betting, confidence, and control. For example: did you know that studies demonstrate that we tend to make our decisions first and then find evidence to construct a rationale for our decision, not the other way around? The shortcuts our brains create help us make fast decisions but they also make us very susceptible to bias!

Why poker?

Both her grandmother and new acquaintances scoff at her project. For many, a game involving chance has an immoral tint, even if it does also require knowledge and skill. Her counterargument is that all aspects of life can be made or broken by chance; we happily take credit for our success, but forget that many little things went right for us to meet our partner, get that dream job, or if you’re a Berliner, find the right apartment… But when something foils or derails us, we quickly blame bad luck. As she tells it:

“For poker, unlike quite any other game, mirrors life. It isn't the roulette wheel of pure chance, nor is it the chess of mathematical elegance and perfect information. Like the world we inhabit, it consists of an inextricable joining of the two. Poker stands at the fulcrum that balances two oppositional forces in our lives - chance and control.”

Where does poker come from?

The game of poker probably started as a card game called “Primero”:

“Primero traveled across Europe, variably termed primiera, la prime, and eventually pochen, a German name derived from the verb "to bluff." The French took pochen and made it poqué- and soon, the game would morph into a new form.”

The game would then with French colonists in the early 1800s to what’s now Louisiana and spread across North America from there.

Ever the psychologist, Konnikova unpacks heaps of helpful life lessons from poker, including:

Build resiliency with an internal locus of control

Do things happen to you, or are you in control of your situations? An “internal locus of control” describes a growth mindset, marked by resiliency and optimism: if you can get over the bad plays and pay attention to the lesson to be learned from each defeat, you can be prepared for the next round. But if you frame yourself as the victim, without control of your situation, you set yourself up to feel helpless, and therefore less resilient.

Your hands say it all

In one study, students were shown three types of clips of poker players placing bets: videos showing the whole player, videos of only their faces, and videos of only the players’ hands. With the whole player in view, the students were “no better than chance at guessing the quality of someone’s hand.” When they had only the face to make their judgements, they were worse than chance at guessing! They only did better than chance when they saw only the hands. What does this mean? Ignore your opponent’s face, better to look at what their hands are telling you…

Emotion is data

Self-control does not mean stifling your emotions. “Instead, the goal is to learn to identify our emotions, analyze their cause, and if they're not actually part of our rational decision process - and more often than not, they aren’t - dismiss them as sources of information.” I love Konnikova’s focus on the role of emotion in learning and decision-making. They’re not something we need to circumvent with logic, they are another rich stream of information we should be present enough to interpret and use. What’s your gut telling you?

We are socially conditioned and must confront our patriarchal ideas

It’s so important to center the experiences of womxn and break down the barriers for inclusion and equity in all fields, including competitive poker. Konnikova uses insights from her poker career to reflect on patriarchy’s obstacles and her own social conditioning in other parts of her life:

“I've learned that it doesn't pay to be aggressive while female… When women act in a more feminine, less confrontational way, we aren't being shy or stupid. We are being smart. We are reacting to the realities of the world, knowing that to fail to do so is to incur potentially life-changing penalties. We are socialized into our passivity. After all, don't we want to be liked, so that we will be hired and make money and make a living?”

Games are great learning tools - that’s why we’re here!

Polar Embassy is a games company that celebrates queer and trans* creators who can introduce heavy topics into light conversations. A playful approach is critical in our work - fun activities can ease intellectual guards and allow our imagination to play with new, big ideas we might otherwise reject. Konnikova would agree: “games give us a chance to confront luck in a manner that allows us to process it in life in a way we're not always forced to do.” And it’s those “confrontations” with the limits of our control that teach us the best lessons.

The Biggest Bluff of all

I won’t give away her punchline, but the book challenged me to reassess my perspective on chance. Losing will still sting, but the book also showed me how better to prepare for, and recover from, those valuable losses. I recommend it!

Stay tuned for more book reports on our favorite books about gaming, games, toys, and the culture and benefits of play.

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