Exclusive book extract – The Truth Detective: A Poker Player's Guide to a Complex World

The Truth Detective Alex O'Brien book jacket
Dave Woods
Posted on: October 20, 2023 23:32 PDT
Alex O'Brien – author of The Truth Detective: A Poker Player's Guide to a Complex World

The world around us is fluid, ambiguous, and full of incomplete information and misinformation. We’re confronted with endless possibilities and consequences for our actions. Finding the truth can be more complex than ever.

Alex O’Brien is a prominent science writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, BBC, and New Scientist. She is Vice-Chair of the Association of British Science Writers and founded the UK Young Science Writer Award. She is also a talented poker player who recently finished second in the UKIPT London Women’s Event.

Her new book, The Truth Detective: A Poker Player's Guide to a Complex World, draws on her experience to explore how critical evaluation, risk assessment, and other skills that bring success in poker can help us make better sense of the ambiguity around us and more effectively get to the truth. 

The Bluffs We Seek and the Bullshit We Find

Popular culture tells us that success at the table is all about sussing out the lie or detecting the bluff. No, it’s not. It’s the exact opposite. As in real life, poker just isn’t riddled with bluffs and lies. For deception to be effective, it must be rare – in poker and in life. In reality most people are honest most of the time. Think about it. For the most part the messages we receive, the interactions we have with others and the certainties we rely on in life are true – and that’s a good thing. Actually, it’s more than that: honesty is essential for a functional society.

Despite their rarity, we devote a disproportionate amount of time and effort to seeking out lies and deceptions. Judging by the sheer volume of literature that is available on lie detection we seem to be consumed by the desire to become lie detectives. Such is the demand that it drives not just book sales but scientific research as well, producing an abundance of experiments and studies dealing with real-time verbal and non-verbal behaviour analysis. But you won’t be able to become a human lie detec-tor just by reading a few books and poring over some scientific papers. Sure, some individuals are unsettlingly good at reading people, and their expertise is regularly called upon by national security and law enforcement bodies, but these are people who have devoted their lives and careers to behaviour analysis. They are few and far between.

So why, then, even though most of us won’t ever find ourselves in an interrogation room across from a suspect, are so many of us keen to become human lie detectors? The reason is simple and very human: lies hurt us. The pain they inflict fades slowly for some and not at all for others. Lies cause emotional scars that may never heal. It makes sense that we want to avoid being hurt like that. But this isn’t as simple as seeing a boiling pot and knowing not to put your bare hands on it.

The reality is that spotting lies is difficult, and we are terrible at it. There are no real cues to deception, and the leading experts you will meet in this book will tell you this. So that’s the bad news.

In 1986 a deeply troubled professor of philosophy sat at his desk in Princeton University, New Jersey, staring into the void. Harry Frankfurt saw a crisis looming. He’d long observed the growing lack of respect and concern for the truth. The culprit was a particularly dangerous foe that was creeping into the fabric of our culture. That foe? Bullshit. Something needed to be done. Frankfurt started writing an academic paper which he hoped would begin the development of a theoretical understanding of the phenomenon. The paper, titled ‘On Bullshit’, would become a cult classic in academic circles and then take on a life of its own when it was picked up by a publisher in 2005. It was reproduced and published as a hardback book, selling more than 600,000 copies within its first year.

We commonly use ‘bullshit’ when we want to describe some-thing as nonsense. But at its core, ‘nonsense’ is still vague as a definition. It ducks the question of what is actually meant by bullshit. The term is commonly used to describe both a lack of logic and an untruth. However, these are two distinct notions, which is why Frankfurt took a stab at a better definition in his essay.

He does so by comparing bullshit to what he believes to be its closest relative, the word ‘lie’. He finds a clear and important distinction between the two: ‘It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.’ In short, bullshitters do not describe reality; they make things up to suit their purposes.

In contrast, liars are fully aware of the truth and work actively to conceal it. Bullshitters aren’t necessarily liars. What they say may well be true. But they are by no means tied to the truth, either because they don’t know it or simply don’t care about it. What they say can either be true, false or utter nonsense – their aim is to manipulate, to impress and to elevate themselves in the eyes of others. That is why Frankfurt believes that bullshitters are a more insidious and dangerous threat to truth than liars.

In some ways, Frankfurt warned us about Donald Trump. By the end of Trump’s term as President of the United States, journalists would explicitly fact-check all his statements as part of their reporting. Trump may have been the bullshitter-in-chief, but he is by no means the only one who bullshits on a regular basis. Try looking closer to home.

The Truth Detective quote by Jen Shahade

The Truth Detective: A Poker Player's Guide to a Complex World is out in the UK on November 2 and in the US on November 14. You can pre-order your copy on Amazon now.

Look out for another exclusive extract on PokerOrg next week, ahead of the book’s much-anticipated launch.