Maria Konnikova: 'I feel passionately about the power of poker to do good'

Maria Konnikova Rails Mentor Erik Seidel at the 2023 WSOP $10K Omaha Hi-Lo 8 or Better Championship
Mo Afdhal
Posted on: September 28, 2023 08:03 PDT

It's official . Maria Konnikova has returned as a PokerStars ambassador after parting ways with the company in 2019. The reunion comes as PokerStars looks to increase its presence in US markets.

As the announcement was made, PokerOrg spoke with Konnikova to get her thoughts on the deal and her new role within the PokerStars ambassador team.

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Congratulations on re-signing with PokerStars. How did the new deal come about?

MK: Thank you so much! We’ve been talking for a while; you know they’ve been planning a big push into US expansion, and obviously I’ve had a relationship with them in the past. We sat down right after the PCA this year to talk about their plans and see if our visions were aligned. 

As you know, I feel passionately about the power of poker to do good, to make the world a better place, and to make people better thinkers. Stars has a completely new team in the US and a completely new approach, and it really jived with me. It felt like we were very much in alignment on what we wanted to see happen to poker expansion, how we wanted to position poker, and why it could be such an exciting thing for the world at large. 

In your role, are you going to be focused mostly on US-facing promotion?

MK: My role is going to be hybrid, so both US and international. I’ll still be a part of the international team, so you can expect me at a minimum of three EPT events per year [laughs].

Maria Konnikova playing at the 2023 WSOP Maria Konnikova having fun at the 2023 WSOP
Joe Giron/Poker.org

When you first approached Erik Seidel back in 2017, did you have any idea that you’d still be so immersed in poker in 2023?

MK: No, absolutely not. First of all, I didn’t even know if I would like it. Even after I figured out that, yes, this is interesting and I think this book is going to work, I still didn’t really think that I’d become so involved in this world. The more I learned about it, the more strongly I felt that it was important and that I could actually make a difference by being involved because I wasn’t a typical poker player and I didn’t have a typical background. 

Poker has helped me so much, has helped me become, I think, a much stronger and better version of myself, and I really wanted to pass that on to other people. I think that’s kept me in this world. And it’s kept my interest because it’s such a fascinating game, and it’s still teaching me things about myself. I could have never, ever predicted that. 

What else about poker captivates you and keeps your attention?

MK: I think what it teaches me about decision-making and being human. As a psychologist studying decisions and looking at emotion, I thought I knew it all, but poker manages to get to you and show you things about yourself – about emotional management, self-control, all these things – on an entirely new level. It takes it from theory to practice. It’s quite fascinating experiencing it and watching it happen as opposed to just studying it. 

And I’ve met some amazing people. Obviously, there are bad apples in any community, but poker has so many smart, fascinating, wonderful individuals. Some of whom, like Erik, have become very close friends. I think that’s enriched my life in a lot of ways. It’s a very different world that I never would have known existed had I not taken on this project back in 2017. 

Maria Konnikova and Erik Seidel have become close friends
NEIL STODDART

Did you see Hans Niemann’s post on Twitter recently about poker and gambling?

MK: Yeah, I tried not to read it too carefully [laughs]. I just wanted to respond and be like, “Hey, can I send you a copy of my book, please?” It’s such an ill-informed opinion, and I get so mad…it just perpetuates this stereotype that comes from a puritanical place of “chess good, poker bad”. 

It’s something I’ve been subjected to myself. In The Biggest Bluff, I talk about my grandmother and how she asked why I couldn’t at least play a respectable game, like chess. And that’s one of the parts of the book that I’ve had the biggest response to – just people sending me their stories and saying they have their own version of my grandmother in their life. 

It’s something that I still struggle with. I get people who just think I’m the devil, and they’re like “you went to Harvard, you have a PhD, how can you be promoting these horrible things?” I say, actually look at what I’m saying, actually examine the game, read what I’ve written, don’t just come with these preconceptions. From what I could see of what Hans is arguing, it just comes from a very poorly informed, rabble-rousing place, as opposed to something that’s actually a well-thought-out argument. 

So, you mentioned you’re going to be at a minimum of three EPT stops; do you have a trip on the books? When can we expect to see you at a live stop?

MK: Well, the first time you’re going to see me at a live stop is actually going to be at the NAPT in Las Vegas, in just a month. My first official event as a PokerStars ambassador again is actually this weekend. I’m going to New Jersey to play in the Main Event of the USCOOP series and to honor Doyle Brunson on Ten-Deuce Day.

Do you have any plans for the winter? Are you going to be at the WPT World Championship or WSOP Paradise?

MK: I’ll probably be playing the WPT because I’ll be in Vegas during that time. I think they do such a wonderful job, and even though last year I bricked every event there, I still loved the series.