Maria Konnikova: Poker gives you the tools to survive the pandemic

Jon Pill
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Posted on 11/26/2020

Maria Konnikova reckons the skills you learn at poker are the same you need for navigating the pandemic.

“Poker forces you to reexamine your preconceptions. To learn to get past them and to only make judgments based on data, not feelings or initial impressions. And to go through the rational calculus we should be going through anyway, but don’t because we’re lazy,” she told WIRED magazine in a recent interview. “Maybe those feelings or instincts will turn out to be accurate. Maybe they won’t but in poker, you can’t use them unless you have the data to prove they’re useful.”

The game of life

The calculus of micromorts that we have to solve to get through the pandemic intact is complex. And its complexities have much in common with a poker hand. Weighing incomplete information. Grappling with statistics.

But most of us are guided by the kind of irrationalities Konnikova catalogs in her book. Irrationalities that the psych literature call things like “the description-experience gap,” “the gambler’s fallacy,” “errors in mind-reading,” and “motivated reasoning.”

Even poker players aren’t always great at extrapolating from the table to life. For a few examples, look at the number of poker-players on Twitter posting under the hashtag: #COVIDhoax.

But poker players do, in general, have a better sense of what it means when we talk about a 1% fatality rate.  For a civilian, 1% sounds like “nearly impossible,” but for a poker player, 1% is as humdrum as a flopped flush. If you have two suited hole cards, the odds of hitting a complete flush on the flop is 0.8%. It’s a little more frequent than that.

The Biggest Bluff

Maria Konnikova already feels like part of the wallpaper of the poker world.

So it’s always startling to be reminded she hadn’t played before she sold the idea for The Biggest Bluff to Penguin Random House in 2017.

With expert tutelage — Erik Seidel was her main coach — she took a year off to dive into poker.

The book has echoes of Anthony Holden’s Big Deal, which hit shelves thirty years ago. But Konnikova brings a different skill set to the idea. Holden was an enthusiastic amateur at poker whose main gig was banging out biographies of literary types and British royalty.

Konnikova’s background is in psychology and as a science writer for the New Yorker.

She wrote a book on conmen and another on how to think like Sherlock Holmes (she does not recommend following his 7% solution to boredom, though).

Perhaps her greatest nerd credentials lie in the fact that she came to the world of glamourous high-stakes gambling via John von Neumann’s 1944 mathematical doorstop, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.

“He believed that knowing poker could help to find that balance between skill and chance,” Konnikova said. “And that this was the key to strategic decision making. If you could solve decision making, you could solve life.”

Or perhaps even save a few.

Featured image source: Flickr