How a writer with a doctorate in psychology became a poker champion

[ Read an excerpt from “The Biggest Bluff.” ]

Konnikova is like your smart friend who instantly contextualizes while sharing the latest data and the most insightful information you come too often to quote to other friends and family. (My trapped teens have heard me babble enough about various konnikova-isms: how probability has amnesia, how winning streaks and losing streaks are impersonal randomizations, how skill might wins over the long term.) Meanwhile, at the table, she begins to pull herself together, to tick the boxes: attention, presence, fluidity, objectivity over emotionality, reading her opponents correctly while dressing her own ” tell ”or gestures that could make him lose his hand. She meets anyone good at the game, adds psychological counseling (which leads her to her own personal Rosebud) and coaching sessions, one with Blake Eastman, a nonverbal communication expert, who has her study hours from video of herself playing, which reveals Konnikova’s various tics, including the habit of rechecking her cards.

The most demoralizing realization in all of this is that while poker may be the most equal game – no one cares what college you went to or what etiquette you wear at the table – the game stubbornly remains a male world, 97 percent male, according to Konnikova. In the main event, the World Series of Poker, women won just 1.5% of the coveted winner’s bracelets. So, Konnikova endures harassment, terrible name-calling, condescension and idiocy, reversing roles again with her acquaintances, including a study that shows men are 6 percent more likely to try to bluff women in one hand, which prompts Konnikova to realize that they will also fold more often if she plays more erratically – if she raises, check-raises and 3-bet. Now she wears headphones when she needs to stop sexist banter, while looking at players’ hands – not their faces (this is another fascinating study) – trying to gain an advantage at the table.

“The Biggest Bluff” is a feminist story without being a feminist tract. It’s an underdog story in which the rise of the underdog has an air of inevitability and sweet revenge. It’s a Bildungsroman minus the navel-gazing. Konnikova keeps the lines so crisp and regular, so steady and inconspicuous that she could be the Charlie Watts of prose: as the backbeat never ceases and the narrative propels itself, it is her curiosity that proliferates. In fact, perhaps one of the biggest bluffs of “The Biggest Bluff” is that Konnikova didn’t write a book about her success with cards and chips, but bet the house on the power of her mind to. synthesize great philosophical and psychological ideas. ideas at a time when we too find ourselves questioning our fortunes, hoping to master our destiny and play odds far greater than ever before.


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