Mirroring the game of life

'The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Take Control and Master the Odds', by Maria Konnikova, reviewed by Terri Apter.

When Maria Konnikova asked Erik Seidel to prepare her for the World Series of Poker, she did not even know how many cards there are in a deck. Seidel’s skill is known to non-poker buffs from the 1998 film Rounders, where Matt Damon’s character analyses Seidel’s plays over and over again. So why should this champion take on this novice? Initially he is intrigued when Konnikova tells him she has a doctorate in psychology, but what clinches the deal is when he learns that Walter Mischel – whom Seidel recognises as “the marshmallow guy” – was her advisor. “Self-control,” Seidel reflects, “is huge in the game.”

For Konnikova, all of psychology is key to the game, and poker is key to understanding the world mentally challenged humans inhabit, with our false beliefs in control and order and our tendency to discount chance and chaos. Her interest in “the line between skill and luck… what I could control and what I couldn’t” reveals itself as a much deeper question about who we are. 

Konnikova is not the first to be enthralled by poker’s wide reach. In Theory of Games, John von Neumann argues, “real life consists…of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do.” Thomas Schelling saw brinkmanship at the heart of even the most intimate relationships, where the one to say, “I love you,” reveals an “all in” hand that could force him to walk away with nothing or win a prize partner. Immanuel Kant argued that one way to correct the human folly of over confidence was to ask whether someone making a forecast or a diagnosis was willing to bet on it. Poker, Konnikova believes, is a “lens into the most difficult and important life decisions”.  It involves managing emotions, reading other people, maximising your gains, psyching yourself up for challenge, and learning from errors. 

Not everyone, however, views poker as the route to a better self. Konnikova’s grandmother is appalled that her talented granddaughter is turning into a “gambler.”  Instead, she should become an academic – now that's a real job.

It is the “real job”, however, that would be the real gamble. Konnikova studied social psychology, but neuroscience is the flavour of the decade. Her association with Walter Mischel, she believes, would rule out an offer from any University where “the Big Five personality traits are still big.” At any job interview, someone might take against her appearance or manner. In submitting a journal article, she might get an unsympathetic reviewer. The academic profession has far more elements of chance than poker. 

Poker involves accepting, minimizing and managing uncertainty. It demands objectivity. You have to scrap the illusion that if you are lucky you must be smart. You have to learn that probability has no memory, so a losing streak does not mean you are “due a win”. Konnikova takes us through Ellen Langer’s paper, “Tails, I win. Heads, it’s chance", and David Dunning’s observation of the easy slide from circumspect beginner to “unconscious incompetent” where a little knowledge fosters the illusion of expertise. All such fallacies are exposed in poker wherein, Seidel notes, “delusion is punished.” 

Some readers might locate the dramatic tension in The Biggest Bluff in the tournaments she enters, and whether she wins or crashes out.  They might be intrigued by the array of colourful characters – the talkers, the stalkers, the bullies, the friendlies – or by her descriptions of the mind numbing, germ incubating casinos (Macau wins title for most unwholesome). But for psychologists who read this – and they should – the drama is between simply knowing about mental foibles, on the one hand, and, on the other, managing them when they arise within us. 

Over and over again, Konnikova discovers that the fallacies whose principles she has mastered, master her judgment. She falls prey to the planning fallacy in her optimism as to when she will be ready for the World Series, and even as she sees her error, she sets aside rationality to commit herself to the enterprise. She knows about the status quo bias and that one of the most important traits of a good poker player is flexibility – letting go when something isn’t working; but she nonetheless sticks to a bad plan because it is the plan she began with. The fallacy with the most allure, and most difficult to overcome, is that of thinking you have more information and more control than you do. Excited and overconfident, she denies the possibility of failure as she pushes all her chips into the middle of the table. 

Learning to play poker forces her intelligence to overcome pride, though pride puts up a fight. Surely, Konnikova believes, she has the courage to accept the risks of this game. After all, she braved war-torn Georgia to gather data for her senior thesis. Yet as she plays, she repeatedly shies away from sensible risk-taking. Surely, she believes, she can manage difficult emotions. After all, she travelled into the heart of civil war so she could observe strategically significant decisions made under pressure and learned to be suspicious of emotion’s force. Yet she sees herself coming under the sway of “tilt” – a term used in poker when emotions have more weight than they should. She also knows that that losing or winning one pot does not mean she’ll lose or win the next, yet the irrational sense that she’s lucky today or that things aren’t going her way can shape her play. To succeed in this game, she has to know and manage herself. 

Some reviewers have called The Biggest Bluff a feminist book. After all, Konnikova shows this 97% male field “what she’s made of”, that she too can be, in the phrase Michael Lewis uses in Liar’s Poker, “a big swinging dick”. Except, in poker, such personal games lead to “degen” – short for a degenerate gambler whose plays exceed skill. Besides, she makes plenty of stereotype errors herself, making false and costly assumptions about both beefy men and friendly women. 

These stories are powerful because they are not just about Konnikova’s failures and triumphs in poker. They are about the excitement as well as the humility foisted upon us as we get to know the human mind.

It would be enormous fun to use The Biggest Bluff as a psychology textbook. Students would learn about common biases and heuristics while being warned against the smug belief that such knowledge would make them exempt. They would be disabused of familiar and simplistic approaches to “tells” or signs of deception. Facial micro-expressions do not yield the inner truth. Nor does nose scratching reveal a lie. But watch the hand movements of players, and note their flow and ease, versus jerks and hesitation, and you will have some indication of the player’s intent. To know things, you have to observe, and observation requires imagination and flexibility.

The Biggest Bluff also presents a cautionary tale about what we might omit when we are enthralled by our own enthusiasm. Konnikova is fascinated by probability errors, the tension between individual cases and statistics, on the one hand, and the overconfidence algorithms provide on the other. She concludes, “a basic shortcoming of our neural wiring is that we can’t grasp probabilities…our brains are simply not cut out, evolutionarily, to understand that inherent uncertainty.”  

Here we see the limits of her interests, which do not include attachment, trust and care. In kinship, across many species, selfish genes shape behaviour clearly based on probabilities. According to Hamilton’s rule, for example, altruism occurs when the marginal benefit of protection and care, multiplied by genetic relatedness, is greater than the marginal cost of providing protection and care. So while Konnikova is persuaded that poker mirrors the game of life, we should remember, even as we enjoy this thrilling book, that we need trust as well as vigilance, and that our brains have inbuilt skill to perform some highly complex computations.

- Terri Apter, Ph.D. is a psychologist, writer and former Senior Tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge.

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