Review: The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova

Russ Allbery eagle at
Fri Dec 25 21:28:39 PST 2020

The Biggest Bluff
by Maria Konnikova

Publisher: Penguin Press
Copyright: 2020
ISBN:      0-525-52263-8
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     335

After a particularly unlucky year for her family, Maria Konnikova was
reading about the balance between luck and control in life and
discovered, to her surprise, that John von Neumann, one of the
foundational thinkers of computer science, was fascinated by poker. He
found most card games boring because they relied on luck. Poker,
however, he thought was the perfect balance between luck and skill:
enough skill to make its effect undeniable, but enough luck that one
could not control the game fully regardless of skill.

Konnikova decided on a research project: spend one year learning No
Limit Texas Hold'em from one of the best poker players in the world,
with a goal of competing in the World Series of Poker. She had studied
the description-experience gap during her doctoral research in
psychology and wanted to see if the experience of randomness in poker
would teach her something the description of the randomness of life
could not. Before starting this project, she didn't know the basic
rules and had never watched a game. Erik Seidel agreed to mentor her,
and The Biggest Bluff is her account of that experience.

This book is simultaneously frustrating and fascinating in ways that I
don't think can be untangled without making it a far different book.
Fitting, I suppose, for a book about how our brains entangle luck and

First, if you're looking for a book about poker play, this is not one.
Konnikova rarely talks about specific hands or tournaments in more
detail than her overall trajectory. That was a disappointment. In the
few places she does describe some of her betting decisions, analysis of
the other players, and tournament strategy, her accounts are engrossing
and suspenseful. I would have happily read a book chronicling her poker
tournaments and the decisions she made, but this is not that book.

What The Biggest Bluff is instead is a psychological and philosophical
examination of the process of learning poker. Konnikova uses her
experiences as launching points into philosophical digressions. Even
the lessons that have limited surface utility outside of poker, such as
learning to suppress body language to avoid giving away information,
turn into digressions about interpersonal dynamics and personality
types. There are interesting tidbits here, but I've read a lot of
popular psychology and was more interested in the poker. My frequent
reading experience was impatiently waiting for Konnikova to finish
lecturing and get back to her narrative.

What Konnikova does do though, at a level that I haven't seen before
before in a book of this type, is be brutally honest about her mistakes
and her learning process. And I do mean brutally: The book opens with
her throwing up in a casino bathroom. (This is not a fun book to read
if you don't like reading about stress reactions and medical problems.
There aren't many of them, but they're... memorable.) Konnikova knows
and can explain the psychological state she's trying to reach, but
still finds it hard to do in the moment. Correctly reacting to
probabilities, cutting losses, and neither being too over-confident or
too scared is very hard. Most books of this type elide over the
repeated failures in a sort of training montage, which makes the
process look easier than it feels. Konnikova tries to realistically
show the setbacks and failures, and I think succeeds.

That relentless introspection and critical honesty is the best part of
this book, but I think it's also behind the stream of consciousness
digressions about psychology and philosophy. It's a true portrayal of
how Konnikova makes sense of the world. A more polished and streamlined
book about the poker would have been more dramatically engrossing, but
it might have lost the deep examination of how she combines poker with
her knowledge of psychology to change her thinking.

The one place where I think that self-reflection may fall a bit short,
which I want to mention because I thought it was a missed opportunity,
is around knowledge of hand probabilities. Konnikova makes a point,
early in the book, of not approaching poker through the memorization
and mathematics route and instead trying to find a play style that
focuses on analyzing the other players and controlling her own
emotions. This is a good hook, but by the end of the book it's not
entirely true.

The point that I think she was trying to make is that her edge against
other poker players at her same level comes more from psychology than
from calculation of precise odds in rare situations. This is true. But
by the time she reaches high levels of play, she is using statistical
simulators, practice tools, and intensive study just like any
professional poker player. There is a minimum level of pure knowledge
and memorization required that cannot be avoided. It's clear from the
few things she says about this that those tools became more interesting
to her as she became better at poker, and I wish she would have dug
more into why and how that happened. How much of her newfound ability
to make decisions and stick to a plan comes from emotional changes, and
how much from that background store of confident knowledge? Or maybe
those are different ways of looking at the same change?

I did appreciate Konnikova's explicit acknowledgment at the end of the
book that poker did not, in the end, provide some deep insight into the
balance of luck and skill in real life. Learning poker instead gave
Konnikova more personal ability to make a plan for the things that she
can control and let go of the things she can't. I'm glad that worked
for her, but since reading this book I have noticed former poker
players who think life is more knowable than it is.

Poker combines random chance with psychological play against other
people, but it does so in a way and to an extent that is quantifiable.
You can make the correct play and still lose a hand, but you can also
know when this has happened. When you're used to analyzing the world
through that frame and real life fails to provide that certainty, it's
tempting to impose it anyway and insist your simplified models are more
accurate because they're more comprehensible. But poker is a game, not
a model; being more predictable and more constrained than real life is
part of what makes it fun. The skill that Konnikova learned from it has
a potential downside that she doesn't talk about.

I'm not sure how to sum up this book. Konnikova's internal analysis and
honesty is truly admirable and illuminating, but it left me wanting to
read a different book that was more focused on poker narration. I know
there are lots of those books out there, but I doubt they would be
written with Konnikova's self-awareness and lack of ego. However, they
would probably also lack the moments that made me cringe or that were
deeply uncomfortable to read.

My feelings are mixed. But if you want popular psychology wrapped
around a deeply honest account of the process of learning poker, I
suspect this book is one of a kind.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-25


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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