December 16, 2018

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Maria Konnikova Shows Her Cards

Maria Konnikova Shows Her Cards
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As a science writer at The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova, 34, focuses on the brain, and the weird and interesting ways people use their brains.

Dr. Konnikova is an experimental psychologist trained at Columbia University. But her latest experiment is on herself. For a book she’s researching on luck and decision-making, Dr. Konnikova began studying poker.

Within a year, she had moved from poker novice to poker professional, winning more than $200,000 in tournament jackpots. This summer Poker Stars, an online gaming site, began sponsoring Dr. Konnikova in professional tournaments.

We spoke recently for two hours at the offices of The Times. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.

You’ve taken a year’s sabbatical from The New Yorker to play on the professional poker circuit. Why?

I’d been thinking, for a while, about what my next book was going to be. I was interested in the theme of skill versus chance and was looking for a way to get into it. A friend suggested I read John von Neumann’s “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior,” the foundational text of game theory.

Von Neumann, as you know, was one of the geniuses of the 20th century — the hydrogen bomb, computing, economics. And he’d been a poker player. It turned out that all of game theory came out poker!

When he was trying to understand how strategic decision-making worked, he concluded that poker was the perfect analog, because it was a blend of skill and chance and because, over the long run, skill can win. I decided that poker was the way to go.

I knew I’d need to spend a few months living in that world. I thought, “I’m going to have to dedicate myself to this like a career, because otherwise it’s just going to be ‘a writer dabbles in the world of poker.’”

Did you have a background in the game?

No, no. When I started this, I didn’t know how many cards were in a deck. I hate casinos. I have zero interest in gambling.

Then I met Erik Seidel, one of the best poker players in the world. He agreed to become my coach, though he told me, “You’re a hard worker, and you have a good background for this, but who knows if you’re going to be any good?”

It’s been an unexpected journey. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that I would have gone in less than a year from not knowing how many cards were in a deck to winning a major poker title.

What did that involve?

I’ve been studying, playing, living, breathing poker for eight to nine hours a day. Every day! When I’m between events and in New York, I’m reading, watching videos or live-streaming very good players.

There might be a specific concept I want to work on, and I’ll watch some videos of people doing this and take notes. Sometimes I’ll go to New Jersey and hop onto the poker website at an internet cafe. Online poker is illegal in New York, but not in Jersey.

When Erik Seidel said you had the right background, what did he mean?

I think he was talking about my background in experimental psychology. I did a doctorate on overconfidence and risky decision-making with Walter Mischel, who invented the “marshmallow test.”

I wanted to see if people with high levels of self-control made better decisions in risky conditions, like in the stock market. Usually, people with high self-control do so much better at everything than people with low self-control.

But it ends up that in unpredictable environments like the stock market, successful high self-control people — when in an environment where control is taken away from them — take longer to figure things out. They are too confident and won’t take negative feedback from the environment.

Whereas people with lower self-control and who aren’t as successful — they’re like, “Uh oh, a bad thing is happening. I guess I should actually figure that out.”

Are the other poker pros nice to you?

For the most part. I’ve been very lucky because my coach introduced me to high-level players. They are not only brilliant but nice, and they’ve taken me under their wing.

So yeah, there are people who aren’t nice to me. I mean, I’ve been called everything at the poker table. I’ve been propositioned at the poker table — like, actually propositioned!

Was it an attempt to throw you off your game or to get you to his room?

Probably both. I called the “floor,” which is management, and had him moved to another table.

If poker is an analog to real life, does it help or hurt to be a woman?

Obviously, the first thing people notice about me is my gender. And people stereotype.

When you see someone looking a certain way, you assume they play a certain way. So once I figure out how they view women, I can figure out how to play against them. They’re not seeing me as a poker player, they’re seeing me as a female poker player.

There are people who’d rather die than be bluffed by a woman. They’ll never fold to me because that’s an affront to their masculinity.

I never bluff them. I know that no matter how strong my hand, they are still going to call me because they just can’t fold to a girl.

Other people think women are incapable of bluffing. They think if I’m betting really aggressively, it means I have an incredibly strong hand. I bluff those people all the time.

There are people who think that women shouldn’t be at a poker table, and they try to bully me. So, what do I do? I let them. And I wait to be in a good position so that I can take their chips. Just like life, right?

The motive for this book was about getting back to what I’d studied in grad school: the illusion of control. How much of our lives do we actually control — and can we tell the difference?

People often ascribe everything good to skill. And then when bad things happen, they say, “Oh, it’s bad luck.” Or they say, “You make your luck.”

That’s just empirically impossible. And it drives me crazy because luck, by definition, is something you can’t make. Luck is just … randomness. So that’s what I wanted to write about. Poker was a way into it.

Now, it is true that I’ve long been preoccupied with the darker side of humanity. I’m interested in deviations because they make you notice the normal. In psychology, you learn a lot about the brain by looking at the deviant cases.

When you ask if my books have a progression, I’d say the world of con artists has a lot of overlap with poker because of belief, deception, figuring out what people are representing.

Do you have any insights on why grifting schemes appear to be proliferating?

Fraud really thrives in moments of great social change and transition. We’re in the midst of a technological revolution. That gives con artists huge opportunities. People lose their frame of reference for what can and can’t be real.

Are there more con artists now? It’s more that technology made conning easier.

Before, if you wanted to con someone, you had to do expend a lot of energy doing research. Was a person a good target? Today, we’re all on Twitter and Facebook, putting out all this information about ourselves.

With cellphones and emails, it’s much easier to inundate a large number of people and to catch one person at a vulnerable moment. In the past, the grifter would have a lot of misses. Now, they don’t care if they’ll have a thousand misses. All they need is one hit.

You’ve earned so far over $200,000 at the table. Few writers make that sort of money. Will you be quitting your day job?

For the next year, yes. But I’m never going to stop being a writer. Why can’t I do both? I love poker. Why would I stop?



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