What Poker Can Teach Us about Making the World a Better Place

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Wharton’s Katherine Milkman talks with psychologist Maria Konnikova about her new book, ‘The Biggest Bluff.’

In her new book, The Biggest Bluff, psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova writes about her immersion into the world of high-stakes poker. Starting as a novice who knew nothing about the game, she eventually rose to become a world-class professional poker player. Yet, poker was never just about the cards or money for Konnikova, and neither is her book. Instead, she picked up poker as a means to explore human decision-making in an environment where every player has very little control. Wharton operations, information and decisions professor Katherine Milkman recently spoke with Konnikova about what poker has taught her about letting go of the control we think we have over our lives, and using the control we do have to make the world a better place.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Katherine Milkman: I wanted to start by asking if you could tell us what motivated you to write this book. It’s such a fascinating story.

Maria Konnikova: The book is, on the face of it, about poker, but it really isn’t. And my motivation had nothing to do with poker because I was never a poker player. It’s not that I didn’t like it, I just didn’t know about it. I didn’t care.

What I was really interested in writing about was luck and the nature of chance, and how we can learn to tell the difference between the things we control and the things we don’t control.

When I was a grad student with [psychologist] Walter Mischel at Columbia, I studied the illusion of control. We thought we were studying self-control, and we thought that we were going to be studying how these very smart people are able to make really good decisions in stochastic environments with a lot of uncertainty. What we found instead was that actually, maybe the Achilles’ heel of self-control is when you put someone in an environment where they’re not controlling a lot of variables. They’re so used to being in control and being good in their lives, that they fall for the illusion of control. They think they have more agency than they actually do.

This was totally fascinating to me. We didn’t find a solution. It’s not like we said, “And now, this is how you cure the illusion of control.” It’s a really difficult thing to break through. A few years ago, I had a rough patch in my life when I got really sick, my grandmother died, my husband lost his job, my mom lost her job. It made me stop and think about luck again in a new light, and think about, “You know what? I’ve studied the illusion of control. I thought I knew all about it, but it ends up that I probably have some of these illusions myself, because this really caught me off guard.” I wanted to find a way to explore it.

I did what I always do at the beginning of any project — a lot of reading. Someone said, “You should be reading about game theory if you’re interested in chance, because it’s a great framework of looking at it.” So I picked up The Theory of Games, which is the foundational text of game theory. One of its authors, John von Neumann, was a poker player. And what I learned was that game theory was actually inspired by poker. Von Neumann said, “This game is the perfect model for human decision-making.” Chess is a really bad model for that, because it’s a game of perfect information. All the pieces are there. The board is there. You can make a right decision.

“Poker is a game of incomplete information. There are things I know that you don’t know. There are things you know that I don’t know.”

But poker is a game of incomplete information. There are things I know that you don’t know. There are things you know that I don’t know. There are things that both of us know. And now we can try breaking our brains by saying, “Okay, what do you think I know about what you know?” And, “What do I think you know about what I know?” And we do those iterations over and over and over.

But that’s what makes poker so fascinating, because it’s not just a game of math — von Neumann was a mathematician; it’s not like he had any problems with math — but it’s also a game of humans, and it’s a game of intention. It’s a game of deception. It’s a game of reading people. It’s a game of information. How can I gain the informational advantage here? And that’s what fascinated him. He said, “If I can solve this, I basically can solve life.” And poker, by the way — no-limit, hold ’em — still hasn’t been solved. It’s like the gold standard for AI, but it has not been solved.

As I started reading about this, I thought, “Maybe this is my book.” Maybe I start to play this game. Maybe I dive into it and learn it and use that as a laboratory of sorts — a way of exploring all of these issues and trying to figure out if poker can help me discern the limits of my control. Can it teach me what I should be focusing on, what I should be letting go of?

Milkman: It’s such a wonderful journey. How did your training as a psychologist change the way you approached becoming a world-class poker player?

Konnikova: First of all, it helped in getting my coach, Erik Seidel. He’s one of the greatest poker players in the world. I think it intrigued him that I had this psychology training, and not just any psychology training: I’d studied decision-making under uncertainty, and I’d studied hot emotional conditions. When he saw that, he was like, “Wow, this is poker. You have a background for this.”

But I think it also helped me have the correct vocabulary for conceptualizing the experiences and being more introspective about it. I’m a big believer in having the correct vocabulary to express your thoughts, that it actually can help you realize what’s going on. When you have the right word, you can identify emotions that you couldn’t otherwise.

I quote one of my favorite poets in the book, W.H. Auden: “Language is the mother, not the handmaiden, of thought.” I really believe that. It’s not like you have thoughts and then you try to get words to express them. And so in that sense, I think that being a psychologist and having studied all of this and being able to spot it in myself and in other players really helped me home in on it and helped me figure out, “Okay, this is what I need to work on.”

And let’s be clear, it’s not like I magically didn’t have any of these biases. There were certainly moments when I was playing, and I thought, “Oh, boy. I am definitely experiencing the gambler’s fallacy right now, but I’m just going to bet again because I can’t lose again, can I?” You see it happening. Knowing it doesn’t magically mean you’re not going to experience it, or that you’re going to be able to overcome it — but it’s a first step.

Milkman: You mentioned the gambler’s fallacy, and that’s a great segue to research you cite in your book. What research studies did you find most important to becoming a poker player, and why?

Konnikova: I dedicated the book to [my dissertation adviser] Walter, who unfortunately died before it came out. But he was very excited about the project. He had introduced me to Julian Rotter’s work on the locus of control very early on in my grad work and said, “This is a theorist who’s often forgotten. A lot of people don’t go back to his early papers, but this is such a fundamental concept in everything, and it has really inspired me.” So, I have a special place in my heart for those papers, and they really helped, because the locus of control is, at its core, all about the question of my book — your internal locus, the things that you control, your external locus. I tried to marry that to Walter’s work on CAPS (the cognitive-affective processing system) and how you really can’t study personality in a vacuum. Everything needs to be conceptualized. You need to figure out what people’s “if-then” patterns of behavior are.

I realized those two things can actually go hand-in-hand, because the way the locus of control interacts with positive versus negative events tells a lot about the person. For instance, there are people who have an internal locus for all good things, and an external locus for all bad things. There are people who are the other way around, and they have an external locus for the good things. They say, “Oh, no, no. That’s not me. I just got lucky.” And an internal locus for all the bad things. They say, “Yes, that’s my fault.” Those people tend to be depressed.

“Knowing [about a bias] doesn’t magically mean you’re not going to experience it, or that you’re going to be able to overcome it — but it’s a first step.”

If you can spot those at the poker table, those sorts of dynamics are incredibly useful, because you can try to start thinking, Okay, is this a player who sees themselves as in control, or sees the game as happening to them? How are they talking? What’s the vocabulary they’re using? Are they saying, “Oh, man, I’m so unlucky,” or are they saying, “I may have made a bad play.” How are they analyzing their decisions?

That really helped. And a lot of the work on self-control really helped, because poker gets very emotional. You’re at the table for 10, 11, 12, 13-hour days ­— these really long stretches of time. You get tired, and when you’re tired, your decision quality deteriorates. It’s really, really hard to make decisions that are as good and as logical at 1:00 a.m. as it was at noon, if you started playing at noon.

Knowing all of that helped me just look at some of the research. I used some of Ethan Kross’ work about distancing and learning how to step away from emotional situations. I would actually do some of those exercises at the poker table as I got tired and knew that my nerves were getting a little bit more frayed. I would say, “Okay, I’m a fly on the wall, looking down at Maria.” It actually worked.

Of course, it would have been impossible to do my research, and it would have been very difficult to conceptualize a lot of this, without Danny Kahneman’s research on decision-making. It’s so integral to the field, and it’s so ingrained in my thinking that I almost take it for granted — “Risk-averse or risk-seeking. Yeah, yeah, we know all about that.” But we didn’t, right? He made it part of the vocabulary. Having his knowledge was incredibly helpful. A lot of those biases that you see in poker are things that Dan Kahneman had identified decades earlier.

Milkman: You mentioned you dedicated the book to your late dissertation advisor, the great Walter Mischel. For listeners who aren’t familiar with this work, he’s best known as the scientist behind the famous marshmallow experiments. I’m curious — if he had been able to read this book, what you think he would have found most interesting about it?

Konnikova: Oh, boy, that’s not a question I have ever been asked. It’s a great question. We had talked about this game, and we talked about what I was working on. And he was really excited about it, but he had no knowledge of it in terms of what poker actually entailed. I think he would have been really happy to see that in poker, I have found a solution to a lot of the things that we had studied. If you teach someone to play poker correctly, you can solve a lot of those biases that we found. You can solve the illusion of control a lot of times. You can make people more aware of randomness. You can make people better able to examine their decision process and to divorce themselves from the outcome, which is so difficult. And these are things that we were never able to fix when we were working together. So, I think he would have been excited, and he probably would have said, “Okay, you’re going back to the lab now. Now we’re going to use poker, and we’re going to see what we can do.”

Because that was Walter. I mean, to his last day, he was just always excited about research ideas, and he was always gunning for the next thing. And I got him at the very, very end. I was his final grad student…. He had thought he wasn’t going to be taking any more students, and then he decided to take me as the last one….

He told me that I kept him teaching many more years that he would have wanted to. But he wanted to, that’s the thing. I don’t think it was me. I’d exchange war stories with some of his old students about him calling at 3:00 in the morning, not because anything was wrong, but because he got excited about someone else that he was reading at the time. So, I can definitely see him reading this book and saying, “Okay, I know you’re not really in academia, but we’re going to do these studies, and we’re going to use poker, and it’s going to be awesome.” And you know what? For Walter, I would have gone back to the lab and done it.

“It’s really, really hard to make decisions that are as good and as logical at 1:00 a.m. as it was at noon, if you started playing at noon.”

Milkman: What a wonderful gift you both gave each other, it sounds like. And I’m sorry he couldn’t read the book.

I want to turn to a really different topic, but one that I find fascinating, as well. Your gender played a really important role in the stories you share about professional poker. I’m wondering if you have any advice for other women attempting to enter and succeed in traditionally male forums, based on your experiences?

Konnikova: Absolutely. For people who haven’t read the book, the field of poker is 97% male. So when Katy says, “gender imbalance,” she means gender imbalance. Three percent female. I’ve been in other fields that are predominantly male. Media is male. I was in television. That’s male. But I was not prepared for this. I mean, 97% is a lot. You can go for days and not see another woman. At the beginning, it was really difficult, but I think it ended up being a big advantage, and I was able to make myself into a much stronger player and person because of poker, for a few reasons.

I think one thing —and this is true from all of the psychology research — there is a reason that women aren’t as “good at negotiating” and don’t get promoted as much. And that’s because they are punished for negotiating the same way that men do. It’s actually a very smart strategy to be nicer and to just kind of smile and not be aggressive, because you get punished [otherwise].

I remember when I was doing a story for The New Yorker, I found this woman who had a job in a philosophy department. She was offered a job at a small liberal arts college, tenured track, and she had written an email about the offer, asking about certain aspects of it. And the job was taken away. They just rescinded the offer. They said, “You know what? Clearly you’re not the right fit.” And I just could not see that happening to a man ever.

Milkman: No.

Konnikova: There’s a reason women don’t necessarily speak up as often, because that’s what happens when you do. So, my advice is to both be aware of this, but also to learn to channel your inner poker player — the aggressive one. It took me a very long time to bring her out. And in order to do that, I had to do a few things.

First, I had to deal with my hang-ups. I had to acknowledge: You know what? I’ve actually internalized all of these gender stereotypes that society puts forward. I don’t play as aggressively as I should. I make bad strategy decisions knowing they are bad strategy decisions, because I want people to think I’m nice. That is bad. I’m losing money.

And so I had to figure out, Okay, people can think you’re nice, even as you’re raising. That’s okay. You just need to figure out the way to do it. That was step one, to actually acknowledge that I had these problems. I like to think of myself as a strong woman, and so it was not very pleasant to acknowledge that I do all these things that are the hallmarks of not-very-strong women and women who let themselves be bullied and who let themselves be run over. It wasn’t a good realization, but once I realized it, I started being able to work on it.

And then there are a few other things: Try to figure out how the people you’re playing against — in whatever world you’re entering — view women. If you can figure that out, then you can play against them. You can use their biases against them. You can use the fact that they underestimate you against them. If they think that women are incapable of bluffing, you’d better bluff, because they will think, “Wow, she must really be strong. She must really be confident, because women wouldn’t bluff.”

“Focusing on yourself is so powerful because you’ll maximize a lot of the things that can make the world a better place.”

And then, see what the aggressive guys who are winning do, and take a page out of their playbook. Realize that they don’t always have the best hand. They don’t always have great cards, but boy, do they know how to project confidence. Boy, do they know how to make other people think that they’ve got the goods.

I don’t necessarily like them, but I can take that from them and say, “Okay, projecting confidence is a huge part of the battle.” No one knows what cards you have — and I’m now talking very metaphorically. No one knows what you hold in your arsenal, and no one knows what you are and aren’t willing to lose. Being able to bluff is very powerful. People can see that confidence, and it will make you seem more qualified.

Milkman: That’s great advice, and hopefully a lesson readers will take from your book. But if your readers left this book and remembered just one thing, what would you want it to be?

Konnikova: I would want it to be something we started this conversation with: Focus on the things you can control. There’s so much about life that you can’t and are never going to be able to control. And that’s okay. Just learn to let go of that and focus on yourself. What can I control? Well, I can control my decisions. I can control my reactions to people. I can control my mental framings. I can control my interactions. I can control what I do.

I can’t control other people. I can’t control the world. So what do I do to make the world as good as I possibly can, knowing that my abilities are limited?

Focusing on yourself is so powerful because you’ll maximize a lot of the things that can make the world a better place. It’s really important to realize both that your agency is limited, but also that that doesn’t mean you should stop making decisions and stop trying. I think it can be a hopeful message, and not just a hopeless one.

Milkman: As a scientist who studies these kinds of things, I love that message. And I look forward to sharing your book with many people. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Maria.

Konnikova: Thank you so much for having me, Katy. It was an absolute pleasure.

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