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Sport of Money: What Poker Taught Author Maria Konnikova About Life, Luck, Winning and Losing

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When Maria Konnikova first started playing poker she didn’t know how many cards were in the deck. That’s not an exaggeration. She thought there were 54 instead of the appropriate 52.

But Konnikova was quick to learn. Author of “The Biggest Bluff," Konnikova has a degree from Harvard and earned her PhD from Columbia. Her focus on human behavior and why people make certain decisions led her to dive into the world of poker. And she didn’t just dip her toe in the water. Konnikova lived, breathed, cried, and even bled over the game.

From learning to play online to competing on the world’s biggest poker stage at the World Series of Poker, Konnikova learned a lot about gambling, variance, and luck, and took those lessons away from the table and applied them to everyday decision making.

Read an excerpt of the video interview below:

Bill Enright: You really were an absolute newbie, a rookie. You didn't know how to play poker and yet, you ended up playing in The World Series of Poker. You have over $300,000 in tournament winnings. What was that journey like from beginning to end? And I know you had a lot of trials and tribulations, but it seems like you learned an awful lot from your losses more than your wins.

Maria Konnikova: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes, there were definitely a lot of losses along the way. And a lot of people have questioned, "Really you knew nothing? You must have watched poker on ESPN." The answer was, "No." Actually, the only poker game I think I'd ever seen was in the movie Rounders, because that was the extent of my lack of knowledge. And in fact, when I met with the person who would become my coach and mentor Eric Seidel, who's one of the greatest players of all time, he was shocked that I got the number of cards in a deck wrong. I was positive there were 54 of them. And sometimes, I still feel like 54 is more, right, than 52. So I was really starting with zero. And you mentioned learning from failure. That was a really, really important lesson that I got early on, both from Eric and from someone who was one of his mentors, Dan Harrington.

Maria Konnikova: I remember meeting with him and complaining a little bit that I'd been studying a lot and working a lot and I hadn't been doing very well. And he said, "Good." And I said, "Excuse me, what do you mean good?" He said, "If you get lucky right away, if you succeed right away, you're never going to be good at poker. You're never going to be good at anything." So Dan now runs a real estate investing business and he is very, very successful at it. And he only hires former poker players or backgammon players as people to work with because they understand risk, they understand chance. And hat he told me was this is what teaches you, failing. Failing at these things because what failure forces you to do is go back and look through your thought process, go back and question how you made decisions, why you made the decisions, what was going on in your mind.

Maria Konnikova: If you get lucky, if you succeed, how in the world are you going to know if you are good, if your decision process was solid, or if you're just a luckbox who just completely lucked out? And the answer is you won't, and you're not going to be motivated to find out.

Bill Enright: Can you take that practice outside of poker? Or have you taken that thought process outside of poker and applied it to everyday life?

Maria Konnikova: Absolutely. So one of the things that I've thought a lot about and written a lot about is resilience and emotional resilience, and how you can bounce back from adversity from bad events. And it's interesting. Someone asked me, they said, "Your outlook in The Biggest Bluff is very pessimistic." If you put so much on chance and you say, well variants evens out over the long-term, but in the short-term, it doesn't. And there's no such thing as your luck has to change. You're due for good cards, you're due for any of this. And that doesn't mesh with resilience." And I said, "Actually it does," because once you understand that and poker really teaches you what variants feels like. It teaches you right quick what it's like to be on the wrong side of variant when you are just not running well and you're playing just fine, but you're not running well and the cards are just going against you.

Maria Konnikova: If you always take the time to go back and review your thought process, then you can deal with the fact that you're just in the bad part of the variants distribution. And it does help you become resilient because you can change your mental frame. You can change your mindset and you can say, "Okay, you know what? At least I'm thinking, well, I'm making the right decisions. So I'm going to focus on controlling the things that I can control, which is exactly that, which is my decision process, which is how I'm thinking to things and which is how I'm emotionally reacting to things."

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