Maria Konnikova: Poker Can Teach Kids Better Decision-Making

maria konnikova psc monte carlo 2017 1
Next stop: Hero.

Maria Konnikova has already written two popular scientific books on how our minds work and how they can be tricked.

Both Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time, have found high international acclaim.

She’s also a magna cum laude graduate from Harvard and writes regularly for The New York Times.

Having delved into the realms of literature and con artistry, she’s now using her psychological skills – and the brains of some of the best poker players in the world – to master poker and explore it as a metaphor for life.

In Monaco working on both aspects of the project, PokerListings caught up with her to find out more.

PokerListings: Please introduce us to your new project.

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Poker is life, no?

Maria Konnikova: This will be about my journey with Erik Seidel from zero to, hopefully, hero. Zero meaning not knowing anything about poker.

Using No-Limit Hold’em as a metaphor for life I’m exploring how much in our life is skill and how much is chance. I’ve been interested in this question for a very long time.

We know about all the limitations to human decision making but can we actually help make them better. 

Most people talk about how things go wrong but not about how we can make them go right. That’s how I ended up in poker.

PL: So, psychology brought you to poker.

MK: Yes. When I started reading about poker I realized how good specifically No-Limit Hold’em is as a metaphor of life, as life is a No-Limit game and you can go all-in at every moment.

Now, there are two different main schools of poker players. There are the math guys and there are the more psychological players.

Math is more fashionable today; many of the young players are stats wizards. But when I set out I wanted a coach who would play to my strength, which is psychology.

I’m not going to become a math wizard in one or two years so I tried to find someone who was successful as a psychological player – and also someone who was nice, because a lot of poker players are not the nicest people in the world.

PL: You probably googled “gentle” and found “the gentle giant” Erik Seidel.

Erik Seidel IMG 3213
"I could tell that he was the kind of player I was looking for."

MK: (laughs) I just watched a lot of poker videos and came across Erik. Obviously, I didn’t really understand the way he played, but I could tell that he was the kind of player I was looking for.

I contacted him and he accepted. I guess because it’s a challenge also for him to try and make me successful at the highest levels of poker.

PL: The idea that poker is a metaphor for life isn’t exactly new. What’s your take?

MK: True, it’s not new at all. What I bring to it is I was a total outsider. I wasn’t playing for the love of the game but came into the game with a completely different perspective.

I love the game now because of the strategic and intellectual challenge that it poses and because I’m a psychologist who actually studied decision-making. There’s no other psychologist who’s done that.

PL: Do you think poker should be mandatory for psychology studies?

MK: I think it should be mandatory for much more than just psychology. I’ve not only developed a passion for the game, the more I play and the more I learn, the more I realize how good a tool it is for teaching people to make better decisions in their lives.

One of the things I’ve proposed to certain individuals in law-making in the US is that poker should be introduced to elementary schools because it would teach children a really good way to make decisions.

PL: But of course they’re under age, so that won’t happen.

MK: The problem is that people think it’s gambling and not a game of skill. I want to make clear that I had that misconception, too.

I guess everyone outside the poker community has it because it’s in casinos and there are chips involved, so isn’t it the same as Blackjack and so on? But it’s not true; poker is a skill game and not gambling.

I also think that poker is much better than chess to teach people how to make decisions, because life is a game of incomplete information like poker. Chess is a game of complete information.

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Poker > chess as teaching tool.

PL: Also, isn’t chess the only game where luck isn’t involved?

MK: No, luck is involved in chess like it is in life. Theoretically, there’s always a right decision in chess. But luck is involved in the sense that one of the players might be tired because they haven’t slept well.

But in poker that’s not the case, because of the incomplete information. And that’s why chess has been solved by computers and No Limit Hold’em hasn’t.

PL: So, did you come here to do field research for your book or to use your skill to improve your game?

MK: Both. The point is to improve my poker game because it’s also a proof of concept for me.

If I suck at poker and don’t get any better, I’m clearly not deriving the right psychological lessons and it doesn’t work for my purpose.

Basically, it’s a full circle. You take psychology to poker to then in turn improve your decision-making outside of poker.

The human brain is bad at statistics but really good at learning from experience. If you give someone statistical information, they don’t learn. But if you have them sample experiences, they do.

But in life our experiences are often skewed. As an example, I live in New York. Try to tell anybody who’s lived through 9/11 that terrorism is not a big threat and you are more at risk of falling in your bathtub and hitting your head.

You can give those people statistics until you’re blue in the face, they’re not going to internalize it because that event had such a big influence on their lives.

Poker is a way to force you to do the sampling and to start learning the skill vs chance balance, which mirrors the skill vs chance balance in life quite accurately.

PL: And what do you think of your personal learning curve. Everybody sucks in the beginning. Have you improved above 'level suck' yet?

MK: In my mind, the more I learn, the more I realize I am at level suck. At first I thought 'oh, this isn’t that bad,' but then the more you learn, the more difficult and complex the game becomes and the more layers each decision acquires – kind of like life, right?

But results-wise, I played four events here and cashed in two, so that’s pretty good. My coach is happy but he plays the €100k events, which would be a waste if I did, so we don’t see each other all the time.

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4 events, 2 cashes a good sign.

If I can get good at one level I’ll move up to the next.

PL: Getting acquainted with the poker scene, who else have you met that was particularly helpful?

MK: Well, just the players who play with Erik, like Fedor Holz, Steve O’Dwyer, Dan Colman, Jason Koon, Phil Galfond, Andrew Lichtenberger ... they all have helped my project in some way.

I have access to some amazing people and they sure made me realize how “sucky” I still am.

PL: They say the higher the stakes, the nicer the people are.

MK: Yes, I’ve noticed that because I played with some real assholes, to be perfectly honest. At higher levels people are much nicer.

PL: Are you going to stop playing when your book is finished?

MK: I can’t answer that definitively but I tend to err on the side of saying I’ll keep playing because it’s such a fascinating game and I don’t know why I would stop.

I won’t be playing full time as I am right now but, as I do think it helps you become a better thinker, why would I stop doing something like that?

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