Katherine Milkman: I wanted to start by asking if you could tell us what motivated you to write this book. Its such a fascinating story.
Maria Konnikova:The book is, on the face of it, about poker, but it really isnt. And my motivation had nothing to do with poker because I was never a poker player. Its not that I didnt like it, I just didnt know about it. I didnt 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 dont 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 theyre not controlling a lot of variables. Theyre 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 didnt find a solution. Its not like we said, And now, this is how you cure the illusion of control. Its 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? Ive 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 youre interested in chance, because its a great framework of looking at it. So I picked upThe 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 its 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 dont know. There are things you know that I dont know.
But poker is a game of incomplete information. There are things I know that you dont know. There are things you know that I dont 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 thats what makes poker so fascinating, because its not just a game of math von Neumann was a mathematician; its not like he had any problems with math but its also a game of humans, and its a game of intention. Its a game of deception. Its a game of reading people. Its a game of information. How can I gain the informational advantage here? And thats 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 hasnt been solved. Its 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:Its 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. Hes 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: Id studied decision-making under uncertainty, and Id 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. Im a big believer in having the correct vocabulary to express your thoughts, that it actually can help you realize whats going on. When you have the right word, you can identify emotions that you couldnt 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. Its 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 lets be clear, its not like I magically didnt have any of these biases. There were certainly moments when I was playing, and I thought, Oh, boy. I am definitely experiencing the gamblers fallacy right now, but Im just going to bet again because I cant lose again, can I? You see it happening. Knowing it doesnt magically mean youre not going to experience it, or that youre going to be able to overcome it but its a first step.
Milkman:You mentioned the gamblers fallacy, and thats 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 Rotters work on the locus of control very early on in my grad work and said, This is a theorist whos often forgotten. A lot of people dont 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 Walters work on CAPS (the cognitive-affective processing system) and how you really cant study personality in a vacuum. Everything needs to be conceptualized. You need to figure out what peoples 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. Thats not me. I just got lucky. And an internal locus for all the bad things. They say, Yes, thats my fault. Those people tend to be depressed.
Knowing [about a bias] doesnt magically mean youre not going to experience it, or that youre going to be able to overcome it but its 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? Whats the vocabulary theyre using? Are they saying,Oh, man, Im 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. Youre at the table for 10, 11, 12, 13-hour days these really long stretches of time. You get tired, and when youre tired, your decision quality deteriorates. Its 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, Im 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 Kahnemans research on decision-making. Its so integral to the field, and its 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 didnt, 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 arent familiar with this work, hes best known as the scientist behind the famous marshmallow experiments. Im curious if he had been able to read this book, what you think he would have found most interesting about it?
Konnikova:Oh, boy, thats not a question I have ever been asked. Its 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, youre going back to the lab now. Now were going to use poker, and were 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 wasnt 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, thats the thing. I dont think it was me. Id 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 youre not really in academia, but were going to do these studies, and were going to use poker, and its going to be awesome. And you know what? For Walter, I would have gone back to the lab and done it.
Its 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 Im sorry he couldnt 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. Im 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 havent read the book, the field of poker is 97% male. So when Katy says, gender imbalance, shemeansgender imbalance. Three percent female. Ive been in other fields that are predominantly male. Media is male. I was in television. Thats 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 arent as good at negotiating and dont get promoted as much. And thats because they are punished for negotiating the same way that men do. Its 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 forThe 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 youre not the right fit. And I just could not see that happening to a man ever.
Konnikova:Theres a reason women dont necessarily speak up as often, because thats 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? Ive actually internalized all of these gender stereotypes that society puts forward. I dont play as aggressively as I should. I make bad strategy decisions knowing they are bad strategy decisions, because I want people to think Im nice. That is bad. Im losing money.
And so I had to figure out,Okay, people can think youre nice, even as youre raising. Thats 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 wasnt 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 youre playing against in whatever world youre 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, youd better bluff, because they will think, Wow, she must really be strong. She must really be confident, because women wouldnt bluff.
Focusing on yourself is so powerful because youll 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 dont always have the best hand. They dont always have great cards, but boy, do they know how to project confidence. Boy, do they know how to make other people think that theyve got the goods.
I dont 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 Im now talking very metaphorically. No one knows what you hold in your arsenal, and no one knows what you are and arent willing to lose. Being able to bluff is very powerful. People can see that confidence, and it will make you seem more qualified.
Milkman:Thats 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. Theres so much about life that you cant and are never going to be able to control. And thats 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 cant control other people. I cant 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 youll maximize a lot of the things that can make the world a better place. Its really important to realize both that your agency is limited, but also that that doesnt 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.
This article was first published in Knowledge@Wharton
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