If your pandemic entertainment strategy involves online poker or introducing Texas hold’em to family game nights, you’re right on the money. Come for the fun, stay for the lessons in unbundling control from chance.
Life delivers both. The trick to acing uncertainty is focusing on how you play, not on outcomes.
This is the contention of psychologist-turned-poker-pro Maria Konnikova. A student of decision-making, she convinced Poker Hall-of-Famer Erik Seidel to mentor her. What started as book research ended in a career change, and firsthand knowledge of how to play the luck of the draw.
Poker and probabilistic thinking
There are a couple of aspects of poker that make it a better source of life lessons than other skill-driven games like chess — particularly when it comes to making smart decisions. Anyone, regardless of ability, can lose with the best hand or win with the worst, depending on the cards you’re dealt with. Laying money down on how well you manage unpredictability reinforces the need to make wise choices.
In his Critique of Pure Reason, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposes betting as an antidote to one of the great ills of society: false confidence bred from an ignorance of the probabilistic nature of the world, from a desire to see black and white where we should rightly see gray.
Poker delivers the perfect storm of ambiguity: neither skill nor luck alone takes the pot. Being able to assess probabilities quickly gives you a strategic edge, as does having the grit to accept that even improved odds don’t always play out.
The psychology of poker face
It’s no coincidence that a psychologist looked to poker for insight into human behavior. Similarly, Seidel was willing to take on an amateur who didn’t even know how many cards there were in a deck because he was interested in Konnikova’s insight.
Understanding that each decision “throws off signals,” according to Konnikova, brings in the human factors of attention and responsiveness. Curiosity and continuous questioning of all inputs is the best way to hold your own when committing to a decision, as she points out:
Poker isn’t just about calibrating the strength of your beliefs. It’s also about becoming comfortable with the fact that there’s no such thing as a sure thing — ever. You will never have all the information you want, and you will have to act all the same. Leave your certainty at the door.
The game may be a distraction, but it’s ultimately a masterclass in learning how to direct your attention. Play your cards right, and whether you’re lucky or whether you’re skilled, you’ll win more opportunities — along with the knowledge that your real ace in the hole is persistence.
The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova (Amazon)