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‘The Biggest Bluff’ is the nuts

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Play the man, not the cards. It’s an adage that has been circulating in the poker world since there has been a poker world in which it could circulate. But how true is it?

That’s one of the fundamental questions explored in Maria Konnikova’s new book “The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win” (Penguin Press, $28). Konnikova is the perfect person to explore such a question, combining a longtime study of psychology and human behavior and a complete lack of knowledge regarding poker. Through answering that question, she sought to get a firmer grasp on the role of chance in the way our worlds operate.

She gained that understanding, to be sure, but that was far from all.

The pitch was simple – go from utter neophyte to the World Series of Poker in one year. But while she achieved her goal, Konnikova also wound up completely changing the trajectory of her life, both personally and professionally. Her voyage through the poker world opened her eyes to a number of truths about herself and her perceptions and proclivities.

It also turned her into a hell of a player. A good player … and a surprisingly successful one.

Maria Konnikova’s idea came from a run of bad luck in her life; that stretch made her question just how much of an impact chance has on our lives. She wanted to learn what she could control and what she could not. But how to judge such a thing? The eureka moment came via the work of legendary game theorist John von Neumann, who viewed poker as perhaps the most elegant and effective real-world example of something striking the balance between skill and luck. The only problem? She didn’t know how to play.

That’s where Eric Seidel came in.

Seidel is one of the legends of poker, someone who has been among the best player in the world for decades. He is also a noted polymath, a man of myriad interests and ideas that extend far beyond the felt of the poker table. Certainly the sort of open-minded freethinker that might consider taking part in such a wild experiment.

And this was wild. Konnikova had literally never played a hand of poker when she first approached Seidel about serving as her poker coach/tutor/guru. Her plan – go from knowing nothing to the World Series of Poker Maine Event in a single year – seemed absurd on its face. But again – Seidel’s thoughtfulness and unconventional outlook made him the perfect candidate to help. Lucky for her, he said yes.

What followed was a months-long quest into the weird and insular world of poker. From learning the basics – what beats what, betting etiquette, that sort of stuff – to gradually climbing the competitive ladder, Konnikova immerses herself in the game, bringing her PhD in psychology and her longtime study of human behavior to the table.

It was never about making money. Rather, this journey was intended to give Konnikova insight into the role that chance plays in our lives and the illusion of control that we as humans tend to project onto the world around us. She had her share of epiphanies about behavior – both her own and that of others.

She also started to win.

The initial year-long commitment led to legitimate success, including a title at one of the circuit’s touring stops. In the space of 12 months, she went from total donkey to full-on poker pro – cashing in tournaments, receiving sponsorships, the whole shebang. In fact, this book’s release was delayed because of her mounting success. All in all, she got a good deal more than she bargained for.

“The Biggest Bluff” is a wonderful read, a piece of engaging experiential nonfiction reminiscent of the participatory work of George Plimpton. Konnikova’s prose gifts are on full display throughout, capturing vivid snapshots of the poker world – moments seedy and sublime alike. She also does incredible work in making her personal journey accessible; anyone who has ever sought to learn something new will see reflections of their own quest in these pages.

We spend lots of time with Seidel, a fascinating dude who becomes invested in Konnikova’s success even as he continues his own work as one of the world’s best players. He’s not the only poker person we meet, though – there’s a wonderfully weird cast of characters sprinkled throughout the book.

Konnikova is also unafraid to introduce autobiographical elements into the mix, giving us a glimpse into how her time at the poker table is impacting her life outside the game. We see her self-awareness and self-worth grow. We meet members of her family, both supportive (her husband) and not-so-much (her frankly hilarious Russian grandmother). And we watch as the journey gradually but firmly alters her perspective on the world.

In terms of poker storytelling, “The Biggest Bluff” is probably the best we’ve seen since James McManus’s incredible “Positively Fifth Street.” Even making the comparison borders on heresy, considering the esteem in which that book is held, but I’d argue that what Konnikova has done here might even be its equal. A different sort of story, but one that is just as compelling.

“The Biggest Bluff” is a hell of a book. Anyone who has ever sat down at a poker table will love this tale of beneficial breaks, bad beats and yes, big bluffs. It’s the literary equivalent of pocket aces with two more on the flop – the absolute nuts.

Last modified on Tuesday, 23 June 2020 12:14

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