Maria Konnikova's "The Biggest Bluff"
A piece of stunt writing and an ode to poker as a crucible for human behavior
I came of age when Texas Hold'em was exploding in popularity. The game had a risky aura that appealed to my (notably risk-averse) teenage self. Looking back, it's surprising that a pastime requiring extreme patience and emotional control would be so popular among teenagers! In addition to patience, poker requires some facility with basic probabilities and a capacity to make decisions based on limited information. The psychological demands are also formidable and understanding the motivations of your opponents is key to the game. But as Maria Konnikova examines in this book, understanding our own motivations might be even more important.
Konnikova has a PhD in psychology and has written about the science of human behavior and decision-making. She decided that poker was a natural place to test many of the psychological concepts her prior work was steeped in. She convinced a well-respected poker champion (Erik Seidel) to coach her as she charted an impressive journey from rank beginner to professional player. The narrative of her quest is peppered with fascinating social-behavioral phenomena she's studied: the description-experience gap, the gambler's fallacy, the sunk-cost fallacy, and embodied cognition to name a few. As a "Freakonomics" fan, I find these ideas endlessly interesting and it was fun to try to understand how they play out in poker. But Konnikova quickly learns that the ups and downs of the game can test even the most studious and psychologically aware player.
Konnikova provides an ongoing primer on the game throughout the text but a reader who has never played might find themselves having to study up on the rules and reference the included glossary of poker terms. While the "action" scenes were page-turners for me, I could see how they might drag if you didn't understand the game well. I enjoyed the descriptions of the world of professional poker, a domain that is at turns seedy and glamorous. The patois of the devoted included many terms that were new to me ("tilt," "degen," and "GTO" among them).
I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in behavioral psychology or the game of poker. Konnikova's musings on luck and our ability to shape our own destinies might appeal to amateur philosophers too. Her total commitment to excelling at the game made me wonder what I'd be capable of if I put my life on pause, hired an exceptional coach, and devoted myself completely to the pursuit of some skill. It's a reliable hook and I enjoyed Konnikova's unique perspective along the way.