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"I didn't know how many cards there were": How a novice poker player won £150,000

How did a writer with "less than zero" poker knowledge become a champion in less than a year?

"I didn't know how many cards there were": How a novice poker player won £150,000
Tom Victor
09 May 2018

Most of us have wondered, at some point in our lives, how easy it would be to just put our job and day-to-day commitments on hold to go on a year-long adventure.

It’s a big fantasy, but one with a huge number of risks. What if we didn’t really want to travel the world? What if it turns out we prefer our two-bed flat in Zone 2 to the beaches of Bali? What if we miss our morning routine?

One thing we probably don’t consider when fantasising about quitting our jobs is the possibility that it will go too well – but that’s exactly what has happened to journalist Maria Konnikova.

The 33-year-old took a year-long break from her job at the New Yorker to spend some time playing poker, with a view to writing a book about her experiences entitled The Biggest Bluff.

One year on, however, and she’s been so successful (winning over £150,000 and beating 230 other players to win the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure) that the book has been pushed back until 2019.

I met her at the PokerStars and Monte-Carlo©Casino EPT, one year on (almost to the day) from last year’s edition of the same tournament, where her poker journey began in earnest.

Within minutes of speaking to Maria Konnikova, it’s clear that her mind almost never sits still. There aren’t too many of us who can discuss game theory, complex mathematical theories, gender balances, and code-switching in one breath – all with the casual tone of someone talking about their favourite TV show or favourite city in the world (it’s her hometown of New York, in case you were wondering).

It’s this attention to detail, this willingness to immerse herself in everything she sets her mind to, which makes it seem inevitable that Konnikova would thrive at poker. But it can take the best players years to make a living from the game, and most of them have a significant head start.

“I didn’t grow up in a games-playing household – basically my knowledge was less than zero,” explains Konnikova, whose family moved to New York from Russia when she was a child.

“I never watched it, didn’t understand any of the terms, my first meeting with [poker pro and coach] Erik Seidel, I didn’t know how many cards were in the deck!”

Konnikova was motivated to write her book by looking at (what she describes as) “the big question of how much of our lives we actually control”. She laughs when she recalls how preposterous pitching such a complex “philosophical inquiry” would be, explaining that she saw poker as a way to tackle the topic. “My interest came from a sort of sideways interest in the nature of luck, and skill versus chance.”

This is in line with her background as a psychology writer with a PhD from Columbia University, who writes New Yorker columns with titles such as ‘Why Are Babies So Dumb if Humans Are So Smart?’ and ‘Why Can’t We Fall Asleep?’.

When trying something new, especially something as daunting as the high-pressure world of poker, it helps to not entirely let go of your background. Recognising that others might have the advantage of being exposed to poker when younger – whether playing for pennies around the dinner table or just being surrounded by card games in general – Konnikova wasn’t put off by her comparative lack of experience. The answer, instead, was to figure out what she had that the others didn’t.

The journey began in earnest when a friend recommended that Konnikova should study game theory.

“I started reading John von Neumann’s Theory of Games, which is the foundational text of game theory, and learned from that book pretty early on that game theory came out of poker,” Konnikova explains.

“I learned that von Neumann was an avid poker player – a really shitty poker player, as it turns out – but he understood the nuances of the game.” Konnikova searched for a coach and settled on Erik Seidel, because “he’s been around for 30 years consistently”.

“He’s had to adapt and he’s done it: he’s actually succeeded in a psychological-based environment, which is sort of where I’m coming from, but also now he’s still holding his own against the math whizzes,” Konnikova explains.

Apologies, then, if you were hoping to find the story of someone leaving their job for a gamble and essentially winging it – there was plenty of hard work and willingness to learn, with Konnikova essentially treating poker as another full-time job, albeit a shorter-term one.

Seidel’s willingness to act as a coach was invaluable. Those who don’t follow the game religiously might know him best as the guy you see losing to Johnny Chan in the film Rounders, but he’s a veteran of the game whose lifetime earnings of $34m are higher than those of any other American player.

Poker has evolved hugely since Seidel began playing. The stakes are much higher, for starters, with one tournament at the Monaco event seeing 30 different players pony up €100,000 (£87,576) or more just to sit down at the table. Konnikova sat out that tournament – she’s only been playing for a year, after all – but she’s been willing to put up a grand here or there to take her seat alongside hundreds of other hopefuls.

That’s not the only aspect of the game where there are differences. The psychological aspect of the game has arguably lessened, especially in the online game where players have reams of notes on their opponents’ tendencies, but also in a live arena where many of the best players come from a mathematical background.

When you ask a layman about poker, they’ll probably know you need to bluff to win sometimes, but they won’t have the mathematical grounding to know why there are certain situations when bluffing is smart and others where it’s stupid. The mathematical minds won’t be too worried about good or bad luck, either – if the numbers back up their play, they’re confident of playing enough hands over the course of their career that making the mathematically correct move each time will see them override any short-term bad luck so they make money in the long run.

For someone with Konnikova’s background to improve her game enough to make money, she needed two important things: a good coach, and a willingness to listen.

“It’s important to have someone I can just talk to about anything, and to have a coach in front of whom you don’t mind looking totally stupid,” she says, adding that – in all aspects of life – she has always sought to surround herself with mentors at least 30 years her senior.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you see people who have taken coaching throughout their whole life actually doing well, because you have to be able to listen to feedback – both listen to feedback one on one where it’s explicit, but also listen to feedback at the table where you have to correctly interpret what you’re doing and get the feedback from others, and work out what’s correct and what’s not.

“I’ve definitely had conversations with Erik where I’ve had a question about this hand and he’s like ‘wait, how did you get into this situation? Are you an idiot? This hand is over!’ – you have to be ready for that.”

While preparation is important, the nature of luck in poker – especially tournament poker, where one moment of bad luck can torpedo a couple of days’ work instantaneously – means the best players might rise to the top eventually, but not immediately.

With that in mind, if Konnikova had come out of a year’s’ worth of tournaments with a learning experience and a great foundation for her book, but little in the way of earnings, we wouldn’t be rushing to call her a bad poker player.

Yet while someone as grounded and committed as she is was always capable of the occasional result, few envisaged her being quite so successful so quickly.

The highlight came in the Bahamas in January, when Konnikova took her seat in a $1,500 (£1,107) buy-in tournament alongside 229 other players – including a number of veterans with millions in live earnings – and won the whole thing and the $84,000 top prize. It would be easy to get over-excited about that early success, but she has shown a keenness to keep playing in order to convince herself it wasn’t a one-off.

The results have kept coming, including a second-place finish for more than $50,000 (£36,903) at a tournament in Macau, but she is remarkably humble for someone who has achieved so much so quickly.

“The people who go in there saying ‘I’m the best player in the world’ are never the best player in the world. Even if they end up having amazing results for a little bit, they’re going to flame out,” she says.

Plenty of top poker players, including world champions, have fallen out of love with the game or failed to adjust to changes – sometimes these things are related – so she may well be onto something here.

If you’re reading this and wondering whether you could make a complete change of scenery work for you, part of the appeal might come from just how different something like poker is compared to your day-to-day routine. However, in Konnikova’s case, the pivot to poker has also had unexpected benefits for her writing job.

“Poker has actually helped me a bit in negotiating,” she explains.

“A publication came to me asking if I’d like to write this piece for them. I told them I was on leave but it was an interesting topic and they came back to me with a rate, but at this moment I realised: ‘they’re bluffing, I can ask for more’.

“So I went back and I ended up getting a better deal. Pre-poker Maria would never have gone back, she’d have taken the original offer, but poker has helped me with work that way.”

One thing which has become clear from Konnikova’s first year on the poker circuit is that – far from a casual diversion – poker requires just as much hard work as any other pursuit if you want to get good at it.

That said, there can’t be too many people capable of diverting (or even necessarily willing to divert) as much energy and effort into something like this from a standing start.

You might instinctively think it makes sense to read up as much on something as you possibly can before diving in, but her growth has arguably been down to her lack of preparation, and willingness to accept that other people know a great deal more.

“You can’t be results-oriented, you have to look at the process, and not everyone does that. I think one of the reasons I’ve been able to learn quickly is I love feedback and criticism and I love when people tell me what I’m doing wrong because that’s the only way I can get better,” she admits.

“A lot of people aren’t like that, and if you don’t have that, if you’re someone who just thinks you’re the best, I don’t think ultimately you’re going to be as successful.”

She’s under no illusions that early success doesn’t mean she’s ‘cracked’ poker, just as a failure to win as much as she has in year one wouldn’t have necessarily meant she’d failed to do so.

As for what else Konnikova has learned? I guess we’ll just have to wait for the book.

(Images: René Velli/Neil Stoddart)