Konnikova’s Data

Park of poker’s appeal  is that people balance consequences and rewards. Thoughtfully in the best cases. But the lessons aren’t always obvious.

Nate Silver notes that live poker can be boring because participants don’t play that many hands. Yes, Maria Konnikova replied, that’s one way to look at it.

“There’s a perception that live poker can be boring because if you’re playing well you shouldn’t be playing that many hands. There is a lot of time you are just sitting there. But something I learned from Eric Seidel is that the times you are not in a hand are some of your most valuable opportunities to gather data.”

Konnikova recounts to Silver a time she was disposed as chip leader by an opponent who, after a day of play complimented her on her previous tournament. Why? It was televised. He picked up on her over aggressive style (something Konnikova notes in her book, I highly recommend The Biggest Bluff) in that tournament, and he used that against her in this one.

So rather than play as the thing-to-do, observe and learn are the things to do. Konnikova (and Seidel) reframed poker folds from something passive to something active. This is the same trick Annie Duke used for her poker clients. Duke reframed the action from playing hands to making good decisions.

Barry Ritholtz calls this the don’t just do something, sit there challenge. It’s hard to break the action-progress association. Yet there are situations, beyond poker, where not doing is more important that doing.

The basic level of learning a new thing is the advice to “just do it”. Just exercise/save/invest/read more. That’s difficult, especially without an anchor. A better way might be to substitute something of the same class. In the case of poker, Duke and Konnikova substituted one verb with another, and gave a reason for doing so.

I’m on a big pickleball kick right now and this advice, along with Winning Ugly from Brad Gilbert points in a clear direction: my game isn’t so much about hitting winners first but hitting winners second. A lot of my level is about setting up n+1 shots. Rather than beat an opponent down the line, with varying success, my aim should be to hit feet high down the line, move them, wait for a ‘green light ball’ and then hit winners. 

onward and upward

Small Poker Bets

Maria Konnikova is on the podcast-book-tour to promote The Biggest Bluff. It is great. I liked Mastermind more, only because I like Holmes more than poker.

One idea from her podcast conversations that might get missed by book readers is how Eric Seidel came to coach her. She told Shane Parrish: “He (Seidel) didn’t actually agree to be my coach. He said, this sounds interesting let’s try it out and see if it works.”

This is the key insight to poker, the book, and it seems life in general. It’s the insight for why poker proxies life, (though her last chapter, read the book it’s good, addresses the limits). 

No one knows what’s going to happen but you gotta be in the game to see

At first, Konnikova really wants to learn the rules and strategies. For example, if someone is dealt pocket aces should they play them? It’s a good hand, even a noob like me knows that. But the answer to ‘should I play this?’ depends on the flop, who has bet (how much), who has yet to bet, and so on. 

If the flop is three spades and someone ahead raises, then those pocket aces aren’t as sharp as we first thought. If the flop is a mishmash and we’re in the small blind then it might be good to see what the next card holds. 

When Seidel says “this sounds interesting” it was him calling a bet to see what the next card might be. It wasn’t a raise, or a fold. It was the right time for a small bet for what might be a larger gain. That moment, though Konnikova didn’t know, was the heart of the book. 

Konnikova started The Biggest Bluff looking for decision making in a card game. Years after the inception, Konnikova now thinks about life in poker terms like tilt and the Immanuel Kant idea of ‘wanna bet’. She probably notices Seidel’s insight too.