The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova

All In

The Art of the Tell – New York, May 2017

  • The human brain forms first impressions of people in a reflexive manner without any thought. It’s called predictive processing as we make sense of the environment. We only improve this behavior if we are willing to learn from our experiences. Another term is thin-slice judgements. They are not based on objective reality but are subconscious. As a result, we often don’t know why we make decisions. When we are wrong we often make excuses rather than corrections. If you are trying to tell if a person is lying (bluffing) you need more data than you will get from a few hands of poker. Some studies indicate that faces give more false information while body language is more useful. Maria realizes that she needs to pay more attention to the body language of opponents as well as her own.

Reading Myself – New York, May-June 2017

  • The big idea here is that the first person you have to profile psychologically is yourself. Maria uses Blake Eastman, a former psychologist turned poker professional turned behavioral analyst, to help her better understand herself and her opponents. Tells are repeatable patterns and behaviors but they aren’t always a perfect correlation. Most movement at a poker table is distracting noise. The most telling moment is when players check their hole cards and how often they recheck them. They tend to recheck marginal hands more often. What you need to do is strive for the same behavior all the time. You need a standard process and you need to practice it.
  • The cognitive-affective personality system (CAPS) comes into play. It deals with how individuals differ in how they selectively focus on situations. People don’t act passively to situations but the way they react helps create situations. People are a mosaic of reactions and interactions with situations. CAPS theory comes into play as poker is all about dynamics. You need to focus on how other players react to things like winning and losing big pots and when they bluff successfully and are intern, bluffed.

Full Tilt – Las Vegas, June-July 2017

  • As the World Series of Poker (WSOP) approaches Maria is feeling burnt out and is second-guessing her plan to play there after only one year of study and minor league play. She knows that she didn’t stop to enjoy the process. When working towards mastery of anything you have to find a balance between working on your craft and taking time for yourself. Self-knowledge, self-care, and self-reflection are vital. During two weeks in Las Vegas in June, she shows a net loss of $6,062 before expenses. She knows that she is subject to the planning fallacy, which is when people are overly optimistic about timelines, goals, and targets. She also confronts the sunk cost fallacy, which is when someone continues with a losing strategy thinking it will start to pay off. People will rely on their intuition rather than paying attention to new information that would help them make a better decision.
  • Maria enters the WSOP and makes it to the second day. Eric is proud, but she is not. She gets together with Jared Tendler, a psychologist, and a mental game coach. They work on the impact of emotions on decision making. They aren’t necessarily bad and they can be useful. You need to learn from negative emotions in order to make better decisions next time. Identify your emotions and analyze their cause. With Jared’s help, Maria recognizes her emotional triggers and how to embody the feelings she wants to express. She goes back to smaller events, does well, and feels like she is getting the hang of it. She is also enjoying what she is doing.

Glory Days – The Bahamas, January 2018

  • Here we get a rundown of Maria’s playing in the Poker Championship of America (PCA). She includes the fact that poker players often use a host of stimulants as they play and depressants to help them sleep. Studies show that competitive chess players can burn 6,000 calories a day just like elite athletes. Maria suspects that this is true for poker as she loses weight when she plays multi-day tournaments. She makes her first final table at a major tournament and tells the story of how she outplayed some top players to win the PCA and $84,600. She could quit now, but if she does she will feel like a one-hit-wonder or a flash in the pan. If she stops here she will wonder if she is really good or just got lucky.

The Heart of the Gambling Beast – Macau, March 2018

  • Maria gets a sponsorship and now as a pro, she can travel more and play higher buy-ins. She tells a story about playing in Macau, which is a bit like Las Vegas without any family-friendly aspects. She talks about how many poker players are superstitious like about 25% of the US population. You might think something brings you luck, but it can make you overconfident. Signs of bad luck, however, can be a problem as belief is a powerful thing. The placebo effect is real and if you think you are going to die from a misdiagnosis, you just might. If you are deluded you may be punished in poker and in life.
  • Maria details some of her wins during this time, but the cost of playing takes a toll. Her big win is cashing in her second try at the World Series of Poker. She feels like she hasn’t let Erik down and is a top-five ranked female player in 2018. Now she is faced with the decision of when to draw the line and finish her poker career.

The Ludic Fallacy – Las Vegas, June 2019

  • The ludic fallacy states that games cannot be used as models of real-life as they are too simple. Life is complex and uncertain. We can control some of it, but not all of it. We should try to control what we can, our thinking, our decision making, and our reactions. The future belongs to those who can change and accommodate. Nothing is ever all skill. Luck is always a factor in life. If chance goes against us we hope our skill can mitigate the damage and carry the day. Maria is glad she pushed on after her first big win and she finds that the skill she acquired along the way added depth to her decision-making ability, as it improved her emotional strength and self-knowledge. These will serve her long after her winnings have run dry. Keep on living as life is such a beautiful game.

Maria Konnikova

  • Maria graduated from Harvard and earned a PhD in psychology from Columbia University. She is the author of The Confidence Game and Mastermind. She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker and has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Boston Globe, Scientific American, Wired, Smithsonian, and many other publications. She has numerous awards and while researching this book she became an international poker champion piling up over $300,000 in tournament earnings. She hosts the podcast The Grift and is currently a visiting fellow at NYU’s School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @mkonnikova. Her website is
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