REVIEWED: Maria Konnikova talks about poker, psychology and pulling the biggest bluff in her new bestseller


‘Keeping poker-faced is no use — it’s the hands that give the game away,’ one of the fundamental concepts explained in Maria Konnikova’s new book “The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win” (buy here). Konnikova would probably be the perfect person to explore such an adage, combining a long-time study of psychology and human behaviour and now, poker. She gained that understanding, yes! But there was so much more to uncover.

The mission was clear – go from utter neophyte to the World Series of Poker in a year, but while she was on the road to fulfilment, Konnikova ended up turning her life around both personally and professionally. Her journey through the poker world opened her eyes to a number of truths about herself and her views and life trajectories.

All of this and more also turned her into a hell of a player – a pretty successful one at that!

Maria Konnikova’s idea came from a run of bad luck in her life; the very 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 couldn’t, but is there a way to judge that? The victory moment fell into the picture through the world 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. Everything else was fine, aside the fact that she didn’t know how to play!

That’s where Eric Seidel came in.

Seidel, as you might know, is one of the legends of poker. Someone who has been among the best players in the world for ages. He is also a noted polymath, a man of myriad interests and ideas that extend far beyond the poker felts. Definitely, the sort of open-minded freethinker that might consider taking part in such a wild experiment.

Wild, you say? Since Konnikova literally never played a hand of poker her entire life when she first approached Seidel about serving as her poker coach. Her core idea was to fairly touch the impossible – which was the WSOP ME in a single year. This of course seemed absurd to Seidel at first but his thoughtfulness and unconventional outlook made him the perfect candidate for the newbie to help. And luckily for her, he said yes!

Months-long quest into the flashing world of poker followed, majorly from learning the basics – what beats what, betting etiquette to slowly and gradually climbing the competitive ladder. Konnikova eventually immersed herself into the game, bringing her PhD in psychology and her study of human behaviour to the life of cards.

The year-long commitment led to real success, including a title at one of the circuit’s touring stops. In a 12-month span, she went from a total noob to full-on poker pro – cashing in tournaments, receiving sponsorships, the whole package really. Fun Fact: ‘The Biggest Bluff’s” release was actually delayed because of her mounting success!

The book is in fact a great read, Konnikova’s impeccable narration is on full throughout, penning vivid snapshots of the poker world. She does a wonderful job at working her personal journey accessible to anyone who has ever made the tiniest bit of efforts to learn something new and scary.

You’d observe that Seidel has been mentioned quite generously, a fascinating guy who becomes invested in Konnikova’s success all the while continuing his work as one of the world’s best players. The book also introduces autobiographical elements into the genre, letting us peek into her time at the felts and how it impacts her life outside the game. We see her grow, evolve and be aware of her surroundings. She even introduces us to her family members who are quite supportive of her career and passion.

When it comes to poker storytelling, “The Biggest Bluff” is a wondrous pick and probably the best we’ve seen in a while. Anyone who has ever sat down at a poker table will love this tale of beneficial breaks, bad beats and yes, big bluffs!