A Poker Champ’s Approach to Risk

Lean into the unknown

Eric Allen Been
Published in
5 min readJul 10, 2020

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There is an argument to be made that what happens during your lifespan isn’t pure chance, nor pure skill. It’s a combination of both.

To better understand how the competing forces of luck and decision-making affect outcomes amid the uncertainty of life, the writer and psychologist Maria Konnikova did what anyone would do: took up high-stakes poker and hit the casino circuit. Her latest book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, recounts the journey.

Konnikova came to poker as a complete novice. With practice and diligence — and the luck of landing a world-class player to be her coach — Konnikova discovered she was a natural, racking up hundreds of thousands in winnings and a seat at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. She came to view the game as a metaphor for learning to understand and distinguish between what can be controlled in life and what can’t — as well as how to become a better decision-maker under precarious circumstances.

“In a way,” she writes, “it’s as much a test of life philosophy as anything else. The qualitative side of things versus the measurable. The human versus the algorithmic.”

Forge recently talked to Konnikova about unpredictability, control, and the balance of chance and fortune in poker and in life.

The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Forge: You write that playing poker makes it easier to quantify uncertainty. How’s that?

Konnikova: Our minds are really not equipped with the mechanisms for understanding, say, what does 30% feel like? In daily life, it’s way too abstract.

But in poker, you actually experience probabilities. You figure out, okay, this is what one percent feels like. And one of the reasons that you don’t just experience it, but you internalize it, is in part, because money’s on the line. And if you keep ignoring it, if you keep ignoring the probability because…

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Eric Allen Been
Forge
Writer for

A writer. Not based in Brooklyn. Recent bylines with Vox, Vanity Fair, Harvard Magazine, MIT’s Undark, VICE and Playboy.