The Biggest Bluff
“Poker stands at the fulcrum that balances two oppositional forces in our lives – chance and control.”

The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova, 2020

“Poker stands at the fulcrum that balances two oppositional forces in our lives – chance and control.”


The author is a New York Journalist whose parents fled the Soviet Union. She is also an academic who undertook studies of decision-making. She believed that poker give her insights into better decision-making skills, self-knowledge and resilience. She couldn’t actually play poker, in fact when she started, she couldn’t tell how many cards were in a pack.

She found a mentor, Erik Seidel, a top player who was to become her Yoda figure. She set about seeing if she could make a success of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. The book sets out what she learned on her journey. 

So What? 

“It turns out that if you look at enough hands over enough hours you do start to see patterns that yield meaningful data. The patterns come in two flavours. The first is to do with thought process: how does this person approach and think about the game? The second is concealment. Find out how they conceal, and you begin the process of reverse engineering what exactly they might be concealing.”

If you are interested in coaching, learning or decision-making there’s a lot in this book. It’s well written and engaging, full of fascinating characters like Seidel. A section of the book describes a discussion amongst players as to the purpose of poker. “It’s to win,” “to make money,” “to nail your opponent” are amongst the opinions offered but, in the end, it’s agreed it’s about making good decisions and making them under pressure. Poker is different to chess and Go because you have incomplete information and it’s built around betting. This is what makes it a fascinating study of human behaviour. 

Now What?

It’s a bit like the Karate Kid meets Poker but there are some interesting life lessons here. Konnikova makes the same point over and over again, mastering the game requires time, effort and the right sort of study. 

“Pay attention. Less certainty, more inquiry.”

The cards you are dealt will not always be great but it’s how you respond which matters. There are no perfect answers. It’s about finding comfort in and living with that uncertainty. Avoid superstition. Accept you can do everything right and still come away with nothing. Make decision based on the available information but pay attention, be less certain, more inquisitive.