Maria Konnikova – Mixing Poker and Psychology

Ever heard of John H Watson? Dr. Watson?..Yes, of course! The world knows him as the person closest at hand to marvel at the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes. Maria Konnikova looks at Dr.Watson in a different way. She has written a book on Sherlock Holmes called Mastermind – How to think like Sherlock Holmes. And that makes her realise that between the two – Holmes and Watson – it is Watson who plays the role of the coach by continually asking questions. Watson’s relentless questioning improves Sherlock’s thinking by forcing him to verbalise his thought-process. Isn’t that a brilliant appreciation of Watson and his role in creating the legend of Sherlock Holmes?!

Maria’s conversation with Shane Parrish ( The Knowledge Project) has multiple subjects all interlinked to each other. Thought-process, decision-making, the role of luck and chance and emotions. All of them interesting, made even more so by Maria’s own story. A PhD in Psychology, Maria experienced an inexplicable bout of illness. She recovered from it, but this incident and a few personal adversities made her reflect on the role chance plays in the way our life pans out. This led her to put on her researcher hat and she discovered game theory. The founder of game theory, John von Neumann, said that the theory’s foundational ideas came from the game of poker. That piqued Maria’s interest further and she met Erik Seidel, a legend on the professional poker circuit, and said, ” I want to shadow you for a year, learn poker and distill the lessons from the game for my interest area : the psychology of decision-making”

Erik agreed to coach her and in the interview, she shares numerous insights she acquired along the way. Erik did not have any coaching credential, but his actions show that thinking practitioners invariably get things right. For instance, though Erik was the master at poker, on certain topics, he directed Maria to other specialists who he knew could teach better. Maria had no prior experience in playing poker.

How did he help her improve?

Whenever they were analysing what happened, Erik taught Maria to separate the thought-process from the outcomes. He used to ask her, “What were you thinking at this point of time while playing your hand?” Not getting into the content, but the process. Maria found that Erik was least concerned about the outcomes. He focused on her thought-process. ‘Let us be clear about our thought-process, how we process the given inputs. If we did that right, the results will eventually take care of themselves’, he said. Maria says that this continuous focus on her thought-process made her take a pause at crucial moments of the poker play. She after all, had to be aware, of what she was thinking, so that she could tell Erik later on. The pause, of course, made for better decisions.

And what disrupts our thought-process and decision-making?

How we handle emotions, of course. In poker, they refer to this as the tilt. Emotions tilt our thought-process. You can win big on the day, get carried away by the euphoria and lose it all by overplaying your hand. That is a positive emotion derailing you. Or you can get affected by negative emotions that mess up your mind. Maria shares her own example. Even as she went about competing in poker, she soon found that professional poker world is 97% male. In a competition, Maria was amused when her opponent continuously called her ‘little girl’. She made light of being referred that way and at that time, she did not think it was affecting her game. She lost to this opponent. Later on, she realised that this ‘little girl’ thing had tilted her thought-process without her being aware of it in the moment. The big lesson – Being mindful about all the emotions you are experiencing. And more importantly, identifying whether these emotions are relevant or not to the task at hand so that, we are then, at choice about regulating the emotion.

On an interesting side-note, Maria shares about how the German philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke in favour of betting! Betting improves your thinking. It forms an integral part in improving your decision-making process and improving your level of certainty in something. If you are asked to attach a monetary value to your position, even if it be as a thought-experiment, that works!How sure am I about this. Am I willing to bet a million dollars on this? Your answer makes you acutely aware of how certain you are.

Erik’s wisdom on playing poker. Less Certainty, more inquiry. No different from wisdom for living life. Maria’s latest book, ‘The Biggest Bluff’ covers everything about this interesting journey.

An absorbing conversation worth listening to.

Maria Konnikova: Less Certainty, More Inquiry [The Knowledge Project Ep. #89]


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