Maria Konnikova's family was going through a rough patch. Her grandmother passed away, her mother lost her job, and Konnikova herself was diagnosed with an unknown immune disorder that left her in constant pain. Chance had reared its ugly head, in a way that couldn't be mitigated by professional success or personal resolve. What does that say about individual agency? Can any of us actually take our fate into our own hands?
The Biggest Bluff is Konnikova's attempt to come to grips with this dilemma. The book chronicles her project: one year devoted entirely to the study of poker. It's not a complete shot in the dark; Konnikova has a PhD in decision-making psychology from a top university, and she successfully enlists one of the all-time great poker players as her mentor. Still, it's a daunting journey given that she enters the poker world with no experience in the game whatsoever.
The rationale for the project extends beyond the fact that "zero to hero" in one year makes for an interesting story. Poker contains a unique balance between chance and skill—much more so than most games. While any given hand unfolds with a bewildering amount of uncertainty, the best players are able to win consistently. In statistical terms, a successful poker player evinces more skill than a successful stockbroker. Konnikova contends that this makes poker an unusually good proxy for the skills needed in our everyday lives.
There are two skill sets that top poker players employ to beat the odds. The first set is statistical and quantitative. Especially in the modern game, many players have a deep fluency in the mathy, game-theoretical elements of play. Konnikova takes the second, more traditional route. Instead of getting deep in the math, she leverages her background in behavioral psychology. Her goal is to get an edge on her opponents by paying close attention to the choices they make and constructing theories about what those choices say about their hands.
The result is a book with three layers: Konnikova weaves together the story of her year-long poker journey with commentary about established findings in psychology and her own personal experiences. It's an engrossing and educational approach. At one point, Konnikova writes about a long-standing finding in psychology called the "locus of control." Individuals with an "internal locus" perceive themselves to be acting on the world, whereas individuals with an "external locus" perceive the world to be acting on them. A sense of agency over your world turns out to be critical for overall mental well-being. And, indeed, it's critical to good poker. In order to be successful over the long term, players need to find a sense of stability that can survive the inevitable bad beats and lucky breaks the game throws their way.
In the end, Konnikova finds that the self-mastery she cultivates in poker pays dividends in her life away from the table. Keeping a level head is valuable in most situations and making a savvy play, whether with a weak hand or a strong hand, is the difference between a good and bad player. Konnikova's book makes a compelling case that in life, as in poker, there's always a way to play better, no matter what hand you're dealt.