Maria Konnikova Turned a Premium Hand into The Biggest Bluff

Maria Konnikova went from not knowing how many cards were in the deck to a poker champion all in the name of a book. (WPT photo)

When you first look down at your hole cards after the dealer pitches your cards, you immediately begin to formulate a plan on how to play that specific hand. In most cases, you’re simply waiting for your turn to fold, but in those instances where the poker gods have blessed you, you look down and see a great starting hand – a premium pair perhaps – and you instantly picture yourself raking in a huge pot at the conclusion of the hand after cleverly outplaying your opponent.

Things don’t always follow the initial narrative you create though.

Maria Konnikova spent the last three years learning exactly that, but not just via the hands she played live and online as she wrote her latest book The Biggest Bluff, which followed her journey from total poker newb to a Hendon Mob profile with over $300,000 in winnings and a marquee victory to her credit.

It was 2016 and Konnikova, a New York Times bestselling author, had just launched her second book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time into the universe and was searching for her next project. Her first few ideas were met with polite resistance from her publisher and she folded to wait for something better. That’s when her idea to take a year learning the game of poker – really learning it – before playing in the World Series of Poker Main Event came to her like a premium hand on the button.

Konnikova envisioned tracking down a top-flight poker pro to be her coach and guide through the journey. She knew nothing about the game, including the rules, and put together a well-thought-out pitch that detailed how the 12-month journey was going to play out.

“Proposals take a lot of time and a lot of research. You don’t just bang out a book proposal. It took me about six months to do my book proposal,” Konnikova says. “I had to do a bunch of research so that I could make the proposal really meaty and have some sort of idea about what was going to happen.”

As she dug into the research part of the pitch, Konnikova zoned in on one player to be her coach, Hall of Famer Erik Seidel. She tracked down Seidel and did her best sales job on convincing the eight-time WSOP bracelet winner to take her on as a student.

“When I reached out to Erik, the first time I met him, the book hadn’t been sold and I was very open about that. I said, ‘Look I have this idea, but we don’t know what’s actually going to happen’,” Konnikova remembers. Seidel agreed to be part of the project but Konnikova had one more thing she had to do. She played a little bit online and then headed to Las Vegas to get her first taste of the poker world.

“I just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to hate poker,” Konnikova admits. After getting enough of a taste of the online and live scene to know she was going to enjoy the process, Konnikova signed a book deal with her publisher to spend a year in the poker world before using the 2017 WSOP Main Event as the exclamation point on her journey.

That’s not how the hand played itself out though. Premium pairs be damned.

“I had no idea how the journey was going to go. I didn’t know what was going to happen and I really did envision it as being like one year and as ending with the World Series of Poker. That’s just kind of the grand hurrah,” Konnikova says. “And none of that was the case and the outline, the proposal that I gave is totally different from what ended up happening.”

The book, which hit bookshelves Tuesday, features Seidel extensively. When Konnikova first met with him she didn’t have an alternate choice as her coach in case Seidel declined but admits now that the student-sensei relationship with Seidel helped frame her poker journey and the book.

“My experience with poker would have been totally different. I think with some players even, players who are considered great, I mean I’m not naming any names or anything like that, I would have just hated the game and not been able to get good at it because their attitude is so different from mine and we really would not have I think meshed on a personal level,” Konnikova says. “I think sometimes things just work out and this was one of those things where I just had no idea how good my first choice was. No idea. I could never have predicted it.”

Learning that cash games and tournaments were totally different pursuits was a revelation for her and the more she learned about each one, the clearer the necessary path became.

“Erik kind of told me, ‘Look, you have to focus. You have to pick one if you are going to do this quickly because it is a different animal. Eventually, you can play both but at the beginning, you have to focus on one game and one style because you are going to learn to play very differently if I’m teaching you to play cash versus tournaments’,” Konnikova says.

Konnikova evaluated both options and elected to focus her poker education solely on tournaments. She saw them serving as a great vehicle to talk about decision making in a way that made sense for how people live their lives on a daily basis.

“I was looking for something that was going to provide me with a good way into life. Tournaments are much more dynamic. They have a beginning, middle, and an end. They have an ark. They have a story. They have changing priorities at different depths of the game and to me that is much more reminiscent of how life is,” Konnikova says. “Life is not a cash game. It’s not something where you can constantly add-on and re-buy and walk away from the table whenever you want and leave when you are up or when you are down.”

So Konnikova was off and running with her poker journey but the calendar intervened and like a check-raise on the turn from the tightest player at the table, forced Konnikova to re-evaluate her options.

“My year timeline got completely screwed from the very beginning. I met Erik in the summer and kind of conceived it as ‘oh, this is going to be like a year thing’,” Konnikova recalls. “But by the time that I was ready to play my first hand online, it was already fall. And by the time I played my first live tournament, it was already winter. And so, that timeline had gotten completely shifted.”

Konnikova plowed onward. The next few months included playing online and multiple trips to Las Vegas to play small buy-in tournaments before finding some tougher events with bigger buy-ins on the East Coast of the United States. The 2017 WSOP Main Event was fast approaching and Seidel wasn’t sure she was ready for it. Playing that event was a key component of the book pitch and there was suddenly a real possibility she wouldn’t even be ready to play it. Skipping it to wait for a better spot seemed like a bad play at the time to Konnikova.

“I was like, ‘No, this is my proposal. This is what I sold. This is the book I sold. I am going to play the damn thing’,” Konnikova says. She played the Main Event that year and looking back now admits it wasn’t her best decision. “It was a lot of money for me. So that was something I probably shouldn’t have done. Hindsight tells me that and I should have known it in the moment and I didn’t really want to know it. I think it tells us a lot about how the human mind works. When we really don’t want to acknowledge something we often don’t. We find excuses.”

When she busted early on Day 2, Konnikova knew that was meant to be when she was supposed to begin writing the book. Reviewing everything up to that point, she quickly realized that she had to keep going if she wanted to write the book she had envisioned, even if it was not the one she had pitched.

“I didn’t have a book at that point. I did not have enough. I hadn’t spent enough time in the poker world,” Konnikova says. “I hadn’t met enough people. I hadn’t. I mean sure, I could have written some book, but it would have been a different book and I think it would have been a much worse book.”

Her first phone call was to her editor, Scott Moyers at Penguin Press. She explained to him that she needed to keep going and found him to be very supportive of the sudden shift. Not long after that, the book’s trajectory – and deadline – changed again.

Maria Konnikova and her poker coach/mentor Erik Seidel after Konnikova shipped the 2018 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure National Championship (PokerStars photo)

At the 2018 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, Konnikova beat out 279 other entries in the $1,650 PCA National Championship to win $84,600. While that victory could have served as the final chapter of a successful journey through poker, Konnikova wanted to do more research and continue to play. Her editor was receptive and supportive.

“I told him, ‘Look, I need you to just leave me alone and give me time and when I’m ready I’m going to write the book’ and he said, ‘Yeah, sure. Go for it. No one is going to scoop you. This is your life story’,” Konnikova says.

Like a premium hand and the narrative built in your head on how to maximize the value on each street, Konnikova turned that one-year plan into a 3.5-year-long education not only on how to play poker but how to handle the potential derailments along the way.