How Much of Life is Luck?

Never having played a hand of poker in her life, the psychologist and writer Maria Konnikova (above) decided to play the game competitively for a year to get a better grip on the roles of chance and skill in her own failing life.

At least, that’s the conceit of The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win. It doesn’t hold up. The personal challenges feel bolted on to what is simply another application of her professional training in human decision-making processes to a popular topic (her first book was Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. But that’s fine. Poker lends itself to such an application.

Poker is not pre-eminently a game of luck, like craps, or a game of enormous skill, like chess. It is balanced between things that can be controlled and things that can’t. There is room for knowledge, experience, skill, yet the luck of the draw is powerful enough to blow up the best players.

Konnikova recruited Erik Seidel, a hall-of-fame poker star, as her mentor and hit the felt (actually, she first hit the screen, playing endless games online). She learned a lot about TexasHold’em, and even won a tournament, but the reward for her efforts was what she learned about herself. How, for instance, to better understand her motives, her decision-making, her emotions, and how they were entwined. How to come to terms with the fact that skill is never enough in life. There will always be good hands and bad hands. All we can control is how we deal with what we’re dealt.

Konnikova is a nice writer and the book is engaging even if, like me, you’re not a poker player or a poker reader. You learn interesting things. For instance:

  • That the best hand wins in poker an average of 12 percent of the time.

  • That a study of returns-on-investment in poker and financial management found that skilled poker players are far more skillful, consistently delivering far better returns, than skilled investors. (Konnikova quotes Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-winning economist: “for a large majority of fund managers, the selection of stocks is more like rolling dice than playing poker.”)

  • That not only poker players but all of us are susceptible to thinking we’re in greater control of things than we are. Studies show people who successfully call a series of random coin flips are apt to think they’re getting “good” at it.

  • Notwithstanding the unreasonableness of the above, “people who think they control events are mentally healthier and tend to take more control over their fate, so to speak. Meanwhile, people [who think events can’t be controlled] are more prone to depression and, when it comes to work, a more lackadaisical attitude.”

  • That Churchill once wrote, “You never can tell whether bad luck may not after all turn out to be good luck… when you make some great mistake, it may very easily serve you better than the best-advised decision.”

  • That failing is the most important part of learning. One of the worst things that can happen to anyone in any endeavour is to be an initial runaway success. “You’ll have absolutely no way to gauge if you’re really just that brilliant or it was a total fluke and you got incredibly lucky.” Further on this: “It’s Disaster that’s your teacher. It’s Disaster that brings objectivity. It’s Disaster that’s the antidote to that greatest of delusions, overconfidence.”

  • That the more incompetent you are, the less you’re aware of your incompetence (aka, the Dunning-Kruger effect, aka my third-last-boss effect).

  • That if you want to read someone in a poker game, or in any situation, don’t watch their faces, watch their hands (especially for fluid, confident motions that suggest good cards). Generally speaking, body language will be more useful than facial expressions in determining whether that other person is going to help you or kill you.

  • That poker players are into caffeine pills, nicotine tablets, Adderall, Ritalin, marijuana, and psychedelics. Not for the highs but to optimize their behavior.

  • Related to the above, they are also into body hacking (meditation, exercise regimens, metabolic tuning) and specialized diets (Keto and veganism are popular).

  • That complaining to others when luck goes against you is “like dumping your garbage on someone else’s lawn.”

  • That human behavior can’t be reduced to simple types or combinations of traits. People react dynamically to whatever situations they are in. (In other words, every corporate HR department running Myers-Brigg and related tests should be burned to the ground.)

  • That nothing’s more important in whatever you do than paying attention. “You’re not lucky because more good things are actually happening; you’re lucky because you’re alert to them when they do.” It turns out even the best poker players don’t always pay attention. They are on their phones during games, missing important information about what’s happening at the table.

For a book about chance, there’s a certain inevitability to Konnikova’s book. She wins some, she loses some. She chose poker to investigate the role of chance in life because the game has a balance of luck and skill, and in the end she finds that success in life is a combination of luck and skill.

She concludes that the trick to getting by is to treat good hands and bad hands you’re dealt as random noise and concentrate on your decision-making processes instead. If you prepare well and work hard and have good reasons for doing what you’re doing, you’re likely to get enough breaks along the way to meet success.

But don’t ever think there won’t be setbacks. “Life is luck,” she writes. “Luck will always be a factor in anything we might do or undertake. Skill can open up new vistas, new choices, allow us to see the chance that others less skilled than us, less observant or less keen, may miss, but should chance go against us, all our skill can do is mitigate the damage.”

One suspects that Konnikova knew all that before she made her first ante but her efforts to learn the game and her observations about it and the people she meets along the way give the book enough momentum to keep it interesting.