Maria Konnikova is one of the most impressive people in poker. With an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a psychology doctorate from Columbia, Maria channels her vast knowledge about human behavior into her best-selling writing and elite poker play.
Maria recently brought her talents to the table at a guest-lecture for MBA students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. It was all part of an innovative partnership program with Poker Power.
In our discussion Maria shared her thoughts on recognizing personal biases, the value of taking risks, and how women can utilize poker to become a powerful version of themselves.
Poker Power (PP): You believe we should teach poker in school. How do you envision “poker class?” As a study of poker strategy or as a conduit to build life skills?
Maria Konnikova (MK): I think both. I mean, I think you teach the poker strategy, but you do it in a way that children can understand, which is a way that also incorporates lessons that they can apply elsewhere.
You’re not going to take an eight-year-old and teach them complex probabilistic thinking. But you can teach them “when you make a certain move, sometimes this happens and sometimes that happens. Let’s take a coin and start flipping it.” You can make poker much more tangible when you’re putting it in the context of a fun game but [the kids] also know what the meta skills are.
One of the things I’ve found with poker players at the highest level is that even some of the best poker players really suck at life, because they don’t have that meta cognitive awareness. They don’t take the time to think about poker in a wider sense and consider “OK what skills am I using, what is this actually doing?” That takes effort. So I think it would be amazing if we could combine both elements from the get-go.
PP: Do you think a business background helped the women you worked with at Kellogg learn the program’s material quicker than the journalism students you usually teach?
MK: I think it’s different. I think that business helps give you some important skills: you’re negotiating, thinking about zero-sum interaction contexts. So in some ways, it’s easier for business students. But I think in other ways, journalism students are used to diving into different areas and teaching themselves things they don’t know anything about.
The type of curiosity that makes a good journalist is the type of curiosity that makes a good poker player. So there are assets that both backgrounds bring.
PP: With influences like Mischel, Seidel and Kahneman, how have you integrated behavioral economics with poker theory in your teaching?
MK: (laughs) I’ll try to answer that question, it’s just funny because I don’t try to do it consciously. I think my background in poker is informed by my background in psychology, but it’s reciprocal where I have changed the way I view psychology after seeing all of this play out in the arena of poker.
These are things that made me who I am and have informed my way of thinking about the world, so it’s more of a subconscious issue of how I present the material. It’s a really good question, and it’s important to think about what you’re not explicitly aware of doing to figure out “how am I integrating this?”
A lot of the way I approach teaching these things is definitely informed by the fact that I started in academia. This made me especially aware of the emotional aspect of decision-making. That’s where Walter [Mischel]’s work comes in: the self-control, and the more rational. These two really go hand in hand because poker is this real-life learning laboratory where you see all these biases, skills and abilities play out in a high-pressure situation, which honestly is the best way to learn, see, and teach things on a theoretical and practical level.
PP: How would you recommend our readers identify and overcome cognitive biases both in poker and in their professional life?
MK: I think that we have to be clear that overcoming biases doesn’t mean that you’re going to stop having them. Everyone is biased and you’re going to experience biases and you have to make peace with that. So it’s not about being unbiased, that doesn’t exist. So you have to give yourself permission to experience these distortions of thinking.
What you need to train yourself to do is to identify them. And to know yourself well enough and have enough perception that you’re able to say “OK, you’re experiencing these emotions, this is the sunk-cost fallacy, this is risk aversion where you shouldn’t be risk averse.” Once you identify it, dismiss it. Have the cooling strategy which is where self-control comes in. Think how do I say, “Hey emotion, hey bias, I see you. I recognize you. Now I’m going to move you over to the side and exclude you from my thought process.”
I see in a lot of psych studies that identifying and telling yourself you’ll push biases to the side is enough for de-biasing. Once the experimenters bring attention to whatever is biasing participants, the bias will disappear. Some people use that as evidence that this doesn’t work; I see this as evidence that biases are everywhere but they don’t have to be this irretrievable thing that hobbles us.
What I would tell people is that everyone has biases and everyone is biased in different ways, so you have to figure out what your biases are, what triggers you, tilts you or makes you emotional. That requires you to spend some time with yourself writing down what frustrates you and what your aspirations and fears are. That way the next time the a****** on my left 3-bets me yet again I can take a deep breath and say “it’s not personal, it’s just business” and 4-bet him right back, or whatever I’m going to do. So just have a plan of action but recognize it will differ for every person and it’s work you have to do for yourself.
PP: I want to hone in specifically on risk-aversion which you just mentioned. Why do you think research consistently finds that women have a lower risk tolerance than men? Do you believe a small risk appetite may be damaging women financially?
MK: First of all, I want to preface this response by saying what I say whenever anyone asks me about gender differences. It’s really important to understand that the difference within genders completely overpowers the difference between genders. So the difference between women at the extremes and men at the extremes is much wider than the difference between women and men; women are far more different from each other than they are from men. That’s a point I want to hammer home because people don’t focus on it enough.
That said, risk is the one area where you actually do find stable gender differences: you don’t see that in almost any other area of psychology. Most of the data show that it’s hormonal and testosterone does have a lot to do with it. There are some very cool studies done on the trading floor that measured testosterone level and showed that risk appetites really changed when there were testosterone spikes. Women have testosterone but it’s negligible compared to the level that men have and I think that difference is where a lot of the difference in risk tolerance is coming from.
Some of it, of course, is socialization. Men are rewarded for being more risk-taking and women are punished for it a lot of the time. Women learn to be more risk-averse and keep a lot of those impulses in check because they’re punished for stepping out of line in a way that men never are.
At the end of the day, women are often more successful than men at a lot of these enterprises. If you look at hedge funds, women have better track records as portfolio managers than men because they are able to make more rational decisions. I think that in poker it helps too, because you don’t get as emotional from those testosterone swings. It can be a super power in a way as well: too much risk tolerance is not necessarily a good thing.
PP: To quote Ben Sulsky, “Why are the robots getting into poker but the women are staying away?”
MK: The robots are getting in because they can and the technology is getting a lot better. Usually hackers are one step ahead of the people providing security. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like playing online (for money) nearly as much: I don’t feel as safe as I do playing live. Women are staying away due to multiple issues.
Historically, poker has been a man’s game and many men don’t want to give that up. They like having a little boy’s club and they don’t want to clean up their act no matter what they say. The environment can be pretty toxic and unwelcoming. If I weren’t a journalist, some of my early experiences in poker would have made me turn around and say, “No thank you, I don’t want to deal with this s***.”
The attitudes need to change from the top. You need to create an environment where women feel welcome and safe and where a lot of behaviors aren’t tolerated. Just to give you an example from my book, I was once flat out propositioned at a poker table:given a room key and told how much money I was going to be paid to accompany this gentleman upstairs. When I called over the tournament director, they wouldn’t do anything because they said he did nothing wrong. Ultimately, after I complained and was backed up by a few other players, they said they could move me to another table. That’s not cool, that’s not the right response.
Until that changes, I don’t see many more women in poker. But one of the reasons I like being an ambassador in poker is that I hope stories like mine will bring more women to the game and will show them what’s possible. It is an amazing sport and an amazing arena to test out your skills and learn how to be a powerful version of yourself. I’ve met some incredible people there, some of the most brilliant women and men that I’ve met in my life have been through poker.
PP: As someone who learned poker from the ground up late in life, what advice would you give women just learning the game?
MK: I would say study hard, work hard, play hard, have fun. There is just so much material out there now, I would say pick good material. There are great training sites and great advice, one of the best pieces of advice I got early on was to start at really low stakes. Start playing online if online poker is legal where you are so that you can just get the experience in and start figuring out what the situations are.
The other thing I would say to anyone learning poker is be an active learner. Watching a video doesn’t mean you’ve learned anything: if it’s a half-hour video it should take you at least an hour to watch it because you should be stopping it all the time, you should be taking notes, you should be rewinding if you don’t understand something. This is if you want to be good, a lot of people just play poker for fun.
At the height of when I was playing full time, trying to be the absolute best player I could be, I was playing or studying seven days a week, 9, 10, 11 hours a day. That’s not necessary for someone who doesn’t want to go pro. But I still think that taking advantage of some of those free materials that are out there is really important.
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