The Biggest Bluffcover

Maria Konnikova

The Biggest Bluff

Quotes and Notes - October 19th, 2022

Life is like a game of poker

Less like chess, where all information is known, the rules are clear, and there is little left to chance, life is more like poker, where a lot of information is hidden, the outcomes are never guaranteed, and the right course of action is quite hard to discern in advance, easy only in hindsight.

You can of course argue that there is some luck involved in chess as well, given the huge amount of possible outcomes, but ultimately you can mostly "solve" chess, and computer programs have reached levels where they pretty much never lose to humans. The chess process takes time but the path is know and the solution knowable.

Poker on the other hand is inherently random. The best players have mastered enough of the process where over a long period of time they come out ahead. The result of every single hand however is random (save for cheating or some other externalities).

The book goes through the author's path to learning poker and eventually playing the world series of poker. It's a fun read with a lot of good information stuffed throughout. It's a great simplified lesson on probabilities and expected outcomes and offers a somewhat "pop" philosophy on life to which I very much subscribe: almost nothing is certain and the sooner you internalize that thought the better.

Real life is based on making the best decisions you can from information that can never be complete: you never know someone else’s mind, just like you can never know any poker hand but your own. Real life is not just about modeling the mathematically optimal decisions. It’s about discerning the hidden, the uniquely human. It’s about realizing that no amount of formal modeling will ever be able to capture the vagaries and surprises of human nature.

Should you find yourself convinced of the certainty of an idea you should try an assign a monetary value of some kind to your certainty and then ask yourself whether you still hold that idea in the same regard.

“If we imagine to ourselves that we have to stake the happiness of our whole life on the truth of any proposition, our judgment drops its air of triumph, we take the alarm, and discover the actual strength of our belief,” says Kant.

Poker isn’t just about calibrating the strength of your beliefs. It’s also about becoming comfortable with the fact that there’s no such thing as a sure thing—ever. You will never have all the information you want, and you will have to act all the same. Leave your certainty at the door.

When evaluating the quality of a decission is better to focus on the process rather than the outcome. This is fairly obvious in a game of poker where chance plays a big role, but often no so obvious in other contexts.

There's a lesson here to try and not focus so much on outcomes - these are often random, despite your best intentions and preparations. Focus instead on the process. Did you make the right decision given all available information at the time? What was wrong with the process if anything? Could you improve anything with the process? Those are far more valuable questions to ask and lessons to learn than to simply assume decisions were bad because outcomes were bad.

Outcome based judgements are of course much easier to make, we make them all the time, and we headline news and articles and magazine with quick judgements on how x or y needs to be fired after losing the game/deal/whatever. Give randomness more credit before rushing to such judgements.

Poker is all about comfort with uncertainty, after all. Only I didn’t quite realize it wasn’t just uncertainty about the outcome of the cards. It’s uncertainty about the “right” thing to do. The only certain thing is your thinking.

Focus on the process, not the luck. Did I play correctly? Everything else is just BS in our heads,” Erik tells me. “Thinking that way won’t get you anywhere. You know about the randomness of it but it doesn’t help to think about it. You want to make sure you’re not the person in the poker room saying, ‘Can you believe what happened?’ That’s the other people.

"Hope. Hope has its place in the world, but when it comes to poker, it really doesn’t belong,” he says. “As far as hope in poker, fuck it.” Interesting. I’d thought hope was a tenet of mental health. In some sense, yes. But not in the sense of making me a mentally strong player. “You need to think in terms of preparation. Don’t worry about hoping. Just do.” That phrase resonates. It’s what Erik was getting at with his admonition about bad beats—the worrying about what could and should have been, the hope that replaces analysis and actual reflection. It crystallizes why I shouldn’t have played the Main, not this year—it was a decision based on hope.

The Youtube channel Veritasium has a very nice vide on the impact of luck vs skill in achieving success here: Not to spoil it or anything but luck plays a big part.

Denying luck individually is to suggest that we have much greater agency than we really have over outcomes in our lives.

Learn as much as you can, do your best, and let the chips fall where they may.

You can’t control what will happen, so it makes no sense to try to guess at it. Chance is just chance: it is neither good nor bad nor personal. Without us to supply meaning, it’s simple noise. The most we can do is learn to control what we can—our thinking, our decision processes, our reactions. “Some things are in our control and others not,” writes the Stoic philosopher Epictetus in The Enchiridion. “Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” If we cannot do it ourselves, we cannot control it. We control how we play the hand, how we react to its outcome, but that outcome itself—that, we don’t control.

The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova is on Apple books here

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