Another snippet from the PokerStars European Poker Tour Barcelona as Lee Davy stands alongside Maria Konnikova to pester her brain about reading, stoicism and Harvard.
As the violins sweep through my head sending the cobwebs onto the dancefloor, I stare out across the ocean and think about what to write. You see, this isn’t any old poker article. It’s an article about a New York Times Bestseller.
It feels like my reputation is on the line.
Like every word has to mean something.
One day, my low self-esteem will decay, rot and ferment. Maybe I could make kombucha out of it. Drink it, and send it tumbling down the urinal, down the pipes and into the same ocean that’s inspiring me – slowly, effortlessly, romantically.
I love to write, but I have never written a book.
I am yet to overcome them.
But I will.
Maria Konnikova has faced those same demons. Coffins at the ready, she never climbed in. Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, became a 2013 New York Times Best Seller. Three years later, her second book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It hit the same exalted heights.
Paper plates replaced by the best china.
As we head towards the rhythmic cycle of her third year another New York Times Best Seller sits inside her mind, scratching her skull with all the finesse of Freddy Kruger near a child’s blackboard.
It’s a book about poker that is nothing about poker.
I can’t wait to read it.
Like the striking of a match and the smell that follows, after spending ten minutes trying to hear her beneath the bellowing intrusion of the giant like voice booming out of the speakers above, I feel like something special is about to be unleashed.
No pressure then.
Before we get the opportunity to wipe the vernix from the front cover, Konnikova has work to do. In her new role as PokerStars Team Pro, she is giving away a $30,000 Platinum Pass to a member of her tribe who can write a story relatable to poker that forces a speech bubble from the mouths of her panel of jurors that contains the word – Wow!
So I begin by asking her for her story.
Here it is.
“When I was eight years old my family went on vacation to Prince Edward Island to go deep sea fishing,” said Konnikova. “It was the first time I had ever been deep sea fishing. I was so excited. Everyone started catching fish except for me.
“I was running around the boat asking people to switch places. I thought I had a bad reel. I was all over the place. No fish were biting so I decided that deep sea fishing was the most boring thing in the world, I was incredibly unlucky, and the whole experience was terrible. I have never been back.
“Obviously, the actual thing that was wrong was me because I wasn’t standing still. I lost patience completely. It’s a poker lesson in patience, discipline and self-control. Knowing that once you pick your spots, you have to stick with your strategy and don’t blame bad luck when it’s down to a lack of skill.”
Preparing for my ten-minute chinwag with Konnikova I took a gander at her Twitter feed and found a broad variety of different genres of reading dotted along her feed. Articles like the ‘Birthday Problem’, ‘Facebook Fuelled Anti-Refugee Attacks’ and ‘The Singularity.’
I ask her how she chooses these wildly different topics, and her answer, is, as expected, a brilliant one.
“I follow a lot of people I find interesting,” says Konnikova. “I read what seems interesting to me from people I respect. I wouldn’t necessarily read something about Singularity naturally, but if it’s tweeted out by someone, I respect I will check it out. Pick people you admire and see what they are doing.”
You are the total of the five people you spend the most time with, but that doesn’t mean you have to be physically with these people. We live in the age of the Internet, baby. Never before have we been able to connect with people laden with brilliance as we can today.
I ask Konnikova to single out three libraries of literary love that poker players should spend time reading while flicking their hands into the muck.
“The first is Brain Pickings by Maria Popova,” recites Konnikova fondly. ”She is a friend, and I read her stuff before we became good friends. I think it’s very thought-inspiring; thought-provoking, it makes you think about a lot of things outside of poker that I think are wonderful.
“I love Austin Kleon, and I think his blog is very important for creativity and inspiration. He is an artist and writer, and he wrote a bunch of best-sellers like Steal Like an Artist. I love reading his stuff.
“I am a big fan of Tim Urban’s WaitButWhy. He plays poker actually. I love his stick figures. Also, everyone should follow the xkcd cartoons by the former NASA physicist come, cartoonist, Randall Munroe.”
Back to that book milling around in the mind of Konnikova, and there’s a Stoic angle included in the mind draft version. I ask her to talk a little about her interest in Aurelius, Socrates et al., and how it can help poker players?
“I am asking questions about Stoicism because it’s going into my book,” confirms Konnikova. “I am reading a lot about the Stoics right now and think it’s a wonderful thing for poker players to learn. It’s about discipline, self-control, learning to flip your mindset, so you feel more in control in events, and a lot of negative things are in your mindset. It can be a very inspiring philosophy, rather than the way the portray it as a depressing philosophy. I have found it very uplifting.”
Konnikova is a student of Harvard.
When I think of that word the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz stumbles into my mind, because I narrate the tale to my two-year-old daughter and always tell her that the Wizard of Oz gave him a diploma from this great institution.
I made it up.
I ask Konnikova for three misconceptions that people have about Harvard, knowing she won’t do the same.
She gives me two.
“That everyone who goes there is smart. That everyone that goes there is very stuck up.”
Back to her first book, Mastermind, and I ask her to describe the weaknesses and strengths of Sherlock Holmes, the poker player.
“His main strength would have been his power of observation,” Konnikova says on a sixpence. “He would have been very good at figuring out who is on the up and up and who is bluffing. As far as live reads go, he would pick up on all of them. I think his main failure, which can also be a strength, is he is too emotionally disconnected. I think sometimes emotion can help you understand other people. Being able to relate to what someone is going through emotionally can help you play against them. If you tilt yourself, you can recognise tilt in others. As he is so in control of his emotions, he would judge those people but wouldn’t necessarily know what they were thinking and feeling and how that was going to affect them.”
Konnikova’s answers arrive quickly. The ability to consume a question and spit out a solution in seconds is incredible. I ask her how we can cultivate our ability to pay attention?
“Put away your phone. Don’t multi-task. I meditate daily. For poker players it’s crucial. It’s a way to open up some brain space, provides your own little world, and it helps you concentrate for the rest of the day.”
The clock tick tocks.
I have a few minutes left.
The toilet beckons.
A tournament needs winning.
I load three random questions into the chamber, close it with the deft flick of my wrist and fire.
If you were to recall one situation in your experience where you would rather not have known the truth when would it have been?
“When I was an undergrad, it was the first semester, I was friends with some girls and thought we were all getting on, and everything was great,” recalls Konnikova. “At some point, the group (five of them) came to my room and told me they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore because they didn’t think I was a very nice person, and they didn’t like the fact I was in their group. That hurt my feelings. I was 17. Girls can be mean to each other. But you know what, my two best friends were my two freshman year roommates and are still my best friends, so I have some amazing friends from Harvard, but that one I would rather have not known the truth.”
What part of your financial situation scares you the most?
“My financial situation has always been very uncertain because before I played poker, I was a writer. Even though I am on contract at the New Yorker, all writers are freelance, so I have never known income stability. I have never had a salary or never known how much money I would have.
“It’s scary that you might not have any income for five months, so I have a lot more money in savings. I am comfortable with it. I have never had stable health insurance or benefits.
“It doesn’t make it any easier in a sense to realise that this could end any day. Before I began playing poker, I would wake up in a cold sweat thinking what if people stopped paying me for my writing, what if my books don’t sell and I can’t sell my next book? That’s always a frightening thought, and it’s the same with poker. What happens if I suddenly start losing all of the time?”
If you were to name the person or people you have the most compassion for who would it be and why?
“I think I have the most compassion for refugees and victims of Trump. I think what he is doing in our country is horrifying. So many people are getting displaced and forced to be refugees because they are being deported despite living in the US their entire lives. And I think it’s absolutely terrifying to see that happen, and I wish I could do something to stop it. Let’s hope the next election brings an end to it, but I am not very optimistic.”
And off she goes (after a hug of course).
I head in the opposite direction, inspired, grateful, and happy to have spent ten minutes with her.
I can see why Erik Seidel said ‘yes’.
I can’t see how anyone can ever say ‘no’.