PokerStars PCA Report: playing the projection game with Maria Konnikova

PokerStars PCA Report: playing the projection game with Maria Konnikova

Another round-up from the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure at the home of Myles Munroe this time with the New York Times Bestselling author, Maria Konnikova, playing the ‘projection’ game.

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Standing on the delicate pinkies of the person you are about to interview is not a good start unless that person is Maria Konnikova. The aura that surrounds the New York Times Best Selling author puts you at immediate ease, which is as cool as the Fonz when you believe you don’t even deserve to be in the same room as her.

The seatbelt remains unbuckled. Konnikova trusts me to take the wheel and trusts herself to handle it if I veer off course and head towards a brick wall. She’s always on time, never speaks with a mouthful of food, and doesn’t turn into a werewolf if the moon shoves the sun into the rail.

PokerStars PCA Report: playing the projection game with Maria Konnikova
[Image Credit: Neil Stoddart]
That trust allows me to open up about something that’s been bothering me since I boarded a plane full of poker players en route to the opening gambit of 2019. Cool. I don’t have to scribble this shit onto a toilet cubicle. I can share it with someone whose opinion matters to me, and at the same time, maybe someone will learn from it.

So I open up, like an easel, and hand Maria the paintbrush.

I tell her about my interview with the comedian Norm Macdonald, and how I felt a deep connection with him. I wanted to hug him, get his phone number, and hang out with him. It made me realise that it’s common for me to feel this way after my interviews, and I’ve developed the opinion that connection runs both ways. Plugs, sockets and all of that.

So why do those I feel I have connected with ignore me when I catch their eye as we pass in the tournament area, airport or urinal, and is this only a feeling that interviewers have, is it just me, or has Maria also experienced the same feelings during her short time in the poker industry?

“First of all you are a great interviewer,” says Konnikova. “Every time we have a conversation you ask me questions that nobody else asks, so it’s always exciting and fun, and I always enjoy talking to you. If you like people, and you genuinely enjoy human connection, then you’re going to seek that out. One of the things I love so much about poker, which is very different from my usual writing lifestyle where I don’t see anyone for days on end, is the game became so much enjoyable for me when I realised that all of these people who are sitting there stone-faced not talking; that you can get them to open up, and change the atmosphere at the poker table if you’re genuinely interested in them, so I have had experiences where I have sat down, and nobody is talking, and it’s ‘hear a pin drop silent’. Then you start asking a question or two and engage people, and within an hour everyone is laughing and having a good time, and it’s a different table. To me, that’s one of the great things about poker, and great interviewers, you can find that connection, and you enjoy it.”

While at Atlanta airport, waiting for my flight to the Bahamas, high rolling poker players surrounded me. Some of them said hello, but others caught my eye, and then didn’t engage in conversation. I began to feel self-conscious to the point when I saw Byron Kaverman (whom I connect with), I felt uncomfortable talking to him because he was in the company of people, some of whom I get the impression don’t like me, and I can’t abide the faux nature of the conversations. I ask Konnikova if she has experienced anything similar during her time in poker

“I understand what you’re saying,” says Konnikova. “There is no worse feeling than inauthenticity; than being with someone you know doesn’t want to be there but is there because they have to. I had a – I don’t know if you can call it a life philosophy shift – but it was a realisation that happened 4-5 years ago, it was one of those aha moments that life is too short to have a miserable attitude at any point. So if you go into something saying, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I need to be in this interview when I could be on the beach”. You’re not going to enjoy it, the interview won’t go well, and that will have been wasted time in a life that’s already too short. Instead, your attitude could be to see it as an opportunity. “This is so cool. I get to do an interview. Someone thinks I have something to say, how exciting. Let’s go and enjoy this”. When you have that mental switch, it changes things. That’s why I am never upset when I bust out of a tournament. Of course, it sucks right at the moment you bust, but then you have to think, “I’m playing poker, this is amazing, who else gets to do this.” When you have this slight shift in framing it makes a huge difference. Then you realise you don’t have to deal with inauthenticity; you need to find the people and the situations that make you happy and try to bring positive energy to everything. It’s not always going to work. Some people ignore the positive energy, and if that happens then shrug and move on. Life is too short.”

There is also the truth that I could be making this all up in my head.

“It’s also important to realise you’re not in someone else’s head,” says Konnikova. “You don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know where they are coming from in that exact moment, so I have learned not to take things personally, and to give people the benefit of the doubt until I have to take it personally.”

I laugh, as it’s so hard to shake these things off.

“Sometime’s it is personal, and you have to say to yourself, “Ok, it’s personal, and move on.”

I get the vibe in the poker community, that people are quick to cast you aside if you say one thing that runs counter to someone’ s beliefs or isn’t in accordance with someone’s values, instead of looking at that incident in isolation, and being prepared to still listen to what this person has to say. Once again I ask Konnikova for an opinion.

“Poker is an emotional environment, and it takes a lot out of people, and I think they don’t have as many emotional resources to cope with everything, so everything becomes more dire because you’re in this heightened stress state, and then people decide this person is terrible, and I don’t want to deal with them. It’s something that happens in life, period, but it’s so concentrated in poker because people lack the emotional resources because they are dealing with other things.

“If you look at some situations that happen, you realise that some people are able to defuse some really rough situations. I think it might have been the Super High Roller Bowl last year; there was a moment on a stream when there was a very tense moment between Jason Koon and Leon Tsoukernik because someone was standing behind Jason who could see his cards, I guess. And if you look how Jason handled that…he didn’t say, “Leon is a terrible human being I am never going to speak to,” and start yelling at him, he handled it like an adult. So there are poker players who are capable of doing that, and there are lots who aren’t, and will take things personally for the rest of time. The funny thing is I think the best players are the ones who can handle it, because they can handle the emotion, and who have that perspective. If you can’t, and you’re the person who writes someone off after a one-off remark or interaction then you may want to reevaluate your poker game because you clearly have an emotional leak that’s affecting how you play.”

As humans, we often bring our thoughts and feelings from the past into the present moment subconsciously. Psychologists call it ‘projection’, and I wanted to spend some time playing the ‘projection’ game. I presented Konnikova with some statements and then asked her to respond with the first thing that came into her head.

What I really deserve is…

“Nothing. I don’t think anyone deserves anything,” says Konnikova in a heartbeat. “I hate that word ‘deserve,’ it’s a bad way of thinking about things. Life owes you nothing. You deserve nothing. You have to just work, and earn what you can, and if things don’t go your way, it’s not like, “Oh man I deserved this”, I think it’s a non-productive way of thinking about things.”

I point out that Konnikova associated the word ‘hate’ with ‘deserved’ and asked why it had such a powerful association?

“It’s an attitude that’s so destructive, and that prevents clear thinking and makes people nasty,” says Konnikova. “Nastiness isn’t good. As soon as you have an attitude of “I deserve that or she doesn’t deserve that” – because as soon as you start using the word ‘deserve’ it’s not just about you it’s about other people – it’s a really negative way of thinking about life. It’s at the root of a lot of nasty human interaction. It’s the same reason I don’t like the term ‘it’s so unfair’.” 

And it strikes me that the poker industry would be the perfect breeding ground for the ‘I deserved this or that’ brigade.

“You’re allowed to say you’re running bad if that’s true,” says Konnikova. “A few months ago, it started during the World Series, like OMG this is insane, I am running horribly. I said, “Wait, I am a rational human being. I know that human memory is fallible, so I am going to start writing down every single time I am all-in, and doing the math.” It ended up that I was running bad. That happens. Randomness is random it doesn’t care. Flips are only flips in the long term; they aren’t flips in the short term.”

Deep down, I suppose I’m really…

“The first word that came to mind is ‘scared’, can I say that?” Laughs Konnikova. “I have gone through a lot of my life with a little bit of imposter syndrome, which is funny because it goes back to your original question. I sometimes think I don’t deserve this. It’s the opposite of deserving something. I feel like a fraud – why did I get this opportunity or chosen for that? There is deep-rooted insecurity, and I know it’s there, and I try to work on it. It’s not productive, but it’s deep down there, and I am not quite sure if it will always be there or someday I will find a way to overcome it. But it’s something that’s always with me, and I am always trying to prove that I can be the best version of me, but there is this little guy inside my mind saying, ‘Why are you here you don’t deserve this’.”

Men are generally…

“Human, with sometimes a negative spin when it comes to poker,” says Konnikova. “Men, for a long time, have not had to deal with realising that women are human beings and are on the same level as we are, and we are in a patriarchy and have been for centuries. The reason I say men are humans – I don’t want to say men are pigs or arseholes – is because there are so many that aren’t. There are so many great men who have supported me, been there for me, have been great advocates, who understand the types of things a woman goes through in a male-dominated business and help; are good people. There are shitty women and good women. There are shitty men and good men. There are more shitty men, in general, because they haven’t had to learn to bring out the good in them, and they don’t realise their shittiness is as shitty as it is, because they have never had to realise. The optimistic part in me hopes that’s changing. Men do have testosterone, which is a big difference between men and women. It’s a big deal. A big difference that affects decision-making, risk-taking and emotional perception.”

I know that I was never aware that my behaviour towards women was shitty for most of my life, and then when I was aware, I found it so difficult to change my behaviour.

“Habits are tough to break, especially when it’s something you have seen from a young age,” says Konnikova. “It’s not just habit, it’s socialisation, and socialisation is a powerful force. There is a society in India, which is a matriarchy and has been for centuries. There was a National Geographic feature on it a few years back where I learned about it, and I thought, this is cool – women rule here. You see there are more arsehole women in this society. It all has to do with power, and who has the power in society. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – Lord Acton knew what he was talking about.”

Women almost always…

“Are catty,” says Konnikova with a laugh. “If we are doing ‘pigs’ for men we can do ‘cats’ for women, right? Women are often catty because it’s the flip side of the power dynamic. If there is a limited resource, and we know the world is 99% reserved for men, and there are a lot of women who are willing to fight and scratch for that 1%. I have met a lot of women like that, but my closest friends are women. For both of them, we have the nasty answers – the pigs and the cats – but we are all humans. Everyone is imperfect, and different situations will bring out different parts of our personality, and we should focus on creating the best environment that brings out the best in people and not the worse.”

Poker players are generally…

“Sore losers,” says Konnikova. “If I have to hear another bad beat story. One of the first things Erik Seidel taught me was never to tell a bad beat story. This past summer at the World Series, a dealer said to me, “I have the best bad beat story, do you want to hear it”, and just said “NO!” so loudly, and the entire table started laughing, and of course he told the bad beat story anyway.”

That will be the testosterone.