New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova keeps winning at poker

New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova (Image by Neil Stoddart / PokerStars )

New Yorker contributing writer Maria Konnikova has made the jump from amateur to full-time poker professional, complete with a sponsorship from the online poker site PokerStars. As PokerNews reported in May, she extended her year-long book leave from the magazine after winning more than $140,000 cash in two major tournaments this year, as well as a $30,000 credit for a future tournament. Her participation and unexpected ascension to elite poker are part of the immersive research for her upcoming book The Biggest Bluff, which includes studying and learning from professional players like Erik Seidel and Jason Koon.

“No one could have expected that I would have succeeded at the rate that I did,” Konnikova told CJR while at a tournament in Monte Carlo in early May.

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Konnikova’s first major win was the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure tournament in January, beating 230 players in a $1,650 buy-in event and earning $84,600, according to PokerNews. The win in the Bahamas, which required Konnikova to play 12 to 13 hours a day over three days, also came with Platinum Pass worth $30,000 to the PokerStars Players Championship next January.

It was always Konnikova’s idea for The Biggest Bluff to chronicle her own immersion in the world of professional poker. But when she won, less than a year after her book deal in March 2017, Konnikova says, “It was this moment of, ‘Oh my god’, not only am I playing, I’m actually doing really well. I need to really make sure that I give it everything I’ve got.”

That meant ramping up her competition schedule to an average of two weeks of every month, and studying even more intensely when she wasn’t at the tables to prepare for the tournament in January. “I’m just living and breathing poker, just working my ass off and doing everything I can to become as competitive and as good of a player as I possibly can,” she said.

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Konnikova is now completely focused on making the most of her opportunity to compete in the championship next January. “It’s huge for the book, it’s huge for my development, my story, for kind of all of the themes that I’m trying to go for. Why don’t I just go for it and really try my absolute hardest?”

The decision to go all-in soon paid off. Konnikova won $57,519 at the Asia Pacific Poker Tour in Macau in early March after placing second in the No-Limit Hold ‘Em event. It cost approximately $2,500 for Konnikova to enter, and she beat 150 other players. And she was named an official ambassador for PokerStars on June 25.

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As a member of its professional team, Konnikova doesn’t get a salary, but it will give her funding for tournament fees at the company’s flagship events through a certain number of games. In addition to spending time practicing and studying, the game involves a lot of variance, risk and uncertainty, which a sponsorship can help reduce. “In poker you can really see [variance] through the upswings and downswings,” she says, shortly before another game at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas where she has earned money at seven buy-ins so far. “It’s really nice to have that financial cushion because even the best players in the world are going to have times where they’re losing a lot.”

“I’m a writer,” she says, laughing. “I don’t have any money to spare.”

Maria Konnikova (Image by Neil Stoddart / PokerStars )

Poker journalist Lance Bradley describes the last year of Konnikova’s performance on the professional circuit as “absurd” considering where she started from and the level of her competition. “It’s very unusual to see someone come from not understanding how the game works at all, like the mechanics or the rules or anything, to winning a big size tournament in the Bahamas and having a decent enough run in the World Series of Poker Main Event,” he tells CJR from Las Vegas. “It’s unheard of nowadays.”

Bradley, who has been covering the game since 2006, says Konnikova’s clear intelligence combined with her high-level of mentorship made for the perfect storm of performance beyond a simple beginner’s streak of luck. “She told me a story of being able to sit behind Jason and Erik during some very big buy-in tournaments where she got to see their cards as they played,” he says. “That’s a kind of education that has never been available to anyone else in poker, that I know of.”

Prior to her entry into the world of poker, Konnikova got a PhD in psychology from Columbia University, worked as a producer on Charlie Rose on PBS, hosted a longform storytelling podcast called The Grift, wrote columns for Scientific American, and extensively freelanced. Her first piece for the New Yorker in 2013 was on the psychology behind the desire and search for answers. She also authored two best-selling books, both of which ended up being handy for covering her new sport.

Writing Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes taught Konnikova about mindfulness, as well as the importance of being present and in the moment. Her second book, The Confidence Game, was on con artists and the lure of their deceptive stories. Konnikova says great poker players are similar in how both groups tell compelling narratives that convince others from seeing logical inconsistencies. “You start seeing the parallels in those worlds, and you also start seeing what your vulnerabilities are,” she says.

Despite the exotic location of many tournaments, Konnikova says her current life as a poker pro is far from easy or glamorous. Tournaments frequently start at noon, and last until midnight or later. Events like the World Series of Poker are more than six weeks long. And on top of it all, Konnikova often has to stay up after games finish to take notes on the days’ events for her book, which she compiles and reviews during long, scheduled breaks between major tournaments.

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“It’s really physically and emotionally and mentally exhausting,” she says. “I’m just sitting at a poker table inside a casino. I don’t actually see any of the places I visit a lot of the time. It can get really lonely.”

It’s not cheap to learn at her level either. During Konnikova’s first three to four months of playing she estimated she lost more than $10,000 from her book advance in travel costs and tournament fees. Konnikova’s performance has been impressive, but she’s also participated in several other tournaments where she failed to place, with buy-ins ranging from $1,000 to $25,000. “You have to be OK with that. You have to be able to divorce yourself and say I’m just going to play the best game I can and I’m not going to play above what I can afford to play.”

 

People who want to get into it because they think it’s easy money are absolutely insane. It’s some of the most difficult money in the world.

 

Unlike other players who have a strong background in mathematics and probability, Konnikova attributes her edge at the poker table to figuring out when and how to act based on the impressions she’s getting from the people at the table—including knowing how to take advantage of competitors’ sexism. A key part of her time at tables involves figuring out how her opponents view women and adjusting her strategy accordingly. “They think that I’m going to fold, that I’m going to be soft, that I’m an easy target, and that frankly I should be in the kitchen and not at the poker table,” she says.  

Bradley has observed Konnikova often disarming opponents through her initial chatter and friendliness. “I think players quickly learn that’s she’s really, really good and if you don’t respect her you’re going to regret it quickly.”

Part of Konnikova’s enjoyment of the game comes from how much it challenges her and pushes her to grow. “Nothing has given me that amount of fulfilment, except for writing.” She says the hardest thing people aren’t prepared for when it comes to professional poker is the sheer amount of work and preparation. “They just want the shortcut to winning. And there is no shortcut, just like in writing.”

“People who want to get into it because they think it’s easy money are absolutely insane. It’s some of the most difficult money in the world.”

Still, Konnikova has developed a genuine passion for the game and a belief that its lessons can be beneficial to everyone. “I think the world would be really better off if all kids learned how to play poker, honestly,” she says. “It teaches risk, self-control, emotion management, all of these skills you need to get through life.”

As for the future, and whether she’s considering switching to a life as a pro poker player full-time after the completion of the book, Konnikova’s answer was an emphatic no. “Fundamentally, I’ll always be a writer. I’m never going to give that up. That’s not on the table.”

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Karen K. Ho is freelance business, media and culture reporter, as well as a former Delacorte fellow, based in Toronto and New York. Follow her on Twitter @karenkho.