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What poker can teach you about living through a pandemic

Poker is “a high-risk, high-reward environment where players make critical decisions based on incomplete information,” says behavior expert Maria Konnikova.

What poker can teach you about living through a pandemic
[Photos: Michał Parzuchowski/Unsplash; Aditya Chinchure/Unsplash]

If 2020 were a game of poker, it’s safe to say we drew a bad hand. While “uncertainty” is the word of the year, it’s easy to forget that we do have control over some things. While much of life (and poker) is chance, it’s possible to change your luck based on how you play your cards.

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Human behavior expert Maria Konnikova says poker is the perfect metaphor for life: “The game is a high-risk, high-reward environment where players make critical decisions based on incomplete information.”

In 2017, Konnikova, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, decided to take on a year-long project: learning poker as a way to better understand the difference between skill and luck. She convinced Poker Hall of Fame inductee Erik Seidel to be her mentor and immersed herself in strategies of the game. After a fair share of setbacks and folds, she eventually started winning. And about a year later, she had earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from Texas Hold’em tournaments, won a major title, and got a sponsor.

“I have a fascination with luck,” says Konnikova, who chronicled her experience and the lessons she learned in her book The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win. “I wanted to explore the difference between skill and chance—what we can control, what we can take credit for, and what we can’t. Too often people take credit for the good things and place blame for the bad.”

Poker balances two oppositional forces we have in our life: chance and control. And understanding the rules of each can help you deal with life during the pandemic.

Let Go of the Outcome

Too often, people focus on things they can’t control. It’s a natural response to uncertainty. Even if you have exceptional knowledge and skills, you can’t always control what happens. Chance is the cards that come to you that you can’t know.

“You can make a good decision and still get a bad outcome,” says Konnikova. “There is no such thing as 100% certainty. Let go of the outcome—divorce yourself from it—and focus on what you can control, which is your process.”

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Pay Attention

While you can’t control the outcome, you can master your process. Poker teaches you to tell the difference between the two—as long as you don’t go broke first, says Konnikova.

“Poker has a mathematical foundation, but with a dose of human intention, interaction, psychology—nuance, deception, little tricks that don’t quite reflect reality but help you gain an edge over others,” she says.

You have control over the information you focus on and the decisions you make; that’s skill. Learn from what you did wrong, replaying where something got away from you. Recognize what you did right that put yourself in a position to be lucky. And calibrate probability based on what you know and what you don’t know. The more experience you have, the more information you have to draw from, but you must pay attention.

“Based on the limited information you have you can determine probability,” says Konnikova. “Focus on the probability that the next card can improve your hand or improve your opponent’s hand. What are probabilities that will change the board? This is all knowable. That’s what being a good poker player is. The outcome is not a proxy if you did the right things.”

Manage stress

Konnikova says she chose the game of poker to learn about luck and didn’t realize it would teach her about who she is as a person. “Stress and pressure make a very high-stakes environment, and you can get depleted very quickly because you constantly have to be thinking about your next step,” she says. “That’s draining and cognitively emotional. All of your issues and hang-ups, everything you carry with you, comes up.”

The pressure cooker of a tournament can be compared to living through a pandemic. “Right now, we are being bombarded with information overload,” she says. “People want certainty. They want to know when they can start seeing people again. When we’ll have a vaccine. The human brain doesn’t like uncertainties, but we don’t know the answers to these questions.”

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Playing poker prepares you to take life one day at a time by playing one hand at a time.

“You can’t focus on the outcome; it’s not controllable,” says Konnikova. “All you can focus on is your process. The outcome does not reflect the quality of your process. If you make a good decision and things didn’t go your way, poker teaches you that things will eventually even out. It feels nicer when you win, but if you can’t handle disappointment, you’ll be a shitty poker player.”

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