Poker can take a lifetime to master, unless you’re New York Times best-selling author Maria Konnikova, who went from total novice to international Texas Hold’em champion in only ten months. It was such an unexpected byproduct of researching her upcoming book that she ditched the very same book deal to tour the high stakes circuit across Las Vegas, Monte Carlo, and Macau armed with just a few key poker tips.
Under the esteemed tutelage of Poker Hall of Fame inductee and 30-year veteran Erik Seidel, you could argue Konnikova’s success was, in fact, inevitable. You’ve got to learn from the best to become the best. Seidel’s gameplay – rooted in psychology over mathematics – has earned him eight World Series of Poker bracelets and over $34 million in competition earnings.
Konnikova spotted Seidel in Matt Damon’s 1998 poker drama Rounders. He delivered his unconventional wisdom through Yoda-style idioms over long walks. When Konnikova asked for winning strategies, Seidel simply responded, “Less certainty. More enquiry.”
Her book The Biggest Bluff (which she did later finish) is the ultimate masterclass in not just poker tips, but general decision making: how to think, act, and react.
“This book isn’t about how to play poker. It’s about how to play the world.”
1. You control the art of playing a bad hand
Seidel compares poker to jazz music. All you can do is ask, “What are these guys doing and how do I respond to it?”
So much of what happens at a poker table is beyond your control. You might be sitting across from assholes, the cards themselves are inanimate, and luck doesn’t give a shit about you. The only thing you control is your response.
Konnikova runs a mantra-like checklist to control her behaviour. Asking if she has agency over her attention, presence, control of her emotions, guard over her behaviour and gestures.
2. Question everything and stay open-minded
“Less certainty. More enquiry.” Poker isn’t static, and being too fixed on your hand impairs your ability to take on new information as it transpires on the table.
Some poker tips to hone your flexibility and open-mindedness include;
- Being more interested in listening over speaking
- Believe you are wrong by default, so you are forced to reconsider the problem and ensure you’re not missing any key details
- Practice balancing opposite opinions to your own without losing the ability to think clearly
3. Get better at making sound decisions
“The object of poker is making good decisions.” Luck is beyond your control, but planning for the best possible move is achievable. Building a coherent decision-making system makes it easier to identify a breakdown in your rationale to be improved upon for next time.
A system mindset makes individual outcomes less important, so you can avoid the typical cognitive biases that impede on making decisions under the pump. Many players fall victim to the sunken cost fallacy: holding on to bad cards for far too long, simply because of the time, energy, and buy-in they have already made to date.
4. Don’t act without knowing how to react
Considered all possible outcomes in advance of your next move or else don’t make the move. You should also enter every game with a predetermined exit strategy. To avoid making misinformed decisions, know in advance which cards you will keep betting on, and which card will force you to fold.
5. Find comfort in uncertainty
The human mind clings to certainty. But poker is always changing, and you have to get comfortable with that unpredictability. All you can ever control is:
- Making the best call based on the evidence you have at the moment
- Ensuring you’re not in a rigged game
- Completely detaching from the resulting outcome
- Accept you did the best with what you had, and the result was out of your control
6. Don’t be a victim
Seidel refused to listen to Konnikova’s bad beats, “It’s like dumping your garbage on someone else’s lawn. It just stinks.” Ruminating in past mistakes just diverts your energy away from the present moment, which you still have the opportunity to change. Worst of all, you run the risk of inviting more unwanted outcomes. Konnikova explains that as a victim, “You don’t open your eyes to possibilities around you and your opportunities naturally narrow so you create a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
7. Get rid of your ego
Poker might be the best social example of a dick-measuring contest out there. As such, you need to detach from the outcome of your move, especially if it’s unwanted. Inflating your own importance isn’t confidence, it’s your ego, and if left unchecked, your ego will crush you. Pride will make it harder for you to own mistakes, and as a result, you will take in less information and make inferior decisions.
Your ego is always trying to size you up against other people, so Konnikova’s performance coach Jared Tendler advised, “Everyone got lucky at some point. Strip down the mythology around their greatness. They still have weaknesses. They are humans first, players second.”
8. Find the right mentor
Seidel was the perfect mentor because he was more passionate about sharing his love of the craft over anything Konnikova offered him. Find a mentor with longevity in the game who is committed to long term growth above short term wins, money, or fame.
9. Staying sane under high stakes
Casinos are specifically designed to deplete your ability to make smart decisions, from the architecture down to the free alcohol. You need to recognise and take back agency when you’re triggered and thrown off your game.
To regain focus, Konnikova donned headphones, watched the hands of her opponents rather their faces, and walked away from the table often, despite losing a few chips to do so. The emotional reset was a much smaller price to pay than suffering the consequences of overwhelming emotions.
10. Tells are a last resort
Only after composing your own emotional state can you better read it on your opponents. Any ‘tell’ can have multiple explanations, what matters more is how they stack up over time. Tells are only valuable if you use enough of them to form a pattern. Only after you identify an opponent’s baseline, can you detect any credible deviations from it, in the same way that a polygraph test registers untruthful answers.
Poker and life are interchangeable – constant games of incomplete information, balancing acts of chance, skill and luck. But remember, no one knows what cards you have to play. All they know is what you offer up.
If you’re still not immediately inspired to master these poker tips and poker in general, I’d recommend having a flick through of the book – which you can cop on Amazon right now.