What We Can Learn About Expertise From a Poker Journey

I recently enjoyed the book The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, by Maria Konnikova, a relatively new Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, who took on the challenge: to become a poker expert at Texas Hold ’em and play the main event in the World Series of Poker.

In one year.

Even more ridiculous, we learn that prior to this challenge Konnikova had never played poker. She claims she did not even know how many cards were in a deck.

[Spoiler alert—stop reading now if you don’t want to know how the story ends.]

She does get to the World Series of Poker and in less than two years does successfully play the main event.

Konnikova wants to learn how people develop decision-making expertise, to explore the boundaries between skill and luck, and to better understand the degree of control we can exercise.

For me, the book is an opportunity to match Konnikova’s efforts with the Skill Portfolio account of expertise — and that’s the topic for this essay. I’ll start by recounting Konnikova’s journey.

Konnikova’s Poker Journey

As they might say at the gambling table, Konnikova goes all in.

  • She enlists one of the top poker professionals in the world to be her mentor, especially on the tactics and strategies of the game.
  • She consults with another poker professional about the lessons to be acquired from losing.
  • She confronts issues of sexism — the ways that women are bullied and devalued at the poker tables.
  • She does a lot of reading to grasp the fundamentals of the game.
  • In the early stages of her preparation, she plays a lot of online poker. Later, she enters a lot of tournaments and plays in live events to gain experience. She uses her primary mentor to review difficult hands she has struggled with.
  • She learns to reassess her play and see if her loss was because of bad luck, or if she played the hand poorly. By the end of the book, she has learned to assess that a losing streak was just a streak of bad luck, and not get dispirited.
  • She consults with poker professionals about the topic of stories. Instead of wondering what another player is planning during a hand, she could think back to how that player managed different situations during the hours they’d been playing together.
  • She consults with professionals about “tells” —subtle behaviors that could be clues about how a player is thinking. She does not learn much about the tells given off by others but she learns a great deal about the tells that she herself is exhibiting, and she enlists a coach to help rid herself of these.
  • Toward the end of her preparation, she enlists yet another coach, a psychologist, to help her gain mental strength — to overcome her imposter syndrome, her fear of disappointing people, her insecurity, her gutlessness, and her lack of self-esteem. She learns to confront her ego needs that are creating triggers for poor play at critical moments.

So Konnikova has described lots of reasons for her success.

But, to my surprise, she seems to ignore expertise. Even at the end, she is still wondering if it was skill or luck. She asks, “Am I really good — or did I just get lucky.” (p. 287). She wonders this despite her growing string of successes.

Perhaps this is a part of her tradition as a decision researcher. Not just to downplay expertise or question it but to be oblivious to it.

Expertise Matters

And that’s a mistake, because expertise matters. It lets her do things easily and automatically, leaving her mental resources to see more. It lets her see the other players more clearly and build their stories. Think about the ability to dial back several hours for each player at a table to detect trends. I never found anywhere in the book where Konnikova commented on the pattern repertoire she was acquiring, the automaticity she gained, all the tacit knowledge she had built. Clearly, she had gained a great deal of expertise, and that expertise was giving her an edge that led to her successes. By being oblivious to this expertise, Konnikova was still doubting herself.

Mapping Onto the Skill Portfolio Account of Expertise

Let’s see how Konnikova’s experience maps onto the Skill Portfolio account of expertise that asserts that expertise is not unitary (the way Konnikova wonders if she is skilled or lucky) but is based on five different skills:

  1. Perceptual-motor skill: This skill is not particularly relevant here except perhaps her ability to study herself for the tells she is transmitting.
  2. Conceptual skill: This is the primary skill she gained, primarily from working with her mentor but also learning to engage in story-building to size up her opponents.
  3. Management skill: This skill is not as relevant as the conceptual skills she gained, but she did need to judge whether her existing conceptual skill and mental alertness and exhaustion were matched to her next challenge. She failed to do this for her first try at the World Series of Poker, and suffered for it — she continued playing even though she had become exhausted. Later, she did much better at this type of management. She also learned to calculate variance in order to gauge whether a spell of bad luck was something she could ignore — previously she would have panicked.
  4. Communication skill: This skill does not seem relevant to Konnikova’s quest, except perhaps to describe events to her mentor and capture the nuances of the play.
  5. Adaptation skill: This skill seemed central to Konnikova’s ability to re-think on the fly as the cards got revealed and as her opponents made responses that often caught her off guard.

What’s missing from the Skill Portfolio account? It does not specifically address the growth in automaticity and pattern recognition that enabled her to quickly spot anomalies — this will have to be added to the “conceptual skill” category. Konnikova was not aware of this growth, even though it played a major role in her improvement.

More importantly, it says nothing about the mental strength and ego control she achieved. These will have to be added to the “management skill” category. Konnikova was aware of this gain and very proud of it and the way it generalized beyond poker.

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