We’d bet there aren’t many poker players at this European Poker Tour stop in Monte Carlo with a story as interesting as Maria Konnikova’s. The psychology PhD, New York Times best-selling author and PokerStars Ambassador is back in Monte Carlo for her third time, marking the two-year anniversary since she started playing poker from scratch.
We caught up with Konnikova in Monaco to talk about her study regime, the powerful poker minds she mines, and how the writing of her highly anticipated new book, The Biggest Bluff, has been balanced with her poker grind.
PokerStars Blog: Hi Maria, how has your EPT Monte Carlo been so far?
Maria Konnikova: The trip has been great in terms of Monte Carlo, but it’s been terrible in terms of results. I’ve bubbled everything I’ve played, including the Main Event where I busted 14 off the money. It was actually the last hand of the level. It’s not like I made any bad mistakes or anything. I just lost a flip with ace-king against queens, got short, and then got it in with sevens against eights.
What are your plans once you leave Monaco?
I’m going to be in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker for the whole summer. After Monte Carlo, I’m going to take May off to hopefully finish some significant chunks of my book. I’ll be in Vegas from June 1st right through to the Main Event.
Do you ever write on the road, or do you always take time away from poker to focus on writing?
I’ve taken a few chunks off. Normally after the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) in January, I go to some of the World Poker Tour (WPT) stops, there are multiple things I would have done. I didn’t do any of that this year. Between PCA and now I’ve mostly had off, aside from a few things like playing one tournament.
I think it’s a bad idea to step away completely, just because poker is something where not only do you constantly have to study but if you’re just studying and not playing, you’re not consolidating the concepts. I’m not planning to quit poker so it would be a bad mistake for me to completely disappear off the grid, even if I were studying for an hour or two a day but not playing. But it’s really mostly been writing, and will be for the next three weeks.
It must be difficult doing both at once.
I think once the book is done it will be easier to have a balance where I’m doing both at once. Books are different from magazine pieces and shorter things because they require more all-in concentration. After the book is done it will be easier to keep playing at a steady pace and balance that with taking a day here and there to write.
Do you think poker will always be a part of your life, even when the book is complete?
Well, we’ll see. This is one of the themes of the book. Poker has taught me that you just never know what’s going to happen. All you can do is make the best decision with the information you have in the current moment, and then adjust as it changes. As of now, I’m really enjoying poker still and I’m learning a lot from it. It’s challenging me. I feel like there’s still a lot of growth opportunity, and I don’t just mean in terms of my poker strategy, although that too obviously, but more just growth opportunity personally. There’s still a lot the game can give me, and while I’m still enjoying it, why would I stop playing? The moment that changes, I’ll re-evaluate. As of now, I have no plans to stop playing poker, and I have no plans to stop being a writer.
You mentioned your balance between studying and playing, but what does your study process look like at the moment?
My study depends on the day. Some days I’m running sims, so I had to buy a separate computer for PioSOLVER. I’ve always had a Mac, and obviously, no poker software works on a Mac!
Some days I’ll just work on that and go through some hands and try to figure out what the solver is telling me. Some days it will be watching live streams and archived footage from Super High Rollers or some final tables with players I’ve played against. When I watch those, it’s not passive watching. It’s very active watching. So it will take me at least two hours to watch an hour of the stream. I’ll stop it, rewind it, figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing, why they chose that bet size, what’s going on, etc.
When it’s the Super High Rollers, they are the best players in the world who really know what they’re doing. I can look at their decisions and try to figure out what they’re thinking, and also what mistakes they’re making in-game. They’re not computers–OK, I think some people might be computers–but most people aren’t. Sometimes I’ll watch an EPT final table where it’s some of the best players in the world, but also some not. It’s really interesting to see what they do then. I pause and rewind and really go through the hands and think about it. But you’re no longer thinking: “Why is this the best decision?” You’re thinking: “Oh, these are mistakes they make on a regular basis”, “These are the type of hands they like to three-bet on a regular basis”, etc. I think you can get a lot from watching those type of streams.
How has your relationship with your poker mentor Erik Seidel changed as you’ve progressed in the game?
So, sometimes I’ll study with my own hand history reviews, and that’s mostly what I do with Erik. We’ll go over hands that I’ve played and also hands that he’s played, and we talk about what the different options were, what the things to think about were at every point.
The relationship has evolved to the point where it’s much more of a conversation and a lot less “What do I do here?” Sometimes I still ask that, because that’s the beauty of no limit hold’em. You will always run into interesting spots, no matter how long you’ve played.
Erik told me a hand that he played here in Monte Carlo where he said it was a really interesting hand and “I don’t know what I was supposed to do here”. It makes me feel a lot better about myself when I realise that even the Erik Seidels of the world will sometimes run into spots where they’re not sure.
You’ve got to know a lot of the other top players over the past couple of years too. Is there anyone else you reach out to?
The person I work with the most aside from Erik is Phil Galfond. He’s amazing. Phil has so many things going on—his Run It Once training site, his Run It Once poker site, his new baby—he’s got so many things. But I’ll write him a quick text message or an email, saying: “Hey, interesting spot, blah blah blah, would love to hear your thoughts when you have a moment.” Then he’ll send me back a book. All of a sudden I’ll get an email that’s multiple paragraphs, correctly punctuated, with “On the other hand, you could consider…” and it’s just a beautiful work of art.
Sometimes he’ll send me a text message poem of analysis. Phil really takes the time, and really loves the game. With him and Erik, I’m so lucky because these are two people who are incredibly well-rounded outside of poker and have so many interests but also have a passion for poker that’s really pure. They love the game and the intellectual challenge. Had I learned it from different people, I wouldn’t love the game as much as I do. It’s such a pure relationship.