Maria Konnikova doesn’t buy the “10,000 hour rule”—that theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes at least 10,000 hours of serious practice to become a world-class expert at an activity. She believes she’s found a way to short-circuit it, and it involves marshmallows and poker.
Konnikova is a world-class writer—author of bestselling books including “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” and “The Confidence Game,” as well as a contributing writer for The New Yorker. You may have also heard her on podcasts, including a regular segment she does on The Gist. But something unexpected happened to her during the research for her current book, which is about chance.
She started playing poker for research. And she started winning. Big wins, including winning a national poker tournament. All told, she’s pulled in more than $270,000, and she’s gone pro, as part of a team sponsored by a poker website.
That book is still in the works, though, and she is on the speaking circuit talking about the lessons she’s learned at the poker table. Last week she spoke at SXSW EDU, explaining why she sees poker as part of the key to help remove strong emotions from decisions. It turns out our brains are pretty easy to fool, she says, but if you know more about how they work, you can find distancing techniques to cool emotions and master your domain.
Listen to the discussion on this bonus episode of the EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Back when you were getting your Ph.D. in psychology, you worked with the scholar who is famous for his marshmallow experiment about how kids deal with delayed gratification. What was your role in that research?
Konnikova: My advisor was Walter Mischel, who back in the ‘60s had this idea that he would have kids be seated in front of a reward that was really tempting to them. This is known as the marshmallow study because oftentimes the reward was a marshmallow, but it could also be other things. So if you love chocolate chip cookies, you’d have a chocolate chip cookie straight out of the oven right in front of you. If you’re four years old, and this is very tempting. And what he would say is, “OK, you can have this now, or I’m going to leave the room, and if you wait until I come back, you can have two or three or however many it took to make the reward worthwhile. But if you’re sick of waiting at any point, just ring this bell and eat your cookies or your marshmallow.”
And what he found was that the kids who could wait the longest, who could delay gratification for the longest periods of time, ended up doing much better in a lot of things in life throughout their lives.
So this ended up being one of the longest longitudinal studies in psychology. It’s still going on right now. It ended up that kids who didn’t eat their marshmallow did better in school, had higher SAT scores, got into better colleges, were less likely to do drugs, less likely to go to prison, had better jobs, made more money, had better marriages, were healthier were happier—so many things.
I wanted to work with Walter specifically. I was fascinated with this idea of self control and figuring out how we can take it to the next level. I designed a study that was meant to show what self control can do in risky and uncertain environments. I did a stock market study, and I ended up finding that people who are higher in self-control did worse in that situation.
And I thought, whoa, what’s going on? [It turns out that] the Achilles heel of high self-control is the illusion of control. So I became fascinated by chance, by uncertainty, by risk—and by how our brain reacts to it.
And this led you to poker?
This did lead me to poker because if you think about decision-making in a risky environment where you actually need to make correct decisions, poker is actually an ideal place to learn.
Poker is an environment (like a lot of situations in life) where you have incomplete information. You are dealing with this uncertainty, but you have to make a decision and finally decide, “How do I quantify the uncertainty and decide in the best way possible, given what I know and what I don’t know?”
And so I wanted to explore this balance of skill and chance and the illusion of control—figuring out how we can get beyond the illusion of control and actually start to disentangle what we can and can’t control in our decisions.
And I ended up falling down a rabbit hole and became a professional poker player.
There are a couple of other books that I love where the writer has gone off and become the thing they’re writing about. Word Freak comes to mind, where the author became a nationally-ranked Scrabble player. It sounds like the book you are working on is in that genre, but your story is even more surprising because you didn’t start with any interest in poker.
Absolutely. I mean I think that something that’s unique to my story. I started from literally zero. I didn’t know the rules of poker, didn’t know how many cards were in a deck, didn’t know anything. I was not a games player, I was not a card player. And so for me it was a true learning experience, and it was actually a very clean experiment where, unlike Word Freak where [the author] played Scrabble in the past, I actually started from zero.
I had no idea to expect that I’d end up doing well. And talk about luck—I had a lot of things go my way. I got one of the best players in the world to agree to coach me—that’s huge. And I didn’t have any bad habits, so I got to learn good habits right away. I think that a lot of things went right, but first a lot of things went wrong.
I’m curious about that moment when you started winning. What are some insights you’ve had about human learning you’ve taken from your poker experience?
One of the first insights I had—and this has to do with the fact that I studied self-control and I studied with Walter Mischel—was just how emotional I could be in my decisions. Because I thought that I was really good at cooling stimuli. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do. But at the poker table, you find yourself making these mistakes anyway because it’s such an emotional environment.
What is some advice you might give to teachers out there then from what they can learn from your experience playing poker?
I would say that poker is a brilliant teaching tool. My advice to teachers would be to actually, literally teach their kids how to play poker. But teach it correctly, so that they learn it not as this fun game where I can win chips, but as a way of understanding risk, as a way of understanding emotion and how you’re supposed to regulate emotion so that you make better decisions.
Because it forces you to deal with other people. It forces you to recognize emotions in other people and in yourself. It forces you to control those emotions. It forces you to actually think in probabilities, to quantify risk, to make decisions based on the information that you have—to quantify uncertainty. And nothing else teaches you that.
And then I would say, “OK, now we have this framework. Let’s apply it to everything else for learning. Remember at the poker table when this happened and what you did? Why don’t you do it now?”
Some people might say that that sounds like teaching kids gambling. But you’re saying this is more like game theory?
I think that it’s only gambling if you don’t know how to play. I don’t think that poker is gambling. Poker is a skill game with a chance element, but so are lots of things in life.