maria konnikova — on poker
i hacked this a bit the original is here
this is interesting because it is about what you can control and what you can't but it doesn't go far enough. it becomes a discussion about luck vs skill.
the final paragraph is kind of stupid.
Poker Taught Me How to Deal With the Hand of Fate by Maria Konnikova
Skill, it turns out, is what you make of luck.
NYT June 19, 2020
I’ve spent years doing research on the tendency of the human mind to claim more control over its environment than it actually has, a psychological phenomenon known as the illusion of control. In study after study, I witnessed smart people take credit for things that were wholly outside their power and deflect blame for things that were actually a result of their incorrect strategy. Confronted with uncertainty, people are remarkably bad at figuring out what was under their control and what wasn’t.
I thought I knew all about the illusion of control. I’d run thousands of test subjects through multiple experiments, noting the pitfalls of their reasoning — and reasoning that I, myself, would now know better. But what I didn’t grasp, not fully, was just how deep the illusion lies in everyday life.
Luck surrounds us — from something as mundane as walking to work and getting there safely to the other extreme, like surviving a disease when someone just like us wasn’t spared. But in the countless instances when chance is on our side, we disregard it: It is an invisible ally.
Until we experience a health scare, we often take good health for granted — and even when we say we’ll never take it for granted again, it’s easy to forget just how lucky we are when we go for a stretch without further problems. If we’re successful at a job, we tell ourselves how hard we’ve worked to get there — and forget, conveniently, just how much luck paved our way, and how many others who’ve worked just as hard weren’t as fortunate. And while it’s easy to think that everything I’m saying applies to others, and not to you, don’t be so sure of yourself.
“The Society of Movers and Doers is a very pompous society indeed, whose members solemnly accept all the responsibility for their own eminence and success,” E.B. White wrote in a 1943 essay for Harper’s. When I read those words, they hit a note. How many people think themselves self-made, when in reality that very notion is something of a farce?
Was it possible to study luck in controlled conditions? Was there a way to systematically disentangle the factors within my control from those outside it? Eventually, these questions led me somewhere I never could have predicted I’d land: the world of professional poker. A world that would end up taking the next three years of my life.
I first came across poker in the foundational text of game theory, “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior,” by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. Von Neumann, I learned, wasn’t just a poker player. He believed that poker held the key to answering the very question that was on my mind — What do we control and what don’t we control? — and whether we can make the most of the former while making our peace with the latter.
Poker is a game of incomplete information. There are the cards I hold, known only to me. There are the cards you hold, known only to you. There are the community cards we all see, coming out in a set rhythm. I need to make the best decision I can based on what I know for certain and what I infer from your actions — all the while knowing that not only will I never have all the puzzle pieces, but regardless of how skilled my decision, the cards can break against me. I can make the best decision possible and still lose. And I can make a horrible mistake and luck out. The process and the outcome are not equivalent.
In life, we can often get away with conflating the two. Things go well, and we take credit. Things go poorly, and we blame the world. Poker forces you to confront the difference — if, that is, you want to be successful. If you blame the cards when you lose and think yourself a genius when you win, you will eventually go broke: In the immediate term, you can get lucky; in the long term, variance evens out, and if your decision process is flawed you will start losing.
Poker forces you to realize that, no matter your skill, luck is a powerful friend and foe, both at the table and away from it. Sure, we control our decisions, the things that make up the 'usness' of life. But there’s no skill in being dealt the winning hand, just as there is no skill in our birth — and that single fact is a governing factor in how our lives will play out.
“Even intelligence is rather an accident of Nature,” White writes, “and to say that an intelligent man deserves his rewards in life is to say that he is entitled to be lucky.” It doesn’t seem like coincidence that White played poker.
There’s nothing quite like that game of cards to consolidate one central lesson: Chance is just chance. It is neither good nor bad. Without us to supply meaning, it’s simple noise. The cards don’t know or care who you are. They have no concept of fairness. They are just dealt — and we are left to deal with the fallout, to interpret the noise. And so, the most we can do is learn to set aside what we can do nothing about and, instead, focus on controlling what we can.
“Some things are in our control and others not,” the Stoic philosopher Epictetus writes in “The Enchiridion.” “Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”
We don’t need poker to teach us about the importance of luck, certainly. The evidence is all around us. But things that poker has given me are the very skills necessary to deal with the chaos that can be thrown at you from outside the poker table. The skills to take White’s admonition to heart and to “establish an honest ratio between pluck and luck.”
Experiencing smaller one‐off events during play has taught me both the mathematical and the emotional forbearance to accept them for what they are — and to emerge on the other side. Seeing, over and over, how removed the runout of the cards at a table can be from the calculations I made, the plans I’d laid so carefully: It’s a powerful lesson in letting go, when you find you’ve come to the end of the decision process and the rest is no longer up to you.
In many ways, poker is a poor metaphor for life. You can lose, but you don’t get killed; you can bust out of a tournament, but you (usually) don’t end up in an emergency room or a jail. And no one is asking that poker replace life. You don’t want to eliminate uncertainty — it’s presumptuous to believe you can. You want to understand it. And that’s the skill that poker offers, that separation between the known and the unknown, the controllable and the not.
Nothing is all skill. I shy away from absolutes, but this one I embrace. Luck will always be a factor in anything we might undertake. Skill can open up new vistas, allow us to see the chance that others less skilled than us, less observant or less keen, may miss — but should chance go against us, all our skill can do is mitigate the damage.
And the biggest bluff of all? That skill can ever be enough. That’s the hope that allows us to move forward in those moments when luck is most stacked against us, the useful delusion that lets us push on rather than give up. “It would be a very fine thing for the world if everyone were entitled, in some slight degree, to be lucky,” White says. We can’t ever know if we’ll manage to uphold that delusion or not. But we must convince ourselves that we can. That, in the end, our skill will be enough to carry the day. Because it has to be.
Maria Konnikova (@mkonnikova) is the author of “The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win,” from which this essay is adapted.