How Maria Konnikova became a poker champ in 10 months

We speak to the author who won the PCA National Championship less than a year after she started playing, under the guidance of Erik Seidel.

Maria Konnikova at the PCA
Maria Konnikova

Congrats on your big win. When you started this project (to learn poker for your upcoming book The Biggest Bluff) less than a year ago you must have secretly hoped something like this would be the final chapter?

Maria Konnikova: That was the idea, I didn’t know if I was going to succeed but I decided to give it everything I had. I basically just worked my ass off for a year and studied 24/7. I worked every single day putting in five and six hour days studying poker, so it’s very validating to be able to achieve this.

What did those six hour days of study look like?

Maria Konnikova: I did a vast variety of things which changed depending on what I was working on at the moment. Part of it was hand reviews where I would write down hands from tournaments and Erik and I would go over them together. I also learned from Phil Galfond on how to review things for my online play. I watched other people play, I watched a lot of live streams with the elite players. I worked with solver software like PioSolver, I read a lot of books and watched a lot of coaching videos. I’m also very lucky that I had access to a lot of the coaches so I could ask them questions.

"I didn't know the rules a year ago"

Maria Konnikova and Erik Seidel
Maria with coach Erik Seidel

What was your perception of poker before this project?

Maria Konnikova: I had zero perception of poker and poker players before this project, poker existed on some sort of far away radar. I didn’t know how it was played, I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know there were different types of poker, I was so far removed from that whole world it wasn’t even funny.

At first I started out playing really low stakes tournaments – one of the things Erik taught me was really good bankroll management, so I never played above my bankroll or above my skill – so I started playing $60 side tournaments. Erik told me until I started winning them I couldn’t move up in stakes. The players there were really terrible, I got harassed a lot, it was not a great environment, however when I moved up in stakes I learnt there were so many nice supportive talented people. The Super High Roller guys are in a class of their own, they are brilliant minds that could be super successful at anything, and they were so nice, supportive, warm and interesting.

Most of the time when an author has finished a book they move onto the next one. Will you still be a poker player when the project is over?

Maria Konnikova: I have developed a real passion for the game, I can definitely see myself continuing to play poker, but having said that I am a writer and I will never stop doing that. If I continued doing well I could see myself having a balance of writing and traveling to play poker, but not as much as right now because I have a very full schedule. If I could do one event every few months that would be manageable.

There is a perception in poker that the glory days are over and now the game is too tough to be profitable for new players, what do you think of that?

Maria Konnikova: I had no idea it had gotten harder because I’d never played it before so this is all I know. I have managed to be consistently cashing, I’ve really built my way up. I do have to stress over and over it’s very hard work, I have worked harder at this than I’ve worked at anything in a very long time. I think people are unwilling to work hard because they think it’s just a game, and of course it’s a game, but it’s also a job and you have to work really really hard at it. If you have that mindset and are willing to put in the hours, there are tons of resources out there and a lot of them are free.

"Each poker table is a microcosm of life"

Maria Konnikova PCA
Look out for Maria at the $25,000 PSPC next year

Having written two books must have been an advantage with your poker study because of how long and tough the research process is?

Maria Konnikova: For sure, as a writer you have to develop patience and research skills, you have to put in the hours because writing is incredibly hard work. Also it helps me in live poker because I am good at being quiet and observing people, because that’s what I do as a journalist when I am trying to capture peoples’ personalities and find out who they are.

Your previous two books are Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and The Confidence Game – did the lessons you learned in those come up much at the poker table?

Maria Konnikova: Absolutely, the first book really centered on mindfulness, paying attention and observation. The second one was about perception and why people believe things, which enhanced my ability to read people if they were strong or trying to bluff me.

What has poker taught you beyond the game itself?

Maria Konnikova: That’s the core of my book, it would take me hours to answer. In general it helps you analyse situations and make decisions in everything from personal relationships to business decisions. Each poker table is like a microcosm of life and how people relate to one another. Poker brings out who you are as a person, I’ve learned some things about myself I wasn’t even aware of.

Finally, the icing on the cake of this whole experience must have been also winning the $25,000 Platinum Pass?

Maria Konnikova: I’m really excited about the Platinum Pass because never in a million years would I be able to play a $25k. That will be the biggest buy-in I’ve ever played, I was really happy to be able to do that and I think it will be an amazing event.

Maria Konnikova is an author and PokerStars Ambassador. Her poker book The Biggest Bluff will be released in 2019 but until then you can follow her at her website.

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