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One of the most important things that the reflection process can teach you is to force you to actually put in perspective and to imagine that the situation is like a puzzle. And there are all these different puzzle pieces. And you can get so wrapped up in figuring out where does the specific piece fit that you forget what the full puzzle looks like and it can help you solve it much faster.
Hello and welcome. I'm Shane Parrish, and you're listening to the Knowledge Project, this podcast on our website, F-stop blog. Help you sharpen your mind by mastering the best what other people have already figured out. If you enjoy this podcast, we've created a premium version that brings you even more. You'll get ad free versions of the show like you won't hear this early access to episodes. You'll get them before everybody else. Transcripts and so much more. If you want to learn more now, head on over to Doppelgänger podcast or check out the show notes for a link.
Today I'm talking with Maria Konnikova. Maria is a writer, psychologist and professional poker player. Her newest book, The Biggest Block, tells the incredible story of how she convinced one of the best poker players in the world, Eric Seidel, to teach her how to play. This episode is an exploration of learning something new, making decisions in environments of uncertainty, how you learn to cool down your emotions when they get out of control, what we can learn from Sherlock Holmes and so much more.
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I have to ask I got an advance copy of The Biggest Bluff, which is a phenomenal book. You're an amazing writer.
But how did you go from New Yorker writer to full time poker player ism is another question that absolutely everyone, including my family, is is asking.
It was a series of just chance events. And, you know, the funny thing is that the book is at its core about chance. And when I when I look back at my life, a lot of the things that looks so premeditated and look like I really planned it out were just really a lot of different circumstances coming together at just the right moment in my life to push me in a certain direction. So with poker, I have never been a game player.
There are people who love playing board games growing up who play cards in their household. Not my households, not me. My my parents never did that. We read books. They read books to me. So this was never something that was an interest for me. And I actually had never played poker in my life. I didn't know the rules. I didn't know anything. When I first met the person who would end up becoming my coach and my mentor for many years and is one of the central characters of the biggest bluff, Eric Seidel.
I shocked him by not knowing how many cards were in a deck.
I said, well, you know, I know there are fifty four cards in a deck. And he just kind of gave me this look. I was like, wait, what did I say?
And he still to this day, he still jokes with me that when the two jokers finally pop out of the deck and in a poker game, that's when I'm going to win the World Series and win the title because there will finally be fifty four cards in the deck. So that's a long preface to say. This was definitely not a natural transition in any way, shape or form.
I went through a period in my life a few years back that wasn't the rosiest, so to speak.
I had a number of health issues and to this day we actually have no idea what it was. It was just some autoimmune thing where my immune system just went haywire and I became allergic to everything and my hormone levels were completely out of whack. And I went to all of these specialists. They put me on just horse doses of steroids like I was falling asleep. I couldn't function and I could there were times when I couldn't go outside because my entire body was just covered in hives.
And I basically couldn't wear any clothes that touched my body in any way. I couldn't wear jeans. It was was awful and we didn't know. Sounds terrible. It really was. And we didn't know what was happening. And in the end, it ended up kind of resolving eventually. And they just called it idiopathic, which really means that we don't know the cause.
And around the same time that this was happening, my grandmother died and she had been healthy living by herself. Everything was fine. And she just slept in the night when she was getting up to go to the bathroom or to take some pills, whatever it was, and hit her head and never really woke up. And that was that was really difficult because we hadn't really prepared for it. She was perfectly healthy, perfectly self dependent.
You know, the day that she was taken to the hospital, she had bread starter in the kitchen because she was baking bread.
She baked her own bread her whole life long before baking bread was was a fad such that she was just kind of going on with her day. And that happened. My mom lost her job. My husband lost his job. Just all of these things were going on. And it made me really pause and say, well, you know, you think that you can be successful if you work hard, if you just kind of take control of things, if you just really put your all into it.
You know, I, I earned where I am. I went to Harvard. You know, I, I worked hard to get to Harvard. I did this, I did that.
And something like this starts happening and you say, oh my God, I just got so damn lucky. Of course I worked hard, but I've also I've had good health. I've had all of these things go right. And then you suddenly realize just how big a role Chans plays in our day to day lives, in our success in things that we just take for granted. And you don't really question it when everything's going well. You think I've earned this?
I deserve this. I you know, I've really worked hard. All of these all of these phrases that we just throw around and we don't realize just how lucky we are that, hey, I'm healthy. Hey, you know, I. Her job, I'm able to do this, I'm able to do that, and they're just factors completely outside our control and chance is just experience. It doesn't care if you're a good person and doesn't care how hard you've worked.
It doesn't care about anything. I mean, it's just random stuff that happens. So when all of this started happening, I and I started kind of reflecting on Chancer said, you know what? This is what I want my next book to be about. The confidence game had just come out and I was ready to think about my next project.
And I said I said, you know, I want to write about look, I want to write about the role that luck plays in life. But that's not a book. I mean, that's like a philosophical inquiry that that's not really going to go anywhere. So I needed I needed a book. I needed a subject.
I needed a plot. I needed something. And so I just immersed myself in reading about Chance because that's what I actually that's my process for anything that I write, whether it's a book or a magazine piece or a short article before I write a single word, I read and read and read and read. So I started reading about Chance and someone when they heard that I was doing this deep dive into chance to check out John von Neumann. If you haven't he invented game theory, you're going to get a lot out of it.
And I thought, oh, that's interesting. So I picked up a theory of games, which is the foundational text of game theory. It was not a riveting book I have.
However, I learned that game theory came from poker, that John von Neumann was a huge poker player that like me, he actually didn't like games. He played all of them. But he thought that games like chess were actually, in the end, pretty boring because there was always a right answer. And he he was also one of the fathers of the computer. So he you know, he had a mind that was just constantly calculating his like, oh, well, I can figure out a way to solve chess.
So that's not quite interesting. And he hated gambling in the sense of games of chance, because once again, you just can't do anything. It's kind of the opposite of chess. There's nothing to solve. It's just it's just gambling.
But he loved poker because he the way he described it was that poker was the perfect game of incomplete information.
There's information that I have. There's information that you have.
There's information we have in common and we have to play each other. It's not just about the cards. It's about what he called these little tactics of deception, of trying to figure out what does this man think I need to do. And this is what games are about in my theory. So that's a quote that really just struck me from the book.
And he he decided that if he could actually solve poker, he'd have a rubric for solving the most complex strategic decisions in the world. And at this time, he was advising the US government he was working on a hydrogen bomb. So this is a guy who is really in the thick of it and who thinks basically poker is going to prevent nuclear holocaust, that it's going to bring world peace if he can figure out a way to solve this game. And he didn't he didn't solve it.
Poker, actually, no limit hold'em is still unsolved, but he created game theory. And when I read all of this, I was like, oh, wow, this is fascinating. What is this poker thing? I should really take a look at it. And so I started reading about poker and something just clicked. I said, oh, my God, you know, this this guy, von Neumann, wasn't an idiot. He was on to something.
Maybe I should learn the game and use that as a way to explore these themes of chance and skill, because poker does have elements that you can control. You control how you play, you control your strategy. And then ultimately there is an element of chance as well because you don't control the cards. You don't know what card is coming next. And if my Norman thinks it's a great proxy for life, well, hell, you know, why don't I why don't I try this myself?
And that was kind of the germ of the idea that brought me into the world of poker when I decided this is what my next book is going to be.
Before we get to your meeting with Eric, I just want to push back slightly on that and your take on this, which is I think it's Nassim Taleb who sort of has a theory that we can't use games as models for real life.
Yes. And I actually that's the the title of the last chapter of my book is The Ludic Fallacy.
And I actually address Taleb head on.
And the the takeaway is that, yeah, he is absolutely right and poker is not going to be a perfect model for life. Because it's again, and it's cleaner and life is much messier, but because of that, it's a perfect decision tool and teaching tool because it teaches you to deal with uncertainty in an environment that's controlled where you're not going to die. The uncertainty in real life is much messier. The worst thing that can happen at the poker table is you lose a lot of money and you know that that's it.
And then you either get more money and play again or you don't.
And in real life, the worst thing that can happen is if you're not alive anymore, you get sick.
All of these horrible things can happen. So, of course, it's not a perfect model, but I think that it's beauty why von Neumann decided to use it kind of as a basis to think about complicated strategic decision making, is that the lack of outside noise makes you able to question your decision process in a way that you can't in real life. If we even just take kind of an analogy that's often used, which is investing, let people say that poker can really help you in the stock market.
And I think that that's true. And the reason it can help you become a better investor and make better decisions is the stock market is so darn noisy that when you make bad decisions, there's always something you can blame it on.
You can always say, well, you know, this component of this company, this stock, this global event, you know, this macroeconomic thing, this macroeconomic thing on and on and on, it can you can always deflect the blame to someone else or to something else and not question your own decision process and say, well, I'm a brilliant investor. The reason this went wrong is because of all these other things in poker. You just have such a clear goal and such a clear, such clear evidence when you're doing poorly.
And sure, you can lose money in the short term. So variance in the short term, the worst player can win, but in the long term, the more skilled player is going to win. And so you actually you can't blame poor decisions on, oh, well, you know, China announced this new policy that I couldn't have possibly foreseen. And so you have to go back through your own decision process and ask the questions, OK, am I making the right decisions?
Is my decision process solid regardless of the outcome? And I think that's why poker is such a valuable tool, not because it's an exact analogy for life. And I think it's ludicrous to think that any game can be an exact analogy for life.
I appreciate you going into. So we're going to get more detail in terms of the decision making and the lessons that we can extract from poker and how they apply to life. But before we get there, we have to.
How did you pick Eric as your mentor before he even knew you? I mean, you picked him before he even knew who you were. And then how did you convince him one of the best poker players in the world who's never taught anybody or had any students ever that you were the one that he was going to teach?
So this there's a few different elements here, including, look, so first, when I decided that I was going to undertake this project, I thought, I need a mentor, I need a coach, I need someone who's really good to teach me because I know a lot about learning.
I've written a lot about learning. And I know that one of the best ways to learn, especially if you want to get very good at something quickly, is to be taught by someone who's very good at what they do. And I know how important mentorship is. I know how important those relationships are. So so I thought, OK, I need someone. How in the world am I going to find someone, given that I don't know anything about poker and I don't really know this world.
So I started watching. There's a there's a lot of poker content online. So my first stop was to look at rankings of players and to be like, OK, these are the people who are considered great and a lot of different names came up. Erik was one of them. But you also have people like Phil Ivey and Daniel Grano and Phil Hellmuth and Doyle Browns and just on and on and on, people have arguments for why different players are the best.
And Eric, actually, even in those statistics, stood out to me because he started playing in the eighties.
And if you look at how he's done, he was actually the only player I could find who's still making final tables and winning events to this day. I mean, the guy seemed unstoppable when you looked at those statistics and there was no one comparable in terms of longevity. So right away, I kind of flagged down and I said, OK, this seems interesting. But there were other players who had flagged for different reasons as well. And then I started watching videos and honestly, like.
He just seemed like a really nice guy. He was always quiet when he was playing. He wasn't an asshole. A lot of poker players have these very brash personalities that really come out and maybe they're not actually like that in real life, but they really ham it up for the cameras. And I didn't want someone like that because this was going to be someone with whom I'd be spending a lot of time.
And Eric just kind of he had this very quiet, studied aura around him.
And he didn't he always was kind of shying away from the limelight. And I really liked that as well, because that to me spoke of someone who was just a a more private person and someone who was probably a good human being on some level. And I could have been completely wrong, by the way. He could have ended up being a complete jerk. I wasn't wrong, luckily. But that's that's how he struck me. And the other thing that I was looking for there kind of two approaches to poker.
And I don't want to I don't want to set it up as like a diametrically opposed battle because the best players use elements of both.
But that said, there are two approaches for kind of your general way of thinking about the game and what you think is just the most important thing and what you stress the dominant one right now is very heavily quantitative and mathematical game theory, optimal GTO. And how do I play a game theoretically so that I can't be taken advantage of? Let me let me crunch these numbers. Let me run these salvors. Let me do all these simulations and have the exact strategy that would be the best approximation in every single situation and on and on and on.
And then there's a more psychological approach, kind of the. All right.
Know yes. There's math. Yes, there are pot odds. Yes. There's all this basic stuff that you need to know. But ultimately, especially if you're playing live poker, which is what I was going to be doing, then you need to know people and you need to understand dynamics and you need to understand emotions and you need to approach it from that perspective. And that's what's going to give you your biggest edge in life games. And Eric came from that school that's kind of considered the old school in a way.
And like I said, of course, he also does the math and the math.
People don't totally dismiss all of the psychology, but there is a difference in emphasis.
And obviously my background is psychology. I have a Ph.D. in psychology. That's where I come from. I studied self-control. I studied emotional regulation. I studied risky decision making from a psychological perspective. So because I wanted to learn something new and ramp up quickly, I figured it was going to be best to play to my strengths. And math is not my strength. The last time I took a math course was in high school.
I felt like I could choose someone to coach me who was going to be very heavily mathematical because it was just too different from my background and too different from the things that could make me a stronger player, that could distinguish me as a player. So that's the first part of it. So I all of those things came together and I was like, Eric Seidel was my first choice.
I won't say who my second choice was just because I never had to go there.
And I'm so glad I don't. But he was my first choice. So I actually reached out to him on Twitter, of all places.
Just I didn't have an email, but I'm a journalist and I'm very persistent when I need to contact someone. And he actually responded. And the way I reached out, as I said, hey, you know, I'm a writer for The New Yorker. I'm working on a new project, and I'd like to talk to you about it. I think it might be something that you're interested in and hear about.
And I actually had no idea that he also lived in New York. I thought he just lived in Vegas. And he said, I'm actually in New York. If you wanted to meet in person, I was like, oh, my God, he wants to meet in person.
This is incredible. So I said, yes, of course, let's do it. And so we arranged a meeting. We arranged to have breakfast.
And I was I was very nervous. This is going to be such an important sales pitch for me. And he had no idea what it was going to be about. It was a little bit of an ambush because obviously I told him I'm working on a project that I think you might be interested in, but I didn't say, hey, I'm about to ask you to basically let me shadow you for the next year or so. And I want you to teach me to play this game that you're setting up.
So it's a tough on the best day to anybody, let alone one of the top poker players in the world who has no history of taking on student.
Yeah, and I actually at that point, I did not know that he'd never taken on a student. So I learned that after that might have discouraged me a little bit. But, you know, sometimes what you don't know can save you. Right. It makes you a little bit. It gives you that. Extra confidence boost that would have gone away had, you know, the full picture. So when I met him, I explained everything and I said, look, you know, I don't know anything about poker.
This is where the 50 to versus 50 cards came up. But I'm a psychologist. I'm a writer. This is why I want you to coach me. And I kind of give him the same pitch that I gave you in terms of his longevity, in terms in terms of the psychological approach. So, again, I want to know if I can now I can make this work and tell him. What was interesting about it was that I wasn't like a poker player coming to him asking for lessons.
I was someone with just a totally clean slate with from a totally different background. And I wanted to start from scratch at a late point in my life. Speaking as a poker player, most poker players start in their teens. So so for me to approach him and just say I'm starting from scratch, that was intriguing. The fact that I have a psychology background was really intriguing to him in decision making.
Yes, exactly. That decision making sure your great advisor was the marshmallow guy, right?
He was, yes. Walter Michelle. I was his final graduate student. And he I mean, he was an incredible, incredible man. And he took me on knowing that I wanted to be a full time writer and that I had no interest in academia. And I still remember this. He told me, you know what? Good for you. If I were deciding right now, I wouldn't want to go into academia either.
It's a terrible place.
And so he was he was wonderful. But we studied what I did, my graduate work on what self-control and hot and cool decision making, specifically in conditions of uncertainty. And specifically, we looked at risk and risk taking and actually had people play stock market games. I actually told Eric a little bit about about the work in the studies and he's like, wow, this is so perfect for poker. And I said, yes, I thought it might be, you know, this might be a good fit.
So he so he was really intrigued. And he's actually somebody who has incredibly wide ranging interests. He knew exactly who Walter Michelle was. He knew all about the marshmallow studies. He was excited that I came from this world because it's a world that he reads about that he's interested in. I mean, he loves The New Yorker. He reads The New Yorker every single week. He listens to The New Yorker radio. He probably knows more about The New Yorker than I do.
So. So it was it was it was fortuitous because I actually didn't know about those elements of his personality.
And I think for him, it was also intriguing that I was going to be writing for a popular audience. And he just if you get to know Eric, you will realize that he loves poker. I mean, he is passionate about it. He thinks it's just the greatest game in the world and a game they can offer so much to so many people. And he wants it to be popularized correctly. He wants the misconceptions that abound about poker to go away.
He wants someone to actually write about the beauty of the game as it is and why it's such an important game. He wanted someone who could say poker is not gambling and explain exactly why poker wasn't gambling. And so I think he was intrigued that this was going to be a very different project, not from the poker world that I was coming from the outside, and that he'd have a chance to really kind of prove his philosophy, which I think is also important.
I mean, it's really hard to be considered one of the greatest players of all time and to be following such a different approach from all of the young great players and to have people say, oh, well, maybe your time has passed. And people have said that about Eric's over and over and over. And then he goes and he beats them again and he wins another title and they say, oh, oops, I guess I guess he's still competitive at the highest levels.
But I think it's something that he really wanted to prove to to himself and to everyone else. And so he he didn't actually agree to be like, oh, I'm going to be your coach for the next year. He said, this sounds interesting. Let's try it out. Let's see if it works. And this is what he also told me. I've never coached anyone. I don't know how I don't think I'm going to be a good coach, but we can see if our minds kind of think in similar ways.
And he said everything that you're saying about decision making makes a lot of sense to me. And I think it's going to be very useful in poker. So I think there's a chance it's going to work. So let's try it out. So we tried it out and it worked. And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
So many thoughts there.
You know, people have said that Buffett's lost to and every time you know, that that popular sort of sentiment rears its head, he tends to show them just how wrong they are, you know, and he's done it consistently.
And there's a lot in the. What was Eriks like, lesson plan for you, like, how did this how did this manifest itself?
He didn't have one because he has never really taught anyone. He didn't even know how to begin. And he just said, well, you know, I'm really good friends with this guy, Dan Harrington. And he wrote books that I think are very good. So maybe you want to read those. And he I'm not sure maybe they're going to be too advanced for you, but maybe start there. And so he kind of gave me a little reading list, starting with Dan Harrington's books and said, OK, you know, whenever you have a question, shot it down and we'll talk about it and we'll just take it from there and kind of see what happens.
So I read I read Harington on Holdom the first two volumes, which are the two relevant volumes. And it took me a long time. I mean, they were hard. And every time I realized, OK, I don't even have this basic knowledge, I go online. It's a great time to learn anything, any new skill these days because everything is online or not everything. But a lot of things are online. So I was able to get kind of the basics of the game, you know, how do I how do I play?
How does it work? What are the what are the different elements? So is able to get that from from online videos. Eric's not someone who sits me down and says, OK, you're going to be dealt two cards. Those are called your whole cards.
We never had lessons like that. That was kind of on me. He said, OK, ramp up a little bit and then and then we'll talk. And so the way that I read Harington was incredibly active reading. So I would read and reread every chapter multiple times. I'd underline I'd write all over the margins. I mean, my copies of the book, I'm just looking at them on my bookshelf right now and they are so tattered it's not even funny.
I just read those books to pieces and I would write down every question I had, including ones that I thought, OK, this might be stupid, but I'm just going to ask because I don't understand it. And Eric and I would have conversations. So it wasn't kind of a formal lesson. Like today we're going to be talking about three betting ranges at that point. I don't even know what three betting meant. And we didn't have most tutors would have you talking to somebody who's never actually played a hand of poker.
So so I'm talking to me before. I know you're talking to me.
Betting is never I've never played a so I'm so glad that we that we come from a similar place. But yeah. Three betting and ends up is just a fancy way to say if someone raises you raise OK over that time. So it's just it's a way of explaining that someone has already raised and you decided you wanted to raise even more. We didn't have lessons like that.
Instead, it was really guided by what I was reading, where my questions were and kind of what the issues were that I wasn't getting.
And actually, Eric, because Eric knows everyone, he said that, you know, maybe we can introduce you to someone who can go through some of the basics with you, because my expertise is more in kind of the higher level strategy stuff down. Harrington is going to be in New York. How about you guys get together? And one of the things that Eric did for me and one of the reasons I was so incredibly lucky that he was my coach is he actually did this throughout.
He kept doing it up until a year ago when we were actively working together to kind of get me to to play poker. Well, he would just he knows everyone and he knows who's good at specific things and he would just send me to them. So he sent me to Dan Harrington. And Dan Harrington is the one who wrote the books that I was reading to pieces. And he talked me through some of that early stuff a year later when I was getting much more advanced and needed help with kind of the more mathematical stuff.
And using salvors, he sent me to Jason Coon, who is one of the most well respected tournament players, who is really, really mathematical.
And he just knows solvers like the back of his hand, like that's what he does. And so Jason helped me with that. So I think what a great coach does is know who specializes in the different elements that you need and is able to make those connections. And I think it really helped that Eric has so much humility that he is so humble about everything.
I mean, honestly, he could have taught me most of this himself, but he thinks that there's always someone who knows better than he does and he just his own lack of ego. I keep having to tell him, I want your opinion. I want I want to know what you think, because he keeps saying, well, you know, I'm not quite sure. But here are the people who really know a lot.
So that's. That's a lot of what he did and the lessons that he and I had, so the way that it eventually evolved once I can read enough to understand at least basic strategy, is that I started playing and I started playing online first. So even though I was going to be playing like poker, that's what I wanted to do online is an easy way to learn because of the sheer volume of hands. You have a computer deal in hand.
So it's just it's really quick. So whereas in life poker, you know, in an hour you might play 30 hands, maybe even fewer, depending on the table.
You're sitting at one slow player and suddenly you're playing 10 hands an hour. But online it's hundreds. And so you just get a lot of experience quickly because you see all of these situations unfolding before you. I did not enjoy playing online, did not make me want to become an online player, but.
It did allow me to get more experience quickly, and it also allowed me a really important tool that Erik and I could use because I could record myself playing. So we actually were able to go through my games and he could explain what things I was doing wrong, what things I was doing right, what I could change about my thinking. Because the way that he approached it, as he never said, this is a mistake. You would say, what are you thinking here?
Why did you do this? And that's how he taught me. It was not a prescriptive this is what you do here. It was a why did you do this? What motivated you? What were you thinking?
That's fascinating, because you're getting a lot of iterations and you're getting feedback. But what you're really getting is a reflection, like by making you walk through your thought process, you're reflecting on what you were thinking, given the information at hand. Exactly.
Exactly. And just you can't underestimate how important that is.
One of the things that I suddenly realized after we did this a few times was that I started thinking better because I just started thinking in advance, what am I going to tell Eric? And that made me actually stop and reflect for that extra second, whereas before I would have just acted because, well, let's do this.
And it seems right now I'd say, OK, if I say that to Eric, he's going to say, well, that's not good enough.
That's not a decision process. That means that this is a mistake. Even if you did the right thing, it's still a mistake. So one of the things that he really taught me is that you have to distinguish the action and the outcome from the thought process. As long as your thought process is solid, as long as you're thinking through things correctly, then you did well, even if you ended up coming to the wrong conclusion, because that means that eventually, with better inputs, you'll come to the right conclusion.
And even if you came to the conclusion, but then the cards went against you and you were you had a bad outcome in both of those cases. As long as your thought process is solid, then you've won basically, then that's all you need. And so forcing me to actually think through, what am I going to tell Eric forced me to start thinking and to start thinking better and to start reflecting on elements of my thought process that I didn't even realize were there, because I would just kind of do things.
And it really let me tell you, it transferred out of poker very quickly. And I found myself doing this in all sorts of situations. But at the time, it was just helping me become a more thoughtful player and through being more thoughtful, a better player, not necessarily a player who was winning right away because I didn't know enough I didn't have enough experience. All of those input variables weren't there. But the player who was building kind of creating the building blocks that would enable me to be a successful player down the line on a double click on two things you said there.
First, the thought process like how do we know we have a good thought process, especially if you're a novice and do you need a mentor or coach or can you, like, ascertain that for yourself? And then how did you apply that to life, like outside of that?
Well, yeah, I do think you need someone to tell you if you're a complete novice. I mean, I would have had no way of knowing what I should be paying attention to, what I should be thinking through, what I should be doing if I didn't have Eric to direct me.
I mean, I could have gotten some level of that from online tutorials, online videos, but it just would not have been the same. The fact that it was personalized, the fact that it was directed at me, at how I was playing and how I was thinking, and that it was kind of the direct feedback, I think that was crucial in enabling me to improve as rapidly as I did and to actually appreciate what was going on. So sure, you can get some of those tools elsewhere, but I do think it's very important to have someone else.
And I actually think this is true of everything, not just poker. I mean, the way that I became better psychologist is because I had great mentors who were able to talk me through my thought process along the way. The way I improved as a writer was obviously doing it myself. And you have to with all of these things, nothing will supplement or nothing will completely override the need to just do it and do it and do it and practice and kind of get better that way.
But I also had amazing writing mentors. I had people who really helped me learn how do I think through pieces? How do I think through writing, how do I think through all of this? People who taught me to take apart other people's books so that I could figure out how they did what they were doing and how how I could apply that to my own writing. So I think in everything in my life. That was incredibly important, and I think that, you know, my first book was about Sherlock Holmes, and I think that one of the really interesting things people talk about the Sherlock Watson relationship as Watson being this foil for Holmes, and that's true.
But Watson also plays an incredibly important role in forcing Holmes to think better, to be actually a better detective, to be better at his job, to have a clear thought process because he asks questions and Holmes needs to respond to him and needs to bring him through his thought process and tell him how he arrived at a certain conclusion. And doing that helps Holmes see flaws in his logic that he didn't see before. And I think he actually becomes a much better detective through their friendship and through kind of that evolution.
That happens only because he had to talk things through with Watson. So I'm I mean, I'm someone who works by myself. I'm a writer. And in poker, I play by myself. No one else is playing my cards for me. But I do think that forming those relationships, having someone to talk to, being able to verbalize your thought process, I just think it's so crucial in becoming a good thinker no matter what you're doing.
I think that's really insightful. And poker gives you sort of like the added component of you have something at stake. Didn't Emanuel can say something about the role of betting in his critique of pure reason?
Yes, he did. He did. And I was so excited when I found that section of critique of pure reason and was able to to apply it to poker.
Can't says that betting actually forms an integral part to improving your decision process and improving your level of certainty in something, because people can say all sorts of stuff and just make all sorts of pronouncements if they're not held accountable for it. However, if you're forced to put a monetary value on your opinion on how certain you are of something, you're saying on how certain you are about if you're a doctor, how certain you are about your diagnosis, if you have to bet on it, all of a sudden, it forces you to stop for a second and think, OK, am I really this?
Sure. How much do I value it and contain and proposes a thought experiment to start upping the values? Would I would I say this and stand by it for ten dollars? Yeah, sure. What about four hundred. OK, yeah that seems reasonable. A thousand. OK, well maybe I need to look through some of my assumptions. Give me a second. A million. OK. OK. Right. I'm not, I'm not that sure anymore.
I really need to figure it out. Or a million. Yes I will bet even a million about everything because that is how certain I am that I'm right. It really forces you to take a step back and reflect because all of a sudden you have something very, very tangible on the line and uses this as an experiment for how to how to make people reason better, how to make people better thinkers, how to make people actually stop to consider what they're saying rather than just spewing stuff and being experts.
And when I when I was reading this and working on rereading Kont and thinking through all this, it just made me realize how relevant he is to the modern world and to social media and to the Internet, where when suddenly everyone's an expert on everything and everyone is so certain about everything and you have all of these amplified opinions online.
And I just wish all of them would just do that thought exercise and be forced to, you know, actually force to go through with it, that we had some mechanism by saying, OK, before you tweet something out, you know, how much money are you willing to bet on the fact that what you're saying is actually correct?
I think that could lead to some pretty interesting results.
It's definitely it forces you to think about not only your thought process, but sort of like how confident am I that this is. So how did that just thought process?
Like, explore this with me a little bit in terms of how that changed outside of poker, did you find yourself thinking out loud and self critiquing your thought process, or did you go to somebody and you're like, here I want you to hear my thought process on this and then point out.
So I started critiquing myself a lot more and I started being my own fact checker a lot more than I had been used to doing in the past. So now I'm someone who is a fact checker.
Yeah. So I'm someone who is a fairly opinionated person. And I'm also prone to exaggeration, especially when I speak. And it's just kind of for rhetorical effect. And I never really I've never really thought about it. It's just something that I do. But all of a sudden, I actually started. Saying, OK, well, if this isn't accurate, maybe I shouldn't say it and maybe I should verify the accuracy before saying it. Let me start fact checking myself a little bit and if I'm offering an opinion.
So there was a really, really funny thing that happened when I was pretty, pretty young, maybe 15 years old or so. My mom and I were taking a walk and I grew up in the Boston suburbs and we were in the city visiting and walking around and we got a little bit lost. And I was just so confidently said I knew where to go and really thought I did and just got us further and further lost. And at some point this was obviously before smartphones.
This was before everyone had a GPS on them. All of a sudden we just we were deep in Chinatown and had no idea where we were or how to get anywhere. And my mom had actually kind of known where we were before. But I was so confident that she just deferred to me.
And I've done things like that a few times, not a few a number of times in my life in the past where I think I know something. And so I just confidently do it. And poker and the thinking about things in this more metacognitive way where you have to think about your thinking and not just think, oh, I think I know what this is and I'm pretty confident in it.
It actually, I think made examples like that much less likely to occur these days.
I'm actually much less confident in any of my opinions and in any even at my opinion of which way we should turn in order to get back to where we were trying to go.
Something as simple as that. I've learned to really tone it down and to really question myself every single time and say, OK, wait, why am I sure why am I so confident in this? Is the data reliable? Is it something that I can trust or not? Where is that confidence coming from? Because one of the things I learned in psychology is that we have intuitions all the time and we are actually horrible, horrible, horrible at being able to tell the correct intuitions from the wrong intuitions.
We're about 50 50 and that's that's a really bad track record.
And sometimes our intuitions are spot on and sometimes they're completely wrong, but we can't tell the difference. And poker really thing force me to go deeper into that and to figure out why can't we tell the difference and how can you become more confident in your intuition? Well, you have to go back and say, do I have a basis for this? Do I have the experience in this? Do I have you know, is there a reason my intuition should be right?
Because what correct intuition is, is all of this experience that we've accumulated in something that we don't necessarily have conscious access to the process of acquiring.
And so your intuition should only be trusted if you're an expert in this area, if there's a reason why you should be confident here and learning to kind of disentangle that and learning to spot false confidence for what it is, I think is a crucial skill just in absolutely amazing how like if you factor in a continuum between rational and emotional, how does that factor into your thought process and how you're thinking about something?
I think that we are all necessarily emotional if we're human, mean even Sherlock Holmes was someone who experienced emotions, even though people think of him as this kind of cold, almost computer like person. What he did and this is it's interesting, they're actually a lot of ways that writing about Sherlock Holmes helped me become a better poker player, because it's it's a lot of things. A lot of things overlap there. And this rational emotional thing is one of them.
So what Sherlock Holmes does is he acknowledges his emotions. He recognizes that they exist, and then he dismisses them if they're irrelevant to the decision. So he says, sure, I feel sympathy for this woman. Sure. I see that she is a really good person. But now I'm going to dismiss all of that because it's irrelevant to the decision. So I feel the emotion. I experience it and then I put it away and do not use it when I'm coming to a decision because it's not relevant in poker.
There's this idea called Tilt, which Erich introduced me to, and which is just it became one of my favorite words in the world. I use it all the time. Now, another way that poker has filtered its way into my life is that now I say that I'm tilted and things put me on tilt and that something is tilting all the time without even thinking about it because it's such a such a convenient words. What it means is that you've let emotion into your thoughts.
Process irrelevant emotion into your thought process, usually it's negative, so and by negative I mean the negative emotion.
So, for instance, you lose a really big pot, so you lose a lot of money and you get angry or you get really frustrated. And so that affects how you're playing because you start making decisions, not because that's the right decision to make, but because you want to get those chips back or you want to punish the person who took them from you because you think that he's being a jerk or whatever it is.
But it can also be positive. So sometimes their positive emotions that also are irrelevant to your decision process. So in poker, the example would be you won a lot of money, you've won a number of pots, and all of a sudden you think you're invincible. And so you have kind of this very you're feeling great. You're feeling so confident, and then you start maybe taking risks you shouldn't take and making decisions in a way you shouldn't be making decisions because you're letting that emotion seep into your decision process.
So when you say something is tilting, it means that's something that's getting under your skin, making you emotional. When you say that you're on tilt, it means, oh, you're emotional. You're not thinking as rationally, you're not thinking as clearly anymore what the goal should be.
And that's actually also relates directly to what I did my PhD on, because Walter Michel, what he studied with the marshmallow kids was self-control and hot and cool decision making. How do we in the face of a marshmallow, which we can use just as a symbol for anything that is enticing, anything that we want kind of this this craving, this hot condition in the face of that, how do we resist? How do we cool it down? How do we let rational thought processes prevail when we're four years old and we just want to eat the marshmallow?
And all of his work was basically centered on how do you teach self-control? How do you teach people to cool down hot processes? How do you go off tilt? How do you actually learn to cool down your emotions so that you can make the correct decision? In the case of the marshmallow, don't eat the thing. Wait for your second marshmallow. Or in the case of poker, you know, maybe I should fold this hand or whatever it is.
You can make the analogy to basically any decision that you want to make where you're being emotional. So all of these things kind of came together and helped me understand that you can't ever be purely rational because you're always going to experience emotion. And yet what you can do is learn this goes back to the being kind of more self reflective and going through your thought process, learning to be more mindful about the emotions, your experience, to say, OK, I am experiencing this emotion right now.
Why? What made me experience it?
Because sometimes emotions are actually incredibly relevant to a decision. It's the irrelevant emotions that you need to that you need to get rid of. There's psychological work that shows that people who can't experience certain emotions like fear because they have neural damage, they actually make really bad gambling decisions and they go broke because they just don't care.
They have no risk aversion whatsoever. Well, that's also not good, right? They're completely not emotional. But in that particular case, that the fear was important. It was integral to the decision and they no longer had that emotional feedback. So what you need to learn is to identify the emotion, figure out that you're experiencing, because a lot of times you don't even realize you don't realize your anger. You don't realize you're frustrated, you don't realize you're hungry.
You don't realize that all these things are going on. So first you identify it, then you try to identify the root cause. Is this something that's totally incidental or is it something that's actually integral? More often than not, it's incidental. And then you say, OK, now I need to dismiss it, figure out how does this normally affect my decision process and how do I correct for that? How do I actually take it out of the decision process?
And the funny thing is just the very process of identifying and kind of going through that thought process tends to cool you down because all of a sudden you've kind of distanced herself from the immediacy of the event. All of a sudden you're actually thinking about it in a different way. And so by the time you even get there, you're already calmer, you're already more rational. So it helps in more ways than one.
So that sounds like a very rational approach to emotions, which has identified the emotional you know, I identify the root cause of the emotion and then take corrective action.
How do you learn to identify your emotions?
It's a it's like with anything else in life. It's it's a. Long process that I don't think is ever complete. I would like to think of myself as someone who is better than average at doing this, at someone who doesn't tilt very much as someone who has been studying this for many, many years and is very well aware of it and can be in control.
And yet it still happens and it happens on and off the poker table.
I think poker has made me a little bit better, but it still happens. And what I think you need to realize, first of all, is that it's going to happen and that that's OK. A lot of people that tilt even more because they get mad at themselves for failing to identify the emotion of failing to take corrective action. So I think that first you just need to realize, OK, this is going to happen and sometimes I'm not going to be in control.
And that's OK. I need to kind of make my peace with that. It doesn't mean that I'm not making progress. It doesn't mean I'm a bad human being. It doesn't mean anything except that in this particular case, I'm still emotional.
And then it's practice.
It's being, I think, more in touch with yourself and learning to stop and to actually just reflect and to make this a natural part of your day to day life. My first book, Mastermind, was actually it was about Sherlock Holmes, but it was really about mindfulness.
It was really about kind of this process of learning to pause and to reflect and to be more deliberate. As Holmes put it. It's the difference between merely seeing and both seeing and observing. And so a lot of the book was about learning how to both see and observe how to be more mindful. And I think that that really gets to the heart of how you become better at identifying your emotions. It's practice being with yourself, practice kind of taking a step back and trying to sift through your own mind.
And at first you're going to be wrong. And at first it's going to be hard, but over time it gets easier. And I actually realized that I needed help with us partway through my poker journey, despite the fact that this is what I studied, despite my background, despite the fact that I knew all of this. So I actually got a mental game coach as well, someone named Jared Tendler. And he helped me. He was I don't want to say he was my Watson because he was someone who was a specialist in this, but he helped me actually learn how to do that in a way that really applied to me.
And once again, I think that basically people need help with everything. And to think that you are self-sufficient and good at something and so you don't need any help, I think that's very hubristic. And I you know, I fell for that when it came to emotion management. And I think I became a much better player after I realized that maybe I do need help in identifying my emotions. I do need help in identifying my triggers. I do need someone who actually pushes me to sit down and write things down and reflect and, you know, keep a decision journal and do all of these things that I suggest to other people but never have actually bothered to do myself.
Tell me more about what you learned from Jared.
Jared taught me a lot about what went on in my head and what was tilting for me. I think what people need to kind of understand about Tilton, about emotion, is that there's nothing universal about how we react to things. So emotions are universal. But what triggers specific emotions?
That's very specific to a person that's very individual.
So most people, they go on tilt after they lose a big hand because they think, oh, man, I've lost a big hand. This is terrible. I need to really kind of I need to do something about it. And right now we can be talking about not poker, but anything else. After you have something bad happen in your life, after you lose a big hand, after you lose a negotiation, after you lose an argument, whatever it is, you get really angry.
For me, that wasn't actually a big tilting factor. Like I was always pretty fine after that.
That's why I thought, oh, I don't tilt, because in that situation I was like, OK, you know, I've lost a big hand moving on. Like, let's let's go on from this.
But there were other things that aren't triggers for other people that were really kind of that really bothered me, for instance, something that Jared really helped me put into words that I think I realized it on some level, but I never verbalized it because I didn't want to, because it was something I didn't want to acknowledge about myself or the way that I thought was how internalized certain gender stereotypes were in my mind and how I would actually sometimes play into the role of being female when.
I was surrounded by all of these men because let's just do a little caveat here to say that poker professional poker is about ninety seven percent male. So a woman being a woman in poker is being a huge outlier means three percent of you in any given tournament field.
So I went through most of my time without ever playing with another female.
And sometimes people would say things like, there's one thing that really stuck out that really bothered me at the time, but I didn't actually realize how much it bothered me or why when someone started calling me a little girl at the table and just kept calling me a little girl over and over and over.
And I just and I busted out of the tournament after being with this player for not that long at all. And I was until he made me really make bad decisions. And I didn't really realize that or and I didn't realize why, because it's not like sometimes people are really horrible to you and they call you things that are much worse than a little girl. And that's a little bit easier to identify because you're like, OK, you're being an ass.
And I can't believe you just called me that little girl. Like, it seems like it was fine, more or less, but it wasn't.
And all of a sudden, like my decision, quality deteriorated to the point where this guy is the one who busted me out of the tournament, which means he's the one who took all my chips and I had to go home. And that really was not what I wanted to have happen.
And incidents like that just peppered my poker experience and I never really realized what was going on or why. And I never realized just how how much I let this gender thing get to me and how much it actually influenced my decisions. And it helped me identify things like that, like what my specific triggers were, what I was responding to, and how, because I also learned that even though I might feel like a successful female, a lot of things, a lot of my insecurities would actually come out at the poker table.
You know, I didn't want to be too aggressive because I didn't want people to think I was mean. I didn't want people to call me a bitch, which they did anyway. But, you know, I didn't want them to. So I would just be more passive. I'd kind of be nicer and I would make decisions that were wrong because I didn't want to have kind of this other image. And I just acknowledging that to myself was really painful, because that's not that's not the mental image that I want to have of myself.
And it ends up that my mental image of myself was not in line with reality. I I needed someone from the outside to help me come to that conclusion and to help me kind of make my peace with it so that I could then improve and become a better player and I think a stronger person just in general.
That's really deep and insightful. I appreciate that. Talk to me about reflecting how to how what have you learned about reflecting better?
I learned just how important it is to to really take take kind of a pause from life, to take a pause from everything that's going on and to make that kind of a regular part of your day. What I mean by that is that, you know, I'm always doing something. I always have a million projects going on at once. I love being busy. And, you know, I'm someone who's just never bored. There's always something to do.
And I have written before about the importance of mindfulness, the importance of reflection.
But even though I do yoga every day and have been doing that for over a decade and will meditate a little in the morning, it was always I actually didn't put two and two together and I didn't use those techniques when it came to thinking through my own thought process, reflecting about myself, reflecting about what was going on.
I never kept I would tell people, oh, you know, to make better decisions, you should you should write things down. You should do this. You should have kind of this little decision journal so that you can then think back and look back and see what you were actually thinking so that you're not tied to the outcome and all of these things that I would suggest to other people. But I didn't do any of them myself because I didn't think I needed them.
And so what I learned is just the importance of taking moments where you're not doing anything.
So turning off the computer, turning your phone to silent you, just actually finding pockets of time where you sit with yourself and you have kind of a daily check in and reflection about what you're thinking, how you're doing, kind of what's going on. And I've actually I do that during poker tournaments on on breaks. Jared actually taught me to have this reflexion routine where I take time to just pause and not do any. And not think about anything and not stress about anything, not worry about the hands, not worried that I'm wasting time because I'm not being productive to just actually kind of do what he called brain dump, just kind of think about, OK, you know, what have I been thinking?
What am I doing? Is there anything that I need to dump out of my brain and write it down so that it's no longer occupying mental space so that I can be free to make better decisions in the future, so that then I can go back to that and reflect on it for real, because I've already kind of done that preparatory work. I know this is something that I need to think about. It's so easy to just keep going and just move on from one moment to the next and not stop and not reflect and not take those moments to say, hey, let me just pause right now and just think back.
And I'm guilty of doing that a lot. And I've really tried to become better because I think it makes me a better decision maker. It makes me a better person. It makes me actually just happier because I'm much more in touch with what I'm going through, what I'm experiencing, and I'm better able to address it so that it doesn't become an issue. And I think that that's something that you can't take for granted, no matter how well you think, you normally emotionally regulate it, no matter how good you think that you know you know that you are at knowing yourself and knowing your mind, taking those moments will make you that much better and that much more emotionally regulated and that much more just in touch with what's going on with you.
What information do you find most helpful about a situation or decision when you're reflecting?
It depends. But I think in general I try to think about the emotional elements.
So how am I feeling? Kind of what you and I were talking about earlier to try to deconstruct why I'm feeling a certain way, but also kind of what were the what are the factors of the situation for the people? What do I know about these people? Is there something that's actually affecting me that I didn't realize because of the people involved? What are the stakes? Kind of what am I even doing? What do I hope to accomplish? It's so funny how often you lose sight of what your actual goal is because you have so many intermediate goals and you forget what you're actually trying to do.
And then you get caught up in petty arguments or side things and kind of these emotional little dramas where if you take a step back to reflect, you're like, wait, this is the big picture. This is where I'm getting to. This is what I want to do. All of this stuff is actually not important. So, yeah, I can compromise here, even though I didn't think I could compromise here. Just to put everything in perspective, I think that that's actually one of the most important things that the reflection process can teach you is to it's to force you to actually put in perspective and to imagine that the situation is like a puzzle.
And there are all these different puzzle pieces. And you can get so wrapped up in figuring out where does this specific piece fit that you forget what the puzzle looks like and you don't even remember what the picture is because you've been so enmeshed in kind of the specific element of it and it can help you solve it much faster.
You've come a long way from Sherlock Holmes to this. Can we go back to I want to hear some of the more lessons that you learned from Sherlock Holmes mastermind.
Just for context was my first real exposure to your work. And it was like this beautiful book. And I was like, oh, this is like so great.
So. Sherlock Holmes still has Sherlock Holmes has always had a very special part in my life, unlike poker, which came to my life very late. Sherlock Holmes is one of my fondest memories from childhood. My dad would read Sherlock Holmes stories when I was growing up. We'd have one a week and I would look forward to that Sunday night reading every single week. So they were definitely kind of in my subconscious this whole time. And when I started working on Mastermind, I actually hadn't read the stories in years, not since I was a kid.
So after they were read out loud to me, I then went back and read them all myself. But then I hadn't really revisited them. And the reason that I came back to him was that I was writing an article about mindfulness, and this was back before everyone knew what mindfulness was. I think this was let's let's call it like 20, 10 something around around then. So mindfulness wasn't a buzzword and people didn't really weren't sure what it entailed.
So I was trying to I was writing about some psychology studies, about mindfulness, and I was trying to figure out what's the way I can illustrate this, what's the way that I can really bring it home to people so that they understand the essence of mindfulness. And in fact, Sherlock Holmes just completely unbidden.
And it was the scene that I alluded to a little bit earlier in our conversation when Holmes asks Watson how many steps lead up to two twenty one B, Baker Street and Watson doesn't know. And Holmes says, well, that's the difference between us. You only see I both see and observe.
And those words actually just came back to me and I didn't remember what story it was from, didn't remember much about it, but I just Googled it to try to figure it out. And there it was.
And I read it and I thought, oh, my God, this is perfect. That's exactly what mindfulness is, the difference between seeing and seeing and observing. And so I wrote the article and I liked the story so much that I thought, you know what, I'm going to go back to all the Sherlock Holmes stories. I just want to reread them for pleasure.
Started reading them. And it was just it was one of these moments where I thought, oh, my God, this is just such a treasure trove of psychological insight. It's not just about mindfulness. It's about creativity. It's about rational thinking. I mean, it's about observation. It's about all of these different elements. And so that became the first book. But I think it's really interesting that I came back to Holmes when I was trying to explain a psychology concept and that I suddenly realised the stories that were just peppered with insights.
There are things like the fact that people think of Sherlock Holmes as kind of someone who's a very, very rational ABC Decision Decision-Making Guru, you know, someone who you should look at as just the model of hyper rationality.
And yet when you start reading the stories, you see that one of the real lessons is just how creative it is and how creative his thought processes. But he doesn't go from A to B to C that he is capable of taking all of these leaps that standard minds don't take and that he has all these techniques for how you can attain creative insight, that he has his three pipe problem, for instance, which is taken from one of my favorite stories, The Adventures of the Red Headed League, where everyone wants to just jump in and solve this case of this red headed guy who's been given a job just because he's a redhead and he thinks it's a little strange.
And Holmes agrees that it's strange. So he decides to take this case on and the red headed man wants to take him to his place of work. And Holmes says, no, you know, go away, I'll get back to you when I want to. And Watson says, Oh, Holmes, what are you thinking? Let's do this. Let's do that. Watson is very active. He just wants to do. And Holmes says, one of my favorite lines from Sherlock Holmes, this is quite the three pipe problem.
And he sits down and he smokes three pipes. And at the end of it, he's solved the case without ever having left the apartment.
And there are lessons like that peppered throughout which it's not just a beautiful line, which it is. This is quite the three pipe problem. It just contains so much insight into what hundreds of studies about creativity have taught us, that sometimes you need to actually take a step back and reflect and smoke the proverbial three pipes in order to be able to see the full picture, in order to be able to let your mind work so that you can see where the solution might lie, whereas a traditional detective would basically just jump right in and start kind of playing around and trying to solve the problem.
Holmes realizes that no, first you need to smoke your pipes. Only then will you be able to really see what the problem even is. And so there were just moments like that that were popping up all over the place that just really helped inform a lot of my thinking and helped me think more deeply about psychology.
Because when I was seeing at. Through the lens of Conan Doyle, I had to try to, you know, basically do what Holmes does with Watson, try to explain it, try to talk through it, try to figure out why does this work? How realistic is this? Because obviously, Holmes is a fictional character and in that I really think learned more about thinking than I had up to that point in my education, in psychology. And by the way, I do want to point out that Holmes was based on a real person.
So even though he's fictional, he was based on a doctor who was a mentor to Arthur Conan Doyle when he was in medical school at the University of Scotland. So Conan Doyle was also a doctor, not a very good one. Otherwise you wouldn't have written Sherlock Holmes. So we're lucky about that. And Joseph Bell, who was a brilliant doctor, was the model for Sherlock Holmes. So even though Holmes is fictional, his approach to things was taken from someone who very real.
Peter Peter Bellin wrote a book on Sherlock Holmes to a few lessons from Sherlock Holmes, which I thought was really good as well. I think there's a lot that we can take away from Sherlock, he said in poker in your book, that delusion is punished. Can you walk me through that? Absolutely.
So poker is. A wonderful teaching tool, because you have immediate feedback in the sense of you, do you win or you lose? Now you need to be careful, because as I said before, you need to learn to separate thought process from outcomes. So sometimes you make the right decision, but you still lose.
But if you if you have that caveat, then you do kind of start seeing right away what the outcomes of your actions are and whether you're actually learning whether you're playing correctly, because over time you'll either be losing money or winning money. If you are diluted and you think you're better than you actually are and you play at a higher level than you should be, playing poker is going to punish you because it's going to take away all of your money and you'll be broke.
And you will know that on one hand, you know, you fight over.
And yes, it's all in aggregate. I think the point of the other point that the game teaches you, which I think is a really important insight into life in general, is that any given hand, anything can happen. But over the long term, skill does emerge triumphant as long as you never got incredibly unlucky to begin with. So I think that there are probably a lot of people who could have been brilliant poker players who had a horrible run of luck at the beginning and just quit because they got, you know, they were broke.
And so I think that you you start realizing that delusion is punished in the long term, but in the immediate term, you could be deluded and win lots of money.
But if in the immediate term you're not deluded and you're actually quite good, but you're being punished because the variance is against you, you might never see the long term. So I think that that's actually really important to remember for life. That luck, you know, in any given hand, anyone can win. Usually over the long term skill emerges and yet I can be a real bitch.
And if it really just pummels you at the beginning the wrong way, then you might never have the chance to realize your potential. Think that that sort of realization makes you a lot less judgmental about people because you realize how much of your life just ends up being luck of birth and luck of just early circumstances that you didn't really have much control over. And that can really set the scene for a lot of things to come. So a lot of the best poker players also got incredibly lucky at the beginning as well.
I think like Warren Buffett calls that the ovarian lottery, like we're all nuts is a great way of putting it.
How much do you think, like, as you're talking about this one thing that just keeps going through my head and correct me like this is a working hypothesis, but like Habashi think that just exposing your thought process, testing that the thought process, like accurately and honestly, exposing your thought process through reflection, testing that either with more experienced players or people or outcomes is actually like that is the the key to improvement?
Oh, I think that that's absolutely accurate. That is the key to improvement. I think I was able to improve that poker and become a much better player because I had a teacher who always that's what he stressed. That's what he taught me. He was always teaching me how to think, how to test my thought process, how to go through those building blocks.
He was never telling me what to do or what was a mistake or what wasn't a mistake. It was never prescriptive in that way. And I think that that made me a much better player, even though I would get so mad. There were times when I just wanted to well, when I did say, Eric, just tell me how to play this hand, you know, what would you have done here? And he would actually say, you know, it doesn't matter what I would have done here because you're not me.
And you need to realize that. And you need to realize that people are playing differently against you than they would be against me because I need and you're you and I can't give you an answer.
And it was so, you know, it's frustrating when that's happening because I would think things like I'm never going to become a good player if you don't tell me what to do. You don't just tell me how to play this hand.
And yet, because he kept pushing me to examine my thought process and to be honest about it, because he was not someone who just always patted me on the head and said, great job. He would actually tell me when he thought that there were problems. And the biggest problems were always in my thought process.
I remember one tournament where we were texting back and forth and he pulled me aside during a break and he said, I'm really worried about you're thinking the way you're describing hands right now is you're telling me this happened to. And this happened to me and this happened to me, and that really worries me because that means that your head is not in the right place because things you should not be thinking of, things that's happening to you. You need to be going through your own thought process and what you can control.
And he was right. My head was just in a completely the wrong place and having him point that out and actually kind of scold me for it and say, hey, stop doing this. Do not keep telling me what's happening, because I would say things like, oh, man, I can't believe my ex has got cracked again, which means I had pocket aces, which is the best starting hand you can have. And if someone cracks your aces, it means that a worse hand ended up beating you in the end because of the run out of cards.
And that happens. And you know what? It's supposed to happen.
And if you look at the numbers, it's going to happen about a quarter of the time. And pocket aces aren't necessarily going to win and it's going to happen even more frequently if there are more, if there's more than one player playing against you. And so when I was sending him texts like, oh, man, my aces got cracked again, I was not thinking about my own decision process and how I played the hand. I was just being mad at the fact that this happened and this happened to me.
And he just he really I still remember this conversation so well because it hit home. He was like, you stop describing things this way. This is bad. And the fact that you're describing it this way means that's how you're experiencing it, which means that you're not capable of thinking clearly right now.
And it just a switch flipped. And I played so much better from that moment on because I remember that what I was supposed to be focusing on was my thought process.
And it's funny that there's no kind of moment where I was like, oh, I'm becoming a better poker player. But there were just suddenly there were these there were games that were tournaments.
There were just moments of reflection where I thought, oh, wow. Eric has actually taught me a lot. I know how to play this hand, I know what I should be doing because I have the building blocks, I have the thought process. And it all just kind of came together because I was learning the whole time, even though I was never given a blueprint like, no, these are the hands that you play from this position. This is your opening range, which means like this is the chart of the hands that you're allowed to start playing with.
Start opening the pot with if you're sitting here or if you're sitting there. Eric never gave me any of that. And I think that eventually I just kind of figured it out because instead of giving me the specific charts and telling me, OK, you should play this and this and this, and if you get these two cards, you fold instead.
He taught me to always ask, OK, why would I play this? Why wouldn't I play this? How would I think about it? Let me think through this entire decision moving forward based on where I'm sitting, based on who is at my table, based on what people think of me, based on what I think of other people, based on what I've been observing for the last however many hours and having that having those tools of reflection, having knowledge into kind of what I should be paying attention to.
That's what made me a much better player, not knowing which two cards to play or want to raise or when to fold.
I think they're just going back to the passive versus active mindset. I think that's super important in life. Right. I sort of define the passive mindset as an attitude or assumption that life's happening to you and you're not responsible. People who say like things like why does this always happen to me?
What you're doing is you're describing life in a passive way and you convince yourself eventually that nothing is your responsibility because an active attitude means ownership. Right.
And ownership in like the sense of story, like I should have planned for traffic. I'll consider that next time you're owning it, you're not excusing it.
Absolutely. The difference is is hugely important over a long life.
And I want to come back to something else you said, which is like we we tend to just want the answers, right?
Like we want the the recipe. We want the like, tell me what to do in part because, like, I think we hit on this a little earlier, like, life is moving so fast, we're so busy. We're just like, OK, I just need a break. So tell me this thing.
But it's like the illusion of knowledge when somebody does that, because if somebody who has primary experience or first hand experience is telling you something, what I think is happening is I'm going to tell you this experience and you're not reflecting on it, but I'm going to give you my sort of like my the result of my reflection. And that's going to be your heuristic for how to act in the future. But if you haven't done the reflecting, you don't know when it works or when it doesn't work or with the limits to it or where it's going to break or what if the environment changes, how that's going to affect things.
You can only sort of like replicate that knowledge if everything is the exact same. So I think it actually makes us overconfident, too, and it makes us want to like we take unwarranted risks for sure. For sure.
One of the things that Erik taught me well, told me actually taught me very early on is he described this conversation that he had with an incredibly good player. I won't obviously won't say who it was, but they were having this conversation. And this player just very confidently was saying how you're supposed to play a hand. And Erik was just kind of quietly listening. And then he just said, less certainty, more inquiry. And the player got really mad.
He got really upset. He did not take that well because he thought that kind of Erik was criticizing him.
And Erik was in a way, but very gently, he was saying, you know, you can't no, there's no way you're supposed to play or there's no that's kind of the I think that's the drawback of the people who are too focused on the mathematical model. And, well, the simulation says that I'm supposed to do this X percent of the time, so I'm just going to do it like a robot. And the best players realize that you can't do that.
Less certainty, more inquiry. You have to inquire. You have to ask. You have to probe. You have to think, is that action applicable in this specific circumstance? Even if the solver tells me I should be doing this all the time, maybe at this table, I shouldn't. You know, maybe there's actually something that I need to think through right here. And one of the things that I think is one of the most valuable lessons that Erik has taught me is my certainty, more inquiry.
Always be less certain and always inquire and ask questions and think through things for yourself. And if anyone is ever telling you, you know, this is what you have to do here. This is what you should be doing. No, this is always a fold. No, this is always a call. Then you need to actually be skeptical of that person and definitely don't don't think unthinkingly follow that advice. And that's really I think that's such a helpful way to go through life, just keeping that lesson in your mind at all times.
And it's you know, it also helps explain why Eric is just so humble and so incredibly self-effacing, because that really is how he lives his life. And so he always questions and he always questions himself and he always questions whether he's good enough. And that's why he stays good enough, because he keeps questioning and he's never overconfident. He just he keeps asking. He keeps asking questions and he keeps learning and he keeps changing and evolving and adapting how he plays based on what he's seeing.
And so he plays very differently now than he played 20 years ago. A lot of people are incapable of that sort of adjustment in any realm of life.
I mean, if you think about academia, where I came from, right, you have all of these old guard professors who have tenure who made their reputation on some big theory and then something newer comes along that actually forces them to reconsider some of their ideas. And it's the rare person who is actually able to say, oh, yeah, things have changed. I was this is wrong. I've got to update it. A lot of times they just double down and scream and get very mad at the newcomers.
And that comes from the. The fact that they don't have less certainty, more inquiry as kind of one of their life guiding models like that, I want to switch gears just a little bit for you in the interview, because I've wanted to ask you about your reading habits for a long time in New York.
A voracious reader.
How do you how do you filter what you read and you mentioned sort of like a book being recommended to you, but then you mentioned, like, you actively read it. So I want to talk about how you filter what you read and then how do you go about reading a book for knowledge acquisition?
What does that process look like? Are you like start to finish? Is there highlights like how does that work? Yeah, so I read a lot, I read nonfiction, I read fiction, I read poetry, and I'm actually I'm a huge, huge believer that everyone should be reading fiction and poetry. There are so many people who I really admire who just say, oh, I only read nonfiction because all the other stuff doesn't teach me anything. And I just I've had this conversation so many times where I try to convince them about the value of reading fiction, the value of reading poetry, the fact that all of these things have different different lessons to teach us and that you can learn from all of them.
So I filter by a number of things. So recommendations, definitely. One, if you are someone I admire, whose opinion I admire, and especially if I know you and you know me, I'm much more likely to take your recommendation sometimes. I actually one of my favorite things a number of years ago kind of must be over 10 years ago now, I bought the collected Paris Review interviews, and it's this boxed set of all of the interviews that the Paris Review has ever done.
And The Paris Review has this wonderful thing where they interview writers and thinkers and they ask them just a lot of different questions.
And in these interviews, they inevitably talk about books that they read, books that have been influential for them, authors that they like.
And that's actually how I often will go through my reading. I went through a phase where I read everything that Joseph Brodsky had written because I really love his poetry and I love his prose.
And he has lists of books that he recommends and things that he read. And so that got me into kind of areas of reading that I never considered before, because he really he's a huge fan of Plutarch's Lives.
I've never read Plutarch's Lives. So I went and I started reading Plutarch's Lives. By the way, I recommend that everyone buys the Paris Review interviews and just reads them and uses that as a lot of book recommendations because they're so damn good. I mean, some are better than others. But you have insight into just some of the greatest writers of the last century.
It's a beautiful resource and I also feel very, very free to put books down if I open something and I'm not enjoying it and I don't think that I'm going to like it and there's no reason to keep reading.
I'm just going to stop. And I don't think that that's you know, there are people who will finish a book once they start it. To me, in my mind, there are way too many books. I'm already not going to be able to read all the books I want to read in my life. So why spend it reading something I don't want to read?
I like the idea of the Paris Review. I'm going to have to go through that now. I've been meaning to do that for a while. You just reminded me, how do you when you pick up a book, are you a high letter? Do underline like how do you take those things that you're reading and distill them into something that's usable for you?
So it depends. If it's nonfiction, I'm going to be underlining and writing in the margins. So all of my nonfiction books are written and for the most part I have some really beautiful hardcover editions that I would never in a million years write. And so I have I definitely have books that I won't touch, fiction I don't write in the first time I read it.
If I then go back to it like my I have a version of Sherlock Holmes that's pristine because I wanted this beautiful Sherlock Holmes boxset. But then I have a version of Sherlock Holmes that is just completely defaced. I've written over every single chapter because I was really analyzing those stories and really trying to take everything from it. And I have so for some of my favorite books. So one of my favorite poets as W.H. Auden and I've read all of his poetry many times and I actually have two copies of his collected poems.
One, that's just a really nice hardcover that I don't write in. And then I have a soft cover where I've underlined and written.
So I have kind of both one that's nice when I just want to read and have a very pretty pristine reading experience and one that I've really engaged in. And it's actually really interesting to me. I like writing in books because it doesn't just help you process things and make sure that you're going through them in a thoughtful way and actually kind of synthesizing thoughts and thinking as you're reading, as opposed to being just passively absorbing it or not absorbing. And that's the case usually is when you're passively reading, but it actually also enables me to visit my past versions of myself.
Sometimes I'll read a book and I'll read this comment in the margin. I said, Huh, fascinating that, you know, the me of five.
Years ago, whenever I read this book, last stop this at that point in time, and and that's a really interesting experience because you're in your own mind the whole all the time, it's your mind. And this is a way that you can actually see it from the outside and see how you've changed and see what's different and kind of revisit ways that you used to think that you might not think now. And I think that that's such an important and fascinating and helpful an eye opening sometimes experience.
I like marginalia a lot because it's also like an act of sort of not only are you actively reading to your mortgage, but you're you're sort of like reflecting in some way or questioning.
And I think that that makes the learning so much more powerful. So often we just forget to go back and like, take that out of the book and like, do something with it other like think about it or have some way to access that knowledge in the future.
For sure. For sure. And the books that have meant the most to me that I end up going back to the most times you always see that they're just there's tons of marginalia in them. They're underlined. There's just there's a lot going on there. And I think that that works both ways. I go back to them because I process them much more deeply and I process them deeply because I was actually going through and thinking and reflecting and I have all this marginalia.
So it's at this reciprocal relationship. Maybe there was a book that I read at some point that could have become a really central book for me, but I was distracted and didn't actually read it carefully, so I didn't sit the same way. And if I were to revisit it right now, I would probably say, oh my God, I can't believe that this isn't kind of one of my books. And then it would become more written. But I sometimes wonder how many got away because it can't always be on.
You know, sometimes you do read passively. I don't think that's avoidable, at least for me. Maybe for someone else. Oh, totally.
Yeah, of course. Amaria This has been a phenomenal conversation. I want to thank you so much for your time. Thank you.
It has been really interesting and thought provoking. You've you've asked questions that nobody has ever asked me. Hey, one more thing before we say goodbye, the knowledge project is produced by the team at Farnam Street. I want to make this the best podcast you listen to, and I'd love to get your feedback. If you have comments, ideas for future shows or topics or just feedback in general, you can email me at Shein F-stop blog or follow me on Twitter.
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