When Maria Konnikova, a contributing writer for the New Yorker, dove deep into the psychology of competitive poker, it was just research. Now, she is remembered as “the girl at the table.”
Tuesday afternoon, 30 members of the Yale community gathered in the Davenport common room to hear Konnikova’s stories of high-stakes poker, psychology and con-artistry. The event, the first Davenport College Tea this year, was co-sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism and hosted by Head of Davenport College John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00. Konnikova, a psychologist and part-time professional poker player, discussed her 2016 bestselling novel, “The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time” — an investigation into the psychology of con artists — as well as her upcoming 2019 book “The Biggest Bluff,” a dive into high-stakes poker and decision-making.
To the surprise of many educators, Konnikova is an advocate for poker education in schools as she believes it benefits students’ decision-making and negotiation skills.
“Poker is not gambling,” Konnikova said. “It’s only a gamble inasmuch as life is a gamble; ultimately, skill wins out [over luck].”
Her passion for con artistry, which she researched for a previous book, prompted Konnikova to delve deep into competitive poker, which requires similar psychological strategies. Her next book, “The Biggest Bluff,” is a comprehensive dive into the realm of high-stakes poker in which she probes at the psychology behind winning a successful game.
For this study, Konnikova decided to do some field work, she said. Although she “knew nothing” about poker before starting her book, Konnikova decided to immerse herself in the world of competitive poker, she said. She soon found success, receiving a sponsorship from PokerStars, a company that runs a popular online poker cardroom. Now, poker has become her part-time vocation, she told the crowd.
Konnikova said she is fascinated by poker because she believes it’s “a metaphor for how the world works.” As a game with “incomplete information,” poker parallels diplomatic negotiations and other crucial conflicts that require rapid, calculated decision-making. Poker also has close ties with game theory — the study of models of strategic interaction, Konnikova added.
“It’s decision-making in a controlled environment,” she said.
For Konnikova, “The Confidence Game,” her book on con artistry, started as a “very serious, journalistic” project inspired by the film “House of Games,” which follows a successful psychiatrist who befriends a con man. Konnikova was motivated to explore the psychology of con artistry and what exactly it is “about human dynamics that make us possible victims of con artists,” she said.
Immersing herself in her research, Konnikova visited prisons, message boards and elsewhere to track and interview con artists. She found that anyone was susceptible to their scams.
“Basically, you can go through any [human] trait… and I guarantee there’s a con you will fall for,” she explained.
Konnikova recognized that con-artists prefer to manipulate victims during transitional periods in their lives — new jobs, births or deaths — in order to manipulate and “sell” ideas to potential victims, she told the crowd. She warned that the rise of social media could put people at greater risk to con-artist scams.
“This is the golden age for the con, since there’s so much accessible information,” Konnikova said.
However, Konnikova remained optimistic that the human quality of trust often overpowers distrust.
“At the end of the day, nothing is going to make us invulnerable to con artists, but being human is what makes us vulnerable … it’s a good trade-off to make,” she said at the tea.
At a Q&A session following her remarks, Konnikova addressed questions about strategies in competitive poker, con artistry in politics and by politicians as well as her experiences as a woman in the male-dominated field of professional poker.
“Some people don’t want to take my money because they think it’s ungentlemanly,” she joked.
Four students interviewed after the talk expressed their interest in Konnikova’s work. Rohan Angadi ‘21 said he “learned a lot about behavioral science.”
“I thought it was so fascinating,” said Monica Groth ‘20, another attendee. “I think she did a great job elucidating the strategies and psychology of [con artistry].”
Konnikova received her doctorate in psychology from Columbia University.
Eileen Huang | firstname.lastname@example.org .