Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 20, 2020
I do not play poker. But the game fascinates me, and so I have read multiple poker books including a current must-read, “The Biggest Bluff,” by Maria Konnikova.
In all fairness, I do know that a flush beats a straight, which frankly is more than Konnikova knew when she decided to try to become a professional poker player. And her story is mesmerizing.
Like all serious entrepreneurs, the first thing she did was get herself a mentor. Not just an average mentor, but one of the knights of the poker roundtable — Eric Seidel, one of the most successful professional poker players in the world.
For a tech entrepreneur, that would be the equivalent of getting Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk to not just take your phone call for 30 seconds, but agree to be on your board of directors.
Konnikova is a 36-year-old immigrant from Russia with a Ph.D. in psychology who decided to take a year of her life to see if she could understand “why and what poker really is” in her quest for personal knowledge and improvement. She is not your average poker wanna-be. She went straight to the source and studied the work of John von Neumann, the father of game theory. She attended Harvard and did her graduate work at Columbia, studying with Walter Mischel, a world-famous figure in the field of psychology who studies how people make decisions. This is important because when you, our intrepid entrepreneur, want to get a great mentor, showing that other great mentors have previously guided and invested time in you goes a long way toward getting the “yes” from a Seidel. His own personal fascination and expertise in psychology, “locus of control” studies, thin-slice judgments and positive and negative recency did the trick for Konnikova.
The book details not only poker knowledge, but also shares a first-person psychoanalytic account of Konnikova’s own fears and stumbles along the way. It supports my own theory that more money is lost through neurotic behavior than through bad business decisions. And No Limit Texas Hold ’Em is the perfect petri dish to test that theory.
Another reason I love the book is that it is a strongly pro-woman, feminist story. Konnikova points out that only 3 percent of the players at the big poker tournaments in Vegas are women. When she started out, she endured the usual abuse and trash talk aimed at her because she was a woman, entering a man’s world without apology. And she triumphed. In that respect, this book is a welcome guide to all women entrepreneurs who want to crash the gates.
Poker and entrepreneurship share at least one particular similarity — money. Konnikova is very clear that online poker with pretend money or online poker even with real money is not the real deal. Neither prepares you to sit at the tournament table with your own money across from people who want to eat your lunch (and dinner).
Similarly, pitch fests are nice, but writing your own check is a completely different experience. When the founder has his own money in the deal, things get a lot more focused than when it is OPM (other people’s money). Decision-making that impacts your life and family is of a different magnitude than simply hoping the venture capitalist or the angel will write another check.
A key feature of the game of poker (and a learned requirement for our entrepreneur) is bluffing. Seidel is famous for winning millions at a World Series of Poker tournament with a single jack call. Bluffing is not lying, it is allowing the other person to reach a conclusion without having the advantage of all the facts — even though they are available, if you knew where and how to look. She says, “What do I think you know about what I know and how do I separate the random from the intentional?”
Seidel says poker is like jazz, “you need to be a free thinker.” Our primal selves are hard-wired with bias and we succumb to hot emotion and the illusion of control. Overcoming that is what makes players like Seidel consistent winners. Seidel has a mantra — “Less certainty, more inquiry.”
That phrase should be plastered in large letters on the first page of every investment pitch deck.
Rule No. 668
Never draw to an inside straight.