New book from NYT bestselling author Lewis Howes is now available!

New book from NYT bestselling author Lewis Howes is now available!


Maria Konnikova

How to Read People and Make Winning Decisions

There is no such thing as a "risk-free" life

Have you ever wanted to master the art of decision-making? 

Consider playing poker. Poker is an excellent tool for developing strategy, decision-making skills, and learning the subtle tells of other people. 

Welcome back to another episode of The School of Greatness, guys! This episode is all about how we can use poker concepts to increase our likelihood of success. My guest on the show today, Maria Konnikova, is an expert on the subjects of luck and human behavior. 

Even though she started playing poker to research the relationship between luck and what we can control, Maria has now accomplished a lot on the poker table and is full of tips for applying poker skills to your own life! 

If you’re interested in learning about poker, decision-making skills, and human behavior, you’re not going to want to miss this episode!

Who Is Maria Konnikova? 

Maria Konnikova is a New York Times bestselling author responsible for the books Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock, The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It… Every Time, and her recently published third book The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win. She’s contributed several articles to The New Yorker, and she received the 2019 Excellence in Science Journalism Award from the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. 

Maria studied psychology at Harvard University and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University. 

On top of her expansive writing resume, she also recently became a professional poker player. Her journey to becoming a major contender in the World Series of Poker began with her interest in writing a book on luck and game theory. 

“I became really interested in the notion of luck and the role that luck plays in our lives and how we can learn to really spot luck and to tell the difference between what we control, what we don’t, where our skill ends and where … luck and chance [begin].” – Maria Konnikova 

Maria turned to the writings of John von Neumann, one of the founders of game theory, but she quickly discovered that von Neumann’s favorite game was a more suitable way to understand strategy and decision making:

 “[I learned that] not only was [John von Neumann] a poker player, but that poker inspired game theory. … And he wrote that poker was the most perfect analogy for strategic decision-making that he’d ever come across. And he actually thought that … if you could solve no limit [Texas] hold ’em, which is what I ended up playing, you’d solve life, basically. You’d have a roadmap for the most complex human decisions.” – Maria Konnikova

Maria rigorously studied the game with poker expert Eric Sydell, and she grew from participating in games with $1 buy-ins to earning over $300,000 in professional tournaments. 

In her time playing and writing about poker, she has learned a ton of applicable skills for everyday decision-making that you have got to hear! Let’s get into it!

Luck Vs. Skill

Maria and I discussed how life is full of lucky circumstances. When you think about it, you were incredibly lucky even to be born:

“… being born right away you’ve won the lottery. Most people … are never born. So poets greater than Keats and scientists greater than Newton [were] never born because they didn’t win that particular combination. That sperm and ovarian lottery didn’t happen. So we’re just lucky to be alive.” – Maria Konnikova 

Maria used that example to show the fact that luck will always play into everything that we do. The circumstances you’re born into and the opportunities that become available to you are largely based on luck. 

Successful people often like to pretend that they got to where they are purely through their intelligence and hard work, but Maria argues that they should take off their rose-colored glasses and realize that it took immense luck in addition to their hard work. 

A crucial part of success that you can learn from poker is that even though many things are out of your control, you can work hard on what is in your control, and you can take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. In poker, you can’t control the hand that you’re dealt, but you can use your hand to the best of your abilities.  

“One of the things poker teaches you is that you need to focus on what you can control, on your decisions, on the things that you can actually take responsibility for.” – Maria Konnikova

Don’t focus on what you can’t control in your life but what you can. From there, you can put in the work necessary and make the best decisions to get to where you want to be.

You also need to pay attention to the possibilities that present themselves: 

“I think one of the things that I’ve learned over the years, both through poker and before, is how essential it is to be present and to actually pay attention, actively pay attention throughout our days.” – Maria Konnikova

Maria described how our brains are all over the place because of modern technology. We multitask and distract ourselves with our phones rather than focus on what’s in front of us. To see the opportunities around you, you need to condition yourself to focus on one thing at a time and be present in the moment. 

“I’m not going to be multitasking. I’m actually going to make that conscious choice to be present. It takes so much energy. Most people don’t do that, but that’s what allows you to have enough awareness and open-mindedness to actually spot opportunities and see what’s going on.” – Maria Konnikova

When you’re able to identify the opportunities in your life and work hard with what’s in your control, you increase your likelihood of success.

“It’s very difficult for a lot of people to say, 'I don’t know, I don’t understand.' For me, it’s so liberating.” @mkonnikova  

Managing Your Emotions

An essential element of poker that applies to your life is the ability to handle your emotions and not let them cloud your decisions. There’s a word poker players use called “tilt,” which means that you’ve let your emotions make your decisions for you. 

Maria knows the “tilt” well because other players often antagonize her for being female. Even though she has every right to be upset with people saying derogatory things to her, she can’t let her emotions control how she plays. 

So how does she keep her emotions from driving her decision-making?

“I think first, that awareness is key. … Being aware of the problem is a huge part. … So learning to pay attention, not just to other people, but to yourself, and to learn to recognize the situations that are likely to trigger you before they do. Because once you’re already in the heat of the moment, it’s much more difficult to stop. You’re gone. So you need to actually learn to anticipate it.” – Maria Konnikova

Do you ever find yourself getting upset and you can’t control yourself in the moment? I think a common problem that many have is road rage. People often find themselves getting upset in traffic, which can lead them to make poor, irrational choices. 

Rather than trying to work on your emotions in the moment, you can learn to see the early signs of getting upset, anticipate how you’ll feel, and take preventative action. Something you could do to keep yourself from making a poor decision in the moment is imagining that situation and how the best version of you would handle it. 

Imagine that someone cuts you off in traffic. Imagine yourself simply letting it go and continuing your day unbothered. You can prepare yourself to react in a positive way in the moment rather than let yourself be controlled by your emotions. 

Taking the Hard Road to Grow

An essential part of pushing yourself to greatness is taking the hard road to challenge yourself and grow. You can embrace a challenge by surrounding yourself with smarter and capable people. 

“[It’s like being a] smaller fish in a stronger pool where you actually have role models and have to push yourself and have to strive and be the best version of yourself.” – Maria Konnikova 

You’re going to develop much faster if you’re around people who are more accomplished. For example, when I played football, I became a better player because I played with older students. It was difficult, but that’s how I became a skilled football player. I had to grow faster because of the environment that I was in. 

We learn so much more when we let go of our egos and strive to be the dumbest person in the room rather than the smartest. Maria described how she loves her job for that very reason:

“I always tell people that one of the reasons I love being a writer and being a journalist is I get to go to the smartest people in the world … my goal in life is to always be the dumbest person in any given room because that’s how you learn. … I just want to be surrounded by people who are better than I’ll ever be. … I want to see what they’re doing. I want that to inspire me. I don’t want to be surrounded by people who I can’t learn from.” – Maria Konnikova

You develop more when you challenge yourself and struggle. If you only pick the easy road in life, you might be comfortable, but you won’t grow. You need to surround yourself with people that inspire you to the best version of yourself that you can be. 

Reading Human Behavior

Now I know what you’re thinking: “When is Lewis going to talk about reading people in poker?” Maria has some fascinating advice on reading other people:

“I think that poker teaches you to really pay attention to how people act and how they deviate from that. So what’s someone’s baseline? What do they normally act like? And what’s their usual demeanor? How much do they talk? How do they sit? What’s their body language, and when does it change? And what does that mean? So you have to start noticing … the baseline samples and notice the deviations from it, which means you’re really paying attention closely.” – Maria Konnikova

This comes back around to Maria’s point about paying attention to opportunities. Whether you’re playing poker or just the game of life, you need to pay close attention to human behavior by focusing on their patterns and their deviations from those patterns.

So what patterns do people often deviate from? I’m sure you’re thinking that a person’s face changes based on their poker hand, but that’s not actually the case. Maria recommends you read people’s hands:

“It turns out that most of the physical tells are in the hands. So there’s actually a lot of research now that’s been done that shows that if people are looking at the hands of poker players only, even people who know nothing about poker are able to say … who has a strong hand and who doesn’t because we don’t control our pulse and the way that we normally gesture our hands, we don’t realize just how much our hands give away.” – Maria Konnikova 

Hands are a major tell that most people aren’t even aware of! Another study relating to hands involved a rugby game. When a group of people observed the hands of a rugby player, they could predict the direction in which the player was going to throw the ball. All it took to predict the player’s behavior was observing his hands! 

How can you apply this to your life? You may not be looking at a person’s hands to figure out where they’re throwing a ball, but you can pay close attention to the way someone deviates from their normal behavior based on the situation. If you can determine when someone is misrepresenting themselves or trying to deceive you, you can evaluate the trustworthiness of the person and learn how to handle them professionally or socially. 

Why You Should Listen to this Maria Konnikova Podcast Episode Right Now…

The game of poker can teach you a lot about people, decision-making, and anticipating your emotions. Pay attention to the opportunities that life presents and make the best decisions to be great! 

Maria’s definition of greatness is inspiring: 

“[A great person is] someone who leaves the world a better place than they found it and leaves the situation and leaves the people who interact with them better than they found them.” – Maria Konnikova 

I enjoyed my conversation with Maria so much! If you want to learn more about her and poker, check out her most recent book The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win. You can also check her out on Instagram and Twitter. 

 If you enjoyed this episode as much as I did, post it on social media and tag @lewishowes!

You can share your thoughts on the episode and describe your greatest takeaways!

Remember, pay attention, and work hard with the hand you’re dealt. Your next opportunity to win big may be right in front of you! 


To Greatness,

Lewis Howes - Signature

Some Questions I Ask:

  • Why is poker the best way to learn about making decisions in life?
  • Should we embrace our luck, or be ashamed of it?
  • Do most people take credit for their success and accept blame for their failure?
  • How can you separate decision-making from emotion?
  • What negativity did you encounter in your poker experiment?
  • What’s the best way to read what people are thinking?
  • Why should you separate your goal from the outcome?

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How to make decisions with incomplete information
  • Why life is a game of luck
  • Techniques to recognize emotional triggers before they impair you
  • How Maria countered the sexism she faced at the poker table
  • That outcomes don’t always reflect accurately on the process
  • Plus much more…
Connect with
Maria Konnikova

Transcript of this Episode

Music Credits:

Music Credit:

Kaibu by Killercats

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