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Everyone who plays poker starts somewhere. Most learn the basics from a family member at the kitchen table or from college friends in a dorm room. But what would it be like to start playing as an adult with nary a minute of experience with the game, without even knowing how many cards are in a deck?

Maria Konnikova never gave any thought to cards as a teen or young adult. She was a writer and a trained psychologist with a PhD, as well as a New York Times-bestselling author. And in her reading and research as a columnist for The New Yorker, she became interested in the balance of skill and chance in life. Her original intention was to write a single-narrative book about the topic and discovered game theory, which was inspired by the game of poker.

Ultimately, Konnikova met Erik Seidel, began studying poker, playing in tournaments, and is now on partial leave from The New Yorker to experience a full immersion in the game. When her year-plus with Seidel ends later in 2017, she will complete her book about the experience. That book is set for publication in 2019 through Penguin Press.

Psychology and Seidel

Konnikova is an accomplished author, most notably of the The Confidence Game and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, the latter of which has now been translated into 18 languages. Her résumé is filled with impressive accomplishments, degrees from Harvard and Columbia University, and writing credits that include the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and her current column home of The New Yorker.

Amidst her research about game theory and the skill-versus-chance conundrum, she began reading about poker and became fascinated. “I hatched the plan for the book then, as it seemed like the perfect metaphor for life, specifically No Limit Hold’em.” She reached out to Seidel to discuss an immersive project, and he agreed.

“We decided he was going to train me for a year from zero to wherever he could take me as a test of his poker philosophy. With a PhD in psychology, my approach is very psychological, and that is his approach as well,” she recalled. “Poker has become highly mathematical, and the data whizzes are the new generation of players, but Erik is someone who has been on top of the game for 30 years and still is, despite all of the changes. Him taking me on is a profound test of the psychological approach to the game. Can you actually — with just psychological insight and that thought process — train someone to become someone who can hold her own at the poker table?”

That started a unique partnership, one that started with Seidel teaching Konnikova about poker from the very basics to tournament strategy. As she learns about the game through coaching and gaining experience in live and online tournaments, she is writing the book about all of it.

Learning from a Champion

As Konnikova is an expert in her field, Seidel is as well. The former Wall Street trader cut his gaming chops in tournament backgammon but then discovered poker. The intricacies of the game fascinated him, so he formed a study group in New York that led to games at the Mayfair Club. While the games were lucrative, he continued his job in the stock market until the crash of 1987, at which point poker came in quite handy. And one year later, he finished second at the 1988 World Series of Poker Main Event to Johnny Chan but took home a significant $280,000 check. From that point on, Seidel began racking up the final table appearances and victories. He captured the first of his eight WSOP bracelets in 1992 and went on to win titles in nearly every major tournament series in a range of poker variations and buy-ins. World Poker Tour? Yes. Aussie Millions? Of course. European Poker Tour? Yep. NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship? Certainly. Super High Roller events that awarded top prizes well past the $1 million mark? No sweat.

Altogether, Seidel has accumulated more than $31.5 million in live tournament winnings alone. And keep in mind, that amount does not include online poker winnings, cash game profits, and income from poker-related sponsorships and business deals. Suffice it to say, he has long been at the top of the game.

So, despite only having worked with Konnikova since the summer of 2016, his coaching has produced results. “I’ve made final tables in some of the ARIA daily tournaments, like the $150 and $240 buy-ins, and finished second in one of them. I went pretty far at the Wynn Classic, finishing in like 34th in one of the events. I just played the Foxwoods Classic and bubbled a few but placed 21st in one,” she admitted. And what’s next? She is heading to the PokerStars Championship in Monte Carlo in a few weeks before playing a slew of tournaments at the WSOP in Las Vegas this summer.

The overall plan is to continue to build on her accomplishments and move up in stakes. “I follow him around a lot and get to sweat his play, which is wonderful. It’s a rare privilege to see how he’s playing, and we discuss that. I write down hands from live events and online games, which I tape for us to review together.”

Konnikova is fascinated by all of it. “The entire game is such an interesting intellectual challenge,” she said. “It’s so strategically and psychologically fascinating, and the more I learn, the more difficult the game becomes and the more nuance it acquires. What I love about it is that I don’t think it can ever get boring. I see why Erik has been able to do it for 30 years; it’s something where you’re constantly challenging yourself and growing in the game and as a person. It takes me out of my personal comfort zone in many ways.”

Seidel has also learned from his student. As she experiences the unique challenges of playing poker as a woman in a still-male-dominated game, Seidel has learned more about that side of poker as well. “A lot of people are very aggressive toward women and try to bluff me more than other players,” Konnikova admitted, “but I’ve learned how to turn that into an advantage. Eric has learned from it all as well, saying that he realizes that I’m in a different world than he is used to.”

Overall, the time the two have spent together thus far has been an educational experience for both of them. And there are several more months, at a minimum, remaining before the immersive portion of the project comes to an end.

And Konnikova is not only discovering a great deal about the world of poker, she also quickly realized why Seidel is such a beloved figure in the game. “Erik is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s ridiculously nice and giving and an exceptional human being. … Everyone loves him, and there’s a good reason for that. I’ve been surprised that he’s not just inspired me in poker but throughout my life to be a better person and live a better life.”


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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.