Author Maria Konnikova Continues Heater at WPT Borgata Poker Open

Sep 20, 2018

By Sean Chaffin 

Maria Konnikova

With only 24 players remaining in the WPT Borgata at the start of Day 4, Maria Konnikova (pictured) was seated among those vying for a title. As cards are dealt, she chats a bit with her tablemates and sips a coffee. A chorus of clattering poker chips fills the tournament area. She smiles and occasionally checks her phone. Adjusting her chip stacks, Konnikova takes in the action and watches her opponents – focused on the task at hand.

It’s the mental game that Konnikova appreciates, fitting for a Columbia University-trained experimental psychologist. It’s been quite a transition over the last year. A longtime writer for The New Yorker and the author of two bestselling books, Konnikova took a circuitous route to poker success.

Poker Journey

While researching a third book about luck and decision-making, now titled The Biggest Bluff, Konnikova began studying the game and entering some tournaments last year. She’s not the first writer to jump into the middle of the action.

Al Alvarez was right in the middle of the 1981 World Series of Poker Main Event when he wrote the seminal poker book The Biggest Game in Town, capturing the real spirit and vibe of the game. Jim McManus parlayed a magazine payment into a fifth-place finish in the WSOP Main Event in 2000 while at the same time covering a murder trial about the suspicious death of Ted Binion. All his accounts ended up in the excellent Positively Fifth Street.

But Konnikova’s tale is a bit different. She had never played poker before and wasn’t born into a “poker family.” She told the New York Times that before getting into her research, she hated casinos, didn’t know how many cards were in a deck, and “had zero interest in gambling.”

That certainly changed. And some poker coaching from WPT Champions Club member Erik Seidel paid off. In the last year and a half, Konnikova has $243,000 in tournament winnings. That included winning a $1,650 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure event in the Bahamas  in January for $84,600. The poker world quickly took notice and more big finishes followed.

Fitting for someone who studies the brain and how humans use them, Konnikova has been surprised by how intellectually stimulating poker can be.

“I knew it was going to be exciting in lots of ways, but I didn’t really know what to expect,” she says. “And I think one of the reasons I’m still here and a PokerStars Team Pro fully committed to this, is that I’ve found it just completely engrossing from a mental standpoint – strategically and emotionally. It just challenges me in a lot of ways I didn’t expect it to.”

The poker success has become a conversation piece for her family, which hails from New York. Most parents don’t probably expect their scholarly, literary daughter to suddenly branch off into the world of poker.

“My family think it’s really cool,” she says. “My parents could not be more supportive. They are following along. I sent my dad an update last night and said, ‘Hey, this is how many chips I have.’ And he was like, ‘Oh I know.’ I was like ‘Alright, excellent.’”

While he wasn’t a player himself, her dad had been keeping up with the live updates via She ultimately finished 20th for $24,695, impressive for an event that featured 1,075 entries.

Konnikova says her track record hadn’t been great at at the few WPT events she’s entered, so her deep run at the Borgata was especially nice. She bubbled the WPT L.A. Poker Classic event, but made the final three tables in Atlantic City.

“This was actually my first WPT deep run,” she said. “It’s exciting, and it was cool that it was at the Borgata.”

The Road Ahead

So you’re a best-selling author and suddenly life takes an interesting detour into the world of high-stakes poker. And you’re having some nice success against the big boys in the game. Where do you go from here?

“I can’t answer that question because one thing poker teaches you is nobody knows what card is coming next,” she says. “Stopping writing is not on the table. That’s something I’m going to do my whole life, that’s what I love. That’s what I am. But as of now, I have no plans to quit poker either. The good thing about both of those things is that they go hand in hand. I can travel and write from anywhere in the world.”

For Konnikova, she’s finding time for both her passions – studying poker six to eight hours a day while also finding time to write. While she plans to continue playing poker, the author has no plans to focus her work exclusively on poker either.

And what about The Biggest Bluff? The book has been delayed a bit, but she’s still pounding the keyboard – and definitely getting in plenty of research. Hopefully, it hits bookstores in the summer or fall of next year.

The buzz from her success on the felt certainly can’t be bad for book sales.

“It’s kind crazy,” she says. “My editor has been really supportive. He loves poker and he plays. I’ve been very lucky. They’ve let me push back the deadline, and they’ve been really happy to work with me on this because it’s unique. It’s rare that you start writing a book like this and end up going off in a different direction.”

Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas, and host of the True Gambling Stories podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @PokerTraditions.

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