Poker and Psychology: A Conversation with Maria Konnikova at NAPT Las Vegas Poker and Psychology: A Conversation with Maria Konnikova at NAPT Las Vegas
PokerStars - Joe Giron

I’ve always thought that PokerStars runs the absolute best live events in the world.

PokerStars recently re-enlisted Maria Konnikova, the author-turned-professional poker player, for a second stint as a brand representative, a timely move just weeks before the commencement of the iconic North American Poker Tour (NAPT) hosted at Resorts World Las Vegas.

We caught up with best-selling author Konnikova to get insights into her experience as part of the NAPT festival making a comeback after 12 years, the similarities between poker and book writing, the psychological aspects of playing live poker, and her upcoming ventures in poker.

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1) The return of the PokerStars North American Poker Tour (NAPT) after 12 years is a significant event in the US poker landscape. How does it feel to be part of this prestigious series?

I’m very excited to be part of the PokerStars return to the US. I’ve always thought that PokerStars runs the absolute best live events in the world — and it’s amazing to see US players, many of whom have never played at a Stars event, have a full EPT-like experience. The energy and excitement I’ve seen here give me hope that the new poker boom will stay. I’m just glad I get to be a small part of it!

2) As an author and professional poker player, how does your approach to playing in live poker tournaments like the NAPT differ from your approach to writing books about poker?

In many ways, it doesn’t. When working on a new project, I give it everything I have – all of my time, energy, creative energy, and mental bandwidth. I’m very competitive with myself, and I never want to feel like I’m half-assing anything. If I think I can’t give a project my all, I will turn it down. And that attitude and approach is one that I bring with me from writing to poker. I don’t want to play if I feel I’m not competitively on the level. So, when I’m playing, I devote everything to it. I study, review, strategize, and constantly try to improve. In a way, every live tournament is like a mini writing assignment. And—the two feed off each other. I find material when I’m playing – new stories, new characters, new inspiration. When I’m writing, the distance and perspective help me make sense of certain situations in a way I couldn’t when I was in the thick of it.

3) With your extensive experience in both poker and psychology, how do you manage the psychological aspects of live poker tournaments, especially one as competitive as the NAPT Las Vegas festival?

I find that a lot of the techniques I’ve studied for self-control are quite applicable to competitive live events like the NAPT: cooling hot emotions, learning to take a breath and distance yourself for a moment before making a rash decision, and learning to be patient. Events like the NAPT require a lot of discipline. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to suffer bad beats even when you haven’t made a mistake. It’s important not to let either of those scenarios get to you but to learn from them and move on. Don’t dwell. Don’t ruminate. Process, extract what you can to make a better decision next time, and let it go.

Honestly, though, some of the most important tools of psychology are the most basic: get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise.

Honestly, though, some of the most important tools of psychology are the most basic: get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise. Your mind and your body are intimately connected. You will not play well if you haven’t slept. You will not play well if you’re eating junk. You will not play well if you do not give your body a bit of a workout. I’m not saying go crazy, but I do think that self-care is both crucial and criminally undervalued. I don’t care how many hours you spent running sims and practicing spots with your study tool of choice. If you pull an all-nighter, if you punish your body, your mental capacity will plummet. I’ve written a lot about cognitive enhancement over the years, and people often ask me what the best supplements are – is there a new drug, a new pill, a new magic solution to make me smarter? The answer is: sleep. Not one single supplement mimics the effects of natural rest on mental acuity.

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Last verified: February 2024
Great Welcome Bonus!
100% deposit bonus up to $600!
  • Play one hand & get $150 in bonus play funds
  • Top-quality mobile app
  • Best online MTT schedule
Please play responsibly. If you or someone you know has a gambling problem and wants help, call 1-800 GAMBLER.

4) Are there any specific poker strategies or skills you have honed in preparation for the NAPT festival that you would like to share with aspiring poker players?

I’ve been working on my heads-up game! Of course, the heads-up practice will be crucially important when I’m heads-up for the NAPT Main Event title, which is clearly going to happen, but even if by some weird chance I don’t make the final table, I think the skills of HU poker are incredibly useful for improving play at every stage of the game, even when you’re at a full table. HU forces you to learn to play a wide range of hands, some of which don’t feel intuitive or comfortable. It forces you to stay focused for longer, more intense periods of time. It forces you to keep making good decisions, over and over, even when you’re tired — unlike full ring poker, you don’t get to just fold some hands and take a break. Whenever I feel like my game needs an infusion, I go back to studying the latest HU techniques, and I always find lessons to take away to my general game.

5) The NAPT Las Vegas features various poker formats including mystery bounties. Are there any particular games or formats you feel especially confident or excited about participating in during this tour?

I’m quite excited about the mystery bounty.

I’m quite excited about the mystery bounty. I’ve only gotten the chance to play that format twice before, once at EPT Monte Carlo and once at the WSOP, and I found it to be tremendous fun. It combines everything I love about tournament poker with an element of anticipation that I’ve otherwise only experienced at a final table — because every bounty is potentially final table money. I don’t know that I’m particularly good at mystery bounty events, but I have loved the ones I’ve played — and I have my buddy Dara O’Kearney’s book on mystery bounty tournaments, so that has to count for something!

6) Finally, after the NAPT stop in Las Vegas, what’s next on your poker journey? Are there any upcoming projects or tournaments that you are particularly excited about?

Up next will be the WPT series at the Wynn. Last year’s inaugural series was wonderful, and I’m excited that it’s returning for a second run. After that, stay tuned for some EPT and NAPT action starting early next year. I’m very excited about the schedule, but I can’t say much more about it as it hasn’t yet been announced!

In terms of writing, I’m working on my next book. It’s about cheating in games – everything from poker and chess to professional sports. So, if you have any good cheating stories, send them my way!