Book review: The Biggest Bluff

Here’s a well-written book about (1) Poker (2) The Russian emigre Experience (3) Psychology (4) Chance and Luck.  What’s not to like?

I speak of “The Biggest Bluff” by Maria Konnikova.  Then there are the remarkable personal connections   First, she went to the same high school, Acton Boxborough High in a Boston suburb as my cousin’s sons.  THe high school is a little UN, and when we went to their graduations, the graduates welcomed us in 12 different languages, each spoken by a native speaker.  Second, the parallels between Konnikova and our nephew’s wife are striking.  They’re both 36 arriving at ages 6 and 9 from Russia speaking no English;.  college:Harvard for Maria, Princeton for the other;  Grad school: Columbia for a PhD in psychology for Maria, Columbia Law for the other.  Third, another nephew is in the process of getting a PhD in psychology from Vanderbilt

I played poker for a year or so in a rather unusual venue, e. g. with cops in the on-call room for the ER intern in a ghetto hospital in Philly in the 60’s.   When on call we knew better than to go to bed before 3 a. m., an hour after the bars closed at 2 and when the carnage which was going to happen had happened.  The cops would bring them in surgical interns and residents would hang out waiting for the OR to be ready.  Cops would hang around to see if they had to take the injured to jail or whether they’d be admitted.  No one could leave, so the cops and the docs had a floating poker game, the only solid rule being that, if called, you cashed out immediately (even in the middle of a hand) and left.

The carnage in the ghetto back then was incredible.  It still is.  Sadly, despite Head Start, The War on Poverty, Affirmative Action and Anti-Racism not much has changed. (64 shootings 13 deaths)

The book concerns the author’s journey from not knowing how many cards there are in a deck to playing professional poker in just under a year.  It’s a fascinating story, but of more interest to me are the tidbits tucked in.

For Instance, Von Neumann was interested in poker because the best hand didn’t win always, and the element of chance and most importantly the betting.  By chance he met his future  wife  (who was another man’s wife at the time) in Monte Carlo  having lost his shirt with his system for beating roulette.

Here’s Immanuel Kant providing an (unintentional) explanation of why the betting in poker is so important — “It frequently happens that a man delivers his opinions with such boldness and assurance that he appears to be under no apprehension as to the possibility of his being in error.  The offer of a bet startles him, and makes him pause.  Sometimes it turns out that his persuasion may be valued at a ducat but not at ten.”

Well with von Neumann and Kant on board you know you are in for a wild ride.

The book contains all sorts of succinct summaries of great psychological experiments — the Dunning Kruger effect , Kahneman’s work apears 3 times, Langer and the illusion of control, etc. etc.

One of the more interesting passages to me occurs when she talks about what a gamble an academic career is.  She studied with Walter Mischel at Columbia who didn’t believe in something called the big five personality traits.  “Good luck to me getting a job in any psychology department where the Big Five personality traits are still big — Walter Mischel and the Big Five are not on speaking terms.   If I were to go against the head of deparment or hiring committee . . .  Bye-bye job prospects.”

I find this incredibly sad, as must most of the hard science types which read this blog. It doesn’t matter if your research was any good, did it conform to the dominant narrative?  In contrast, a guy was plucked out of making sandwiches at a Subway and made a professor of mathematics, because his paper was so astounding —

It reminds me of Voltaire’s crack about sects.

“EVERY sect, in whatever sphere, is the rallying-point of doubt and error. Scotist, Thomist, Realist, Nominalist, Papist, Calvinist, Molinist, Jansenist, are only pseudonyms.  There are no sects in geometry; one does not speak of a Euclidian, an Archimedean. When the truth is evident, it is impossible for parties and factions to arise. Never has there been a dispute as to whether there is daylight at noon. The branch of astronomy which determines the course of the stars and the return of eclipses being once known, there is no more dispute among astronomers. In England one does not say–” I am a Newtonian, a Lockian, a Halleyan.” Why? Those who have read cannot refuse their assent to the truths taught by these three great men. The more Newton is revered, the less do people style themselves Newtonians; this word supposes that there are anti-Newtonians in England.”

But your career in academic psychology can live or die depending on whether you subscribe to the Big Five.

Addendum 13 July — Peter Shenkin has a fascinating comment about why Bohm didn’t get tenure at Princeton — it was not because of his politics — it’s in the comment section.

Finally – sex.  The book describes a lot of the mostly verbal (but one time physical) abuse she took from other players.

In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories the following dialog appears

Gregory (Scotland Yard): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

There is a very curious omission in the book.  Konnikova describes the physical appearance of the other players at length. She talks about the way players try to psych each other out.  The jacket photo shows a rather sultry attractive woman.

What doesn’t Konnikova talk about?  She doesn’t mention whether she uses her sex at the table to confuse the opposition?  Did she act seductively toward a particular opponent? What about makeup, perfume, decolletage?  Not a word.   Did she make a run at her teacher Erik Seidel?  She clearly greatly admires everything about him.  It’s on every page.

A great book, and about far more than poker.

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  • Peter Shenkin  On July 13, 2020 at 10:48 am

    “The carnage in the ghetto back then was incredible. It still is.” Yes. I can remember when the biggest complaint the black community had about the police was that there weren’t enough of them in their neighborhoods.

    Re. cults and the contrast with hard science: It’s not so clear-cut. Consider the case of physicist David Bohm not being given tenure at Princeton. My advisor in chemistry was a good friend of his. The story is that Bohm was forced to leave because of his leftist tendencies. My advisor said he wasn’t really a leftist; for instance, Bohm voted for Truman. But that’s not the basis of what I am going to say; I just had to get it out of the way, because it’s most people’s first association with Bohm.

    Other friends of my advisor in the physics department swore up and down that the only reason Bohm was denied tenure was that the department did not think that foundations of quantum mechanics was a sufficiently promising field that they wanted to invest a tenured position in. I am going to assume that is true.

    So, he was not kept on because he did not accept the Bohr interpretation and was working to develop an alternative. He later went on to an illustrious career elsewhere.

    Now, how different is that from deciding not to hire a psychologist who doesn’t believe in the “five basic personality types” (whatever they are)? Maverick views are rarely welcome even when espoused by grizzled Nobel laureates. I am thinking more of Pauling than Einstein here. For a young person starting out, they are extremely unlikely to be welcome in any department.

  • luysii  On July 13, 2020 at 7:02 pm

    Truly fascinating about Bohm. I’m going to put a note about it on the main blog.

    Along these lines, Schleyer got into a big brawl with H. C. Brown about nonclassical carbonium ions (and lost) with the result that he never made the National Academy of Science (or the Nobel). According to a fellow undergraduate advisee, Schleyer was the third most cited chemist of the 20th century. A 1981–1997 survey reported that he was the third most cited chemist in the world. Althogether his works were cited over 75,000 times.

  • Peter Shenkin  On July 15, 2020 at 10:47 am

    Of course I knew Schleyer, took a grad course from him. I saw HC Brown and Schleyer debate on the Q. of nonclassical carbonium ions at the 1968 (I think) midwest regional ACS meeting in Akron, OH, when I was an undergrad at Southern Ill. University. Back then all meetings were in person and the regional meetings were important events. My advisor, Don Slocum, arranged for all his undergrad & graduate research students to attend. We drove up in a few cars. My overwhelming sense of the event was that it resembled a clash of two titans out of ancient Greek, Norse or Indian mythology.

    I think the consensus these days, based on detailed QM calculations, is that Schleyer was right. But of course, many of these calculations were done by Schleyer himself after he went to Erlangen. I think Henry Rzepa at Imperial College, London, would be the best person to give an unbiased appraisal. But maybe I’ll ask Mait Jones first, since I know him better.

    I wasn’t aware at the time that Schleyer had “lost”. In some ways his imperious personality might have hindered his acceptance into the NAS; but (though I’m not an organic chemist myself) I should think his acknowledged achievements would have supported his admission.

    One thing I will say about the clash of the titans is that HC Brown was able to explain all the experimental data by fluctuations between classical states that Schleyer invoked a nonclassical argument for. Thus, at the time, Occam’s Razor appeared to favor Brown’s argument. But as far as I know, that was the only leg up that Brown had. He was likewise unable to adduce experimental data that Schleyer could not explain nonclassically. But now that we understand QM and Q-chem calculations better and now that the QM view of chemistry (and the rest of the universe) is more in the bones of the current generation of chemists, it’s anyone’s guess whether the classical explanation would still seem to be the simpler or more intuitive one, per Occam, to chemists trained more recently. I’m not sure whether more recent laboratory results can definitively rule out one or the other.

    My other recollection of the Akron meeting was that only a block or two from the meeting site I found a cheap diner, a working-man’s joint, with a jukebox console every few feet down the counter. “Lovesick Blues” Hank Williams’s first #1 country hit (1949) was still on the jukebox. Of course, I played it every time I went over for a burger or bacon and eggs.

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