Maria Konnikova Plays 'Not My Job' On 'Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!' We've invited psychologist and poker player Maria Konnikova to play a game called "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" — three questions about singer Kenny Rogers.

Not My Job: We Quiz A Professional Poker Player On 'The Gambler'

Not My Job: We Quiz A Professional Poker Player On 'The Gambler'

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Neil Stoddart/Penguin Press
Maria Konnikova
Neil Stoddart/Penguin Press

In The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova explains how she went from being a psychologist who had never played poker to ... a professional player at the World Series of Poker.

We've invited Konnikova to play a game called "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" — three questions about "The Gambler," Kenny Rogers.

Click the audio link above to find out how she does.


And now the game where people who know an awful lot get quizzed about the one thing they forgot to learn. Maria Konnikova had never played a single hand of poker when she decided to go win a professional poker championship. Now, that in and of itself is not weird. For example, I recently decided I would like to win Best in Show at Westminster.

AMY DICKINSON: (Laughter).

SAGAL: What is odd is that Maria actually did it. And she wrote all about it in her new book, "The Biggest Bluff." Maria Konnikova, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

MARIA KONNIKOVA: Thank you so much for having me.

SAGAL: It's such a pleasure to talk to you. I'm an enthusiastic, if poor, poker player, and I basically could ask you just for tips this entire time, but I will refrain. Where do we find you today? Where are you?

KONNIKOVA: I am currently in a studio Airbnb apartment in lovely New Jersey. Thank God for New Jersey. I never thought I would say that, but I'm so glad it exists because I can play online poker here. It's the World Series of Poker Online right now because the live version is not able to take place.

SAGAL: You write about this in your book. When you decided to learn poker, you had to do a number of things, but the one thing you had to do was to get up in your home in New York, take the PATH train to New Jersey and play in New Jersey because online poker is illegal in New York.

KONNIKOVA: This is correct. And this is something that I have had to do multiple times when I've wanted to play online. And it's very bizarre because all I have to do is literally cross a river, and something that's illegal becomes legal.

SAGAL: You're better off just going to New Jersey. How many times has that been said by so many people over the years?


SAGAL: What I said is, having read your book is - my understanding is it's true that you had - you didn't even know what poker was or how to play. But you just decided, I'm going to go learn to play poker well enough that I can play in the world championship of poker - the big event on the poker circuit.

So the first thing you did was you approached an extremely successful and well-known professional poker player named Erik Seidel, and you convinced him - this guy who certainly doesn't need any money or attention or anything - to teach you, an utter novice, how to play championship-level poker. How did you do that? And would it work for me?


KONNIKOVA: Yes is the answer - is the short answer. It would absolutely work for you. No, I actually - I didn't know what I was getting into. I had done my homework in the sense that I figured out that he's one of the best players in the world, but I didn't know that he'd never taken a student before, for instance.

So I didn't know how scared I was supposed to be. I just kind of took a flyer on it because I'm a journalist, and that's what I usually do. I approach people who are much smarter than I am or much more accomplished and who know a lot more. And I say, hey, can you help me? I'm writing a story. And that's actually what I did here. I said, hey, you know, I'm a writer for The New Yorker. I'm working on a new project. I didn't say it was for The New Yorker because it wasn't. And I thought that maybe you'd be interested in it.

SAGAL: Obviously, the story of how he taught you to play and what you learned about poker and life is all in your book. But you got pretty good at it. And...

KONNIKOVA: And very unexpected. And at the beginning, actually, Erik told me, we have no idea if you're going to be good or not. This book would have happened no matter what. Even if I had sucked, I would have written a book. But it would have been a very different book.

SAGAL: A very different book. And since I am a frustratingly poor poker player, what is it that you think made you a good one? - other than your obviously intelligence and willingness to study because, I mean, you've got to have some edge. What do you think makes you a good poker player?

KONNIKOVA: I think it was a combination of factors. One we've already talked about - luck. But I don't think you can underestimate what it means to have access to the best brains in the poker world. To be able to call the No. 1 player in any given thing and ask them a question is a huge benefit that most people don't have. So I don't understate that. I worked incredibly hard.

So I decided - I left the New Yorker. I'm going to do this full-time because I really want to learn the game. So seven days a week, eight, nine, 10 hours a day, I was living and breathing poker. I was playing or studying or reviewing hands or doing this or doing that. So I really took it as a full-time job. But honestly, at the end of the day, I also just got so damn lucky. And I just want to both begin and end with that because if I'd come in second, I'd have a very different story. No one cares about the second-place finisher.

SAGAL: Or...

DICKINSON: That's not what my mom said.


DICKINSON: So were you really good at games as a child? Like, did you have any idea that you might be able to become a really hyper-competent player?

KONNIKOVA: That is such an excellent question. And the answer is, I played no games as a child. I grew up in a no-game household. I did play chess for about one week because I'm a Russian Jew, and so my parents decided - good idea. We'll sign you up for a chess club because that's a great thing. So I went to my chess club for a week, and then I played one game of chess. I was paired up with a kindergartener who was 5 years old and who beat me within three moves. And that was the last time I ever played chess.


SAGAL: And somehow, you lost $3,000. I don't know how you managed it.


SAGAL: You do tell a great story where you tell your very nice Jewish grandmother how you're going to quit your nice job at The New Yorker and go be a poker player, and she was not thrilled.

KONNIKOVA: No, she was not thrilled. However, I will report back that she's read the book, and she didn't realize she was going to be a character in it. But she's taking it in stride. She's now 95 years old. She still does not like that I took up poker. But she was very proud to be a character in the book, and she - I think she enjoyed the book.

DICKINSON: Maria, didn't you win some outrageous amount of money and, like - how - tell us how much you won.

KONNIKOVA: So in about two years, I won a little over $300,000.

DICKINSON: OK. That will do a lot for your confidence...



KONNIKOVA: (Laughter).

SAGAL: Well, you've also got a successful book now. I hope it's successful. Are you ever going to go back to, like, journalism full time? Or now are you on the poker circuit? Are you a...

KONNIKOVA: No, absolutely. I'm a writer. That's what I love. That's what I will always be.

SAGAL: Have you ever made $300,000 in two years writing?



KONNIKOVA: But hey, there are always goals and aspirations. But who says that I have to stop playing poker? I mean, I can write and play poker. Those two things are very compatible.

SAGAL: Well, Maria Konnikova, it is an absolute pleasure to talk to you. But we have invited you here to play our game, which we call...

BILL KURTIS: (Singing) You've Got To Know When To Hold 'Em, Know When To Fold 'Em.

DICKINSON: Oh, God, Bill.


ALONZO BODDEN: Bill's been waiting for that.


SAGAL: He really has. So we were wondering - you're a poker player, but what do you know about the Gambler? That would be Kenny Rogers. Get 2 out of 3 questions right about the legendary singer, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - the voice of anyone they might choose on their voicemail. Bill, who is Maria Konnikova playing for?

KURTIS: Jack Corrigan of Detroit, Mich.

SAGAL: All right. You ready to do this?

KONNIKOVA: I am. I know nothing about our Gambler, except for the lyrics to his song, so this will be interesting.

SAGAL: All right. I like to do this when I'm talking to people who compete in other things. Do you have any rituals you go through before you play poker?

KONNIKOVA: I have a day-of-big-tournament ritual where I always do yoga in the morning. I have a meditation session and try to eat a nice breakfast. And...

SAGAL: That's just like it was in the old West. I remember that...


SAGAL: ...In the movie "Stagecoach" in the scene where he gets up and does yoga and...

DICKINSON: Yoga (laughter).

SAGAL: ...And has a healthy breakfast before he climbs up...

KONNIKOVA: Well, that's where I got it, so well done.


SAGAL: That makes sense. OK. All right. Well, let's assume you've done that. Here's your first question. Now, the song "The Gambler" was perhaps - well, definitely the biggest hit for Kenny Rogers - became his trademark song. It was so popular, in fact, that which of these happened? A, flocks of starlings around Charlotte and Nashville adopted its melody as their mating call; B, the gambling capital of Macao adopted it as its official national anthem; or C, a hedge fund manager once paid Rogers $4 million to come to his birthday party and sing it as many times as the guy demanded.

KONNIKOVA: I'm going to go for C because hedge fund guys can be crazy.



SAGAL: Rogers quit and refused to sing it after the 12th time.


SAGAL: And the hedge fund manager later went to jail for fraud.

KONNIKOVA: Oh, interesting.

SAGAL: All right. Second question - you got one right - like many of the characters in his songs, Mr. Rogers had a tumultuous life, being married five times. But he always said he eventually found peace and tranquility through what? A, spending time with his pet goat, Smitty; B, contra dancing; or C, he's not exactly sure what it is, but since his pal Willie Nelson gave it to him, it can't be bad for him, right?

KONNIKOVA: I - you know, I really want to imagine him with Smitty, so even though I don't think that's the right answer, I'm going to go with A.

SAGAL: You're just going to commit yourself to that choice and present it with confidence.

ADEJUYIGBE: That's a big bet. Come on, make the bet.

SAGAL: She's all in on Smitty. And she won...


SAGAL: ...Because it was, in fact, his goat, Smitty...


SAGAL: ...On his farm in Georgia.


DICKINSON: Seriously?

KONNIKOVA: Oh, my God.

SAGAL: Seriously.

BODDEN: That innocent winner routine you just pulled must kill them at the table after you've wiped them out of their money. You just look so shocked. Oh, my God. I won.


SAGAL: All right. Last question. While Kenny Rogers is a legendary musician, he did not receive equal acclaim for his acting. How did reviews describe his lead performance in the 1982 film "Six Pack?" A, quote, "he acts like a recent graduate of the Smokey the Bear school of acting..."

DICKINSON: (Laughter).

SAGAL: ...B, quote, "his emoting seems limited to inhaling and exhaling;" or, C, quote, "he tends to overdo even the simplest gestures, stirring a bowl of chili as if he were rowing a boat."

KONNIKOVA: Oh, my God. I'm going with C because what a quote.

SAGAL: It's a great quote.

KONNIKOVA: I want that quote to exist.

SAGAL: Yes. That was from The New York Times. The other two, which are also real, are from The Washington Post. So they were all actual descriptions...


SAGAL: ...Of his acting.


SAGAL: Bill, how did Maria Konnikova do on our quiz? I think she did rather well.

KURTIS: I would call it a royal flush. Three right answers. Maria, you are really impressive.

SAGAL: Maria Konnikova is a psychologist and now a professional poker player. Her new book "The Biggest Bluff" is available right now. Maria Konnikova, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME. What a pleasure to talk to you.

KONNIKOVA: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a joy.

SAGAL: Bye-bye.


SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill gets wrecked in Reykjavik. It's our Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR.

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