Mar 19, 2019
Maria Konnikova Discusses Realities of a Poker Tournament Pro
By RTR Dennis
Maria Konnikova had an unconventional start to her poker career. She didn’t grind her way up from the low stakes or master online multi-tabling. She instead began playing poker as part of research for her upcoming book, The Biggest Bluff.
A funny thing happened, though. The New York-based writer, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, started winning — and winning big. She won a 2018 PokerStars Caribbean Championship (PCA) side event for $84,600. Two months later, she booked a second-place finish in a 2018 Asia Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) Macau event, which was good for another $57,519.
Despite being a bestselling author, Konnikova was convinced to put her career on hold and play in more poker tournaments. She looks quite successful on the surface, earning $274,817 in live cashes in less than two years.
However, Konnikova cautions that playing in poker tourneys isn’t as easy as it looks. Keep reading to see what she thinks about the matter.
Being a Poker Tournament Pro Is Expensive
Playing in poker tourneys used to be easier for pros thanks to the wealth of sponsorship deals. Those days are long gone, though, with many players now having to front their own buy-ins and travel costs.
Konnikova has since landed a rare sponsorship deal with PokerStars. But she still professed how expensive playing in tourneys can be when speaking with TheCut.
“It’s actually very expensive and very difficult,” she said. “If you’re a tournament player, you have to be ready to not win any money for a long time.
“In one tournament, you can win $200,000 — an insane amount of money. But then you might play 20 tournaments in a row, each of which has a buy-in of $2,000 to $5,000, and you don’t cash in any of them.”
Konnikova shows over $274k in live tournament winnings on HendonMob. However, she cautions that this amount can be misleading.
“People can see online, ‘Wow, she won a quarter of a million dollars!’ Which I did last year,” she explained. “But I actually made more like $10,000, because of all the tournaments where I bought in and did not cash.
“People underestimate just how expensive it is, and how time consuming. If you really want to, you can be playing all the time. Last year, when I made the transition to professional play, I traveled maybe eight months of the year in total. I know players who don’t even have an apartment and travel year round.”
Winning $84k Is Nice — But It’s Not Life-Changing Money
TheCut’s Maggie Bullock asked Konnikova if the $84k she won near the beginning of her poker career was life-changing at all. While the victory did spark change in her life, the money certainly hasn’t cemented her poker future.
“[$84,000] definitely changed my day. But financially, it did not change my life because I’m on leave from The New Yorker,” she said. “I’m actually making zero dollars right now from writing, which has never happened before.”
Konnikova also touched on how many poker pros overestimate how far their winnings will go. What they don’t account for is all of the other expenses and future downswings.
“To continue playing, I also have to pay for hotels and airfare,” said Konnikova. “A lot of poker players end up going broke because they think they have all this money, but they don’t account for things like taxes.
“Poker earnings get taxed very highly — almost 60 percent. The number can shrivel up quickly. You suddenly realize, ‘Wow, this is actually not that much money.’”
Konnikova Explains Cash vs. Tournament Poker
Many poker players realize the variance associated with tournament poker. It can be brutal compared to cash games, which offer more-consistent winnings for good players. Konnikova did a great job of explaining this fact during the interview.
“Cash games are what people normally think of when they think of poker. People buy in for $100, and get $100. If you lose it, you can re-buy in,” she explained.
“Tournament poker is very different. Players buy in for certain amount, let’s say, $1,000, and 90 percent of them walk away with zero. Only 10 or maybe 12 percent of the field is going to cash.
“It’s usually a very steep payout structure. If there are 100 people in the tournament, and ten people get paid, tenth place might be $1,500. So really, you only make $500, not enough to cover the cost of the trip. You have to make first or second place to actually make money.
“What you really want is a deep run — getting to the final table, to that top-heavy end of the payout structure. The tournaments that I play on often have over 1,000 players, and more than 900 of them are going home with zero dollars.”
Poker Is Not a Great Way to Get Rich
One thing that bought many people to the poker world during the boom years was the idea that anybody can get rich. They were fueled by seeing players like Chris Moneymaker and Jamie Gold win fortunes through the WSOP Main Event.
But things have changed greatly these days. The path to riches is harder, especially when you’re competing in tourneys. Konnikova touched on this point.
“I don’t think it’s the way to get rich. Poker is really hard,” she said. “But the biggest tournament in the world, the World Series of Poker Main Event? First place this year was over $8 million. The person who won that, their life has changed.”
Why Does Konnikova Continue to Play Poker?
Konnikova has a very realistic take on playing poker tournaments and knows that the road is difficult. In fact, she could be making a lot more money right now continuing her work for the New Yorker. Nevertheless, she still finds a silver lining in playing the game.
“It’s a legitimate question. I find the game fascinating,” said the author. “I enjoy it. I think it’s made me a better decision-maker, a stronger person outside of poker. And it’s very compatible with writing. I can write from anywhere.”
Konnikova also has the bankroll-management skills to keep herself going in the poker world as long as she wants. Born in Moscow, she and her mother immigrated to suburban Boston and didn’t have much money. She’s carried this frugal mindset into the poker world and beyond.
“I’m usually quite conservative when it comes to my money. For example, over the last few years, the poker world has overlapped heavily with the cryptocurrency world.
“And I had an opportunity to make some crypto investments. But I did not do it. It felt to me like all of the cons that I’d been researching — it didn’t smell right.”
Poker Has Helped Konnikova with Her Writing Negotiating Skills
One skill that Konnikova has really learned from poker is the ability to negotiate for betting writing rates. She admits to having been “absolutely terrible” at the matter early on. But now she’s much better at it.
“I’ve had a few situations since I learned poker where I got more money because I read a situation better,” she said. “But I don’t like negotiating — it goes against the grain of my personality. Poker forces you to deal with those uncomfortable situations.”
Maria Konnikova’s poker journey probably won’t last forever, especially when considering her writing talents. However, she definitely seems to have enjoyed the ride the past two years. And she doesn’t look ready to quit the game anytime soon.