An illustration of poker scenes
Toma Vagner

How I Became a Poker Champion in One Year

One of the world’s best players taught me his unique psychological style of play—and it worked.

I first encountered Erik Seidel the way many poker newbies do. I was watching Rounders, the 1998 Matt Damon movie about a brilliant law student who pays his way through school with his poker prowess, and in the end quits law altogether to play full-time. In several scenes, a real-life poker match plays in the background. It’s the 1988 World Series of Poker final table showdown, between a young Seidel and Johnny Chan, the “master,” as Chan is repeatedly described by the commentators. This is the most famous poker match in the nonpoker world, in which Seidel’s set of queens falls to Chan’s straight, after the older player sets an expert trap for his less experienced victim.

At the time, Chan was the reigning world champion and Seidel was at his first-ever major tournament. He’d made it past 165 other contenders to make the final table, the last man standing save one. Thirty years later, Seidel has become the master. He holds eight WSOP bracelets—only five players in the tournament’s history have more—and a World Poker Tour title. He is in the Poker Hall of Fame, one of just 32 living members. He boasts the fourth-highest tournament career winnings in the history of the game, and is fourth in the number of times he cashed in the WSOP (114). Many consider him the GOAT—the greatest of all time.

Seidel stands out from other players for his longevity: He still contends for No. 1, as he has since his career first started, in the late ’80s. That takes some doing. The game has changed a lot in the past 30 years. As with so many facets of modern life, the qualitative elements of poker have taken a back seat to the quantitative. Caltech Ph.D.s now line the tables. Printouts of stats columns are a common sight. A conversation rarely goes for more than a beat without someone mentioning GTO (game theory optimal) or +EV (positive expected value). But despite predictions that his psychological style of play would render him a dinosaur, Seidel stays on top.

Three years ago, Seidel began to teach me how to play poker. Why on earth would a professional poker player—the professional poker player—agree to let a random journalist follow him around like an overeager toddler? It’s not for money or exposure. Seidel is notoriously reticent, and he hates sharing his tactics. I was, however, an ideal pupil in a few ways. Most important, I have a Ph.D. in psychology, and so I was well positioned to understand Seidel’s style of play. I also never had much of an interest in cards, meaning Seidel wouldn’t have to rid me of any bad habits. My academic training and my inexperience made me a perfect vehicle for an experiment to see if Seidel’s psychological game could still triumph over a strictly mathematical style.

The cover of Konnikova's book, The Biggest Bluff
This post was excerpted from Konnikova’s recent book.

At the time, I was at sea in my personal life. It wasn’t an ideal moment to pursue an abstract question about a game I knew almost nothing about. My husband had been recently laid off, and a lot of our lives were in flux. But I quickly found myself consumed by poker. The game served as the perfect laboratory for my own questions about the role of luck in our lives. Poker isn’t the roulette wheel of pure chance, nor is it the chess of mathematical elegance and perfect information. Apart from the underlying mathematics, poker depends on the nuanced reading of human intention, interactions, and deceptions. It gives you parameters that are just clean enough to allow you to grapple with that uncertainty.

And so Seidel and I hatched a plan: He would train me to play in the game’s single biggest competition, the World Series of Poker, with its notorious $10,000 entry fee. This is the tournament that so dramatically jump-started his own career, with his second-place finish to Chan. I would have less than a year to prepare for it.

My first day of training, I wake up at six in the morning, bleary-eyed, with my tail decidedly un-bushy. The WSOP takes place inside a casino, with tables, chairs, green felt, real cards, chips, all of it. The online version, where I start to learn to play, is a not-very-persuasive replica. The poker table is flat and pixelated, surrounded by avatars—hard-to-make-out photos uploaded by the users to represent their virtual selves. Virtual cards zip from a central spot and flip over in front of you. A small number underneath the cards tells you how many chips each player has. It’s all kind of drab, and made more so by the fact that I had to schlep to a coffee shop in New Jersey, where online poker is legal, to play. But it’s the quickest path to learning from zero: hundreds of hands, hundreds of scenarios, all unfolding as quickly as I can click with a mouse.

After playing all morning, I make my way to Upper Manhattan to meet with Seidel and review how I’ve played. There are no lesson plans. There are no specific topics to cover or goals to hit. Instead, Seidel and I walk. Ever since he got a Fitbit, some years ago, he has been religious in hitting his daily step count, come rain or shine, in New York or Vegas or anywhere else in the world, whether he’s in between playing or in the middle of a tournament. It’s not just for exercise. Walking is his way of thinking.

As the majestic Hudson glitters blue on our left and the flowered carpets of Riverside Park open up on the right, I try my best to keep up with Seidel’s long strides while strategically perching my phone on the side of my bag to record the conversation. I alternate between fishing a dog-eared poker-strategy book—right now, Harrington on Hold ’em—out of said bag to find the pertinent pages and holding a mini notebook to jot down especially important thoughts that I want to revisit. We must look like a very odd duo.

Our earliest walking conversations are, as you’d expect, among the most basic. I’ve already drilled down the ground rules of Texas Hold’em: You are dealt two cards. You decide whether to play them or to fold. If you do play them, you call the “blind” bet or raise. Everyone else follows the same decision process, going in a clockwise direction starting from the player to the left of the big blind, a position called, appropriately enough, “under the gun.” And then you make that decision again every time new information, in the form of new cards, appears. At the end, if only one person holds cards when the betting is done, she wins the pot. If the hand goes to showdown—that is, the final bet is called—the person holding the best cards will win.

But that’s about where the simplicity ends. To the untrained eye, poker seems deceptively easy. It seems like every time I talk to Erik, he has a new story of a bartender or server or Uber driver who recognizes him and offers up the wisdom that he could play just as well; that “lucky break” simply hasn’t manifested itself.

Seidel doesn’t give me much in the way of concrete advice, and our conversations remain more theoretical than I would prefer. He focuses more on process than prescription. When I complain that it would be helpful to know at least his opinion on how I should play a hand, he gives me a smile and tells me a story. Earlier that year, he says, he was talking to one of the most successful high-stakes players currently on the circuit. That player was offering a very specific opinion on how a certain hand should be played. Erik listened quietly and then told him one phrase: “Less certainty. More inquiry.”

“He didn’t take it well,” he tells me. “He actually got pretty upset.” But Seidel wasn’t criticizing. He was offering the approach he’d learned over years of experience. Question more. Stay open-minded.

Poker illustration
Toma Vagner

These Zen koans can be frustrating. I do want answers. I do want a guide for what to do with my pocket 10s from the small blind following a raise from under the gun and a re-raise from the hijack. Enough philosophy! I want to yell. Give me certainty! Tell me if I’m supposed to call or shove or fold. Tell me if I’m making a big mistake! But Seidel will not be shaken. And I’m left with that frustrating not-quite-rage that, weeks later, miraculously coalesces into knowledge. Poker is all about comfort with uncertainty, after all. Only I didn’t quite realize it wasn’t just uncertainty about the outcome of the cards. It’s uncertainty about the “right” thing to do.

A number of years ago, Erik heard about a seminar led by Mike Caro. Caro is famous for his book on tells—live, in-the-moment reads of others at the table. “He’s a pretty eccentric guy,” Erik says. “And he’s walking around the stage and starts off by saying, ‘What is the object of poker?’” I nod in agreement. A question I’ve been asking myself frequently.

Erik continues, “Somebody says, ‘Winning money.’ He says, ‘No.’ Somebody else says, ‘Winning a lot of pots.’ ‘No.’ He says, ‘The object of poker is making good decisions.’ I think that’s a really good way to look at poker.”

He thinks for a bit. “When you lose because of the run of the cards, that feels fine. It’s not a big deal. It’s much more painful if you lose because you made a bad decision or a mistake.”

Seidel won’t tell me how to play a hand not because he’s being mean but because that answer comes at the expense of my developing ability to make good decisions. I have to learn to think through everything for myself, on my own. All he can give me are the tools. I’m the one who has to find the way through. And then, perhaps, I’ll be ready to play for real stakes, in a real casino, one step closer to the World Series of Poker.

Las Vegas shouldn’t exist. The incongruity hits you from the moment you first glimpse it from the airplane. First mountains, then desert, then neat squares of identical houses that look as if they were plucked straight from Monopoly. And suddenly, green, lush oases in the midst of it all: golf courses. This stark contrast between the vibrant green forms with the yellows and browns is the most prominent visual cue that you are entering a place that was not intended by nature.

I hate Vegas, I think to myself as I wheel my suitcase away from the slot machines, toward the airport’s exit. The cold air hits me in a burst of disbelief. It’s full-on Vegas winter. No one ever told me that Vegas can get cold, and that in addition to all the other unpleasantness, I’d also be shivering. Goes to show what I know about desert climates.

“I think I hate Vegas,” I tell Erik as I hoist the suitcase into the back of his car. For my first foray out West, he’s decided to pick me up at the airport.

“I know the feeling,” he says.

If flying is an exercise in perspective, seeing the tiny Earth from above and realizing just how tiny you yourself are as part of it, the Vegas casino is the opposite. It’s designed to capture your attention and make itself look like the world in its entirety. Its interiors are conceived in a way that depletes your decision-making abilities and emotional reserves. The slot machines, the free alcohol, the amenities crafted so that you never need to look outside the casino walls. (“So casinos aren’t designed for great decision making?” Erik asks me when I share my reservations. “Who would’ve thought.”)

It’s November, and I’ll be here on and off for weeklong stretches over the next few months. It’s my first time trying my hand at real poker—actual casinos, actual tournaments, players who’ve been doing this for years, some for longer than I’ve been alive. I guess I’ll have to get over my distaste for the place.

I write out a poker schedule in my notebook: Caesars or Planet Hollywood at 10 a.m., Monte Carlo or Mirage or MGM Grand at 11. I’m looking through the daily tournaments and seeing what I can fit in so that I still have time to watch Erik play with the high rollers. There are dozens to choose from. Ooh, here’s one at the Aria! That’s where Erik plays. It’s a beautiful poker room, and I’m excited they host something that’s closer to my budget than his $25,000 and $50,000 buy-ins. I eagerly write it down with a star next to it.

“No,” Erik responds. “You can’t play that one.” But why? It’s so convenient and exciting. “You’re not ready for Aria,” he says.

Why not? I’ve been playing online almost daily. And I’ve even made almost $2,000 doing it! How does he want me to play a $10,000 buy-in down the line if I can’t even play this?

“First of all, the players here are too good. You need to start at a lower level.”


“And second of all, $140 is way too expensive. You need to build a bigger bankroll before you can play that high.” I feel a blow to my ego. He doesn’t think I can pull off a baby tournament. Also, what’s a bankroll?

My first few weeks in Vegas don’t go particularly well. After an inauspicious start at the Golden Nugget—I promptly bust out of my first-ever live tournament without much fanfare—I try my luck at Excalibur, at Harrah’s (Erik laughs when I tell him where I’m going, not because of the location but because I’ve pronounced it “hurrah”), at the Mirage. Each venue offers a slightly different experience, and with each hand, even as I lose more and more money—funny how expensive a fifty-dollar tournaments become once you realize how many you’ll be entering without so much as a cent for your efforts—I start seeing more and more of the patterns I’ve been learning about play out in real life. There are the passive players, the aggressive players, the conservative players, the active players, the loose players. There are the ones who like to drink. There are the ones who like to play and never fold. There are the ones who are vacationing and here to have fun, the ones who take it seriously and are here to win, the ones who are here to take advantage of others, and the ones who simply want to make a few friends at the table. There are the talkers, the stalkers, the bullies, the friendlies. I watch all of them and, after the game, I take careful notes.

I enter a $60 daily tournament at Bally’s. It’s small, only two tables’ worth of players, but I feel a certain pride in watching the numbers dwindle to a single table, then eight, seven, six, until finally, I find myself in the final four. And it’s hard for me to contain my excitement when I flop a set (three of a kind) of nines, an excellent hand if ever there were. There’s a bet before me, and I joyously shove all my chips into the middle. This is it. All my learning is paying off. I will finally have my first tournament cash. I get called by a player who is hoping the dealer completes his flush, and to my horror, the flush hits. I’m out, and devastated.

I almost leave it all right then and there. This game is so damn unfair. But there’s the knowledge, somewhere deep down, that it’s to confront that very seeming unfairness that I turned to poker in the first place; I resolve to play on. I spend the next week playing day after day after day, taking conscientious notes, and talking them through with Erik. I’m a warrior, a storyteller, an explorer—not a lost minnow about to be eaten by the sharks. It’s a mantra I repeat over and over, hoping that it will eventually stick.

Tuesday morning, I wake up early to make my next tournament: a 10 a.m. start at Planet Hollywood. I’m surprised that any actual poker players are awake this early. I make my way across the walkway over the Strip that connects CityCenter and the Miracle Mile Shops, promptly get lost in a two-story Walgreens that I had thought was the entrance to the casino, and eventually emerge into the actual Planet Hollywood. The poker room is in the center of the casino floor. I head to the desk and ask to register for the daily.

It’s a good turnout today. Over the weeks, I’ve learned that sometimes these morning events get only a table or two of players, and we have three already. Every 20 minutes, the blind bets increase. It’s a “turbo” structure, built for aggression and quick resolution. If you sit around too long, you’ll find yourself without any chips at all, so you have to act quickly—but act too quickly, and you’ll find yourself out. I’ve slowly acclimated to the fast pace of the daily tournaments and trying to follow my lessons as best I can within the time constraints. Today, it finally feels like it’s coming together. I focus. I pay attention to the players. I try not to panic with the rising blinds. As each hand is dealt, I imagine myself explaining the why of any action before I act. Some players start busting. I’m still in.

We are down to just one table and I look down at pocket queens, an excellent hand. I raise. I get called. Another player decides to shove, pushing all his chips to the center. Past me might have just folded, assuming one of the two players had me beat and not wanting to risk my entire tournament. But today’s me knows enough to call. I’ve been bluffed all week.

The player after me folds, and we flip over our cards. My opponent has ace-king. It’s about as good a situation as I could hope for, short of him having a worse pocket pair. Sure, he can hit an ace or a king, and sure, I’m not exactly thrilled. I’d much rather he have ace-queen or ace-jack, reducing his chances of beating me. But at least as of now, I’m a little bit ahead. It’s what’s known as a classic race, a coin flip: Does the pocket pair hold, or does the ace-king outdraw it to win? The variance this time around is on my side. I more than double my stack of chips. Suddenly, I’m the table chip leader.

Poker illustration
Toma vagner

There are five of us left. I catch some looks going on between the four others. All of them, of course, are men. “So you want to talk about a chop?” the player to my right asks me. A chop is when the remaining players in a tournament agree to divide up the money rather than continue playing. Sometimes, it’s done in a way known as a chip chop—you get the amount of the prize pool proportional to your portion of the chips. Other times, it’s done according to a principle known as ICM, or the Independent Chip Model, in which each chip is not created equal: Your payout also takes into account the tournament payout structure (the percentage of the prize pool designated to each place) and your likelihood of finishing in your current position. Either way, you divide the money and call it a day.

As the chip leader, I’m the one to persuade to chop. I look around at the other players. I have more than twice the next stack. I shake my head. “No, thank you. I’d like to play.”

Another player busts. “Come on, let’s chop,” says my neighbor.

“Yeah. Let’s just chop,” says my other neighbor.

“It’s in your best interest to just chop,” says the third remaining player. “You’re in a position of power now. You’ll get more money. But you know you’re gonna lose all those chips just as quick as you won them. Just you wait.”

That does it. I adamantly shake my head no, not trusting myself to make a coherent verbal argument. (Little do I know this is just mild banter compared with what I’ll soon encounter—being propositioned; being called a cunt; being dismissed as a “little girl”; poker is a man’s world, and if you ever forget it, someone will remind you right quick.) Soon, we’re down to three players—again the others ask: Chop, chop? No—then two, and then, miracle of miracles, only one. I have won my first ever tournament, along with some $900. I am over the moon.

“Will this be reported to the Hendon Mob?” I ask the man who’s counting out my payout. The Hendon Mob is the website that tracks all poker players’ tournament winnings, and I’m excited at the thought that I will be Hendon-official, a badge of honor in my mind.

He looks at me with something like pity. “Sorry, honey. We don’t report our dailies to Hendon.”

I’m momentarily saddened by the news—but the feeling of more than $900 in my hands and the knowledge that I have my first-ever victory is enough to get me to forget the slight. I’ve now paid for my whole trip with one win. I have a bankroll! I am a player! Somehow, this is far more exciting than winning online.

I emerge into the sunlight and send two text messages—to Erik and to my husband. The texts are identical: “I won my first tournament!!!!”

To Erik, I send a follow-up. “Can I play the Aria tourney now?”

“You’ve earned it.”

That evening, I’m sitting at Aria—not watching, sitting!—at last. I feel exuberant. I bust quickly enough; there hasn’t been some sort of miracle switch from losing to winning. But the next day, I play again. And the day after that. And then I finally have it: my first ever Hendon cash. I place second, and this time, it’s far more than $900. I have $2,215 newly added to my name, and I am on fire.

“It would be good for you to start playing a few higher buy-ins and see how those feel,” Erik tells me. Even I’m not naive enough to think that the game I’m playing at my level is the same one played at tournaments with higher buy-ins, where the skill level and complexity increase. These small successes in the Vegas dailies aren’t enough to guarantee success elsewhere, nor are they enough to sustainably fund any sort of move up in stakes. But they are a start, and for my purposes, that is good enough. I realize now how grateful I should be that Erik limited me to sub-$100 buy-ins to start. I’ve been in Vegas, on and off, for almost two months—and that’s how long it’s taken to get here.

When I get back from Vegas, a change, it seems, has already taken place. A few weeks later, I find my husband quietly observing me after I get off the phone with my speaking agency. I’ve just turned down an engagement—the first time I’ve ever done so in my entire speaking career—and told them that I was worth more than what they were offering.

“Is everything okay?” I ask him.

“You know, you take much less shit from people than you used to,” he says thoughtfully, with something I take for admiration. “That’s really good.”

Over the coming months, I return to Vegas time and time again. I travel to Monte Carlo for my first major international event. I find myself in Dublin, in Barcelona, in the wilds of Connecticut. I have some small successes. And some bigger failures. But I keep going. I want to earn Erik’s faith in me.

In January of 2018, almost a year since I played my first hand of live poker, I alight on one of the oldest and most prestigious stops on the poker tour, the PCA, or PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. The Bahamas are beautiful, but I see them only for the few minutes I spend walking outside between my room and the casino. They say the more sightseeing you’re doing on a poker stop, the worse you’re likely playing. I’ve been spending a lot of time indoors. After 16 hours of grueling play, I have made it to day two of the tournament. I stumble into bed, only to realize I can’t actually sleep for more than a few hours. The adrenaline rush is too much. I enter the familiar spiral of I need to sleep to play well, oh no, I’m not sleeping, this is terrible that anyone who has ever dealt with insomnia knows so well. And sleep or not, it’s on to day two.

Today, my caffeine-fueled mind is a muddle running on its last fumes, but I make some hands and somehow avoid busting. Which means that—drumroll—I have managed to make the final table. I’m among the last of eight players standing at a major international tournament. That night, I jerk awake with the sense of dread that comes from a particularly disturbing nightmare. When I realize I’d dreamt of playing out a bad beat in my head, I start laughing, a hint of hysteria creeping in.

At 11 a.m., my phone pings. It’s Erik. “Job today: relax, focus, think. You worked hard for this. Don’t allow distraction.”

I nod, forgetting for a second that he can’t see me.

My phone pings again. “I’m very excited and so is Ru.” Ru is Ruah—Erik’s wife.

I gather my things and walk down to the casino. I’ve been to final tables before, but never at a major event. When I look around me, it seems like I must have entered an alternate timeline.

There’s Chris Moorman sitting to the left of the dealer. Moorman is a feared tournament crusher who has been ranked in the past as the No. 1 online-tournament player in the world. Harrison Gimbel is two seats to my left. I don’t know him, but I do know that he has won the coveted Triple Crown of poker—a WSOP bracelet, a WPT (World Poker Tour) title, and a European Poker Tour title. Actually, he won the main event at this very stop. He’s on familiar turf. To my right is Loek van Wely, whom I recognize from looking him up the previous night—a basic step in preparation. Van Wely is a chess grand master and Dutch chess champion, who was once ranked in the top 10 chess players in the world. Another player is a Canadian pro with almost a million in earnings. Yet another is a pro from Chicago with over a million in earnings. I feel like a total impostor.

Jared Tendler, my mental-game coach, wouldn’t approve of my thinking, but I can’t help myself. We worked on this very thing. “Everyone got lucky at some point,” he told me. “Strip down the mythology around their greatness. They still have weaknesses. They are humans first, players second.”

I try to collect myself. I take deep breaths. I reflect on how far I’ve come. Improbably, I’m second in chips, with over 70 big blinds to work with—exactly where you want to be heading into a final table. I get a boost from a big surprise: When I walk into the tournament room, Seidel is there to greet me. He hadn’t told me he’d come. He has a final table today, too, but not for a few hours. He could be resting. I’m chuffed. I tell him that I’m so nervous I couldn’t eat breakfast, and I’m worried I might actually vomit.

“One hand at a time,” he says. “The nerves go away when you are paying close attention to play. You’ve got this.”

Easy for him to say, what with his countless final tables and titles. I put on a brave smile and ask him if he has any last-minute advice.

He does. “Don’t be a fish,” using poker slang for a weak player.

And with that, he’s off to start his day and to watch the action from afar. Final tables are hell to watch in person, because you can’t see hole cards. Don’t be a fish, I repeat silently as I sit down and smile for the cameras. Don’t be a fish. Don’t be a fish.

The hours pass. I lose some pots. I make mistakes. I rally. I focus. I retrench and build my stack back up. I should rightly bust when I get a pair of sevens all in pre-flop, only to find myself against a pair of aces. I’m halfway out of my seat, and I get lucky with a miraculous sequence of cards that help me make a straight. I make more mistakes. But somehow, the players keep busting, one by one, and I am still here.

I pick up chips. I double up against an opponent I’ve been calling Aggro Oldie in my head, on account of his overly aggressive approach that takes advantage of his image of an older man who wouldn’t possibly bluff. He tries to bully me pre-flop, but I take a stand with a suited king-jack and hold against his queen-10. A few hands later, I knock him out of the tournament. He raises from the small blind, and I find myself in the big blind with the ace-king of hearts, a monster hand under any circumstances, especially so now. I make a large bet, and he decides he’s had enough of me and goes all in. I call instantly. He has ace-deuce, off suit: I’m in great shape going to the flop. I make a straight, and suddenly there are only two of us. I am at my first major final table, playing heads up for a major title.

Before we restart play, I text Seidel. “Heads up! I’m chip leader.” I ask him if I should consider talking about a deal. “If you think he’s good,” he writes back. After a pause, he adds: “You’ve been practicing though.”

He’s right. I have, indeed. “I think I’ll stick it out for now,” I write back. I’m feeling this.

“That’s the spirit!” Seidel replies. “We are walking over! So damn exciting.” He and Ruah are making their way over to the casino to cheer me on.

The thought of them watching gives me an energy boost that propels me through the next few hands, until I face what could be a tournament‐changing decision. I raise before the flop, holding the ace of clubs and king of spades. My opponent, Alexander Ziskin, a professional player from Chicago, calls. The flop is two 10s and a seven, with two spades. He checks. I bet again: My hand is still very strong, and even if he has a pair, I have plenty of opportunity to improve. But instead of folding or calling, the easy options, Alexander raises, to almost three times my bet. I hesitate. Does he have a 10? If he does, I’m in bad shape. I decide that he would call with a 10 instead—on a board that dry, why not let me hang myself? I have two overcards and a chance at a flush. I call the raise. The turn is the deuce of spades, putting a third spade on the board. “All in,” he announces. Oh no. I have just ace‐high. What do I do?

My brain starts calculating. If I call and I’m wrong, he has the chip lead and the momentum. This is a huge decision, especially without so much as a pair in my hand. But I do have a spade, and not just any spade—the king of spades. That means I could improve to the best hand, if yet another spade is turned over on the final card, even if I’m now behind. I agonize for several minutes, counting the combinations of possible bluffs he might have and whether or not they outweigh his value hands, before deciding that I simply can’t fold. The pot odds are in my favor. The math is on my side. And he probably knows how hard this is for me, making him that much more likely to try to pull a move. He’s the pro. I’m the amateur. He’s been here. I haven’t. I call.

Alexander turns over the jack of diamonds and the eight of spades. He has a gutshot straight draw (one card can give him a straight) and a flush draw—but my hand is still best. And my flush draw beats his. All I have to do is hold on, to avoid one of the eight cards that will give him the winner (a nine, a jack, or an eight, as long as they are not spades). The cameras rush closer. The reporters huddle around. I look for Erik and Ruah, but everything is happening so quickly that they haven’t yet made it to the table. The dealer waits until the floor manager tells her she can flip the next card.

We sit and wait. It seems to drag on forever. And finally, she gets the signal. The river is dealt. It’s the king of hearts. I can’t believe it. Alexander is getting up and walking over to shake my hand, and I still haven’t quite registered it. I’ve just won. $84,600 is mine. I’m the 2018 PCA National champion. And I’ve got my buy-in for the World Series of Poker.

This article was excerpted from Konnikova’s recent book, The Biggest Bluff.