The Ace That I Could Keep

To continue this week’s theme of Random Things That Remind Me of Education, I would like to share a book that I read over the break. I subscribe to The Next Big Idea Club, and receive a few new books every quarter. One of them is The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova. As you might guess from the title, this non-fiction book is about poker – specifically Konnikova’s self-assigned project to learn how to play Texas Hold ‘Em and win against some of the best players in the world.

I began reading the book because I imagined that I, too, would become a champion gambler. I have a tarnished history with anything where I rely on chance, beginning with the time that my friends and I decided to sing the Kenny Rogers song for a talent show in 5th grade and I procrastinated learning my solo part, relying on my brain to recall the words from the radio without any practice, and subsequently embarrassing myself in front of the entire school when Luck did not even pretend to reward my faith in it. Luck has been similarly disloyal in my attempts to play pool, betting on horses, and pretty much any card game, including Uno.

About 20 pages into the book that was certain to change my fortune, I got up to rummage through a drawer for a highlighter, not because I wanted to note how to perceive “tells” from other players or remember the odds for certain card combinations, but because Konnikova’s observations are so applicable to teaching, learning, and living.

Maria Konnikova is a scientist with a PhD in psychology from Columbia University. So she approached her new endeavor with the mindset of someone who studies human behavior. She, herself, recognizes how closely poker mirrors life with its combination of luck and skill, and states that, despite luck’s constant interference, “Skill shines through over the longer time horizon.”

In her chapter, “The Art of Losing,” Konnikova demonstrates with her own personal story how important it is to learn from our mistakes, a philosophy that was apparent in my classroom every day. Her mentor, Erik Seidel, says, “When things go wrong, other people see it as unfairness that’s always surrounding them. They take it personally. They don’t know how to lose, how to learn from losing. They look for someone, or something, to blame.”

Does that remind you of anyone?

Erik also tells Maria about another famous player who would ask audiences he spoke to, “What is the object of poker?” After people would shout answers like, “Winning money,” he would respond, “The object of poker is making good decisions.”

As I read that, I thought about all of the times that I reflected on teaching days that didn’t go well, berating myself for being a terrible teacher. What if I had looked more specifically at my decisions, instead of the things out of my control? What if I looked at my life that way?

Two more of the many, many things that I highlighted in this book that I think are specifically applicable to teaching:

  • “You can’t just plow ahead with one strategy because if worked in the past or you’ve seen someone else employ it successfully.”
  • “You don’t have to have studied the description-experience gap to understand, if you’re truly expert at something, that you need experience to balance out the description. Otherwise, you’re left with the illusion of knowledge – knowledge without substance.”

Though there are hundreds of other pearls of wisdom in this book, I will leave you with the advice given by Jared Tendler to Maria Konnikova, advice I would have given my 10 year-old self the night before I was supposed to belt out The Gambler from the floor of our Catholic school auditorium. (Hmm, speaking of decisions, which nun gave us permission to sing that particular song?)

“You need to think in terms of preparation. Don’t worry about hoping. Just do.”

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