In her book, The Biggest Bluff, author, and psychologist Maria Konnikova takes a year off from writing to learn poker. In 12 short months, she goes from complete novice to tournament champion.

Maria learns that poker is an almost perfect vehicle for learning how to make correct life decisions, and how to deal with the swings of luck we all experience.

In this episode, John discusses how to deal with the current state of the world for musicians (known as a “bad beat” in poker) and how to make correct decisions going forward in your singing and music.


The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova

Episode Transcript

Episode 185 – Dealing with Life’s Bad Beats

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending this precious listening time with me.

All right, today I want to start off by giving a shout out to two fans of the podcast Jonas and Jewel from The Netherlands. I was working earlier today with a show of fantastic singer songwriter in The Netherlands and Jonas and Jewel two of her friends and colleagues popped up on Skype to say hello and how much they appreciate the podcast and it’s always great to meet listeners. If you are a regular listener of this podcast then obviously you and I click on some level. So I always enjoy meeting and talking to fans of the podcast and I really, really truly do appreciate everyone who does listen, and Jonas and Jewel, we’re talking about sharing episodes with friends and that just makes me feel so gratified that that’s why I do this. I really do this to help singers and to help navigate through the slog of trying to have a professional career or put your voice together. This is not something for the faint of heart and with that in mind, I want to talk about something today that is a favorite subject of mine, and that is poker.

Now, poker, I believe is a brilliant game and a big part of its brilliance is it can teach us life skills and spirit specifically about making good choices and sticking with good choices no matter what happens. Now, what makes poker a uniquely brilliant game is that it is a game of incomplete information and there is a luck element. It’s not pure luck, like roulette or slot machines. But it’s also not like chess where all the information is there on the board, and there is no luck element. The only luck could be that your player is somehow distracted or not feeling well that day and misses a good move.

But in chess, almost every time the better player is going to win. But that’s not like life, is it? I mean, just because you have a superior work ethic or you’re a better musician, that does not mean that you’re always going to win and there are people who are going to get lucky. But what poker shows us is we all get lucky sometimes. It’s how we handle then not getting lucky. That’s really, really important and I was really reminded of this, I just read a fantastic new book called The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova. And Maria has a PhD in Psychology from Columbia. She also has a degree in Creative Writing from Harvard. She’s just brilliant and she was a columnist for The New Yorker magazine, and she decided to take a year off and learn to play poker. And her goal was to play in The World Series of Poker which is the biggest tournament poker event of the year and within the year she went from literally not knowing how many cards are in a deck of cards to winning over $200,000 in tournament poker, and she ended up leaving writing for a while and became a professional poker player and then also wrote this book The Biggest Bluff.

Now The Biggest Bluff is not just specifically about poker and her story is a fun part of it. But it really is about how the mind works because she looks at it as a psychologist and one of the big lessons in there that I really want to focus on here today besides other aspects of the game, but the big lesson especially in light of the year 2020, of the year all of us are having, because unless your last name is Bezos or Zuckerberg, you’re maybe not having your best year. I mean, I know the tech titans are getting wealthier and wealthier but musicians and creatives have really had careers taken out by the knees and just no touring, no performances. Sure, people are jumping on and doing live streams, but it’s been incredibly difficult. And this is what you would call a bad beat. Now a bad beat is not a lousy drummer. A bad beat in poker is when you get in a hand, and you have far and away the best hand, and then as the final cards are laid out to complete the hand, the person opposing you gets basically the two cards they needed in order to beat you.

And you could have been, I mean, I’ve been in hands where I have a 99% favorite to win. And so of course I’m shoving chips into the middle and that last card comes and I get beaten and I get beaten by a hand that really shouldn’t have been in there in the first place. And so that’s called a bad beat. And poker players love to walk around and moan about their bad beats and talk about their bad beats. And Maria was playing a tournament and she was in a hand where she had a great hand. And if she won this hand, she was then going to be in the money in the tournament. Let’s say you have 1000 people start in the tournament, but only the top 70 players or 100 players are going to get paid and so there’s 101 people. And so when she knocks this other person out and gets these chips, then she’s going to be paid and the further up you go, the more you get paid. But if she lost this hand, she walks out with nothing, and she gets a really bad beat and she walks out with nothing. And her mentor was a person named Erik Seidel, and Erik Seidel is one of the great poker players of all time. And so she went over to Erik Seidel and she started to tell him about her bad beat and he told her to stop talking. And Erik is known as a very nice guy, but he was a little rude with her and he said, “No one cares about your bad beat. Talking about a bad beat is like dumping your trash on someone else’s lawn.’ Now being a psychologist, Maria realized the wisdom in this because if you get caught up in your bad beat and how you got cheated, and this wasn’t fair, and believe me, every bad beat is not fair.

But the fact is, when you have the best of it, you need to go for it. When you have a winning hand, you need to push your chips in, and if luck turns on you and you will lose, you take solace in the fact that you made the right decision. Because if you stay in the injustice of luck, it’s going to affect your decision making as you go forward. So if you’re in a tournament or you’re playing in a game and you suffer a bad beat, you have to let it go. You have to ask yourself, “did I make the right decision?” And if you had made the right decision with that hand and you play that hand correctly, even if you lost, that’s all you can ask for. You cannot control random luck and you need to realize that 2020 is a bad beat.

Nobody planned for this, none of us did. Governments, some governments did, some governments didn’t, that’s their job. But we weren’t expecting this, as you were progressing in your studies and in your career, you couldn’t have known this was coming and so now that it’s happened, you cannot wallow in the bad beat. You cannot let it affect your psychology and your decision making, because your decision making and the strength of your decisions are what’s important. Your decisions are what’s valuable and we have to let go of results. And we have to let go of outcomes. Because on any given day, Erik Seidel is one of the best poker players in the world, but in a given hand, he can lose to a beginning player because of the luck factor.

However, over the course of thousands of hands Eric will be the winner, because it all starts to even out. I mean, if life is a coin flip, you can get tails 10 times in a row and if I were to flip the coin and I informed you that it’s been tails 10 times in a row, you’d be tempted to base your decision on what came before. But the fact is, it’s random. Just because it’s been tails 10 times before it can be tails one more time. But if we bring that out to 10,000 flips of the coin, then we are likely going to get closer to 50/50 parody, luck begins to even out. But in the day to day or even year to year, we can have massive swings of luck and that’s just all part of life. Life is a gamble. Music is a gamble. Everything’s a gamble. People say you shouldn’t gamble. It’s not true.

If you choose to go into a certain line of business, to get a certain major, you are gambling, that’s going to be what you want to do 10 years down the road or that this industry is still going to be around, things change so much. So everything is a gamble. It’s how we adjust to bad beats and one of the worst things you can do as a poker player is go on tilt. And tilt is usually brought on by bad beats. And bad beats can happen in a string, you can have bad beat after bad beat, and then just keep getting lousy cards etc. And your emotions start to come into play and you start to be more reckless and that’s what you don’t want to do.

Poker players have to constantly be on the lookout for going on tilt for allowing their emotions to get involved to to stop them from jumping more into the luck side of the game and you can play poker more as a gamble, you can just start throwing money in on very speculative hands and hands that are more of a long shot. And you can hit those sometimes and you can do very well. But the swings as they call it, you start to make a lot of money but then you lose even more the swings become really, really rough and there have been poker players who have been driven out of the game, because they go more for the gamble. But then if you’re too conservative, if all you do is wait for the best cards and you only bet when you’re almost destroyed to be a winner.

And you don’t take risks and you don’t bluff? Well, you may not lose very much, but you’re not going to gain very much either and there is an element of risk, especially going into music. And so the best strategy as a poker player is what they call a tight aggressive player. And a tight aggressive player is someone who waits for premium hands or at least better hands. They may play some hands that are a bit more speculative, but they know the style of the players around them and the psychology and they know if they can bully and chase players out of pots that they otherwise would have won.

But a tight aggressive player will wait for premium hands and then when they get a good hand they play them very aggressively. One of the worst things you can do in poker is just call. Somebody bets and you call, somebody raises and you call. Once you’re in a hand, you’re better off being the person pushing the chips in the middle, you take control. And that’s what you have to do in your career, is you have to know when the time is right and when things look good, and when they do go for you put yourself on the line, you don’t worry what people think. You get some aggression and you get some belief in yourself.

But right now, this is the time for people to do some reflection, to build up their skills and to get ready for when things open up again and you keep looking for opportunities. But when you start getting bad hands in poker, you’re just folding. That doesn’t mean you check out of the game. That’s actually when you’re able to pay the most attention. So I’m sitting in a poker tournament, and I get dealt seven to offsuit. One of the worst hands you can get is not going to usually play that hand, so I fold it. But rather than checking my phone, what I want to do is watch what everyone else does in the hand.

Who’s raising? Who’s calling? Who seems more aggressive? Who seems less aggressive? And at the end of the hand, who showed down what they play and you there’s a lot of information to get, there’s a lot of learning to get, even when the time isn’t right for you. You don’t stop mentally being in the game and I believe it’s the same right now. If it’s not the time to be out there, performing, it’s still time to be Mentally in the game to be paying attention to be growing as a musician, growing as a singer, developing new skills.

Don’t let the bad beats get you down. You’re going to suffer more bad beats, we are always going to suffer bad beats. Some are worse than others. But it’s how you come back. It’s how you deal with the losses and that you keep your decision making sharp and you keep your motivation up. And you don’t lose sight of why you do music in the first place. Don’t lose the love. I know it’s frustrating. I’m working with singers right now who are making incredible progress.

I have one singer in particular, who was in, had a pretty darn good gig musical theater show and his voice has been getting so good that he’s just chomping at the bit to get back out there. But he knows if he’s patient, he’s going to get even better and he’s just looking forward to blowing people away and that’s what I wish for you to take this time, to stay positive, to stay motivated and to stay focused.

Hey, if you want to know more about me, please visit my website, be sure to get on my mailing list. My book is going to be released very, very soon and the first people that are going to know about it are going to be people on my mailing list. I am going to release it quietly and the book is going to be available on Kindle for free for the first few days so go to and sign up for my email list. Make sure that you opt in that you want to receive emails from me and you will know when Beginning Singing is released. I am super, super excited, just got the format. I’ve got it all formatted, just had to do a little tweak on the cover because after the format there were a few more pages than the cover was designed for the spine just has to be a bit thicker. A few little things to be put on the supplemental website that’s got video lessons and scales, and then we are ready to go so be sure to get on that.

Also, if you want to get voice lessons my associate Darlene Yam has some limited availability just email [email protected] to inquire and Tracee there can answer all your questions, and until next time to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye-bye