An Interview with CSICon Speaker Maria Konnikova

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic: Hello, Maria. I don’t think we have actually met in person, but I have so enjoyed your lecture at CSICon 2016 as well as your podcast The Grift. You will be speaking again at CSICon on Friday, October 27, at 9:30 am. I know you are extremely busy these days, but I hope you have a few minutes to answer some questions for CSI readers. Can you give a bit of background on who Maria Konnikova is?

Maria Konnikova: Of course. I’ve been a full-time writer for just over a decade. I write about human nature, culture, literature—basically, whatever catches my fancy. I do have a PhD in psychology, so my work often has a psychological angle. My first book, Mastermind, was about Sherlock Holmes’s thought process; my second (The Confidence Game) was about con artists; and now I’m working on my third (The Biggest Bluff) about my journey into the poker world. I also host a podcast called The Grift about the world of con artists.

Gerbic: At CSICon 2016 you talked about confidence games. What do you have in store for us this year? I think it has something to do with luck and how we perceive its influence over us?

Konnikova: Indeed. It’s the theme I’m exploring for my next book:  the balance of skill and chance in our lives and how we can tell the difference. How do we figure out what we can’t control and adjust our decision-making accordingly? It’s actually a very difficult thing to do, and we have lots of cognitive biases that work against us. I’ll be talking about those as well!

Gerbic: Well that should be timely as you will be telling us about this in a casino. As I said I very much enjoy The Grift podcast. People in my social media world know I’m very interested in what Mark Edward calls “grief vampires,” people who claim to talk to the dead and try to get a hook in the family. Please tell us that there will be more episodes or how you intend to expound on the subject of grifters.

Konnikova: We haven’t quite landed on timing yet, but yes, I would love to do a second season of The Grift. And I have to say, a lot of the themes are cropping up in my journey through the land of poker. The themes that con artists bring out are endlessly fascinating to me, so I don’t expect to stop thinking about them any time soon

Gerbic: In February 2016, one of my GSoW editors Janyce Boynton wrote a Wikipedia page for one of your books, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013). So far that Wikipedia page has been viewed over 14,000 times. Reviewers seemed to think the book was very science-based, but thought of it more as a self-help book. Is that an odd distinction for a science book?

Konnikova: I think it is certainly odd. I didn’t mean it as self-help, in the sense of giving people concrete tips or steps for self-improvement. That said, I tried to focus on themes—specifically, mindfulness—that are central in improving your thinking and well-being. So, I think one can easily extrapolate from the book to personal ways of improving your own thought process. Still, some readers were miffed that there weren’t more concrete tips in the book itself, after reading reviews that suggested there would be. I had a hard time explaining that that had never been the point.

Gerbic: I hear you keep yourself very busy and that poker has become one of your hobbies. Is there anything that has surprised you about that world, and do you think it will influence what you write?

Konnikova: Poker hasn’t become a hobby; it’s the topic of my next book. I’m spending several years immersed in the world of high-stakes poker to explore the themes of chance and skill that I’ll be talking about at CSICon. The book won’t be a poker book as such; I’m using No Limit Hold’Em as a sort of metaphor for life. But the narrative structure will be following my journey from novice to pro, to give some storytelling drive to the underlying themes.

Gerbic: You mentioned in the Out Loud podcast that you did not speak English when you started Kindergarten and that influenced your career choices. Can you expand on that?

Konnikova: I was born in Moscow and came to the U.S. not speaking any English. I think that being immersed in a foreign world, in every sense, made me more sensitive to the nuances of language and communication. And that fascination in turn contributed to my decision to become a writer.

Gerbic: You are in Vegas now. Where were you brought up at?

Konnikova: It’s funny that you say I’m in Vegas now. It certainly feels that way, even though I’m actually still based in NYC. I’m just spending a lot of time out there because of poker. The game is still illegal in New York, and many of the biggest tournaments take place in Las Vegas. I’m not a fan of the place, to be honest. It’s always a relief to come back home to the East coast, which is where I’ve spent most of my life. My family moved to the Boston suburbs when we emigrated from Russia. I went to a public school, Acton-Boxborough, about forty minutes outside of Boston. I went to college at Harvard and then moved to New York right after graduation. I’ve been in the city for over twelve years now.

Gerbic: Thank you so much for your time, Maria. I look forward to seeing you at CSICon

Konnikova: Thanks for having me! It was a pleasure.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.