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Striking the balance between luck and skill

Many Americans will carefully weigh the risks when deciding whether to gather together or travel for the holidays amid a global pandemic. Maria Konnikova, poker player and author of "The Biggest Bluff," shares her humble opinion on how to balance luck and skill.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As you decide what your holiday travel plans will be, or won't be, most people will carefully weigh the risks and make a decision what to do.

    You can gather all your information, case numbers, how many people will gather, travel time. But then there is still the element of chance.

    Tonight, author and poker player Maria Konnikova shares her Humble Opinion on how to strike the balance between luck and skill.

  • Maria Konnikova:

    A few years ago, I went through a period in my life where it seemed like everything that could go wrong did.

    Out of nowhere, I came down with an autoimmune disorder that no one could diagnose. My grandmother, totally healthy, slipped on her way to the bathroom, and never woke up. My husband lost his job. My mom lost her job, all in a span of weeks.

    We don't really think about the importance of luck in life when things are going our way. But all it takes is a series of events totally outside our control to make it clear just how limited our agency can sometimes be.

    So, what should we do? For an answer, I turned to a less-than-traditional teacher, the game of poker. And more than any experience in my life, including my Ph.D. in psychology, it has taught me both the crucial importance of skill and its limits.

    Most people assume that poker is luck. It isn't. You can win with the worst hand and lose with the best hand. Remind you of anything? In fact, it turns out the actual best hand wins only some 12 percent of the time. What happens the other 88 percent? The best hand gets outplayed by superior skill.

    But the opposite can also be true. You can make the right move, be an absolute favorite to win, and then luck can turn against you. As in life, there is no such thing as complete certainty, because, like life, poker is a game of incomplete information, of unknowns, of constantly changing, endlessly moving parts.

    Your job is to decipher the static, to make an informed choice, and to make that choice knowing that the so-called right decision does not guarantee a win. Poker teaches you that the outcome is a result of that balance, the interplay of skill and chance coming together.

    If you keep making the right choices, if you keep thinking well and acting thoughtfully, if you keep putting yourself in a position to win, then, eventually, the variance will be on your side.

    And when it is on your side, stay humble, and never forget that, in order to win, you don't just have to play well. You also have to get very lucky.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that keeps us humble. Thank you for that.

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