“You must make the best decision you can…The last player left standing at the end of the final round of betting takes the pot.”

Poker and orchestral auditions…really?? We’re talking about gambling vs spending months in the practice room, preparing diligently for one of the toughest job “interviews” ever. I never expected to find so many parallels between these two seemingly unrelated subjects. Psychologist turned pro poker player Maria Konnikova shares some deep insights in her bestseller The Biggest Bluff.

The author writes about her journey picking up the game of Texas Hold ’em Poker as a complete beginner. She set an unbelievable goal to compete in the World Series of Poker tournament within a year, with the help of her esteemed coach and other mentors. Konnikova’s main motive was to study human behavior, decision-making, personal growth, and the elements of skill vs luck in life. Can one consistently experience “success” with skill alone? On the flip-side, when someone wins by chance, how much of it is pure luck (i.e. – being in the right place at the right time), and how much skill must one have behind the lucky break?


Why poker?

According to Konnikova, this game balances skill and luck, and exposes real-life human behavior when it comes to decision-making:

“For poker, unlike quite any other game, mirrors life. It isn’t the roulette wheel of pure chance, nor is it the chess of mathematical elegance…Like the world we inhabit, it consists of an inextricable joining of the two… – chance and control. Anyone can get lucky – or unlucky -…One turn and you’re on top of the world – another, you are cast out, no matter your skill, training, preparation, aptitude.”

While I want to say that orchestral musicians succeed through significantly more amount of skill rather than luck, the quote above resonates for so many when it comes to auditions. Preparation, and all the decisions about what goes into that preparation is everything; but the end goal is never guaranteed.

As a player in either endeavor, there will always be an interplay between

  • things only you know,

  • things all participating players know, and

  • things you don’t know.

Finally, there are things that can be observed in both. Here are a few examples.

  Poker Tournaments Orchestra Auditions
Things only you know
  • The cards in your hand (and the fact that the other players aren’t holding those two cards in that particular hand)
  • Your planned routine the day of a tournament
  • How much practice you put in
  • Personal strengths & weaknesses (strategy and mental game skills)
  • How much $ you’re willing to put in
  • How much preparation you put in (on all accounts)
  • Your interpretation of the music
  • Personal strengths & weaknesses (playing skills and mental game skills)
  • Your planned routine the day of the audition
  • How much it will cost you (flight, hotel, opportunity cost over # of hours spent preparing, etc)
Things known to all
  • How many chips you have
  • Face-up cards on the table
  • Minimum bet amount for that particular game
  • The excerpt list
  • The audition date/time/location
  • Amount of time to prep
Things you don’t know
  • What cards others hold
  • If someone is betting for value vs bluffing
  • How many hours you’ll be playing that day (apparently poker tournament days can be incredibly long, if you last long enough!)
  • How someone else prepared
  • 100% who is on the committee
  • What the committee is listening for
  • What the temperature and acoustics will be like
  • How long you will have to wait (if you pass round one, you might be in for a very long day!)
What can be observed
  • How many players are at the table
  • Other players’ playing patterns (impression on their strategy)
  • How focused other players are on the game (vs getting distracted, drunk, etc)
  • Others’ physical motions, tendencies, or habits (whether they’re aware of them or not), and how they might be linked with their game-based decisions.
  • Your own tendencies, level of attention, energy levels
  • Self-assessment (before and after the game)
  • How many players are in the common warm-up room
  • How other players are behaving/what they are practicing (although I personally do not recommend to waste your time and energy this way!)
  • Your own energy levels, what’s going through your mind
  • Self-assessment (before and after the audition)

Skill as a Pre-Requisite

Before diving into her journey Konnikova makes a very important statement, which I stand behind 100%: no matter how lucky (or unlucky) someone gets in life, in order to succeed in the long term, skill prevails. Near the end of the book, she writes about getting a mental game coach, which helps her win her first big tournament at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in 2018. This move comes after having participated in the World Series event. To me, this emphasizes the importance of having a coach, teacher, or mentor even as an expert in a particular field. Everyone has blind spots, and there are always other perspectives to explore – whether it be in music, sports, the office, or more general things in life.

“In the end, though, luck is a short-term friend or foe. Skill shines through over the longer time horizon.”

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