Bet Your Life

By Lloyd Graff

“Life is a game of incomplete information.” 

These are the words of Maria Konnikova, a writer and psychologist who learned how to play poker and then played on the professional poker tournament circuit to write her new book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win.

Konnikova read from her book and discussed it with Stephen Dubner on the Freakonomics podcast this week. I found it particularly relevant because our family is now wrestling with a difficult decision while knowing that we have incomplete information, fear, and personal history to contend with.

The question is whether to get together as a family for a week to celebrate our recent 50th wedding anniversary.

I know many other people are grappling with whether to get together as a group for an extended period of time, requiring travel, expense, and above all, the possibility of people getting very sick.

My daughter and her husband and three children live in the Bay Area of California. The COVID-19 epidemic has subsided significantly there, and they have followed the local protocols religiously. The plan has been for them to come to Chicago in early August, and with my sons and their families, to go to South Haven, Michigan, for a week on the shores of Lake Michigan. This trip was planned a year ago, long before the pandemic. 

The economic question of paying for or canceling the three cottages in Michigan forced a decision upon us this week. If we gave up the cottages before July 9th we would not be penalized for backing out. 

We had a lot of imperfect information on which to make our decision. How dangerous was it from a sickness standpoint to travel by air from California? Are the COVID-19 tests accurate for both the current illness and antibodies? Could we maintain social distancing with 11 people, including kids who like to hug and play games and eat together? 

What Konnikova stressed throughout her interview was that in life we are always dealing with uncertainty. A doctor does her tests, takes a history, monitors symptoms, reads the journals, and talks to her peers to make a diagnosis, but then can still get it wrong. In poker you have to deal with the unseen down cards as well as deceptive techniques like bluffing. This could be similar to receiving lousy information from a patient.

But ultimately, a poker hand, a diagnosis, or even a trip, forces you to make a call. If a doctor is hesitant the patient will detect it, which may affect the outcome. A hesitant play in poker is an easy tell for a smart opponent to take advantage of. 

For our family, the indecision about the trip was causing anxiety for all of the adults involved. The underlying fear was the awful “what if my wife and I got COVID and ended up in the hospital.” We’ve both had open heart surgery, so the dire possibility could not be ignored. 

We gave in to the 1% or less possibility of a bad outcome for the family trip to Michigan. But we still have the opportunity for the family from California to stay at our big house with its large backyard in Chicago.

What Konnikova stressed is that there is no such thing as objective reality. However, the best poker player or the smartest decision maker has the ability to get outside of herself to see her own biases, fears, and assumptions. 

The question about the anniversary get-together is whether we can look at our fear for what it is and be wise and gutsy enough to accept the extremely small but real risk. I have reached that point, but my wife still isn’t sure that the risk is worth the reward. 

Konnikova’s book deals with the fact that life is not poker. It’s a lot messier. The consequence of a bad decision about COVID-19 could be death, while in poker it’s just losing chips. But the skills in poker and in life have many things in common. Developing a legitimate personal confidence that you will be right much of the time, while accepting that bad cards occasionally can kill the best of players is the way to live your life to the fullest.

Question: Would you go to a family gathering?

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4 thoughts on “Bet Your Life

  1. Jimmy Santiago Gonzales

    NO I was about to give in fathers day weekend and have MY KIDS COME OVER 3 days before they came over 4 members of his family came down with the virus that would have been a very bad call

  2. Todd Miller

    I would not go to a family gathering because the risk of getting exposed to COVID-19 outweighs the rewards of being together, and I would postpone the celebration until a safer time when there’s a proven vaccine or cure, which hopefully will be available within the next year. Congratulations on the occasion of your 50th anniversary, and I hope you enjoy many more.

  3. Mark

    We just had a family gathering, but it was outside at a ranch in Montana with at least 6 feet distance between the different groups that came.
    Except for outside with social distancing, I would not get together with family or friends.
    In our shop we have an X taped on the floor with a 12 foot circle (6 foot radius) around it. We use this to show employees how far they need to be apart. When they have to work together at a distance of less than 6 feet (training on a machine, shift handover, etc), they have to be masked. Gloves are required all the time.

  4. Jim

    My wife and I celebrated our 50th about a month ago. We would love to have had a big celebration, but that would not have been responsible behavior at that time. We were able to get together with our only daughter, who celebrates her birthday on our anniversary, for a nice take-out dinner at her house. That was a bit risky for us as she is a critical care nurse in a large hospital where she is in the thick of dealing with the coronavirus, but she is careful and we did avoid personal contact. Our plan is to have a party after the pandemic subsides.


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