How Bose headphones helped a beginner become a poker champion

Maria Konnikova is a writer who decided to learn about professional poker. She discovered she needed noise-canceling headphones to deal with male players and their sexist nonsense.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

A helping hand.


When they used to have those things called open-plan offices, I'd marvel how many people sat at their stations with their headphones permanently perched atop their heads.

Your ears get a little warm after an hour or two, don't they? And don't you miss some of the excitement all around you?

Yet when so many people are simultaneously wearing headphones, perhaps there's no excitement at all. Except on their Slack channels, that is.

Sometimes, though, headphones can serve to do things you might never initially imagine.

I've recently been engrossed in The Biggest Bluff, the tale of an excellent writer who decides she'll give herself a year to become an excellent poker player. Oh, and give herself a chance to appear in the very professional World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Maria Konnikova did get a little help from some of the best. In particular, eight-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Eric Seidel.

Yet once you're at the poker table, the glistening truth is that you're alone. You're surrounded by the seedy, the scammy, the smarmy and the supercilious, as well as the disturbingly self-confident. (It's just like being at the office.)

Sadly, in poker, most of these people are men. Which meant that Konnikova was confronted with the sort of sexist bilge that characterizes far too much of Silicon Valley. I'm sorry, I mean far too much of society. And most definitely Silicon Valley.

But in such a confined space, Konnikova felt forced to react to the bilge. Which clearly wasn't conducive to concentrating on a maddeningly subtle game.

Finally, when a man she generously describes as well-meaning offers her the advice that she's stacking her chips like an amateur, it ruins Konnikova's evening.

Again, she's forced to react in some way or other. Being human can trigger you that way.

Her solution was both simple and subtle. She remembered her recently-bought Bose noise-canceling headphones and decided they might just serve to cancel out the annoyance. Or, at least, deal with it.

The simple act of having put on the headphones gave her a reason not to react. 

She writes in her book: "Now I have a socially acceptable way to selectively drown out conversation. I can still hear everything at the table, so I don't miss important information, but I no longer have to acknowledge hearing it."

If you're doing something that requires intense concentration -- and Konnikova spent much of her time at the table observing the players' hands, not their supposed poker faces -- you need to have a sense of control.

"When I'm receiving unwanted overtures or condescending needles or patronizing good will, the thing that unites my encounters (apart from the obvious gender implications) is the lack of agency they foist on me," she writes.

Did she therefore play music to drown out what was going on around her? Well, no. Mostly no.

"Usually, I'd just put them on," Konnikova told me. The headphones served as a barrier, not an attempt to manipulate her mood by playing a little Charles Aznavour or Rage Against The Machine.

Indeed, the only time she did infuse them with music was during late-nights at the tables, which can go on until most people's waking-up time.

"I'd be tired and I needed a soundtrack to wake me up," she said.

For Konnikova, her Bose-tinted maneuver helped her become the 2018 PokerStars Pacific Caribbean Adventure champion, which brought with it almost $85,000. Oh, did I just mention that she did actually become a very good player?

Please believe me, that fact doesn't spoil the book. There are so many revealing aspects that'll make many a reader wonder about their own ways of playing at life. And, indeed, work.

I wonder how many times, in those long-gone office days, employees used the same muting device, via a device.

I wonder how many times, instead of listening to music, those headphone-wearers had just put them on to create a distance between themselves and unwanted nonsense-peddlers. Or just people in general. After all, everyone's prone to annoying others at least once or twice. Sometimes, just by being themselves.

Not everyone likes to hear music while they're working.

Perhaps, then, if you're working from home, the headphone fake might work too.

You won't even have to shout "I can't hear you," when you really can.

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