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Big Bets

You are seated at a poker table and two players check to you. You open, then the first person who checked raises your opening bet. The next player who checked raises the initial raise. The bet comes to you. What should you do? According to Maria Konnikova, unless you are a professional who plays poker for a living, grab what is left of your chips and run for the door. Konnikova’s book, The Biggest Bluff, is an amazing insight into the world of professional poker. Konnikova has her doctorate in psychology, and her field of study involved chance and its role in our lives. How much of life can be controlled, and how much is just luck—good or bad?

This book is a fascinating study about poker and how it is played at the highest levels by the best players in the world. These individuals have their own unique theories about how to win against other experts, but they all have one thing in common: their ability to understand the people they are playing against. There is a science of mathematics to playing poker. Knowing the odds in every situation, when to bet and how much is important—but it isn’t enough. Great players win because bluffing is a big part of the world-class game, where the only betting limit is the amount of chips you have in front of you. So, were the two players mentioned above bluffing you, or were they trying to get you to call, or were they setting you up for a future hand? Welcome to the world of professional poker.

Konnikova had never played poker in her life, but she decided it would give her great insight into game theory, and set a goal to learn the game well enough to play in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas within one year. She asked one of the greatest poker players in history to mentor her, and learned as much about herself as she did about the game and other players over the course of that year. Her experiences engendered a dramatic change in how she views life and her behaviors in stressful situations. She is an excellent writer, and the bet is that you will really enjoy this book; call it, and see for yourself.

There are many stories about people who go from being flat broke to being fabulously wealthy in this country, but despite the term, it usually takes years to become an overnight success. Ross Ulbricht became a billionaire in record time. He did it in three years by creating the Silk Road, a site on the dark web for buyers and sellers of drugs. Ross was a libertarian who believed that government should not be able to control what a person puts into his or her own body, and that his website would force governments to legalize the sale of drugs.

American Kingpin by Nick Bilton is the story of how Ulbricht did it, and the efforts of four government agencies to identify the criminal mastermind behind the Silk Road and take him and his website down. This is a non-fiction book that reads like a detective novel. Ulbricht starts out like a protagonist; an idealist who wants to take the crime and danger out of purchasing drugs. Three years later, he has become totally corrupted. He authorizes the sale of guns on his website; then he allows the sale of human organs without concerning himself with their origin, and contracts for the killing of six people who are threats to his activities.

The real protagonists in this story are Jared Der-Yeghiayan from the DHS, Carl Force from the DEA, Chris Tarbell from the FBI and Gary Alford from the IRS. Detective novels are replete with stories of agency infighting, power struggles, political hacks and a few intrepid souls several levels down in the organization working together to catch the perpetrator. That is exactly what happens in this case. Ross Ulbricht would never have been brought to justice without the heroic, relentless pursuit of three of these four agents—unfortunately, the fourth was corrupted. This book is also a primer on how the dark web works and the pernicious effect Bitcoin has on enabling criminal activities by eliminating the need of transporting and handling cash. Five stars for this book.


RALPH STAYER, an avid reader and former CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves.

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