The Confidence Game

In her second book, Maria Konnikova takes on the mesmerising, elusive topic of the con artist. The Confidence Game, a social psychology book broken down into the classical elements of the strategem from the “put-up” to the “blow-off” attempts to articulate the nuances of the con, explaining how it functions and manages to trick even the best of us.

Her style is compelling, one story leading into another with intriguing transitions. The nature of the con will easily transform from the vague curiosity that made you pick up the book to a baffling mystery you can’t get enough of.

The narrative is couched in the story of Frank Abagnale, one of the world’s most notorious imposters who glided between identities the way the rest of us might change shoes. As Konnikova explains the most basic of tricks she continues to come back to the faux airline pilot/physician/lawyer.

Sometimes there is disconnect between this intriguing con – something she evokes with an almost romantic air – and the less delightful fraud of email or bank accounts. Konnikova’s narrative does jump around often, and the plot structure and Abagnale story can seem like a gimmick to unite it when she goes on long asides.

Multiple statistics are thrown in, often at intervals where they are meant to surprise you and dissuade you of a certain assumption. However, they are rarely compared and sometimes seem to support contradictory views. This, along with story after story that basically amount to anecdotal evidence fails to meaningfully add up to a longer, more cohesive argument.

While the subject matter is undeniably interesting, the book format may be inappropriate. Her captivating yet sometimes conversational writing combined with the both cult and peripheral true-crime topic may be better suited to a podcast, and upon further investigation, she has one. Her podcast, The Grift, ran 10 episodes and focused on the magnetic and opaque personalities that her book thrives on discussing. By narrowing to one grifter at a time and allowing them to be the basis of the discussion, she sheds the impetus to read deeper meaning and universal conclusions into the art of the con — two ambitious undertakings that her book could have done without.

Theoretically, the book informs the reader’s ability to escape the con by encouraging distrust, and forcing them to think critically about the situations that seem to arise beneficially and “coincidentally” in their lives. Awareness of cons, however, does little falsifiable difference on that end, and the split focus between preventative learning and understanding the con man only added to the lack of flow.

Konnikova is a joy to read; her language is lovely and daring, and she clearly pulls from a wealth of riveting knowledge. Where the book fails is in its unity. This read provokes more questions than it answers, and I’ll leave you with two more:

Isn’t it weird that the beginning of Konnikova is con? And why would the author of a book about grifting psychology become a full-time professional poker player following its publication?

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova
(Canongate 2017)

Photo courtesy of Canongate

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