WORDS OF WISDOM FROM THE DUKE
By Max Fontana
Poker Queen Annie Duke made a career out of beating longshot odds. Her remarkable journey has taken her from the halls of academia, to the hardscrabble card rooms of Montana, to the bright lights of Las Vegas, and championship wins in poker’s richest tournaments.
For two decades, Annie was one of the top poker players in the world, winning several championships during her career. She has shared her knowledge through a series of best-selling poker instruction and theory books, Decide to Play Great Poker and The Middle Zone: Mastering the Most difficult Hands in Hold’em Poker (both co-authored with John Vorhaus). Annie is also the mother of four children and a master story teller. Her passion for making a difference has helped to raise more than $18 million for charities for causes as diverse as international refugees, victims of the conflicts in Sudan, improving education, and numerous children’s hospitals.
Through her academic training in cognitive psychology and her real-world experience at the poker table, Annie Duke has mastered the art and science of strategic decision-making. She applies those lessons to every aspect of her life, from parenting to nutrition to business.
Duke was introduced to the game by her brother, Howard Lederer, one of poker’s top-ranked players, who showed her the ropes and financed her early efforts at the tables. Though she was a natural talent, she seemed destined for an entirely different path, as she worked toward a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
During the heat of her Vegas poker championship wins, I chatted with the always-quotable “Duchess of Poker” about her rise through the male-dominated ranks, and her advice on winning—both inside and out of the casino. Here are some of the “Duke-isms” she shared:
On Learning To Play Her Cards:
“My mom and dad were big game players. They actually met over a game of bridge when they were in graduate school. Ever since I can remember, I’ve played cards. I was my dad’s bridge partner by the time I was 14.”
On Making the Move to Vegas:
“After I left graduate school, I was living in Montana with my ex-husband, in a 400-square-foot house made of chicken wire and stucco, where the mortgage was $125 a month. My brother told me that there were legal card rooms in Montana, and sent me some money to start playing. My first month I made $2,800. The most I’d made in a year during graduate school was $13,000, so it seemed like a lot of money. After a year of that, he said: ‘Why don’t you come down to the World Series.’ I started playing satellites to get into the big tournaments and won $70,000. That was crazy money for me. At that point my brother said: ‘You should move down to Las Vegas.’”
On choosing the poker path:
“While I loved the game and knew my brother was doing it for a living, I felt like I was supposed to be on the ‘straight and narrow’ path—being a professor, teaching. At the time, there was the idea that poker was something that happened in back rooms. If you considered yourself a gambler, you might as well have chosen to be a stripper or a drug dealer. But once I started playing for a living, I lived and breathed poker. I was completely passionate about learning the game.”
Her biggest poker moment:
“Winning my World Series bracelet. It was literally 5% of the money I’d won at the Tournament of Champions, but it’s like getting your Super Bowl ring. It’s the thing that every poker player wants.”
On “Ladies Only” Tournaments:
“I think women’s tournaments serve a great purpose, because a lot of women are intimidated to enter tournaments with all these men, and we need more women playing. What I object to is ladies-only events as championship events. That really upsets me, because poker is a game with a completely equal playing field. It doesn’t matter that men are bigger and stronger, because they’re not smarter.”
On Sexism at the Tables:
“Back when I was playing in Montana, it was pretty bad. Honestly, I got called the “C” word every day that I played. They’d say I was the luckiest person they’d ever seen. Well, I played poker in Montana for three years and I won all the time, so clearly, I wasn’t lucky. No one is that lucky. It was such anathema to them, to think that a woman was outthinking them.”
On Beating Them At Their Own Game:
“If someone gets emotionally involved with me at the poker table, that’s good for me. Poker is a game of cold, calculating decisions all the time, 4 or 5 per hand. If men were pissed off at me, that was to my advantage. Would I take that type of talk away from the table? Absolutely not. If they want to disrespect me, they’re going to get emotionally involved with me and underestimate my ability to beat them.”
On celebrity poker players:
“Tobey Maguire takes the game really seriously; he’s probably the best celebrity poker player out there. He plays all the time and is a student of the game. Don Cheadle is really good. He got invited to the NBC Heads Up Challenge and he beat Phil Ivey in the first round. Ben Affleck won a big tournament after I coached him; a lot of the coaching was done by phone, talking about poker theory. Then I would sit behind him, watch him play and critique him.”
On the realities of going pro:
“One of the beautiful things about poker is that it appears to be simple, but it’s actually extremely complex. I think poker is a lot like acting; it looks easy when you’re watching a good actor, so you have hundreds of thousands of people in L.A. trying to be actors, but less than five percent of them are able to make more than $10,000 a year at it. Poker is wonderful to do recreationally, as acting is, but if you go into it thinking you’ll make a living at it, you’re really working against the percentages.”
On winning, away from the tables:
“I could fill a room with players who are much more talented than me, and they’re broke. I’d rather be slightly less talented, but understand how to deal with my money, because in the end, that’s really what defines success—actually having some money at the end of the day. When you’re playing, it has to do with how much money you’re supposed to risk per game, depending on what your edge is. Then, you’ve also got to understand how to separate ‘poker money’ from ‘life money.’ Chips are designed to separate you from their monetary value. When you’re playing, you’ve got to view them as a tool to help you accomplish your goal. If you’re thinking: ‘I just bet my mortgage payment,’ you’ll play scared and you won’t play well. Then when you’re away from the table, you’ve got to realize it’s money again and assign value to it. It’s a hard balance to walk.”