Annie Duke – «Poker is a Long Run Proposition»

Annie Duke is a mother of four and considered the best female poker player in the world. In a candid interview she explains why poker is not a game of luck and why one should never try to flirt with her at a poker table.

By Peter Hossli (text) and Charly Kurz (photos)

annie_duke_cards.jpgMs Duke, what are the odds that I will ever beat you at poker?
Annie Duke: In the long run, they’re very low. On a given match, you could certainly win.

I could always get lucky and beat you.
Duke: Poker is a game that involves basically no luck. It’s a game of skill. Only if you narrow the skill gap between the opponents, the appearance of luck starts to grow. But it’s a relatively easy proof to show that there’s very little luck in poker.

Can you learn the skill, or is it mostly a question of talent?
Duke: Take a reasonably intelligent person. If you let me work with him for a while, I can insure that he’s gonna win at mid-level poker. Understanding conceptually and mathematically what poker is about can get you very far. At the top level, though, things like experience and talent come into play.

You’re an exceptionally successful poker player. Why do you win?
Duke: I have a pretty good conceptual understanding of the game. And I have a lot of emotional control. I really don’t allow previous results to affect what I’m doing going forward. This is actually a really important part of the game. Letting the past affect you is probably one of the biggest faults that most people have.

Why makes a great poker player?
Duke: All great players share a real confidence in their abilities at the table. When you’re put to one of those really difficult decisions, it’s a matter of follow-through, on knowing that what you think is right no matter how much money it’s gonna cost you.

In the last couple of years, poker has become a global phenomenon. How do you explain it?
Duke: Games are fun. But games aren’t fun if they’re not very complex. Poker is very complex. As you play it more, you start realizing that poker is not a solvable game. Rather it is a game that takes a lifetime to master. There’s that little bit that you don’t have control over. It’s not gonna be like playing golf with Tiger Woods, where he’ll always win. At poker everybody feels they have a chance.

Do you translate what happens at a poker table to your life?
Duke: I personally do, yes. That’s not to say that everybody does. In order to be a really good poker player, you can’t be risk averse. Because that personality profile is very prevalent in poker players, a lot of times they tend to take that into life, and they’re not risk averse enough in life. That’s why a lot of poker players will end up going broke for reasons outside of poker. People who have incredible longevity in poker tend to be people who have very good balance on risk.

annie_hossli1.jpgPoker is a very punishing sport. You cannot undo a mistake. How do you lure people into mistakes?
Duke: If you know how an opponent perceives you, you can use that against them. In other words, behave opposite to the way that they perceive you. Then you have to manage your bets right. You have to bet in a ways that will make a bet be relatively attractive to your opponent, but yet, a very bad mathematical decision. Good bet management really forces your opponent to mistakes.

Poker tournaments are physically grueling. How do get through them?
Duke: I’m not 300 pounds, and I work out. Poker is very demanding. You’re spending every minute in really, really deep thought. You have to be really analyzing what’s going on, and paying attention to the other players, and trying to figure out what their betting patterns are, and who they are as people, and what their psychological profile is.

Nevertheless, I often see fat man playing poker.
Duke: But you don’t see a lot of fat man who are really at the top of the game. It’s very difficult to get to that point. If you line up all the great poker players in the world, the majority of them are not overweight, and in relatively good shape.

What has poker taught you?
Duke: Mostly patience. I was not a very patient person when I grew up. Poker is a game about folding. A good poker player’s gonna be folding 70 to 80 percent of the hands that they’re dealt. For that you have to have patience. You have to be willing to throw away bad hands.

Many people look for similarities between life and the poker table. Do you?
Duke: Life is very much a long run proposition, just like poker. You’re making decisions for your future all the time. And they might not work out today. But they’re gonna work out in the long run. And one thing that people have a really hard time separating in life is that good results don’t necessarily mean that the decision that led to the good result was good. And bad results don’t necessarily mean that the decision was bad.

And you learned that in poker?
Duke: When I first started playing, I was one of those people who got really upset at bad results. Today I get mad at myself when I win but play bad. A single result doesn’t really matter.

annie_playing.jpgWhat’s you weakness?
Duke: I’d rather not talk about my weakness. The biggest mistake that I ever made in my career was getting really caught up in the results. I allowed that to really deeply affect me when I first started playing. It took me a long time to get over that. I would be throwing stuff against the walls, and storming out in tears. And I definitely carried that over with me to the beginning of my poker career. It’s very counterproductive. That was probably the biggest obstacle for me to work through, in order to become a good player.

You seem to be very competitive. How do you celebrate a victory?
Duke: I never celebrate. I enjoy it internally.

But still, how important is winning to you?
Duke: It’s important for me that I’m playing well, and winning falls out of that. Everybody likes to win. But it’s not like when I lose at the table I freak out. I understand the game, and I understand that losing is part of the proposition. Winning is making really good decisions at the table. I want to be the best decision maker possible. To me, that’s a win.

You’re famous for saying that you don’t play in all-women’s tournaments. Why is that?
Duke: Men are bigger and stronger than we are. It hurts if a big rugby player tackles you. I get that. When it comes to poker, there is no difference. People don’t get tackled at the poker table. I mean, I’ve seen it very occasionally, and it’s totally inappropriate. Poker is a place where it’s a totally even playing field. It’s intellect against intellect. Unless you’re telling me that women are stupider than men, you don’t need to put them in a different tournament.

But still, poker is mostly a men’s game. Why?
Poker is, at its core, a game with math. Physiologically speaking, men and women’s brains are wired differently. Women tend to be more verbal. Men tend to be more spatial. Spatial aptitude is actually math. It’s about understanding space. So men, in general, tend to have more mathematical aptitude than women do. Women are encouraged to go into liberal arts; men are encouraged to go into math and sciences. Poker also requires an extreme amount of aggression, in order to succeed at it. Women are cheerleaders. Men are football players. Women aren’t encouraged to be aggressive and competitive. In fact, women that are aggressive and competitive tend to be called really nasty names, while man are praised to be aggressive. When women are gambling, they’re perceived as being irresponsible. And they’re clearly gambling away the grocery money. Where as men are just being men.

How does a poker table change when you sit down, not as Annie Duke but as a woman?
Duke: When I first started playing, I was able to take great advantage of the fact that I was a girl. The fact that you’re a woman means you sit down at the table with an image. Which can be extremely helpful. Some of the men want to sleep with you. Then you can flirt with them. If they want to sleep with me, they’re not gonna take my money.

And you use this cold-heartily?
Duke: Yeah. I’ve never so much as held the hand of another poker player. But I’ve done a lot of flirting at the table. I’ve given them hope. Which I think is perfectly okay. I’m happy to give somebody hope. Because the fact is, that if somebody wants to take you to bed, they don’t want to take their money. Because that’s probably not gonna be a very good strategy for getting somebody into bed.

I bet you take his money.
Duke: Of course I do. I don’t want to sleep with him.

You’re one of the so-called “new” poker players. People who use math and game theory. And there are the old-type poker players, the guys with the cigars, the heavy drinkers. Who’s winning?
Duke: In the long run, the mathematical players, the ones who understand game theory and have come into poker that way, tend to be more successful. If you take a given year, the gamblers will do better than the mathematicians. But the mathematicians consistently win, and don’t go broke. I’d rather be around for a long time, so I’m not flashy.

Let’s talk about money. What was your biggest loss, on a daily basis?
Duke: My biggest loss in a single day was probably, like, $100,000.

And what was your biggest win?
Duke: $310,000. The amount of money that you make in poker depends on how much you work. It’s like any other job.

What does money mean to you?
Duke: Not much. Honestly. I need money to pay my bills. But I’ve never been somebody whose goal was to make a lot of money. Before I became a poker player, I was thinking about being a college professor. Clearly my goal wasn’t to be rich. I started playing poker cuz I like games. And it happens that the scorecard for poker is money.

Still, poker is all about money.
Honestly, if it were matchsticks, I’d still be playing just as hard. As long as you’re playing with something of meaning, poker will be a good game. Prisoners play for cigarettes. Cigarettes have meaning to prisoners. And they’ll play very hard for the cigarettes.

How do you recover from a big loss?
Duke: It’s not a problem at all because it is just poker. It’s a long run proposition. Sometimes you lose, and sometimes you win. People don’t realize is that one of the biggest skills in poker is money management. I’d rather be a good money manager with less talent, than a bad money manager with more talent.

How different is gambling money from money you spend in your real life?
Duke: They literally have nothing to do with each other. I totally separate the two. I’m a good money manager because I didn’t start playing poker until I was in my late 20s. I was living on a National Science Foundation scholarship, which is $13,000 a year.

Where do you invest the money that you win?
Duke: Money that I’m gambling is relatively high risk. So I have a set of low risk investments like mutual funds. The kind of higher risk investments that I do tend to be in start-up companies that I believe in. I don’t play the stock market. I leave that to the mutual fund managers. I know how difficult gambling on markets is. While I have confidence that I could probably come up with a good strategy, I don’t want to take the time to do it.

Are you in danger of being addicted to the gambling thing?
Duke: I don’t gamble at all.

You don’t call it gambling?
Duke: I don’t gamble. Poker’s a game of skill. I’m playing with an edge. Gambling is when you bet when you know you don’t have an edge, and you’re trying to get lucky. You won’t see me at a craps table, or a baccarat table, or at the roulette table. Why would I bet my money there? This is gambling. I don’t gamble on anything.

You have four children. What do they know about poker?
Duke: They know that I play poker for a living. And they kind of treat it like it’s my job. My son, who’s nine, understands poker a little. He has a video game that I was in. But I don’t play with my kids. I haven’t really taught them anything about poker.

What do you teach them that you’ve learned from poker?
Duke: I’ve raised very logical children. My children are pretty good decision-makers. I think they understand things like upside and downside, and how you’re supposed to go about making a good decision. But at the same time, I really believe as a parent that you let your children grow into what they want to be.

Would you want them to be poker player?
Duke: I wouldn’t mind as long as they had a college degree before they started. Poker is like acting. It’s pretty easy to become an okay actor. To become a great actor, that’s really hard. Great actors make a lot of money. Okay actors make nothing. The majority of actors make less than $5000 a year acting. That same is true with poker.

You train poker players. You’re most famous student was the actor Ben Affleck. What do you charge?
Duke: For four hours I charge $20,000.

That’s quiet an expansive education.
Duke: People pay way more to go to Harvard law school. With poker skill you’ll be making money for many years, therefore I’m actually quiet cheap. The reason why I’m willing to do it so cheap is that it’s extremely helpful to me. The more that I figure out a way to express to different people the concepts that are in poker, the better off my game is.

Who was your most successful student?
My boyfriend, whom I didn’t make pay. He had never played poker before I started dating him. Within nine months he won a huge tournament where he won almost $300,000. It was lucky he dated me. Well worth the time and the aggravation. He got something in return.

Every decision is hugely important in poker. A couple of years ago you took a hugely important decision to leave the father of you four children.
Duke: I don’t like talking about that part of my life. But there are certain situations that can come up in a marriage, in which the situation for me might become untenable. And the unhappiness it would bring in me would outweigh my desire for my children to have two parents in the household. Let’s put it that way.

I didn’t want to go into details. I wanted to ask you whether you took this decision like you take a poker decision?
Duke: Yeah. I said, “Okay, I’ve got these two things. I’ve got my own happiness to think about, and I’ve got the happiness of my children to think about. ” So, it took me a lotta years before I started to leave. Our marriage wasn’t good for a few years. But I really felt like the benefits to them of having two parents in the household outweighed whatever unhappiness I was experiencing.

For many years, you were living in Las Vegas. During the day you cared for your children, at night you emptied out the pockets of tourist. You never felt bad about that?
Duke: How do bartenders feel when they serve somebody a drink of alcohol? People have freedom of choice. It’s in our constitution. My job happens to be partly taking advantage of other people’s stupidity. When you start getting into the higher echelons of gambling, it is no problem. Because either it’s professionals, who certainly have a choice, or it’s people who just have a lot of money, who are playing with you. Bu whenever I came across somebody who I thought was doing something really horrible, I would always make it a point to say something like “get some help”.

There are more and more amateurs getting into big poker tournaments. Doesn’t this kind of water down the game?
Duke: No, not at all. I mean, the great thing about poker is, it’s this wonderful even playing field, where everybody’s equal. And as long as you have some money in your back pocket, you can sit down and play. And that’s what makes this game great. People who are like, “Well, amateurs are hard to read.” It’s like, “Well then you’re not a very good poker player”. You have to make adjustments to play amateurs.

How big is private and underground poker?
Duke: It’s pretty big. Here in Hollywood, I know there are tons of underground games. I don’t get invited to any of them. I get invited to, like, friends of mine’s houses that play, like, $300 buy-in games, where it’s okay with them. But like, the really big money games, I don’t get invited to any of them. Because I’d take their money.

How long will you go on?
Duke: Hopefully until I’m in my seventies. That’s the great thing about poker; a 20-year-old and a 60-year-old can compete.

It is easier to beat a 20-year-old than a 60-year old?
Duke: It depends on the 20-year-old and the 60-year-old. But it is definitely easier to beat the average 20-year-old.

Annie Duke – Mini biography
Annie Duke, born on September 13, 1965, is considered the world’s best female poker player. At official tournaments she earned more than 3,2 million dollar. It is rumored that she earned an additional 2 million dollars at private games. She is the daughter of literary professor Richard Lederer. Her brother Howard Lederer, also a professional poker player. Annie Duke studied literature und cognitive psychology. Right before he earned a PhD she dropped out of school, married and moved to Montana. There she picked up poker. Later she lived in Las Vegas with her four children. Four years ago she divorced. Now Annie Duke lives in Los Angeles with her four children. She writes books about poker and screenplays.