Interview with Annie Duke
By Steve Marzolf
You've been playing cards since childhood, is there a memory that stands out?
"I remember throwing cards a lot when I'd lose. Basically, the deal with our family was that was our social time. Some families sit and watch TV or go skiing or mountain-climbing. We played cards."
You were in New York when your brother, Howard Lederer, was getting his game going. What did you think as you watched him start out?
"He moved to New York to pursue chess because he wanted to become a master. It was a pretty interesting time, because he disappeared for a while. We didn't really know where he was, and he was spending his college fund on poker. I actually found him. I was doing an independent study in New York when I was 16, and I ran into him on the street. I was like, 'Whoa. Where have you been?' We were all really worried about him because he'd descended into this strange world that we didn't know about, and he really lost a lot of money to begin with. When I was a freshman in college, he started having some success. I was a college student, so a little bit of money seemed like a lot to me. And he let me take a stake in his game."
How old were you guys at this point?
"He was 20, and I was 18. Occasionally, he'd walk up to me and hand me $400. Eventually, he was living in a really nice house in New York, and at 23 he went off to the World Series and came in fifth. Then we all thought it was great. In the beginning, he had a really rough start and had to pay his dues. By the time I came around, he'd already made all these mistakes and really stopped me from tripping over myself when I started to do the same thing."
You went to Columbia and Penn, did you get a Master's?
"I almost got my PhD., as a matter of fact."
What did you want to be when you grew up?
"That was the thing. I was in New York in the '80s in college. I had a great time, but I wasn't really making a lot of career decisions unless 'career' meant going out to clubs. Through all of that, I still managed to get great grades. But, when the end of college rolled around, I was like, 'Oops. What am I supposed to do now?' So, I really just went to graduate school for lack of a better life decision to make at the time."
Maybe the most popular reason to go to grad school.
"Yeah. I was good at being a student, so I figured, 'Ok, I'll just do this.' I'm very type-A about things, so I got into UPenn, and I applied for an National Science Foundation Fellowship and got it and ended up with a C.V. that was about eight pages long, presenting papers around the country. I was doing the student thing really well, but just not being happy with it. I remember when I was 22, which was the second year of grad school. It was the year after my brother had done well that first year at the World Series. He said, 'Oh, you should come out; it'll be fun.' We were in the coffee shop at Binion's, and he took out this napkin, wrote the hand values down, gave me a couple hundred bucks and sent me over to the Fremont. I did well, and my brother was really proud of me and started bringing me out every year for the World Series."
And you went back to school after that first trip?
"I remember when I came back to graduate school after that first year, I was like, 'You almost lost me. I almost didn't come back.' But, I continued and applied for a bunch of jobs and got a bunch of job talks. When I went to do my first job talk, I started throwing up. Like, 'This is what life is going to be like. I'm not just delaying things anymore.' I was so type-A that I really felt such a deep obligation to the people that I was working with. So, I started throwing up and ended up in the hospital because it was really the only way I could get out of it at that point - in my mind. Now that I'm older, I realize you can just say, 'No, it's not for me,' and walk away."
What did you do after that?
"I moved to Montana with my then-husband, and all the sudden I'm living in this $125-a-month house that's made of chicken wire and stucco and has no foundation. There's a leaky roof, and we're having trouble paying the bills. I went, 'What the hell am I supposed to do now?'"
You didn't leave academia for poker?
When you're broke, that's a lot of money.
"Yeah it is. I descended into this back room in the Crystal Lounge, among these 60-year-old ranchers, when I was in my mid-20s and very vivacious and giggly. Some of them became great friends, but most of them didn't like me very much. I took terrible abuse. But, I never wavered. Then, the next year, my brother said, 'You should come down for the World Series.' I ended up in the final event and knocked my brother out the first day, which was devastating. It was the only other time I cried at the table besides the Tournament of Champions - they both have to do with knocking my brother out. The first time I really felt like that was so much more important to him, and I was just an interloper, taking away his dream. I came away from that first World Series with about $70,000, and my brother said, 'You need to move down to Las Vegas.' What was interesting about it was that I loved playing poker, but it was my brother who kept saying, 'You're going to become the best female player in the world.'"
Of course, I have to ask you about coaching Ben Affleck.
"I don't talk about that in interviews. I'm done talking about that. I've talked about it until I'm blue in the face."
That's understandable. Do you think you'll coach another celebrity?
"No. It took way too much of my time. It just takes a lot of time to coach somebody and make them a good player. And, I'm not just going to take somebody under my wing and be like, 'Yeah, whatever, here are some tips.' If I'm taking that responsibility on, I'm really going to teach them. And it's just too much."
You're past the point in your career where it's worth it?
You've written articles geared toward female players. What are a few guidelines all women should follow?
"I actually just did a DVD that's going to be coming out soon that's specifically for women. First of all, just have a thick skin, because you're going to take more abuse than anyone else at the table. Poker isn't considered a workplace, so there are a lot of overt, sexually inappropriate things that get said to you. The other thing is that poker is a game of high stress because there's real money being lost and won. And, when people are under stress, they're going to vent that on somebody. When they're looking around the table, do you think they're going to get on Bubba's case? No - they're going to get on your case. You're not going to take them outside and beat them up."
What's one of the worst things anyone's said to you at the table?
"I remember when I was in Montana, there was a guy sitting across from me when I lost the pot. He looked at me and said, 'That's ok, honey. You can go across the street to the hotel, stick your feet up in the air and make all your money back.' I was like, 'Goddamned pigs ...'
Like losing the money isn't bad enough.
"Right. But, you can use that to your advantage. The main rule of thumb is that if someone is mistreating you, make sure you don't bluff them too much and make sure you call them more often because they'll be trying to bluff you a lot. If it's somebody who really wants to sleep with you - which has certainly come across a lot - understand that they're not going to be betting against you very hard and they'll be easier to bluff. They don't want to beat you; they want to take you to bed. You just need to understand that while you're going to take more abuse at the table, people are more likely to be emotionally invested in your presence, whether in a sexual or chauvinistic way. And, whenever people are emotionally invested in your presence at the table, they're going to make worse decisions against you."
You've said in the past that being a woman was important to your success.
"Oh, yeah. For a long time, I got a lot of press for not really having the results that warranted it. That's not to say that I wasn't making money. It's not to say I wasn't a winning poker player. But, was I as good as a lot of other players who were getting ignored? No, not at all. But, the fact that I had such an anachronistic story - people were shocked that I had four children at home and worked... People would gripe about that, saying, 'Why does she get all this attention? She isn't as good as so-and-so.' And my thing was, when you're talking about media and fame, it isn't always about who's the best. We all can think of movie stars who aren't particularly good actors. And, I never really had an issue with that. I was very thankful for it, because I've made a lot of extra money in my life because of that. I always had a realistic view of what my skill was and why I was getting the media attention. At this point, I have an interesting story, but God knows I have the chops to back it up."
Do you ever worry that by competing so well and getting people used to the idea of a dominating female poker player that you're opening the door to women who could water down the character of you the media has latched onto?
"First of all, more power to them if they do. And, the lucky thing for me as far as that goes, I've got a Doyle Brunson thing, like, whoever came up after Doyle Brunson, he was always the first. He's always going to be famous, and he's always going to be the granddaddy of poker. I've got that. I was the first female who ever became famous for playing poker, and whoever comes up behind me, I hope they become stars. And, if my time comes where I'm not famous anymore, you know, I was really happy before I became famous, and I'll be really happy afterwards."
What do you think of all the limelight and attention poker's getting? What's the future of the game?
"I think there's a little too much of a proliferation of poker shows right now, and some of the production value isn't that great. I think things need to be consolidated into a more PGA-like situation. I think there needs to be one recognized, legitimate tour where people are earning their way and it's not just open amateur events all the time. The fact is that if there's one thing the ESPN coverage proves, it's that the viewing audience craves stars. They want to have heroes in the game, and when you have these large open events, you just can't guarantee that the people your viewing audience wants to see are going to end up at your final table."
One last question: Do you get a ton of poker dudes hitting on you?
"There's a lot of stuff on message boards about me being a 'milf.' I just got an email the other day that was like, 'Have you ever considered posing for nude photos? Because I think a lot of guys and some girls would really think that was great, and you could make some extra money, not that you need it. Just in case, because I'd really like to see you naked.' Ninety percent of the people who post think I'm super hot, and the other 10 percent are like, 'No, she's hideous.' I'm just glad it's 90-10."
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