Good Call!

Annie Duke could have been a scientist or a poker player. So she decided to be one of the world’s leading experts on the science of poker.

There was a time when Annie Duke was regarded in poker circles simply as the little sister of green-felt legend Howard Lederer, but those days are long gone. That’s what winning a few major poker events will do for you. From her first-place finish in the 2004 World Series of Poker $3,000 buy-in Omaha 8 Tournament to her victory in the 2010 National Heads-Up Poker Championship on NBC, she has earned a place of her own in the international poker elite.

Duke’s rise has also been aided by a beguiling presence—no matter how smart you are, you know you’ve met your match when Duke starts thinking out loud. In the early days of her career, her opponents might not have grasped that the girl-next-door sharing the table was several steps ahead of them. Now they know, and she beats them anyway.

The daughter of writer and language expert Richard Lederer, Duke grew up in an intellectually rich environment (her sister, Katy, became both a renowned poet and a hedge-fund vice president) and seemed destined for a scholar’s life. She double-majored in English and psychology at Columbia University, earning a National Science Foundation Fellowship to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. There she studied psycholinguistics, honing the deep understanding of logic and decision-making that underpins her approach to poker. She left grad school after five years—just as she was set to wrap up her doctoral degree—and wound up following her brother into the world of professional poker.

Duke’s fascination with the science of solid decisions goes beyond her life at the tables. As a board member of the Decision Education Foundation, she helps create decision-making and critical-thinking curricula for schools. Meanwhile, she has a poker strategy book, Decide to Play Great Poker (published by Las Vegas’ Huntington Press), coming out May 31 to coincide with the start of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) at the Rio. The book takes a fresh look at decision-making on the felt and promises to be a must-read for the serious poker player. She also has a new business venture, Federated Sports + Gaming, which will be a series of invitational poker tournaments limited to the game’s top players.

I recently sat down with Duke in her Hollywood Hills, Calif., home. Attractive and still youthful at 45, she spoke with passion and pinpoint insight about her approach to the game, the “Black Friday” federal raids that closed three of the biggest online poker sites on April 15, and her success in what was once the man’s world of big-time poker.

This is a different kind of poker book. What did you set out to achieve?

This isn’t a book about rules; it’s a book about tools. It’s essentially a decision-science approach to poker playing. There are obviously a lot of poker books out there, and what I find is that the majority of those books only offer players a set of rules—only play this hand in this position—or they offer a chart of hands; only enter a hand with a certain set of criteria. The issue for me there is this: I don’t know who you are, I don’t know what table you’re at. Are you at a cash game or a tournament? What stage of the tournament are you in? If you’re in a cash game, are you in a home game or a casino? What limit are you playing? What kind of image do you have? Are the players at your table drunk? If I don’t know this kind of information, I can’t give you a chart.

Even the most simple choice—should I play this hand or not?—is related to the specific situation in which you are sitting, because that determines the range of hands that you can play. For example, instead of simply telling you to raise, I walk you through the reasoning behind a decision. I tell you the reasons that you might raise, and then I say, if raising is accomplishing those things, then these reasons are too compelling not to raise. You’re not supposed to raise just for raising sake, and you’re not supposed to raise because you see people raise on TV, or because you think you’re supposed to be aggressive. Raising is a tool, just like anything else.

I go into categories of situations that can occur in poker, and then I start changing little things about the situations that might modify the desired outcome. I get people to start thinking about the variables that occur and how they can adjust to those variables to put everything together on their own.

So, you’re providing the basis for players to build their own individual game plans?

Right. When you modify small circumstances in the scenario, it can have a huge impact on the way you play a hand. I get you to start thinking about what your opponent may be telling you, based on their responses to your actions, or based on their own actions and how you can respond to those messages accordingly. Or, how you can generate your own messages based on your decisions in a given situation. You will ultimately construct your own decision trees so that you can go out into the world and understand what kind of situations you are in and act accordingly.

Given your track record, it seems to be working.

Particularly during the NBC Heads-Up Championship, these are concepts that I really applied. And I had actually just taught a class right before I played that tournament.

People talk at the table, and I don’t mean verbally; they talk with their chips. And I try to teach people to be good listeners. Just as when somebody verbally tells you a story and you can tell it’s a lie, when they try to tell you a story with their chips, sometimes it’s not true. Just because somebody raises you doesn’t necessarily mean they have a strong hand. You should stop and think about everything that’s happened in the hand and everything they’ve shown you in the past, and then ask yourself: Is the story that they are telling you true?

Tell me about your new business venture.

Three other partners and myself started Federated Sports + Gaming. And one of the things we’re doing is putting on a professional poker league. It’s by qualification only. It’s not like, are you famous enough to be on our show, it’s are you good enough to be on our show. The first season will be four events plus a championship event. Federated is putting up $2.6 million in added money. Each of the four main events will be $20,000 buy-in events [with no rake] with $400,000 added to each. And then we put up an additional $1 million for the championship.

Is this something like the World Poker Tour, but for pros only?

No. It’s a limited field. You have to be a member to play. It’s kind of in the spirit of the PGA model. We have invited over 200 professional players and [only] nine amateurs can qualify. We’re taking the pros on as partners to elevate the game and professionalize the sport, and we believe our league will coexist nicely with the existing properties that are out there. In fact, performance in the WSOP, WPT and European Poker Tour determines your ability to qualify for our membership.

How are you affected by Black Friday?

It impacts me on a personal level quite deeply. I’ve been a member of the community for 17 years, and a lot of my very dear friends are deeply affected by it. So it’s been very hard. There are people who are very close to me who are devastated by it. It’s amazing when you see how much of an economy grew up around the poker boom, not just from people who are making their living from playing, but from bloggers and media and production crews, and it means lean times for them, a lot of layoffs and people trying to figure out how they’re going to make a living. From the pro side, there are a lot of people who make their living playing online who obviously can’t play from America anymore, and they’re having to decide whether or not they’re going to have to move away from their home, which is awful. I don’t ever want to have to make that kind of decision. So it’s been a rough few weeks.

From the Federated side, the professional league side, it actually doesn’t affect our launch plans because our business model doesn’t rely heavily on online poker-specific sponsors, so we’re launching as planned and moving forward and hopefully bringing something great to a community that needs that right now.

Clearly it will have an impact on this year’s WSOP—is that fair to say?

I think you’re definitely going to see lower numbers, yes.

How did your 2009 appearance on The Apprentice affect your public persona?

People who weren’t avid poker fans became aware of who I was. That wasn’t the reason that I did the show, but it was definitely part of the outcome.

>I understand that you laid out a game plan before the show.

I did, and I followed it all the way through.

It seems to me that this is the same kind of thinking you’ve outlined in your book.

I approach everything like that. You have to make strategic decisions. I think too many people act without thinking, without thinking about what their alternatives are, what the consequences of their choices might be. So I had a strategy laid out. I followed the strategy throughout the show. I ended up in the finals with Joan Rivers. I out-raised her three-to-one in the final event, and then in the end [Donald] Trump hired her. Some things you have control over and some you don’t. People spend way too much time worrying about the fact that their aces got sucked out on. So what! You didn’t have control over that, so stop thinking about it.

What role does gender play, if any, in your profession?

We qualified 218 people for the league, and 212 of them were men. It obviously plays a very strong role. As far as the ability for women to penetrate to the top of the poker world, there appear to be some disadvantages. But our girls are not encouraged to be mathematical. And if you’re not mathematical, you’re probably not going to be a great poker player.

The other thing is that poker is a very aggressive endeavor, even though it’s not always right to be aggressive, it’s mostly right to be aggressive—and women are cheerleaders in high school, they’re not football players. So, I think that aggression in women tends to be discouraged. So there are a lot of societal and socio-biological reasons that women aren’t playing.

That being said, once you become a female poker player there are a lot of advantages, because men tend to play much worse against women than they do against men. They bring a lot of their stereotypes about how they think about women to the table, and you can use that to great advantage.

So you exploit that?

Sure. As I would exploit any weakness of any player. It’s not about punishing him for his chauvinism; it’s about identifying a weakness in my opponent and leveraging it for my advantage.

I understand you’ll even use flirtation as a tool?

Of course. I’ve had lots of flirtations at the table, and then in the end I walk away and they’re like, “So …” And I’m, like, “What? I’m going home. … See you later.”

And you’re walking away with a lot of their chips!