Murphy James - Papa to the Pros: Dr. Richard Lederer, Part One
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Papa to the Pros: Dr. Richard Lederer, Part One

January 4, 2006
Murphy James
Dr. Richard Lederer

Who is Richard Lederer?

A Jewish man, teaching English at WASP-ish St. Paul's, an Episcopalian school in New Hampshire that counts John Kerry and William Randolph Hearst as grads.

A struggling teacher - flipping hamburgers for extra money - while his affluent students spent their school breaks in the Caribbean, Switzerland, or Aspen.

And, oh, yes, he is also the father of Howard Lederer, winner of WSOP bracelets and WPT events, Annie Duke, the leading female money winner of all time, and Katy Lederer, a sometimes-gambler, poet, and author, who told the story of the family in Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers.

The family never had enough money. Annie says, "We lived like aliens among the privileged." Then Richard hit it big with his book, Anguished English, which gave him financial independence. This book, followed by More Anguished English, The Revenge of Anguished English, and the Bride of Anguished English, reports on "accidental assaults on the English language." For example, "A virgin forest is a place where the hand of man has never set foot."

This expert on the English language then churned out thousands of articles and 30 books, including The Cunning Linguist. Here is a taste (pun intended): "I love oral sex. It's the phone bill I hate."

Millions of his books are now in print and have been featured as Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild picks. He has been called, "Conan the Grammarian" and "Attila the Pun" (one of his books is, Get Thee to a Punnery), and was dubbed the International Punster of the Year. Ours is a strange language, he notes: our noses run and our feet smell.

In 2002, he was awarded Toastmaster International's highest honor, the Golden Gavel. Other recipients included Walter Cronkite and Anthony Robbins. He calls himself a "verbivore," one who devours words. is his website.

Today, from San Diego, where he now lives with second wife, Simone, he co-hosts the NPR radio program, "A Way with Words." He has been profiled in magazines as diverse as The New Yorker, People, and The National Enquirer. He keeps up an active speaking schedule. "Have tongue, will travel," he laughs.

Richard grew up in West Philadelphia, the last of five siblings born to a man who only made it through the sixth grade and a woman who only finished the 10th. Two of his brothers followed their dad into textile sales, but not Lederer.

After Haverford College, he started law school at Harvard. Two of his classmates were Elizabeth Dole and Janet Reno. He read law texts, but instead of deriving principles of law from them, he was fascinated by the structure of English within them. He then switched to education, earned his master's degree, and took a job at St. Paul's. Later he added a Ph. D. in English and Linguistics from the University of New Hampshire.

Richard and Deedy, Mom to the three kids, met over a bridge game at Harvard. Katy reports that she is a genius - Annie says she had perfect SAT scores - who preferred solitaire and crossword puzzles. She would breeze through the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in 20 minutes, doing it in ink.

Deedy "was not quite of this world," according to Katy. She had a drinking problem, since resolved, and left Richard for an acting career in New York.

The struggling family at St. Paul's gravitated to cheap entertainment: card games. Favorites were Hearts and Oh, Hell. Richard was the Gamemaster-in-Chief.

The games were "violently competitive," according to Katy. If Annie lost, she would throw the cards. Howard would glare after a loss. Katy, the youngest, was mellower. She would go on to try gambling, but settled into the life of a writer.

"Let the child psychologists curse us," Richard says of his insistence that the parents never faked losing so the kids could win. Nor would he help them to win at cards, chess, or other games, claiming this was poor sportsmanship. To Richard, it was pure and simple: when they won, they won.

Finally, as a teenager, Howard beat the Old Man in chess, fair and square. They played with "extreme fierceness," reports Katy. "The air of my father's defeat hung heavy over the household for days afterward and partly because my father refused to play my brother in chess ever again."

The seeds of poker greatness had been planted in Howard and Annie by Richard. In Part Two, how the father's love of words is realized by each of the three kids.

© 2005 Murphy James