Annie Duke is cute, rich, and on a roll. She is also the leading female money winner of all time on the professional poker tour.
Her recent autobiography is titled, “How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker.” Would this suggest a road less traveled? Hell, No! This is a road no one has ever traveled before!
House of Games
Annie grew up in a highly competitive family, sandwiched between older brother, Howard, now a top poker pro, and kid sister, Katy, the author of a book on the family, Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers. Her Mom (Deedy) and Dad (Richard) met over a bridge game at Harvard.
Richard holds a Ph. D. from the University of New Hampshire and taught English for 27 years at ritzy St. Paul’s in Concord, a private school with a tradition of excellence over more than 150 years. The “new” chapel was built in ’88 – 1888!
The school’s most recent IRS filing shows assets approaching $500 million dollars. Most of the kids at St. Paul’s—the WASP elite, Annie calls them—were wealthy and spent their school breaks in the Caribbean, Aspen, or Switzerland. Among its distinguished grads: Senator John Kerry.
Since the school forbade husband and wife teaching teams, Deedy—who had racked up perfect SAT scores—took a job teaching English at Concord High School. The Lederer kids, progeny of poorly paid teachers (Richard flipped burgers in Concord for extra money) stayed at St. Paul’s while their classmates traveled the globe.
“We lived like aliens among the privileged,” Annie writes.
Their major form of recreation was card games: Go fish, spit-in-the-ocean, and hearts. They lived, says Richard, in a “house of games.”
The parents’ approach to games with the kids was straightforward: when they won, they won. None of this, we’ll take it easy on the kids to motivate them. None of this, let’s lose on purpose so the kids feel good.
Annie reflects, “While he never let us win, he was great at giving us the tools to win,” by analyzing every hand and questioning the wisdom of every move.
Let the Psychologists Curse Us
Years later, Richard was asked if he was ever concerned that his unbending approach to games -- winning at all costs -- would damage the kids’ self-esteem. “What’s that?” he deadpanned.
“Let the psychologists curse us,” says Richard. “For years they could never beat us, and they sometimes burst into tears and threw their cards at us. But as time streteched out, they began winning often. We grew awestruck by their insights into the nature of games and gaming.”
As a teenager, after losing every single chess game to his father, Howard finally came out on the winning side. He had finally beaten the Old Man, fair and square. They stopped playing shortly after that. There was nothing more Richard could teach him. It was time for Howard to improve by finding more challenging matches, more gifted players.
Deedy, an aspiring actress, found less and less at St. Paul’s to make her happy. “She was not of this world,” youngest child, Katy, writes in Poker Face.
Richard and Deedy acted in local plays, but the Big Apple -- less than 200 miles south of Concord -- was in Deedy’s dreams. Annie agonized as her mother retreated into crossword puzzles (she could do the New York Times puzzle in twenty minutes flat) and solitaire, a lonely figure away from the competitiveness that drove the rest of the family. And she was drinking. Vat 69 scotch. In time, she split from Richard and moved to New York, hopeful of an acting career.
On to Academia
Annie graduated from St. Paul’s and headed for New York and Columbia University. This did not make the counselors at her alma mater happy.
“Harvard! Harvard,” cried her college advisor. “St. Paul grads go to Harvard!” Annie discovered that they got extra points for every kid who got into Harvard.
She found she could party every night, smoke a little pot, and still crack “A’s” at Columbia. She pursued dual majors in psychology and English. Brother Howard was in town -- now a Columbia dropout -- playing backgammon, chess, and poker at the famed Mayfair Club. At this period in his life he was, in the words of sister Katy, a “two bit losing gambler,” cleaning toilets and sleeping on park benches. He would make a few bucks by running cigarette-and-sandwich errands for gamblers at the club, lose his earnings in a game, and start anew the next day.
In 1985, at the age of 19, Annie found that powerful, pent-up emotions overwhelmed her. She experienced a panic attack in the apartment of a friend and declared, “I’m going to kill myself.” She was treated at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, put on Nardil and Xanax, and began regular meetings with a therapist.
No one knew how unhappy she was. Nothing on the outside showed what was happening inside. Only later would she realize that showing nothing on the outside is an essential tool of winning poker players.
As she neared graduation from Columbia, her interest turned to the study of how the human brain acquires language. She had heard of the famed University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Lila Gleitman, who along with her husband, Henry, held famous “Cheese Seminars,” gourmet goodies to go with heady discussions of research in experimental psychology and psycholinguistics. Annie was accepted into the Ph. D. program at Penn, winning a National Science Foundation scholarship for $13,000 shortly after her arrival.
Then known as Anne Lederer, she picked up a Master’s degree in psycholinguistics while being nurtured by the Drs. Gleitman, “brilliant people who took me into their hearts.” She shows up as a fourth author to Jane Gillette and the Gleitmans on a paper, “Human Simulation of Vocabulary Learning,” which was to have been the title of her dissertation. In this paper the authors conclude that “noun learning is superior to verb learning in the earliest moments of child language development.”
Annie authored another paper with the Gleitmans’, as lead author this time: “Verbs of a Feather Flock Together.” And still another, “Prosodic Correlates to the Adjunct/Complement Distinction in Motherese.”
During her five years in Philadelphia, Annie realized her strong tendency to win, at all costs. This did not endear her to all of her friends and faculty, especially in the competitive environment of a university, where doctoral students jockey for top assignments, mentors, scholarships, publications, and jobs.
Annie studied, taught, and published; the typical life of a fledgling academic. Closing in on her degree, she applied for tenure-track positions at the University of Oregon, Duke, and New York University, and was lining up job interviews.
So close -- so very close -- to the sweet ring of, “Good Morning, Dr. Lederer. How are you, Dr. Lederer?” Annie had another panic attack and abruptly fled the Penn campus for New York.
“Academia was a lover who just couldn’t do it for me,” she writes.
Henry Gleitman reflected on Annie’s decision for the Philadelphia Daily News: "What can I say? It was a loss to psychology, but clearly a gain for poker. It was in her blood.”
A Love Shack in Montana
She asked herself, who am I? She only knew who she was not. She was not Anne Lederer, Ph. D., a tenured professor of psychology in a prestigious university, “oozing prominence and prosperity.”
She rushed into marriage, hooking up with Ben Duke, a friend from Penn whom she had never dated. They moved to Columbus, Montana, and lived in a 400 square foot “love shack.” It was made of wire and stucco, had no foundation, no shower, and the roof leaked. The price was right, however: a bargain at $11,000.
What else was going on in Columbus (population 1,500)? Well, you dropped off the dry cleaning at the hardware store. Oh, yes, then there was the start of a family, one that would grow to four kids in eight years.
Annie was still on an emotional rollercoaster. But while watching The Phil Donahue Show on TV one day, a bunch of medications were rattled off that induced anxiety. Her current prescriptions were on the list. Her doctor’s recommendation: get off everything. She moved on to acupuncture and the use of natural herbs.
Even though Ben Duke was an heir to the Duke fortune (as in tobacco and the university in North Carolina), they were living on his meager trust fund of about $1,000 per month. She and Ben were having trouble paying the $125 rent on the shack.
Fifty-one miles – 35 minutes if you push it—from Chez Duke was the Crystal Lounge in Billings. It offered games of Texas Hold ‘em, a game brother, Howard—whom she calls “Bub”—taught Annie how to play. Howard insists that he only taught Annie the basics.
One day, Annie announced to Ben, “Hey, let’s go to Billings and play some poker.”
At the Crystal in Billings, she put her foot under her butt, drew an Ace, Queen as the first two cards in a game of Texas Hold ‘em, and took a deep breath. She finally had the answer to the question, who am I?
She was Annie Duke, poker player.
“This is where my life begins,” she writes.
Just a Housewife from Montana
Encouraged by a $118 profit on her first night at the Crystal Lounge, she returned more regularly. Her opponents were mostly tough cowboys, ranchers, and old codgers on disability checks. She chatted, giggled, and sometimes cursed. They didn’t know what to make of her.
Annie would play in Billings, and then rush to the phone to ask questions of Howard. In her first week she was ahead by more than $2,000. Howard, who had now moved to Vegas, was so impressed with Annie’s steadily improving game that he sent her some go-for-it money: $2,400.
On Annie’s more and more frequent visits to Las Vegas to visit Bub and Deedy, who had moved to the desert to work with Howard, she was learning more of the finer points from her brother. She was also playing more confidently in games of increasingly higher stakes. Bub was so impressed with her skill that he offered to stake her, sharing winnings on a 50/50 basis. He urged her to enter the big tournaments in Vegas.
When players noticed her at tables in Billings and Vegas, she would simply say, “I’m just a housewife from Montana.” But having found her identity as a poker player, she was realizing that she wasn’t just a housewife from Montana anymore.
The Flirts and the Chauvinists
Unlike games of physical strength, the green felt of a poker table is an intellectual level playing field for men and women. This leads Annie to ask, “Why are there ladies-only tournaments?"
Most men accept women at the table and it’s no big deal. There are two groups, says Annie, that view women in a different way: there are the flirters, and there are the chauvinists.
The flirter’s objective is not to take money from the little lady; it’s to get laid. So, the winks, the suggestive remarks, the backing away from strong hands all work to Annie’s favor. She can flirt with the best of them, but her objective is to make money.
She has had flirters actually say to her, “Don’t bet into me. I have a really strong hand.” She saves bets that way. While it is OK to have fun at the table, her flirting stops when she cashes in her chips and heads for the door.
The chauvinist is at his Wednesday night game to get away from women. Annie check-raises, shows her bluffs, and does her best to piss them off. Then they go on “tilt,” a poker term for illogical play, stupid moves usually done in anger or frustration. A player on tilt is like an ATM to Annie. She opens her pocketbook and the money pours in.
Annie has had to choke back the possibility of going on tilt herself on many occasions. For example, as she notes in her book, she was losing and a guy at her table at the Crystal Lounge said, “She can just go across the street to the Radisson Hotel and put her legs up in the air and win it back.” Hubby Ben threatened to deck the guy.
Annie Begins Winning
Howard was doing well on the pro tour. He brought Annie and Ben to Vegas and put them up at the Golden Nugget for a month during the World Series of Poker, the premiere event of the year for poker pros. The Series is composed of many events, covering many different forms of poker, with the climax being the Championship event, No Limit Texas Hold ‘em. In 2005, the winner, Aussie Joe Hachem, took home $7.5 million dollars for his win.
The winner of each event receives a cherished gold bracelet and the pros measure success in terms of how many of these are in their trophy case. Howard bagged one in 2000 and Annie set her sights on earning one as well.
Annie was using her background in psychology to perfect the reading of “tells:” the blinks, scratches, tics, and flop sweat of opponents that telegraph when they have a good (or bad) hand. She kicked her studies up to a higher level by meeting with Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent.
How can a former FBI agent help a professional poker player? Joe was a senior criminal profiler and he looked for lying in the suspects he interviewed. Lying in poker is not only legal, it is encouraged. It’s called bluffing.
How did Joe help Annie? This expert in nonverbal communication told her what to look for, as he did in his FBI career, for signs of lying in a crimin . . . sorry . . . poker player.
Annie, like most poker players, loves the traditional first words of a poker tournament, the equivalent of baseball’s, “Play Ball,” or the Olympics’, “Let the Games Begin.” Tournament players live to hear, “Shuffle Up and Deal.”
Annie and the family were visiting Vegas more often. She entered more and more tournaments. Her first in-the-money finishes at the World Series of Poker in 1994 came when she finished 5th in a Limit Hold ‘em event and collected $26,500, and eight days later, finished 26th in the Championship No Limit Hold ‘em event for another payday of $16,800.
Then in 1996, a 2nd place finish in a Seven Card Stud event, good for $72,000. Another big win in 1999, a 2nd place finish in Limit Hold ‘em, paying $110,000.
Poker was sandwiched in between babies. One lasting image of Annie, captured on television, shows her pushing monstrous mounds of chips into the center of the table at the 2000 World Series of Poker Championship event, while squirming to get comfortable as she moved into the last month of her third pregnancy.
At 180 pounds and playing “hormonal poker,” she finished 10th in the Championship event and bagged $52,160. That would pay for a lot of diapers for Lucy, who appeared two weeks later, happy, healthy, and none the worse for wear. She would join Maud and Leo. Nelly has been added to the brood since then.
Annie and Ben moved to Oregon. She was now shuttling between Portland and Vegas, doing well in tournaments, and never having a losing year. The strain of her new persona was felt on their marriage, which ended in late 2003.
2004 was to be her banner year. In April she finished first in a Bellagio Limit Hold ‘em poker tournament, snagging $157,100. A month later, she earned a World Series gold bracelet for her top finish in an Omaha Hi-Lo Split event, pocketing $137,860. Annie now has more in-the-money finishes at the World Series than her mentor, Bub.
Pretty good year? She was not done yet. In September, she was invited to a Tournament of Champions event and beat a field of the top ten players in the world, including her brother, Howard, to win a $2 million top prize.
All the players had signed an agreement not to disclose the results of her big win until it was televised, several weeks later. Yet she says, “Everyone seemed to know about it anyway.” One of her kids came home from school and asked, “Hey, Mom, is it true you won two million dollars?”
On a Roll
By winning a World Series of Poker event, as well as the Tournament of Champions, Annie catapulted to the top of the poker world and became a bona fide celebrity. Her last opponent in the latter event, World Series champ, Phil Hellmuth, Jr., calls her “the best all-around woman poker player in the world today.”
Her autobiography, with David Diamond, was swooshed together and hit the shelves in the fall of 2005. Annie went on a national book promotion tour.
A new TV show starring Annie has been announced. According to the Game Show Network, “In each episode, four amateur poker players will compete for the chance to play Texas Hold ‘em one-on-one against Duke. In the preliminary round, Duke will taunt, harass and kibitz the amateur’s play. The last player remaining at the table will play head-to-head poker with Duke in a high stakes game of bluff, wit and cards.”
Just a housewife from Montana no more, she lives in the land of publicists, agents, business managers, entertainment lawyers, and personal assistants. She has homes in the Hollywood Hills and Las Vegas, travels on private jets, appears on Letterman, and flits from place to place playing poker: a charity event here, a major televised tournament there.
She endorses a chip set. A personal appearance or speaking engagement will cost someone big bucks. She has hooked up with an online casino, UltimateBet.com. There is a caricature of Annie on a T-shirt. An instructional DVD, “Poker for Girls,” comes out in early 2006.
She has tutored Ben Affleck, who has real poker chops. Ben picked up $356,400 with a tournament win in Los Angeles. Ashton Kutcher, while on his honeymoon with Demi Moore, bid $14,000 at a Hurricane Katrina charity auction for a private lesson from Annie. Not done yet: she is producing a horror movie that she wrote.
She was seen at the premiere of the movie “Jarhead” with new beau, actor Joe Reitman (“Perfect Storm,” “American Pie 2”), the ex-husband of Shannon Elizabeth. Joe recently joined Annie at the tables in a poker fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club of Las Vegas, held at the Wynn Hotel. Joe also serves as producer of her Game Show Network gig.
Right Place at the Right Time
In most poker tournaments, the tradition is that players are obligated to put up their own money. After some deductions for the expense of running the tournament, the remainder is then distributed to the winning players.
Players grumble about this. Annika Sorenstam and Tiger Woods don’t have to pony up $10,000 of their own money to enter golf tournaments as poker players must do at the Championship event at the annual World Series of Poker.
So, the poker elite have some other options. One is to have backers. It is not unusual for top players to have a backer, sometimes two or three, or even more, who put up the tournament entry fees, which can run $200,000 a year, in exchange for a percentage of the pro’s winnings. Annie, of course, has attracted backers.
Better yet is to play as Tiger and Annika play. In poker parlance, these are “freeroll” tournaments. The players put up no money at all and are invited to play. Annie has made it to this level now and is a strong advocate for this to be the norm among the top players.
So, not only is she on a roll, she is on a freeroll.
Says Annie, “I'm very lucky because people seem to be interested in my story. I am just in the right place at the right time.”