After attending Columbia and Penn, Annie Duke cashed in a life that had been slated for one she never knew she’d love. Now, she is the commissioner of the Epic Poker League, nominated to join the Poker Hall of Fame, a Celebrity Apprentice veteran, the author of two books, a philanthropist and a mother of four. This week, Annie opened up to the DP about life, poker and the decisions that direct them both.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: How old were you when you learned to play poker?
Annie Duke: I was 21. When I was in graduate school I was living on an NSF (National Science Foundation) scholarship. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I couldn’t really afford to go anywhere. So every year during the World Series of Poker [my brother] would offer to fly me out to Las Vegas and I’d spend a couple of weeks there, which is really boring actually! So he said well, ‘Why don’t I teach you to play poker?’
DP: When you started playing did you ever think of poker as something that could turn into a career or was it just something to do while you were bored in Vegas?
AD: I totally didn’t think it was something I could do as a career. I knew people who did it as a career — my brother was doing it as a career — but it wasn’t on television then. There was no glamour about it. I saw how much my brother had struggled in the beginning before he became really successful and I thought if you wanted to be successful, you became a teacher or a lawyer or a doctor.
The whole concept of poker for a living wasn’t something I thought I should be doing, but I loved the game. I definitely felt the pull of it, but I really fought it because I felt like there were things you were supposed to do for a living and then things you weren’t supposed to do for a living. And certainly poker wasn’t one of the things you were supposed to do. I was supposed to continue with graduate school, get my degree. I had a plan.
DP: So when was the breaking point?
AD: I was on my way to give my first job talk at NYU and I started getting really nervous … I couldn’t imagine myself in academics for the rest of my life. So I thought, okay I’m going to take some time off, I’m going to figure out what I’m going to do and then I’m going to go back and finish. We didn’t have much money so I couldn’t say, “Oh, I’m going to hang out for a few months, relax and figure out what I want to do.” The only thing I had ever made money at was teaching.
Then my brother suggested I play poker. And that’s really how I ended up doing it for a living. I needed to make money. And then I found out that I was good, and more importantly, I really loved doing it — the mathematics, the game theory, the decision making theory, it all kind of fit. These things that in pieces I had had some passion for all came together in poker.
DP: When you first started playing for money what sort of venues were you playing in? Where did you find these games?
AD: I had just gotten married to my first husband. He had a place in Montana … It was an $11,000 house — it was crap … It had no hot water. I was living in this town called Columbus, Montana that had a population of 1,500. I had just come from New York City and five years in Philly, so that was — interesting. It was quite a shock, I really felt out of place there.
The nearest poker game was in Billings, which was about a 45-minute drive, in this place called the Crystal Lounge — this really seedy bar downtown where the underbelly of Billings hung out. Not that there were a lot of them, but if you wanted to get a prostitute it was the place you’d go to. That was where I’d play — in this tiny little room at this table in the basement of the seediest bar in Billings, Montana. Actually, there was one bar that was seedier. There were fights and stabbings in there every night. Luckily, I was only in the second seediest bar.
DP: What was it like walking there as a woman? I’m assuming there weren’t very many in the game.
AD: No. There were a couple who were dealers — card dealers not drug dealers. But there weren’t women playing in the game. It’s weird, people ask me that all the time, but to tell you the truth I never really noticed. I was brought up by my parents to ignore gender differences — that as long as you’re good at things it doesn’t really matter. You either had a thick skin or you didn’t.
I never thought until I was much older that that was a very daring thing to do — to be a young girl going into this game full of old men and not be scared, not let them abuse me, not to allow them to intimidate me away from the game.
DP: Tell me a little bit more about the strategy of the game. You had a pretty comprehensive education. Do you think a lot of what you studied in school contributed to your success or is most of it inherent?
AD: I think it definitely did. I got a very strong statistics and probability education at Penn. I took a decision science class with Jonathan Barrett — that actually proved to be the most helpful part of my background. My approach to poker is all about decision science and decision theory, which fits into the whole idea of game theory. It’s a very scientific way of looking at what kind of biases people show, how people make decisions, what kinds of mistakes people make in their decision making, how you avoid those mistakes yourself, how you understand that aspect of human behavior. It’s so important in poker because there are so many decision points in a single hand, in a single night and a single game.
DP: Is the poker face a real thing, then?
AD: The poker face is definitely a real thing. People who are better at hiding their emotions do better at the game. When I’m sitting at a hand, your cards are face down. That’s why it’s a decision-making problem. If you think about chess, it’s really not a game, it’s a mathematical calculation — all the information is exposed. It becomes a matter of calculating what my best move is, and then what your best move against my best move is. It’s just a calculation. In poker it’s what we call “decision making under conditions of uncertainty.” It’s required for something to be called a game.
There has to be hidden information, some sort of unknown variable. In poker it’s your two cards. The more that I can narrow down the hands that you could be holding, the easier my decision’s going to be. You use three things to do that: One is you look at the way you’ve used your chips. The second is to think about that in relation to the ways you’ve used your chips in the past — what kind of behavior I’ve observed from you.
The third piece of useful information is just looking at you. It’s seeing, are you comfortable? Are you happy? If you seem really comfortable with your hand — if you have a bad poker face — then I’m going to assume you’re on the good end of the hand you could be holding. If you seem really uncomfortable, then I’m going to put you on the bad end.
DP: You were able to realize while you were at Penn, in this rigorous and sometimes one-track environment that you wanted to do something else. What would be your advice for students who feel stuck in the grind — like maybe they got on the track for the wrong reason and it’s just too hard to get off?
AD: People who took the path that I took are obviously kids who are very motivated. I think that a lot of times you feel like you start down a path and if you don’t end up at whatever the end point of that path is, somehow you’ve failed. I know that I felt that way. I had mentors, I took my GRE’s, I went to grad school, I had a National Science Foundation scholarship — I had all of these things that had put me on this path.
I felt like not only if I got off that path would I be a failure, but I would fail all of these people who had put time into me. The way that you don’t fail a mentor, the way that you actually fulfill the time and the effort that mentor has put into you is by going down the path that they set you on, right? I think we all feel that way … The fact is that a lot of things that people are doing now didn’t even exist while they were in college. I realized that the way that you fulfill your promise and the way that you honor your mentors is to go and find what impassions you. That’s the only way to do it.