Flouting Convention, Part II: Annie Duke Finds Her Place at the
By Dina Cheney ’99
Annie Duke ’87 doesn't play by the rules, unless they apply
to poker. While her husband, Ben, stays at home to care for their
four children, she works her "day job" as a professional poker player.
Annie Duke ’87 offers
advice to actor Ben Affleck at the World Poker Tour Championship,
April 20, 2004, at the Bellagio Resort Hotel and Casino in
PHOTO: AP PHOTO/JOE CAVARETTA
Duke is not just any poker player: She is the leading money winner
among women in World Series of Poker history, having earned more
than $650,000 in 25 finishes and 13 final tables, including $137,860
in this year's series. In fact, Duke - called "the best all-around
woman poker player in the world today" by multiple poker World Series
champion Phil Hellmuth Jr. - is so good that she only needs to play
the game seven days out of the month. The remainder of the time,
she consults for a company that develops poker software, makes media
appearances and gets in a few parenting hours.
So how did this poker prodigy, called "The Annie Legend," "The
Duke" and "The Duchess of Poker," get started?
Duke's father, writer and language expert Richard Lederer, taught
English literature at Saint Paul's Prep School in New Hampshire.
A star student, Duke was expected to attend an Ivy League university,
specifically, Harvard. Instead, she chose Columbia to "break out
of the mold" and be in New York City. "I applied early decision
to Columbia so there would be no argument," Duke says.
Although Duke flouted her family's expectations by attending Columbia,
where she double-majored in English literature and psychology, she
assumed that she'd follow in her father's footsteps and become a
professor. While working as a research assistant for a psychology
professor through the work-study program, Duke chose to pursue psycholinguistics,
the study of how language is understood and interpreted and how
and why the individual responds to discrete aspects of language.
Acing her GREs, Duke applied to several graduate schools and decided
on Penn. There, she studied and wrote her thesis on syntactic bootstrapping,
or the hypothesis that children can use the knowledge of syntax
to predict meanings of words. According to plan, Duke published
papers, spoke at Stanford and MIT, and set up several job talks
with NYU, Reed and Duke during a year when "no one was getting them."
"I was very Type A about what I was doing," Duke notes. "My curriculum
vitae was eight pages."
Nevertheless, Duke was deeply confused: "I was undecided about
what to do and was told that I was really good at this field and
at grad school, so I just kept going." One month from defending
her Ph.D. and the night before her job talk with NYU, Duke began
throwing up. She was admitted to a hospital for extreme dehydration
and remained there for two weeks.
Afterward, Duke left the program, claiming that she'd return even
though she knew she wouldn't. "I was a coward," she says. "I knew
that I was letting a lot of people down. I had a National Science
Fellowship, and those are hard to get. I felt such pressure to live
up to the expectations that people had in terms of my quality as
a student and a teacher." But Duke had been doing "the right thing"
for too long. Her body couldn't have given her a clearer message
that it was time to step off the academic track.
But into what kind of future? Not knowing the answer, but sure
about her love for Ben, whom she'd met and befriended while in graduate
school, Duke proposed marriage. Ben said yes, and the couple moved
to Montana, marrying a few months later, in 1992. Duke was 26. "We
didn't know where to go and moved there because Ben's dad lived
there. We had no money and no idea what to do. Yet, I'm a bit like
Pollyanna. I always feel that things will work out."
And work out they did, though it took a little bit of time. When
Duke flew to Las Vegas to visit her brother, Howard Lederer - a
two-time World Poker Tour champion and a two-time World Series of
Poker bracelet holder - she tried her luck at the tables. Duke was
no stranger to poker. She had played "silly versions" of the game
at home when she was young: "My dad had a chip set, and we played
a bit as a family. Cards were one of the only ways our family interacted."
Duke played Texas Hold'em in a casino for the first time at 22.
Soon, armed with some money and poker tips from her brother and
books by poker expert David Sklansky, Duke began playing the game
at Crystal Lounge in Billings, Mont., a bar with a legalized poker
room downstairs. "It was very 1970s, with steep stairs and gross
industrial carpet that hadn't been changed since the building was
built. It was smoky and there were ranchers and Billings ne'er-do-wells
who didn't like women, and I just sat down and started playing.
I was the only woman, and I started making money right away. Five
days a week, I would get there in the afternoon and play a few hours.
There was a 45-minute commute each way. I treated it like a job."
"I approach the game completely as a business. I don't
let my emotions get in the way of how I play."
After one successful year at the Crystal Lounge, Duke, on her brother's
recommendation, entered four tournaments at the World Series of
Poker in 1994. "Anyone can enter," she explains. "It costs $1,500."
Referring to herself as "just a housewife from Montana," Duke placed
13th and third in the first two tournaments, cashing a total of
$48,000. She then entered a third tournament, winning her way into
the $10,000 championship event. Duke walked away from the series
with almost $70,000 and, more importantly, the realization that
poker could be a highly lucrative career.
Duke's grasp of statistics, probability and math, as well as her
ability to think quickly and work well under pressure, came in handy
in the realm of poker. Explains Duke: "I'm also good at reading
people and situations, trusting my instincts and bluffing. And my
personality helps." Duke notes that a lot of men are aggravated
by her aggressive style - and aggravation does not make for a skillful
"I think women are better readers in general," she adds. "And men
find women hard to read. My mere presence enrages them. Guys can
be, on the whole, winning players, and when they come up against
a woman, they can't help themselves. They can't stand to be beaten
by a woman. It happens again and again. They just call, call, call,
when they should be folding 75 percent of the time. On the other
hand, I approach the game completely as a business. I do no other
gambling. I don't let my emotions get in the way of how I play."
Ever the pragmatic businesswoman, Duke says, "Most people are gambling
a lot more when they put their money in the stock market than I
am when I put my money on the poker table. I can put $50,000 in
a pot on a bluff and not buy a shirt because it's $70 and costs
too much. There's a mental separation between the money on the table
and the money you pay your mortgage with."
Armed with determination and confidence, Duke and her husband moved
to Las Vegas, where they had their first child, Maud, now 9, in
1995. Without the normal intermediate steps through the low and
medium stakes, Duke began playing high-stakes poker and continued
winning. She says, "I started at the Mirage and risked about $3,000
per game, risking up to $25,000 per game within a year. I made a
very good living my first year in Vegas. On average, I was playing
poker 20 or 30 hours per week."
And what a living it is: Duke can earn $150,000 (or more) in a
month. On her best day, she took home $300,000. On her worst, she
lost $110,000. With those kinds of earnings, she'll definitely be
able to achieve her goals of "earning a living, putting my kids
through college and owning a nice home." Duke credits her husband
with much of this success: "I couldn't do it if my husband wasn't
so amazing. He really helps me accomplish what I want - even moving
to Vegas to make things easier for me. And until you've moved from
Montana to Las Vegas, you can't fathom what a sacrifice this was."
In 1998, the couple had their second child, Leo, now 6, and, upon
Ben's request, returned to Montana. "Every other month, for two
weeks at a time, I would commute to Vegas with the baby, which was
hard on us financially," Duke says. In May 2000, when she was 38
weeks pregnant with their third child, Lucy, now 3, Duke entered
the World Poker Series championship event, where she came in 10th
out of 512 entrants, the second-highest finish ever by a woman.
Duke earned a cool $52,000 in the process - and gave birth two weeks
In 2001, tired of the commute, Duke and her family returned to
Las Vegas, where they remained until 2003. During those two years,
Duke gave birth to the couple's fourth child, Nelly, now 2, and
continued playing and winning. She also began consulting and serving
as a celebrity spokesperson for Ielogic, a Portland, Ore.-based
company that develops multiplayer online poker software (www.ultimatebet.com).
In 2003, the family moved to Portland so Duke could step up her
involvement with Ielogic. Now, seven days a month, she travels around
the country for poker tournaments and promotion work in Los Angeles,
which she considers a "difficult but good trade-off." The remainder
of the time, she works in the Ielogic office, while her three older
children attend school and her husband and babysitter watch Nelly.
In her few down moments, Duke works on speculative TV and movie
projects. "When I retire, I'm going to put up my feet and say, 'I
haven't slept in 10 years,' " she says. "I pretty much work all
of the time, spend time with the kids and sleep a couple of hours
Yet, despite her fame and success, Duke's children are her priority.
"My kids fulfill my life," she says. "I'm proud of them because
When Duke had to choose between attending her daughter's sixth
birthday party and participating in a game in Las Vegas that easily
could have netted her a six-figure profit, she chose the former.
"I didn't care what kind of money was at stake," she says. "I'm
not missing that party. My brother said I could have paid for her
college education that weekend. I said, 'You know what? When she's
25 and in therapy, she's going to be talking about how I missed
her sixth birthday party.'"
When it comes to Duke's commitment to her family, this poker champion
For more information, please visit www.annieduke.com.