Full-time Mom, Part-time Professional Poker Player; Annie Duke’s Unconventional Career

28 04 2010

Annie Duke. Picture provided by Duke.

by Matthew Bentel

Annie Duke is grateful that, as a mother of four and the sole breadwinner of the house, she is allowed to spend nearly as much time with her family as she would if she were a stay-at-home mom. But she isn’t. She is far from it; when other working mothers are sustaining nine-to-five jobs, Annie Duke is playing poker.

“When I began playing poker, not only was I really good at it, but it took up all my time,” Duke says.

Duke isn’t the only one in her family to become a successful professional poker player. You may recognize her brother, Howard Lederer, a perennial World Series of Poker player with two WSOP bracelets.

“When Howard and I were growing up, we played cards, but not poker. [We] played lots of gin and hearts. By the time [my brother] was playing [poker] in earnest – he was playing at Columbia University – I’d go and watch him, and then I started playing when I was 22.”

Duke has had great success at poker. She won a bracelet at the World Series of Poker (which is the Super Bowl of poker tournaments) and over two million dollars in various poker tournaments. She has her own iPhone App that offers tips and advice for playing poker, is a consultant for an online poker site, and has written a book about her experiences as a mother and female poker player, entitled How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker.

While being a professional poker player may sound like all fun and games, the road to the top is long and arduous. But for those who prevail, poker can be a very rewarding career.

After high school, Duke took a traditional route, attending Columbia University where she double majored in English and Psychology. After graduation, she received a National Science Foundation Fellowship to study cognitive psychology. Although she was an excellent student, she remembers having some pent-up resentment.

“It was sort of like the tide was carrying me along. I had a job lined up, and that was the decision point. Okay, this is going to be my career. And I freaked out,” Duke said. “Wait a minute, I’ve just been kind of doing this. I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life. Is this even a valid reason for doing something?”

That is when she turned to poker – but for good reason.

“In retrospect, I realized that poker was a real cool practical application of the things I actually did enjoy of what I was doing [in school],” Duke said. “It’s quite a bit of statistics and probability theory and also this whole game theory which is what a lot of cognitive psychology is about. It was this really cool in-the-minute way to apply that.”

While there are no educational or professional requirements to become a poker player, there are other necessary qualities. According to Duke, along with being good at math, such as statistics and probability theory, a poker player needs to be able to understand the way people think and how they come to the decisions they do in certain circumstances.

“Basically, what you have to do is understand really deeply how people think poorly- how they make mistakes,” Duke said.

To Duke, there are two essential, dichotomous characteristics a poker player must maintain: confidence and humility.

“Two of the most important things you need is an extreme amount of confidence in your ability to make decisions, because you’re really just relying on yourself. The other thing is [that it] really takes an extreme amount of humility and lack of ego,” Duke said.

A player must be confident in their decisions, but humble in their approach. This sentiment is echoed by other professional poker players, especially since there is so much uncertainty in which decisions are being made. As Duke said, “The day you think you’re better than everyone else and better than the game is the day you’ll start losing.”

Think you got what it takes? Think again. Becoming a professional poker player takes a lot more than skill and key personality traits – it takes luck. Duke illustrates it through a comparison to acting.

“Acting and poker have a lot of similarities. First, you get rejected a lot [and] you lose a lot. The other true thing about acting and poker is that the majority of people [are] doing it on a non-professional level. For 95 percent of the people playing this game, they’re doing it for fun.”

That is not to say making a career in poker is impossible. There are many players that “grind” it out, as Duke calls it. Still, as she hedges, “those people are very smart, and they very well may be making more money [than] had they chosen another profession. They were making a choice to take a pay-cut for the lifestyle that it offers.”

Still convinced this unconventional job is for you? Well there are some tips to help you along the way. As Duke’s friend and long time opponent, Erik Seidel, said, “I would say take things slow. I see many young players getting ahead of themselves and these games take time to learn. Try to be objective about your relative skills as you progress and develop.”

Another word of advice that poker players the world over try to remind burgeoning players is this: manage your playing money. “I think people should try to play at a limit that fits their bankroll and try to be realistic about expectations. Ego has busted many more players than bad bets have,” Seidel said.

“What you find with the top players [is] that they all have their heads on straight,” Duke said. “If you are pursuing poker, get your hands on everything you can. Take advantage of what’s out there, cause what’s out there is so priceless.”

Duke and Seidel agree that the game is hard to break into, but don’t want to scare potential players away. Becoming a professional poker player is as unconventional and as tough as they get, but not impossible.

For more information about Annie Duke, check out her blog: http://www.annieduke.com.