Annie Get Your Flush

 

Class of ’99 | It’s Day Three of the World Series of Poker (WSOP), and Annie Duke Gr’99 is taking a break from the action at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas.

“I’m impulsive,” she is saying. True: and she has played that hand to her advantage. Having suddenly abandoned a promising career in cognitive linguistics, Duke (maiden name: Lederer) has become one of the top high-stakes poker players in the world, and the top female money-winner in the WSOP’s history. She’s taken home as much as $300,000—and lost as much as $120,000—in one night. You may recognize her name from the World Poker Tour TV series or from the photo of her in a recent issue of People, bending over Ben Affleck’s shoulder, whispering poker advice into his ear.

At first glance, academe seems more in line with Duke’s upbringing. Her father, Richard Lederer, is a prolific author and language expert who for 27 years headed the English department at St. Paul’s prep school in Concord, New Hampshire. Duke was an accomplished student herself, both at St. Paul’s and as an undergrad at Columbia University. But she believes that she and her brother—Howard Lederer, 39, also a professional poker player—were unwittingly groomed to excel in competitive poker. Nearly every night of Duke’s formative years, the Lederers would assemble on the floor of her father’s study to play cards. As the second youngest, she lost a lot.

“When I play Go Fish with my daughter,” she says, “I let her win. Not my dad. He never let any of us win.” When Duke beat him in Scrabble at the age of 16, the Scrabble board disappeared. The stubborn competitive streak Duke inherited from her dad is magnified by the fact that she lost so much to other family members. “I have a huge desire to win at everything I do,” she says.

In 1992, her doctorate in Penn’s psychology department was within her grasp. She was on the verge of completing her dissertation on syntactic bootstrapping (a theory on how children learn language), presenting her work at conferences around the country and being published in respected journals. And she was about to have her pick of the top jobs in her field.

“I put a lot into it, because I am a tremendous Type A,” Duke says. “But it wasn’t
my passion.”

Then came an undiagnosed illness that put her in the hospital for two weeks. “My body was trying to tell me something,” she says. She listened. A month from finishing her Ph.D., she left Philadelphia and moved to Columbus, Montana, where her then-husband, Ben Duke, had family.

There, relieved of her doctoral work, Duke had lots of time on her hands. Her brother had flown her out to Vegas a few times while she was in grad school and given her poker lessons. Now he staked her some cash so she could join in the games in the legal card rooms of Billings, Montana. Duke began to win so big that she soon earned the moniker “Annie Legend,” and started trekking to Vegas to try her luck.

In 1994, she played in her first WSOP tournament and came in 13th. The second time, she came in third. She grossed $70,000 that first year, and moved with her husband to Las Vegas, where she began playing professionally. She became known in poker circles for her quirky and often outspoken presence at the table—her jangling bracelets, her bare feet beneath the table, the girlish way she blew her bangs out of her eyes. She finished in 10th place at the 2000 WSOP when she was nine months pregnant with her third child.

Being the only woman at the table has never fazed her, and she even declines to play in ladies-only events.

“I find it insulting,” she says. “This is a game about the mind. It’s not about throwing the
football really far or tackling someone.”

After the Travel Channel first broadcast poker in March 2003, the game exploded, resulting in a full house of endorsements for Duke. She’s writing her autobiography for a major publisher, and a TV show is in the works. She’s on the road seven to 10 days a month, playing in televised tournaments, and spends the rest of each month with her four kids, ages two to nine, at home in Portland, Oregon. She’s also sponsored by Ultimatebet.com, where she dispenses poker tips and plays with newbies online.

Despite her own success, Duke has chosen not to raise her kids to be gamers. But she doesn’t regret playing all of those games as a kid. Those experiences shaped her current career, as did her psychology studies, which she credits for giving her a good grasp of math and statistics. Having learned how randomness works from studying cognitive psych, Duke believes that if she loses big one day, something good is bound to happen another day.

“It all balances out,” she says. “It’s just math.”

—Caroline Tiger C’96

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04




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