For someone whose livelihood depends on the numbers adding up, Annie Duke has led a life whose total is much more than the sum of its parts. The 2004 World Series of Poker Champion was studying psycholinguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and well on her way to a career in academia when she had a panic attack, married a man she’d never even dated, and moved to rural Montana. There, she began playing the game that would eventually make her a household name.
Duke was certainly no stranger to the table. Her parents met at a card game at Harvard and the family would later engage in extremely competitive gaming. As a teen, Duke visited her older brother (full tilt poker pro Howard “The Professor” Lederer) in New York, where he was trying to eke out a living in low-stakes games. All these seemingly inconsequential moments spelled out a great, if unexpected, fate. “Annie has a tremendous drive to succeed,” Lederer says of his sister. “I always had high hopes.”
Duke doesn’t seem all that surprised by her success or the unorthodox road she took to get where she is. In fact, speaking to the busy mother of four, it’s quickly apparent that Duke is the kind of gal who usually gets what she wants when she wants it. And if she has to plant herself in a challenging situation to capture that elusive “it,”
then that’s what she’ll do.
When she and ex-husband Ben were living in the tiny town of Columbus, Montana (pop. 1,500), they weren’t even able to make their $125 mortgage payments on their home. To make ends meet, she found some local low-stakes poker games. “I took a lot of abuse,” Duke says of those early days. “But I looked at it as just trying to do my best. I don’t back down from a challenge, and I won’t let that make me quit. I wasn’t going to let [the men] win financially or emotionally.”
That type of strong thinking led to some early successes and a chance to play in some higher-stakes games. Armed with some money as well as the knowledge culled from her brother and home games, Duke was convinced by Lederer to enter the WSOP in 1994. She placed an impressive 13th in her first tournament, 3rd in her second, and placed in the championship event her first year, unseating her big brother in the process. Duke subsequently moved her family from Montana to Las Vegas and began playing professionally. The biggest win of her career came in 2004, when she was the only female to play at the WSOP Tournament of Champions, a No Limit Texas Hold’em invitation-only tournament, taking the $2 million purse from Phil Hellmuth.
So in a profession where success is predicated on typically masculine traits like aggression and intensity, how is it that Duke holds more than her own at the table? Just ask her male rivals; they’ve got nothing but compliments for her skills and poker focus.
“She plays with a controlled aggression, and has some serious skills,” says Hellmuth, who has faced Duke across the felt on more than one occasion. “Annie is honest, honorable, and
speaks her mind. You always know where you stand with her,” he says.
Remember that last statement; it’s a refrain that Duke will repeat in various forms. She is quick to point out that, behind the glitz and glamour, poker is, in fact, a job. But no matter how important that “job” is to her, the primary role she plays is that of parent. “Ben and I share the kids fifty-fifty and we have an incredible nanny,” Duke says. “When I am home, I’m home, and I can be here completely; picking up the kids from school, the whole thing.”
While Duke can’t forget the game that made her a star, she says she plays a reduced schedule compared to other pros. It’s the only way she’s able to keep the home fires burning and still make the most of other opportunities that come her way. One such opportunity is her relationship with UltimateBet.com, which began in 2001. The company wanted to attach some pro endorsers to the site and found Duke to be a natural fit. As Duke puts it, her type-A personality took over and she began advising the site on its content, becoming a consultant for the company in 2003.
She currently helps the site with marketing, tournaments, and of course the requisite interviews (wink, nudge) that help the company gain a foothold with the public. Duke recently neg
otiated a new five-year deal with UltimateBet.com and is in the midst of some other lucrative deals. Forget Suzanne Somers– Jim Ryan, CEO for Excapsa, UltimateBet.com’s software platform, considers Annie the perfect pitchwoman. “Thankfully, I’ve never had to face her across the table,” he says. “From a partnership standpoint, her integrity and competitive drive are key components to the success the company has seen.”
“If opportunities come your way to expand your horizons and exercise your intellect, you take them,” she says. “It would be a crime not to take advantage of the situation.” For starters, there is the NBC TV show “Poker After Dark” where Duke appeared three times, and her autobiography “How I raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker”, recounting her now-legendary WSOP win. In 2009 Annie Duke was one of the two finalists at Donald Trump reality TV show, “Celebrity Apprentice”. Plus there are always more tournaments. No World Poker Tour final table yet, but in 2010, Annie won the NBC Heads-up championship.
“Howard and a lot of other pros had good games this year,” she says. “It’s tough for everyone. Fifty percent of the players this year qualified online.” Duke denies that online qualifiers are lowering the quality of the game. She instead sees them as simply widening the field, which means that everyone has to play a little bit harder. “I came in the second day and guys were calling with aces high,” she says. “It’s all about making adjustments and having the right cards.” On that day, Duke says she just didn’t have them.
As a skilled cash game and tournament player, Duke is committed to improving her game on all fronts. For anyone who finds the lights and constant attention from ESPN and E! a little too Hollywood, Duke isn’t hearing it. She wants to see the pro tour constantly going, with more games being played at the highest possible levels. And if Duke has he
r way, she’ll be at that final table every time: the saucy brunette staring down the boys with her winning smile, making her mark as a first-rate player who just happens to be the mother of four.
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