Queen Of Aces.Going one-on-one with the sharpest card in Poker's Royal Family.
Annie Duke is the most successful female poker player in history, so GOM decided that she was the only person we could possible have on our front cover. When we finally caught up with America’s most popular poker star, we chatted about everything from winning the WSOP to single momdom.
GOM: What’s it like growing up in a family of cardplayers?
AD: From as early as I can remember, I had cards in my head. My dad was an avid cardplayer. We used to play five nights a week, but rarely poker. He preferred games like Gin Rummy.
GOM: And your brother Howard Lederer introduced you to poker…
AD: I was finishing up my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania when I decided that I didn’t want to become a professor like my father after all, so I quit graduate school and went off to Montana with my then husband. We were living in this tiny house made of chicken wire and peeling stucco; the roof was leaking and the whole thing was falling down and we barely had money to pay the mortgage. We needed money, and forty-five minutes away in Billings, there were these poker rooms. My brother had previously taken me out to Vegas during the World Series and taught me to play. I remember sitting in the coffee shop in Binions and he handed me a napkin with the starting hand values on it. I went off and played and won $300.
So I called my brother and I said, “Look. I really need money and there are these games here in Billings. Can you teach me to really play?” He sent me $2,400 and some books, and gave me some lessons over the phone. And so one day I marched into this place in Billings called the Crystal Lounge – it was down in this smoky room in the basement with all these old guys – and sat down and played. In my first month I made $2,800. I was like: “Oh my God. This is so much money!” And that’s what I’ve done since.
About a year later, my brother convinced me to come down to the WSOP. I did well in a few events, made it to the money in the Main Event and came away with around $70,000. I moved down to Las Vegas a month later.
GOM: Was it a struggle bringing up kids and traveling the poker circuit?
AD: At that time I didn’t travel at all. Before poker was on TV, there weren’t very many $10,000 events. I was playing the high cash games at the Bellagio, and the money you could make was much greater. The only tournaments I ever played in those days were the WSOP ones. When the WPT became so popular, I switched; so I don’t play cash games at all now. I moved my family away from Vegas, because I didn’t really want to raise them in that town. Now I live in Portland, OR, and instead of going into work everyday, I travel to these tournaments and spend the rest of the time with my kids. I was really making an equity choice about where I thought the most money was, because I knew that with a family I couldn’t do both.
GOM: How has online poker and the sponsorship deals it creates affected poker players?
AD: Well, it’s interesting. The WPT doesn’t allow you to wear a logo. If you look at any other tour, like tennis or golf, the top people endorse products and make a lot of money. And considering we have to pay our own entrance fees, it’s not really very fair. But because the online sites need to have pro players endorsing them, it’s created a whole world of revenue for the top players.
GOM: You’re one of the handful of poker players that have become ‘A-list’ celebrities. Has that been an easy transition to cope with?
AD: When people say ‘how have you coped’ I find it a funny kind of question. Before poker was on TV it was grouped in with general ‘gambling’. Now people are savvy enough to realise that it’s not gambling, it’s investing. It’s speculation in the truest sense of the word. You know that you’re putting your money into a situation where you have a positive mathematical equity. Poker used to be perceived as a vice: like drugs and prostitution. Thank God I had parents that gave me the confidence to feel that I could do anything and know that what other people thought doesn’t really matter. My brother and I had this huge passion for the game and we were willing to be a little bit marginalized and accept that people wouldn’t necessarily understand. But particularly as a mom, I got a lot of sidewise glances from a lot of the other mothers at school. From some people’s reactions you would have thought that I was a prostitute.
But now they’ve decided to turn the cameras on what I do for a living. To me, it’s like they suddenly decided that accountants are really interesting and that it would be entertaining to film them during tax season. If you had asked me before all of this happened whether anyone would ever watch poker on TV, I’d say, ‘No. It’s like watching paint dry.’ Thank God they figured out a way to make it interesting and all of a sudden America cares about what I do.
GOM: How are you preparing for the WSOP?
AD: I’m going to take some time off to clear my head. I’m going to Italy and then I’ll spend a little time in New York on a ‘worky’ vacation. But basically, I want to relax and go into the Series fresh and rested.
GOM: What are your expectations for this year’s World Series?
AD: I think it’s hard to go into the WSOP with any expectations. All I want to do is go in and play the best poker I can. Hopefully I’ll end up making some money. I’d love to win another bracelet this year and I’m certainly going to play a lot of tournaments. But there’s going to be 6,600 people playing. The chances of a pro ever winning that event again are extremely slim. When you look at the players that the public recognise, there’s about fifty – and probably twenty they could name, if that. So when you look at the odds of 6,600:50 it’s pretty slim. So, it’s most likely going to be someone you’ve never heard of. That’s not to say they won’t be a good poker player – the winner no doubt have a tremendous amount of skill, but he or she will have got tremendously lucky as well. So you just have to go into it thinking, “I’m gonna play my best.” That’s all you can do.
GOM: What advice would you give an online satellite winner sitting down at his first World Series?
AD: They need to realise that there are strategy changes that have to be made because of the different way big live tournaments are structured. Online, the blinds are escalating much more rapidly and players start with smaller amount of chips. In the WSOP you start with 10,000 in chips and the blinds go up slowly. Basically, online players need to realise they’ve got a lot more time. They don’t need to be putting all their chips in. Most of the pros, during the first day, will never be all-in. It doesn’t make a lot of mathematical sense when the blinds are so small. Unless you have aces, you should be unwilling to go all-in at all.
GOM: And as a pro, how will you cope with the hordes of amateur players, knowing that they’re unpredictable and they may just get lucky against you. Do you need to change your strategy?
AD: When you play against an amateur it becomes harder to lay a hand down because they have very different hand values from you. In the days when you were playing against a field of 70 pros, if someone moved in on you, you’d really think hard about it and you might throw your hand away. It’s difficult to do against amateurs. They’ve watched a lot of WPT events. They watch the final two or three players when the blinds are really high, and they see people getting all there chips in with hands like K-Q and they don’t necessarily understand that it’s the circumstances that’s driving that player, not the cards. I try to watch my opponents really carefully and determine what their hand valuations are. If I’ve seen someone play K-Q like he’s holding aces, then I’ll be very unwilling to lay down a strong hand against him. If he happens to actually have aces the next time – well, that’s just the way it goes. You’ve just got to take some time to figure people out. Don’t make assumptions about them until you’ve seen them play at least a few hands.
GOM: When you play people online at Ultimatebet.com on the low limit tables, do you find them hard to beat, simply because it’s hard to know what the hell they’re doing?
AD: I’d say I probably break even, mainly because people are chatting to me all the time, so I’m just playing ‘automatic’ poker. But no, I don’t think they are hard to beat. I think you’re confusing variance with expectation. The online low limit games have much higher variance, because you have more people entering the pot and they play very fast poker, so you can have big swings. In games like that, which are extremely loose, providing you play good hand values and play relatively tight poker, you will end up winning. But just understand that your swings will be bigger.
GOM: What’s your most vivid memory of the World Series?
AD: I have three. The first year I played in the Main Event, I got drawn to my brother’s table and I knocked him out. That was a very difficult experience; because I didn’t necessarily consider myself a professional then or, indeed, have a dream to win the World Series. He had been playing for ten years and I knew how much that event mattered to him. That’s one of the most powerful memories I have.
Then there was playing the $10,000 event in the year 2000 when I was two weeks away from my D-day. I was heavily pregnant, and I just have memories of being incredibly uncomfortable. It was very physically and mentally taxing.
And then, of course, the highlight is winning my bracelet last year. It was even more special because I happened to win it on a day that had the Ladies Event going on at the same time. I’ve always been completely against ladies only events. Poker is a game in which there are no physical differences whatsoever; it doesn’t matter that men are bigger and stronger. In a game where you’re matching up mind against mind, to say that you need to stick the women by themselves so they can win a little world championship of their own – I find that insulting. I made a decision that, if I’m going to win a world championship, I want it to be a real world championship where anyone can enter.
GOM: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen at a poker table?
AD: I actually saw David Gray and Sam Grizzle tackle each other once. It was very funny. It was the first time I’d ever played $800/$1600 and I had a lot of money on the table – I was winning $40,000 or $50,000. They got into a fight and started rolling around on the floor of the Mirage and I was just trying to protect my chips. David, who’s pretty thin now, was overweight at the time, and of course Sam has a crippled hand, so to see these two strange figures attacking each other was hilarious.
GOM: J-J or A-Q suited?
AD: I think A-Q suited is easier to play. Not that I think A-Q is a good hand. It’s very easy to get trapped with. If you flop an ace you don’t know whether you’re good. Jacks is just one of those hands where, 50% of the time, an overcard will hit and once that happens it becomes difficult to play them. A-Q is one of those hands you either hit well or you don’t, so there are fewer situations to get you into trouble and put you on a tough decision.
You can play against Annie on Ultimatebet.com where, she claims, she just about breaks even.