Annie Duke had the last laugh.
It was the final moments of a one-hour Ask Me Anything Zoom session with about 20 readers of her books and Substack newsletter, both of which have turned her into a guru on the topic of decision-making. People and companies spend big to hear Duke dispense wisdom about how to emotionally and intellectually prepare oneself to make smart, healthy choices about life, work, and relationships – so the viewers who logged in here squeeze the most out of this freebie.
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Annie Duke’s advice
She’d already answered this last question a few different ways – a fellow wanted to know how to “do the right thing” even when people around you don’t understand or agree – but, of course, she riffed anyway. It’s a convoluted answer that requires an understanding of her approach to “cognitive biases” and “making tribes,” but eventually she concluded with this:
“Everybody likes to feel better than everybody else. That’s sort of my big advice on decision-making.”
Something about that line made her emit a tiny giggle. Then she thanked her audience, beckoned them to read her newsletter and sign up for her $2,000-a-person Maven class. As she waved goodbye from her attic in Philadelphia and hit whatever button shut down the Zoom, my last image that day was of the infectious smile of someone who is triumphantly in her element.
Better off outside the poker world
In all the years I covered and interviewed Annie Duke the Poker Player, I never saw her this happy, this at ease with herself. Not even when she racked up $4 million in tournament winnings and certainly not when she was at a table trying to get a read on her opponents.
She’s better off without the poker world. The poker world, however, could certainly still use someone like her.
There are reasons for this. Annie Duke was a groundbreaking female poker player in a world that had precious few of them, having started in the early 1990s when she quit graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania a few beats shy of a Ph.D. in psycholinguistics. She was also highly educated, which was also a scarcity. And she quickly became a TV star in the early 2000s when TV was looking for interesting, successful poker players because she was telegenic in a way most of her grumpy, schlubby male counterparts just were not.
Breaking into the poker boys club
And for all these assets, oh did she suffer. The sexism was constant, virulent and cruel. Even before social media, Daniel Negreanu was writing nastygrams on Usenet groups about her alleged poor hygiene; she had recently had a baby and had four small kids. What, pray tell, were the excuses of the legions of funky-smelling, perennially unwashed boys of the game?
Like so many women, she put up with it and, per her 2005 memoir, she found ways to use her intimidating femininity and smarts to win. And like so many intelligent, self-possessed women, she had side gigs going to prepare for a day when she would, could or had to walk away from the thing that made her famous. Hers was giving talks to hedge fund managers about the thing they had in common, “making decisions under extreme uncertainty,” as she put it.
Life after poker fame
She always knew she wouldn’t be a poker pro forever. She’s 57 now and quit at 46, acutely aware that middle age had arrived for her, she tells me in an interview a few days after the AMA:
“I noticed in poker that it’s very, very rare to see an older player who’s happy. I think Eric Seidel might be one of the only ones, maybe Doyle [Brunson] because he just loved it so much. But most of the older people I saw growing up as a player were miserable, really, really unhappy. And I think the reason is it’s hard. It’s really hard to live your whole life not really quite part of society in a game that has so many swings and wins and losses. I also think, by the way, it is a game that requires a tremendous amount of cognitive acuity. And when you get older, it slips.”
Yeah, but she didn’t even get that chance. By 2012, when she quit the game, she had become viewed as a sort of Mata Hari of the green felt. She had worked as a consultant for Ultimate Bet, a website that became ensnared in a massive insider cheating scandal. The colleagues and poker fans (men and women, let’s be honest) who didn’t like her, who found her conceited and overrated and unfriendly, took to social media to call her a liar, cheater, scam artist. In 2011, she and former WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack launched a competing league that never had a chance because it came into existence months before the U.S. Department of Justice shut down overseas online poker sites and crippled the game’s economy.
A decade later, she’d write “Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away.” It contains nuggets of wisdom like:
“Success does not lie in sticking to things. It lies in picking the right thing to stick to and quitting the rest.”
“Contrary to popular belief, winners quit a lot. That’s how they win.”
By then she was blooming where she had planted herself. She’d infused the often-dull discipline of business management with some pop-culture flavor, taken her 20 years as a poker player and milked it for relatable life lessons in best-selling books, speeches, classes, and lucrative consultancies.
Perhaps this was inevitable, as she says. She didn’t want to grow old in poker, she started to see younger players bringing new skills from their high-volume online life to the table in ways she couldn’t or just didn’t want to decipher for herself. So she also hasn’t played a hand of poker for so long that she doesn’t even remember her last time.
Forgotten poker past
But what a damn shame. How the flailing poker world could use her intelligence, her strategic thinking, her popularity and her presence now. It’s certainly still a lucrative pastime, but by and large, it has receded into the back of the public’s consciousness and now struggles to even be a part of the conversation about online legalization. Consider the fact that despite all her earnings and all the visibility she brought, she’s still not in the WSOP Hall of Fame. I mean, going toe to toe with Joan Rivers as Rivers spewed her disgust for poker players – “a pokah playah!” – in that classic 2009 Celebrity Apprentice clip should have earned her a spot alone.
She tells me:
“This is a really interesting thing about quitting: I don’t miss it. That is one of the problems when we’re considering quitting, we ask ourselves what would we miss and what wouldn’t we? We’re not always great at it. So sometimes, it takes leaving something to sort of expose how much we valued it, how much happiness was it bringing. I don’t have a moment where I’m like, ‘Oh, the World Series of Poker is going on. I wish I were playing in it.’ I love what I do. And that’s my goal in life.”
There is a clear note of triumph in that. Even if she and Rivers never saw eye-to-eye, a saying the late, great comedienne often popped off springs to mind: “Never let the bastards get you down.”
Those bastards did get Annie Duke down for a while. But, like Rivers, Duke ate that cruelty as fuel.
“Everybody likes to feel better than everybody else,” she told her AMA crowd.
Sure. That’s true. But you know what is even better than that? When you actually are better than everybody else.