Big Think Interview with Annie Duke
Annie Duke has leveraged her expertise in the science of smart decision making to excel at pursuits as varied as championship poker to public speaking. For two decades, Annie was one of the top poker players in the world. In 2004, she bested a field of 234 players to win her first World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet. The same year, she triumphed in the $2 million winner-take-all, invitation-only WSOP Tournament of Champions. In 2010, she won the prestigious NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship. Prior to becoming a professional poker player, Annie was awarded the National Science Foundation Fellowship. Because of this fellowship, she studied Cognitive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Annie is a master storyteller, having performed three times for The Moth, an organization that preserves the art of spoken word storytelling. One of her stories was selected by The Moth as one of their top 50 stories and featured in the organization’s first-ever book. Her passion for making a difference has helped raise millions for charitable causes. In 2006, she founded Ante Up for Africa along with actor Don Cheadle and Norman Epstein, which has raised more than $4 million for Africans in need. She has also served on the board of The Decision Education Foundation. In 2009, she appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice, and raised $730,000 for Refugees International, a charity that advocates for refugees around the world. In October 2013, Annie became a national board member for After School All-Stars. In 2014, Annie co-founded How I Decide, a nonprofit with the goal of helping young people develop the essential life skills of critical thinking and decision making. In 2015, she became a member of the NationSwell Council. In 2016, she began serving on the board of directors of The Franklin Institute, one of America’s oldest and greatest science museums. Annie is the author of Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts.
Question: What skills are required to be a great poker player?
Annie Duke: To be a great poker player, essentially, you have to have a grasp of math and probabilities. You have to have some sense of game theory, regardless of whether you can actually express it in an academic way; you still have to have some grasp of game theory. You know that you are not playing a single hand that you have to worry about how opponents are going to perceive you in the future, how they are going to react to you in the future. You have to have what we call, ‘a lot of heart’ which is the ability to not only understand what the right play is, but to be able to follow through with it. Which seems like a very trivial point, but it’s probably the biggest point. A lot of times, what happens to people, sort of what separates the good from the great is that the good know the right answer, but they don’t follow through with it because its too scary, or they’re putting too much as risk. They don’t have that confidence that it’s okay because while there might be some variance to the play and you might lose this particular hand, mathematically it was the right choice. Over the long run it will work out.
One of the things that I say to students is that most poker players spend too much time worrying about whether they have the best hand. What great players worry about is whether they can win the hand enough of the time, which is a totally different way to think. That’s what really makes a great poker player is understanding, it’s not about winning right now, it’s about making the right decisions so that you win in the long run. You also have to be, I think, a very good reader of people, or at least a reader of bets and a very good pattern analyzer. That’s kind of all the things that have to do with the poker playing but that’s not what makes you a successful poker player. You have to have those skills and be able to beat the game. You could be anywhere from good to great in order to be a successful player as long as you are better than the game that you are playing. What makes a successful poker player is someone who manages their money really well, who understands what the bankroll requirements are to be sitting in a certain game, how much money you can risk in a certain game, and also who has a lot of control over the emotional aspect of the game, because poker players lose a lot because there’s variance to the game. You don’t win every single hand. Being able to emotionally handle the losses and not allow those to affect your play going forward is actually one of the key components to being a successful player. What I say to people all the time is that, there are lots of players out there who have more talent in their pinky than I have in my whole body for the game, but they are broke and I’m not. You work with the skills that you have, you recognize the games that you should be playing in, you play in games that you are better than rather than vice versa, which would be an ego-driven choice to think that you should be playing against people who are better than you are. And then you manage your money well and you manage your emotions well and that will make you a successful poker player, whether you are only good, or great.
Question: How much time did you put in before you got good?
Annie Duke: I’m still waiting to be really good. I’ll let you know. Stick a pin in that one. I’ve been playing for 15 years, I’m waiting. I mean, the fact is, that has to be the case because poker is a game of decision making under conditions of uncertainty so that you don’t see your opponents cards, you can’t ever become a master of the game because it’s not mathematically solvable. You can get better at solving it, you can get closer to a solution, you can get better at behaving properly toward the range of hands that your opponent might be holding-- mathematically properly I mean, in terms of equity decisions-- you can get better at narrowing down the range of hands that your opponent could be holding. [In] an ideal world, we get it down to one hand and then we would always behave perfectly, but we can’t do that. I am much better than I was when I started, but I will never have it solved. I mean, you just can’t. That’s what allows us to grow as players and it’s what allows us to continue to become better. I don’t think that I’m great. I am striving to become great. I am going to be striving toward that goal for my whole life. The realistic answer to your question is, I started in ’94, and I started being really successful at the game around 1998.
Question: What’s the best advice you were ever given?
Annie Duke: When I first started playing, I was very focused on the bad things that happened to me that were out of my control. My brother had to give me this advice over and over again. It took a few years to really sink in, but my brother said to me – we call it moaning. You’re moaning about your luck. You’re moaning about your hands. He said to me, not only does nobody want to hear you moan, which is true because we’ve all seen every bad hand that’s happened. I don’t need to hear it. The piece of advice that he gave me [that] was so important was not that nobody wants to hear you moan, it was; what productive thing is coming out of moaning? In what way is moaning productive? He is totally right about this. All you are doing when you are moaning is bemoaning your bad luck. “Oh, I had the best hand, and he had the worst hand and he won.” You’re not doing anything to analyze the hand; you’re not doing anything constructive. Did I do something wrong in the hand? Could I have taken a different line of play? Should I have been involved in the hand in the first place? Those things might help you become a better poker player. When you’re moaning, all you are doing is focusing on things that were not in your control, at least you are not exploring whether they were in your control, which is bad. You’re just focusing on the one piece of bad variance that happened. There’s nothing productive that comes from it.
Question: What’s the worst advice you were given?
Annie Duke: When I first started playing, there was a person who decided they wanted to mentor me. This was outside, obviously my main mentor was my brother, and the majority of the beginnings of my poker knowledge came from him. I developed into my own player because you have to be. People react to different personalities differently. My brother and I have different personalities, but he gave me all of my fundamentals. He gave me the bricks and mortar upon which my poker game was built. There was this person in Billings, Montana when I first started playing who decided they wanted to mentor me. They were giving me advice and as far as I knew at the time, they were a successful player, at least a successful player at that level. I made the mistake of thinking maybe I should listen to this person’s advice. They were explaining to me why small suited connecting cards are good and you should be playing those from any position. This is a little [bit] technical, but let’s just suffice it to say that that’s a horrible piece of advice. It really screwed my game up for awhile– I was playing limit Hold-em at the time. There’s more justification for playing those hands in no-limit Hold-em because you’re return can be greater on them, but in limit Hold-em in particular, playing a hand like six-seven of clubs in first position in a ten-handed game is a ridiculous choice.
This person really believed in it and wanted to give me that advice, and I took that on for a little while to a very disastrous results. My brother finally fixed it because I thought to ask my brother’s opinion on this situation after things weren’t going so well. He explained to me that suited cards only improve your hand by 3%. Another one of the great pieces of advice my bother gave me was, when you see that your two cards are of the same suit, you should ask yourself, would I play this if it weren’t suited? If the answer is never in a million, gazillion years, then the answer is still never in a million, gazillion years. If the answer is, maybe sometimes under certain circumstances; in other words, it would be a marginal play, then it turns it into a playable hand. He said all suited cards do is turn a marginal hand into one that you can play. When you look down at six, seven off suit in first position, I don’t think anybody is playing that hand. Probably not a good idea to play it, but that was the secret that this person was unlocking for me. I tried it for about a month or two, and it didn’t go well, and I actually do consider that to be the worst piece of advice I was ever given.
Question: What obstacles have you found as a female poker player?
Annie Duke: I personally haven’t found any obstacles. I think that’s because I am very focused on what my goals are in the game. My goals aren’t social ones. If I had goals that were social in nature, if I felt like I wanted to always have good social interactions with people at the table, that I didn’t want to have negative reactions with people at the table, then there would be obstacles to being a woman. I don’t think about it that way. People having negative reactions to me at the table is actually a good thing. It means they are emotionally wrapped up in my existence, which means they are not going to play well. That’s not true for a lot of women. What I can tell you is that the downside to being a female in this world because poker doesn’t have the same kind of glass ceiling because nobody is hiring you. Nobody is setting your salary. There aren’t a lot of the negatives that happen in business where you won’t get promoted because your boss is a chauvinistic ass-hole, or you are getting paid less than your male colleagues, that stuff doesn’t exist here because you are playing by your own wits, it’s our own money, and you’re just winning money according to how much better in the game you are.
That being said, when I was playing in Montana, I got called very bad names on a daily basis. I would win a hand and it would be just a random hand, and the person would look at me and say, “You fucking cunt.” I’m not kidding. That happened to me pretty much every day, which is an interesting reaction to losing a hand of poker. What you would consider sexual harassment or things that wouldn’t be okay in every day interaction become fair game in a lot of player’s minds at the poker table. Some how they feel like because you have agreed to sit down at the table that they are allowed to treat you however they want because it was your choice to sit down in their world. They seemed to think that it was okay to be using those words in relation to me.
Now, that would be a very big negative for most women, .being treated that way. I remember one time I won a hand from someone and he looked at me and he called me a frigid bitch, which was really weird. I’ve been really overtly and disgustingly hit on at the table. I was playing in a game once with somebody who – I won’t say who they are, but they were actually a very famous television producer, and [he] kept saying to me, “Can I look in your hole?” “What’s in your hole?” “Can I get in there?” Because you have hole cards. They thought they were being funny with this pun. I was playing once with a famous actor who was eating lamb chops at the table, and he said, “Hey, do you want to try my meat?” After he was done with his meat, he lifted up the bone and he said, “What about my bone?” Obviously, none of that is appropriate in pretty much any circumstance, but I get faced with that regularly. Again, most women I think would find that a negative, a downside. A lot of women end up not coming back to the table because they are treated that way. It didn’t bother me because I didn’t look at it as any kind of statement on who I was or whether that was appropriate because, again, it wasn’t like these people were my bosses. It wasn’t their job to hire me.
Question: How do you get back at them?
Annie Duke: As a good poker player, what you are doing is you are watching the way that somebody behaves at the table. You see what they’ve done with past hands so you can use that past information. Who they are as a person? Are the conservative? Are they wild? What are their hand ranges that you’ve seen them play in certain positions? How have they bet good hands? How have they bet bad hands? How have they behaved? You take all of that data that you have collected about that player so that when you are in a hand with them you can use all of that in order to predict their behavior and predict their hand. You’re constantly updating that based on what you see them do.
At the poker table, stereotypes can be good as a starting point. I sit down at a table. I've never played with anybody before in my whole life-- its a kid's [who has] a baseball cap and he's wearing headphones and a hoody. I look at that guy and I say this guy definitely views himself as a poker player and he's probably going to be trying fancy plays. I can make some assumptions about how that person is going to behave given that I might get in a hand with them before I’ve ever seen them play. I need kind of a jumping off point. If I see a businessman [in] a tie and suit, they're probably not someone who plays poker all the time, they're probably going to be less experience[d]. They're very likely to be conservative in their play in [and] less likely to be making plays on me. I can make certain assumptions about the way people play in, butI have to be willing to update those as I see them play hands. It might turn out that the kid with the baseball cap [is] only [dressed] that way because he's seen people dress like that on TV, and he's actually the worst poker player I've ever seen. Likewise the businessmen might actually be very good. It turns out that there are stereotypes that you can make about women at the table. They tend to be less aggressive; they tend to be more straightforward, so when they bet it's more likely that they have it. They do make plays, they are very unlikely to be bluffing you. They tend to be more passive players rather than more aggressive players. That comes from them being less experienced because women tend not [to] play poker a lot. When a woman sits down at the table, [you] could make the reasonable assumption that they are probably a less experienced player and they're going to have certain attributes. As soon as you start seeing them play you have to change [your] mind.
Topic: “Lucky” bitch
Annie Duke: The advantage to being a woman is that men are very unwilling to change their minds about who you are as a person, because the stereotypes that men have about women and their emotional reactions have been built into them since they were little tiny baby's. It's very hard for them to undo a lifetime of stereotypes. They tend not to update their information about you based on who you are. The best example I can give is a hand that I actually played against or having for this guy, and this was back in Montana, this guy raised with King, nine of diamonds, and I re-raised them with ace, king of hearts and they called me, and the board came a king and two small hearts. And so, he flopped a king but had a nine with it, and I flopped a king, but I had an ace with it. So, I had, by far, the best hand. And he bet and I raised and he re-raised me, and I re-raised him, and re-raised me, and I re-raised him, and he finally called. And then on the next card, he checked and I bet, and he raised me, and I re-raised him, and he called. And then on the next card, he checked, and I bet, and he called. So, I turned over my ace, king of hearts. And notice, at no time did I have the worst hand. I had the best hand literally from start to finish. I behaved completely rationally in the hand. And so anyway, I turned my hand over, and now he flips his hand face up on the table and he’s like, “You see what a lucky bitch she is? She’s always so lucky. You know, what are you supposed to do, she’s so lucky.” And so on and so forth. And this really came from his inability to accept that I might just be a better player than him. And I might have just had a better hand than he did. He had to attribute it to luck because he was unwilling to update his stereotype of who I was as a person.
Now, this person actually, I found out a few years later, beat his wife almost on a nightly basis. So, you can imagine how strong his views of women were in terms of not wanting to give them credit and I was really horrified when I found that out, but interestingly not surprised because he was one of those C-word people. So, but that’s really common. So, I sort of divide men into three categories – well four categories. There’s men who are rational and they treat you as any other player at the table, so that’s category one. So, those people aren’t advantageous to you. But the first category that you can work to your advantage is the person who is angry that you are there. It’s their game; it’s a man’s game.
Topic: Poker’s four types of men
Annie Duke: I would say the majority of men fall into the, they just treat you as any other player. But of the people who don’t, of the people who are actually behaving in a chauvinistic way, I would say it’s probably about equally divided between three types. The first I call an angry chauvinist. They are pissed off that you are there. What goes along with that is that the worst thing that could ever happen to them is losing a hand to a woman because that would clearly be castrating them. So, those players have certain ways that they play toward you in order to make sure that you are never outplaying them, which would be the worst thing ever. Like, could you imagine if a woman bluffed that guy? That would be really bad. So, what that means is that those people are going to be trying to bluff you too often because they have to assert their manhood over you, which means they have to outplay you, so they’re going to be playing too many hands against you. They’re going to be playing them too fast; they’re always going to try to be bluffing you. And the other thing is that they’re going to be calling you too often because they want to make sure that you’re never bluffing them. So, obviously, it’s very easy to devise the strategy to counter that.
The next type of person that I call is a disrespecting chauvinist. And that person just doesn’t believe that you could possibly have any imagination. So, the difference between those two is, the angry chauvinist is usually nasty to you at the table. They’re really nasty. They’re the one being like, “Can I look in your hole?” The disrespecting chauvinist is often very nice to you. They come off as a very sweet person, but they don’t have any respect for the female intellect. So what happens is that they think that you don’t have any creativity to your game. If you bet, they assume that you have a hand, and if you check, they assume you don’t. And so, that’s obviously also very easy to come up with a strategy to counteract. It’s really easy. Just bet when you don’t have a hand because they’re going to give you too much credit because they’re going to think that you can’t think more than one level deep.
And then the third type is what I just call the flirting chauvinist. And that guy just wants to sleep with you. And the good news about somebody who just wants to sleep with you is that it would be very counterproductive to their goal to take your money. So, they tend to be very helpful to you at the table. They’ll tell you when they have the best hand and so, they’ll be like, “Don’t call honey, I have a flush.” And it’s like, “Will you show me?” And then they’ll show you. Obviously, that’s a great guy to play with. And what I say to people all the time is again, and the idea is that understand what your goal is at the poker table, which is to come up with the best strategy to most efficiently and precisely take somebody’s chips. I am always willing to flirt with people at a table. That being said, I have never been on a date with a poker player, I’ve never held the hand of a poker player, I’ve never kissed a poker player, none of it. But I’ve done a lot of flirting at the poker table with people who I know are looking for something from me and so I always say, I have given people a lot of hope, but then I suppose I’ve dashed them when it comes down to it.
Question: What does it take to win rock, paper, scissors?
Annie Duke: I think I’m terrible at rock, paper, scissors. Now, at that the time, I was really working on the game. I had this period where I decided that I wanted to become a really good rock, paper, scissors player. I have my champions t-shirt. It’s very similar to what you have to do in poker, which is to understand your opponent’s pattern. You should be able to see your opponent’s patterns very quickly because as much as an opponent might think that they’re behaving randomly, they’re not. Unless they are actually using a random number generator to determine their throws, whether they throw rock paper or scissors, there’s always going to be some pattern to what they are doing, and it really has to do with figuring out what they’re pattern is. For example, in the championship match that I won; my opponent had a very strong tendency to throw whatever I had thrown previously. I recognized that pattern, and obviously that’s very easy to beat because I knew what their throw was going to be. It has to do with understanding what your opponent’s throw is going to be.
The other little small piece of advice that I would give you is that people tend to throw rock on their first throw. Throwing paper is usually not a good strategy because they might throw scissors. You should throw rock as well.
The key is, and this is the best piece of advice that I can give you, if you do think that you recognize the pattern from your opponent, it’s good to try to throw a tie as opposed to a win. A tie will very often get you a tie or a win, whereas a win will get you a win or a loss. For example, if you think that someone might throw a rock, it’s good to throw rock back at them. You should be going for ties. That’s actually a really good strategy to win at rock, paper, scissors. There’s my rock, paper, scissors advice for you. I think I’m terrible at the game right now though because I’m not good right now at figuring out other people’s throws. I can’t go for the tie because I just haven’t – I’m so out of practice. I think it’s been like three years since I played it, a lot.
Recorded on September 30, 2009
A conversation with the professional poker player.
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