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Q&A: Annie Duke

Sports Illustrated Associate Editor Richard Deitsch interviewed poker player Annie Duke for this week's Q&A in the magazine. The 39-year-old mother of four recently launched a line of poker products for ESPN and has an autobiography coming out in September titled: Annie Duke: How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker: Here are additional excerpts from their conversation:

SI: What's it like for you these days walking through a casino?

Duke: Well, three of four years ago only my friends knew me when I walked though a casino (laughs). Now when I walk through a casino it's a lot of autographs and pictures and a lot of people recognizing me. It's a huge change, an enormous change.

SI: How much sexism exists in poker?

Duke: When I was growing up as a poker player and playing much smaller limits, the sexism was completely overt. People were saying incredibly rude comments to me. I had one guy once say to me after I lost the pot to him: 'That's okay honey. I'll take you across the street and you can put your legs in the air and make your money back.' Total class. At the level that I play it's not overt at all but there are two ways it exhibits itself: The first is that poker is an extremely stressful game. People by nature need to get their stress out, so when they look around the table trying to figure out who they are going to take their stress out on, they are not going to choose the big guy sitting across from them. They are going to choose me because I'm not going to take them outside and deck them. And the other way it exhibits itself is that the qualities it takes to become a great poker player are extremely masculine. There has to be an intensity of competition and really extreme aggression and those kind of things wear better on a man.

SI: Fame happened very quickly. Has that process been overwhelming?

Duke: Poker players, at least the ones who were playing for a long time before it got on TV, have a very different perspective on it. A lot of people who enter other sports understand that the end result of becoming good at what you do is you might become famous. But for people playing poker, not only was there no possibility in that anybody outside poker would know who I was, people really viewed my job askance. People didn't understand before poker was on TV that it's not gambling. They didn't understand that you have a mathematical edge and the same people end up winning every year and it's really a job. When people would ask me what I did and I would say 'I'm a poker player,' I got some very funny responses. A lot of people would ask me, 'Where do you deal?' I would say, 'No, I'm not a dealer. I actually play.' Then once you convinced them you played for a living, very often they didn't believe you. So to go from that to this 180 where people not only understand what I do for a living but think it's cool, is totally kick-ass.

SI: Poker is riding a wave of popularity few sports have seen. Where do you think it is in its evolution?

Duke: I don't think the bubble will burst but I think it will consolidate into more of a organized kind of league. There's no difference in poker's popularity between now and five years ago. The difference is people are aware that there's this world of professional poker and tournament poker. So because you have this huge audience I don't think the popularity will decrease. There is a great every-man element to poker and you never want to lose that. But in terms of the regular coverage there needs to be more control over the quality in order to maintain the popularity.

SI: You started playing poker while you lived in Montana. What were those early days like for you?

Duke: I would have to drive 45 minute on sheer ice to the Crystal Lounge in Billings. You'd go through the bar and down these back stairs into the basement room. There were billows of smoke. It was these old rancher guys. Some people were extremely nice to me, but I was never called (sexual slurs) more in my whole life than at those tables.

SI: How did you deal with the verbal abuse?

Duke: I spent my life sitting on the floor of my Dad's den playing cards. That's what I did from the time I could hold cards. I was at a point in my life when I felt adrift. I had left graduate school realizing at the last minute that I didn't want to be a professor. I went off and lived in an $11,000 house. I was in this shack in the middle of Montana having just come out of two Ivy league schools and I was like: 'What am I doing here?' It was just total moment of 'Oh, my God what am I going to? Work at the town pump.' I'm used to intellectual discussion and hanging out in coffee shop. I called my brother and told him there were card games in Billings. I thought maybe that's how I could make some money and they would be intellectual stimulating. He sent me $2,400 and gave me poker books and lessons over the phone. The thing of it is when I sat down at the table I was like, 'I'm home.' I would walk into these rooms and have people calling me names and saying these horrible sexual things and offering me money to sleep with them and it all just brushed off of me because I knew it was what I wanted to do and I knew I was good at it.

SI: How often do you play?

Duke: I play a lot less often then my colleagues. There are two or three big events every month and I really just play one. I'm just much more choosy about where I play because if I were to play all of them I would see my kids two days out of the month and that's just not acceptable to me. I'm lucky enough to have had certain things happen to me in terms of the tournaments that I've won that I don't have the same kind of pressure as other people to perform.

SI: Television has changed the way the players dress and act. How much has television affected your look?

Duke: I don't take it to the extreme because I have to be true to myself, and the fact is I'm still doing my job. There is money at stake so I'm never going to walk in with some outfit that I would wear to a club. I'm still going to walk in comfortably and I'm going to be wearing jeans and a t-shirt. The unfortunate factor for women is that people care about what you look like. I have four kids and I'm often running out of the house with braids and no makeup on because I lead a busy life. But when I walk into a tournament I always have makeup on, I always have my hair done and always have on a very nice t-shirt and nice jeans and I look put together. I understand that it's a very important in terms of the image you are presenting. But I'm still a real girlie-girl with a shoe habit and clothes habit and a really bad makeup habit.

SI: How do other women players treat you?

Duke: The aspiring players who come up and talk to me are always really nice and tell me that I showed them women could be good players, or that I am inspiration to them. But there are not a lot of woman who are regulars on the Tour. The majority of the people I interact with are men. All of my best friends in poker happen to be men. I have hundreds of men to choose from and like two women to choose from. I have lots of great female friends, but they don't play poker.

SI: You have four young children. How do you balance these dual lives?

Duke: I'm about to move to L.A. but I moved to Portland a couple of years ago from Las Vegas because I really wanted to give my children a better life, and I was willing to give up a lot of poker in order to do that. I really felt like Las Vegas was just not a good place to raise kids. So what happened was because of the explosion of poker, I started having a lot of opportunities in L.A. to produce projects and be on-air talent. A large portion of my business life occurs in L.A. At that point I said to myself: 'I have to be in L.A. because it makes more sense.'

SI: You defeated nine former world champions, including your brother, to capture the 2004 Tournament of Champions. How important was that win to validate you as one of the best in the world?

Duke: It was huge for me. Obviously, I was a world champion. I had won two tournaments that year and I was the leading female money winner of alltime at the World Series of poker, so I really felt like I had the chops to be at that table. But there was a lot of criticism of me being at that table, most coming from another player. My main goal when I went in there was to equip myself well. To go in and say 'this a place where I can play with the best'. The first thing I thought was: 'I'm not going to get knocked out first.' So when Chip Reese got knocked I was like, 'Thank God.' Then T.J. Cloutier got knocked out and there was another sigh of relief. Then I knocked Phil Ivey out. From that point on I felt I acquitted myself nicely. When I got to the final five I thought people would realize that I deserved to be there. It wasn't until we got to the final four that it occurred to me that I could actually win the thing. I was so upset about the criticism and I was so focused on making sure I performed well. Then we got to three. Then I knocked my brother out and went heads up with Phil Hellmuth. And it was at that moment. Phil had been playing a certain style that made me think I could win it. It was just total surreal realization at the point when I went heads up with Phil was that not only had I acquitted myself, but I really acquitted myself well.

SI: Do you play cash games?

Duke: Very occasionally. Here's the thing. Because I have kids, cash games take up a tremendous amount of time. You go in and your like punching a clock. How much you make really depends on the number of hours you're willing to put in. So when I was playing cash games when I lived in Las Vegas I was playing eight hours a day. Then I'd wake up with my kids in the morning and then as soon as they were off, I'd go back to sleep. Then I'd pick them up at school. I was working basically the night shift.

SI: For awhile you were giving poker lessons to Ben Affleck. How did you two get together?

Duke: I'll give you a brief answer because I don't actually talk about him. I was playing in a no-limit Hold 'Em cash game at a tournament at the Bicycle Club [in Bell Gardens, Calif.] He happened to be in the game and I guess he liked the way that I played and asked for my card and asked if I would give lessons. We don't talk much anymore. I think he's stopped playing poker.

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