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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Annie Duke, Poker Player

“He gave me a list of hands that I was allowed to play.”

Annie Duke.  

I grew up in a time that was very different than the way it is now — now anyone can watch poker on TV and figure out it’s possible to be a professional poker player. People who are going into pretty much any other profession can sort of think, like, Oh, I could be a baseball player or I could be a comic or I could be an actor or they see lawyers around them or doctors. I didn’t even have the opportunity to dream about that as a child. Particularly in Concord, New Hampshire, you don’t see poker players. I suppose maybe if I grew up in Las Vegas, it would have been different.

But when I was young, when I was growing up, my dad loved to play cards — we didn’t play poker, but we played lots and lots of cards. A lot of the family social time with my brother and me and my dad — my sister was a lot younger — was spent playing cards on the floor of the study. We played a game called Oh Hell, which was a bidding game; we played a version of bridge, a lot of hearts, gin, that kind of thing. And then my brother went off to New York and I went off to college. My brother and I both ended up in New York at the same time because I went to Columbia. And while my brother was in New York he was studying chess. He was very into chess; it was one of the games he played with my dad. And so he started playing chess, and sort of through studying chess he found his way to poker and initially, as for many people, he started off really not doing well and he lost a bunch of money. By the time that I got to college—I followed him about a year later—he had started doing pretty well at poker and he was kind of making his money at poker.

When I was done with college, I went to graduate school at U Penn, and I was getting my Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. My brother was continuing to do what he was doing. While I was in graduate school, he suggested to me that he would fly me out to Las Vegas during the World Series of Poker because he was still living in New York at the time. But he was going out for the World Series of Poker for about a month. That first trip, I was really bored because he was playing poker the whole time and there wasn’t a whole lot for me to do and I wasn’t really into blackjack or any of those other games. So the second time I came out he suggested that maybe I should play some poker. And he wrote down some rules of thumb for me on a napkin, using a Keno crayon. He gave me a list of hands that I was allowed to play: ace-jack, ace-queen, ace-king, and sixes, sevens, eights, nines, tens, jacks, queens, kings, and aces. It’s a very, very safe strategy. Which was good. I hadn’t played before. And that was it. Those were the hands I was allowed to play.

I went to a place called the Fremont, which was catty-corner to Binion’s. It was not the nicest casino you’ve ever seen. They had what’s called a $1-to-$3 dollar limit game, which means you can bet anywhere between $1 and $3 on any given round — a cheap game. I won $300. I was very, very excited. I remember going back to school and telling my adviser at the time, “I almost didn’t come back — it was too much fun.”