Annie Duke is Professional Speaker and Decision Strategist. Annie Duke is a woman who 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 Duke 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, Annie Duke won the prestigious NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship. Prior to becoming a professional poker player, Annie Duke was awarded the National Science Foundation Fellowship. Because of this fellowship, she studied Cognitive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Please enjoy my interview with Annie Duke.
How do you describe your occupation?
I work generally on decision strategy and thinking about how we can be better decision makers. I do that through speaking to business and professional groups, consulting, and writing. I also try to do a lot of yoga and play a lot of tennis.
What is something about you that would surprise many people?
I am not particularly competitive away from the poker tables. This didn’t use to be true. When I was younger I was intensely competitive, likely one of the reasons I enjoyed poker so much. But since retiring from the game in 2012, I find I don’t really enjoy competing against other people anymore. In fact, when I play tennis, I prefer not to even keep score.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
(This is a typical day when I’m not travelling, speaking, or consulting.) I usually wake up at 7:15. I take my children to school (the ones still at home). I usually try to work out right after that. The middle of my day tends to be filled with meetings, calls, or writing. (Writing books, writing articles, promoting books, preparing to write books, or writing my weekly newsletter.) I’m also trying to read to keep up on the topics I write and speak about. For me, reading is the best way to fuel creativity and consider different ways to express and think about these topics. Once my kids get home from school, we try to have family dinners every night. I try to shut out work during the time spent with my kids and my family.
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I’ve been answering this quite a bit lately, and giving the same answer because it happens to be a very long book, and I’m giving it an especially close read. It’s Behave by Robert Sapolsky. It originally showed up on Amazon as a book bought by people buying my book, Thinking in Bets, so thanks Amazon algorithm. It was also separately recommended to me by somebody who thought that I would find it interesting, which I have because I love reading about biology and the neuroscience of human behaviour. It’s a good refresher course for some of the things I studied in graduate school. It’s also been giving me brand new ways to think about many issues that I write and think about.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
I remember reading one of those Dick and Jane books in kindergarten or first grade. As far as my first book that wasn’t a kids book or a school book, it was Animal Farm by George Orwell. My father was an English teacher, which had a lot to do with my early reading choices. When I was eight, he gave me Animal Farm to read. I read it again in high school, and again as an adult. You get such different things out of that book reading it at different ages. All of my children also read that book when they were around the same age as I was when I first read it.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
A page folder.
Can you talk us through your research process when preparing for a new book?
I read a lot about decision making, which covers a range of subjects: neuroscience, biology, economics, behavioural science, politics, finance, consumerism. Academic articles, books, news reports. So many things involve decision making that I don’t have a particular subject list. From reading, I’ll start to relate things together, thinking about creating new keynotes or about things I’d like to write. This process started in 2002 when I gave my first keynote speech. I received more invitations and found I got bored giving the same speech over and over again, even to a different audience. I figured I wouldn’t be an effective speaker if I was bored. I really started finding new ways to think about decision making and novel ways into the material to keep it fresh for me.
A new example, a new way to communicate on these topics, an alternate perspective – these can come from anywhere. When I fix on a particular subject or approach, I’ll do a much deeper dive. That’s going on all the time.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
At sixteen, I would have given myself The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins. Evolution is a great example of consilience, and the book has such wonderful examples of support drawn from so many different fields. It also teaches incredible lessons about how to think through that problem, the difference between a theory and a hypothesis, and what kind of predictions you can generate.
The particular thing my sixteen-year-old self could have learned from is where Dawkins says, “Evolution could so easily be disproved if just a single fossil turned up in the wrong date order. Evolution has passed this test with flying colours. Sceptics of evolution who wish to prove their case should be diligently scrabbling around in the rocks, desperately trying to find anachronistic fossils. Maybe they’ll find one. Want a bet?” One fossil out of place and Dawkins – and the whole of evolutionary science – would rethink the whole thing. That kind of open-mindedness to thinking about what could disprove you – that’s such an important way to think. I would have liked to have had that when I was sixteen.
At twenty-five, I’d have given myself You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment by Thich Nhat Hanh. I was struggling to figure out the point of life and was too caught up in the future of what I had to have planned out and how things had to go. It would’ve been good for me to inject a little Buddhism into that and just be okay with myself.
When did you first start playing poker, how did it come about?
It depends on what you mean by first started playing poker. When I was young, we’d very occasionally play silly poker games like “Pass the Trash.” My dad had a set of plastic poker chips that he’d take out maybe twice a year.
The first time I played in a casino was when I was 22 and my brother brought me out to Las Vegas for vacation when I was in graduate school. I played at the Fremont for very small stakes, in a game where the buy-in was $100. The first time I sat down to play for a living was when I was 26, at the Crystal Lounge in Billings, Montana.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Narrowing it down to five authors is so hard. I’d ask Oscar Wilde because he’d be hilarious. I’d want someone super entertaining. John Stuart Mill. It’d be interesting to have people who are on the opposite side of things, like Kant and Hume in the same room. Joseph Heller? Jane Austin? Could you get Emily Dickinson out of her house? Steven. Sylvia Plath. Richard Dawkins. William Carlos Williams. Michael Mauboussin. I guess my dinner party would have a waiting list!
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
I can look on Amazon and figure out. It’s Better Than It Looks by Gregg Easterbrook. I saw Steve Pinker recommend it and I’m interested in a more optimistic view of human nature.
What is your favourite thing about poker?
My favorite thing about poker is that it’s a game that you cannot ever come close to solving. I mean, not as a human being. Computers might come close to solving it, but in terms of your own play and what you discover, it’s one of those games that the more you learn about it, the more you figure out how complex and big the problem is and how unsolvable it is.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Anything by Dan Harrington, for poker strategy. For a poker narrative, The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King by Michael Craig.
What two pieces of advice would you give to a novice poker player playing every few weeks with his buddys (asking for a friend)?
Number one, decide what your values are. Are you playing to be social and don’t care whether you win or lose, or are you playing because you really want to win? That makes a big difference in how you proceed. If you just want to have fun, figure out what your budget is, learn enough so you can enjoy the company and not feel that you don’t know what you’re doing. But if you want to win, then start really trying to learn the game – and don’t think that you can figure it out intuitively. Start building a poker library. If your goal is to become a really competent poker player, poker will be more fun when you know what you’re doing.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Animal Farm by George Orwell. Credit my dad with getting me to read that as a first consequential book, as soon as he thought I could read it. Animal Farm has everything wrapped in it. Cognitive bias. Politics. The way that people can spin narratives to further their own interests. One of the reading experiences that had a big impact on my life when was I read the part of the book where Clover looks up at the wall and it’s been repainted to read, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” That was an astonishing moment for me as an eight-year-old, and it affects me each time I reread it.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
So many. I haven’t really answered much about books I read as a teenager and in college (other than Animal Farm). Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
And then there are so many great nonfiction books: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, The Success Equation by Michael Mauboussin, Kluge by Gary Marcus, Ignorance by Stuart Firestein, Mastermind by Maria Konnikova to name just a few.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker is sitting on my shelf. I’m very excited to read it because I like the way he makes you think. I’m particularly interested in reading what he has to say about progress, because that’s a contrarian view these days, and I like reading contrarians.
If you’d like to learn more about Annie Duke, you can find her on her website, Facebook and Twitter.
Image credit: Jessica Evelynka