As professional poker rises to new levels of hipness, one of its biggest stars is Annie Duke, 39, a mother of four and Ben Affleck’s personal card coach. Duke left Penn after five years of grad school to raise a family (in Montana) and eventually pursue a poker career, which peaked last fall when ESPN televised her $2 million win at the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions. A couple of tips, in case you find yourself sitting on Fifth Street, all in, and Duke’s staring you down like you’re a pigeon (Texas Hold ’Em lingo for “You’re about to hand her your money”): Don’t put your tongue in her ear, and whatever you do, don’t mention Gigli.
When you were studying cognitive psych at Penn, did you hustle students for easy money?
No. I wish I’d thought of it, y’know? I didn’t get serious about poker until I quit [grad school]. I loved Philly. I lived on 45th and Pine. People ask me why I’m such a good parallel parker. In West Philly, you had no choice. I can get into a spot that’s exactly the size of my car.
Is there a stigma attached to being a female poker player?
There used to be. I’ve always felt if I’m doing what I enjoy, damn what people think. It was a good way to support a family. I could play when I wanted. That’s a different situation than most working moms have. I nursed forever, so I was at home.
Tough to bring the kids to the card table when the milk bar is open.
Give me a good story about some chauvinist SOB you took to the cleaners.
When I started playing in Montana, it was a smoky backroom in a bar. I lost to some guy, and he said, “That’s okay, honey, you can go upstairs and stick your legs in the air and earn it all back.” There was another guy who flirted with me the whole night. I won $40,000 in the game, and at the end of the night, he leaned over and stuck his tongue in my ear. I called my brother, and he said, “How much did you win? Isn’t it worth it?” I said, “Last time I checked, I’m not a prostitute!”
I assume there’s not so much aggressive tongue action on the poker tour now.
Not anything that blatant, no. I’ve earned as much as any man this year. I get the respect I deserve.
Ever use your feminine wiles to get an edge?
Why wouldn’t I? If someone’s flirting with me, I’m certainly happy to flirt back. If they don’t like women at the table, feel free to aggravate them. I say take those advantages.
Do women hide their tells better than guys? I never see women playing with sunglasses and fake mustaches.
Women are better at reading other people’s tells. I folded once because there was a tingle down my spine. It was the weirdest thing. It was a hand I would have normally played. The person showed me kings, so I was correct. That happens to me a lot. There's some sort of sixth-sense thing going on.
How hard is it to stay calm when you’re down to your last hand with $2 million on the line?
It’s not tough at all. Five minutes on David Letterman makes me want to puke, but playing a 12-hour tournament for $2 million is like, whatever. Money becomes a tool. You can’t start thinking of it like betting the amount of a car, or the mortgage money.
Is there a tip you can share for reading other players at a table? My annual review is coming up, and I want to call my boss’s bluff when he says the budget’s too tight for a raise.
Look at body language. People do certain things when they’re uncomfortable with what they’re saying. They’ll purse their lips, they might cover their mouth with their hand. Look for unusual mouth things going on.
So Ben Affleck. Seriously. Isn’t there some poker rule against mingling with actors?
Not at all. Having celebrities in the game is good for the game. Ben is a smart guy, and he was very dedicated.
Considering his string of box-office blunders, was there any fear that his bad luck would rub off on you?
I’m so not answering that question. That’s a mean question. He’s a friend of mine.
Hey, I loved him as the Fashionable Male guy in Mallrats, don’t get me wrong. But he hasn’t had the greatest streak recently.
Hopefully he doesn’t comment on my poker-playing, and I’m not going to comment on him.
Have you played in any private games with big-shot famous types and just wiped them out?
We can use aliases.
I just don’t like to talk about this stuff.
I guess invites to those private games will go away if you talk about them.
With poker tourneys showing up on SportsCenter highlights, are you concerned the game will change?
There is a lot of excessive celebration. It’s a shame.
Is there a Terrell Owens of poker?
There was a Swedish kid in the World Series named Mattias Anderson. Jesus, he celebrated after every ante he won. He just yelled and screamed — “Dah! Dah! Dah! Dah!”
Shouldn’t poker players just celebrate with a Cuban and a shot of Jim Beam?
After I won my World Series, I was gracious, I shook the guy’s hand. After that, I went to a bar and had a great time. I’m not throwing it in my opponent’s face. I just quietly win my pot.