Poker pro Annie Duke talks to PokerPlayer about everything thats on here mind: “That was probably the most hurtful thing that anyone could say about me, because I really pride myself on my honesty”

Poker’s first lady tells the truth about Ben Affleck, her Hollywood dreams, and why she’s not letting poker take a back seat

Annie Duke has never been afraid to speak her mind. It’s something I witnessed first-hand at the Aruba Poker Classic media game, where I watched her terrorise one guy who asked for her advice and promptly proceeded to ignore it.

Later that night at Phil Hellmuth’s rooftop party, I listened while Duke’s voice sailed over the top of the general chatter as she directed her team in a fiercely competitive game of Trivial Pursuit. So it’s perhaps not surprising that in the introverted world of social misfits we call poker she has ruffled a few feathers.

It’s something she is aware of, but hardly concerned by when we sit down to talk. ‘I think people meet me and they either really like me or they hate me,’ she says with a laugh. ‘I don’t get a lot of lukewarm reactions. I just think that means I have a big personality.

‘But I’m proud of the people in my life. If you take someone like Erik Seidel, I can tell you there is not someone of greater honesty, integrity or humour and he has been my best friend for 15 years – so how bad could I be? If I have pissed someone off that I don’t want in my life then I guess I am kind of proud of that.’

In the blood

Despite the fighting talk, it’s easy to like Annie Duke. She’s totally engaged in the conversation, often answering questions before they have finished being uttered in her trademark rapid-fire manner.

Her outspoken nature is in part down to a mile-wide competitive streak. Growing up, her parents and her brother, Howard Lederer, would sit down most nights to play card games with no quarter given. Winning was everything. She admits it was a strange way to grow up, but it led to a record that includes a WSOP bracelet and the WSOP Tournament of Champions title. But in many ways her most impressive achievement is her fame.

Her face is on books, TV shows, DVDs, fantasy camps and not least And none of this has happened by accident. It was something Duke hunted down with a meticulous plan. ‘I saw the future – I saw what was to come,’ Duke says.

‘Before poker was on TV I was playing cash games and I was doing eight-hour days. I was supporting a family of four kids, and I saw an opportunity that would free up a lot of my time. And I made sure that people really fricking knew who I was.’

But ironically, her star status went supernova through one of her least calculated moves. Duke has always been a natural tutor, so she didn’t think much of giving poker lessons to Ben Affleck when he asked. The US tabloids, however, ate it up. Before she knew it she was being photographed out and about with Affleck and appearing in The National Enquirer and Entertainment Weekly.

‘I thought that was really weird,’ Duke says, laughing. ‘Suddenly there were all these stories about how I broke up him and J.Lo. I was like, “Have you ever looked at J.Lo? Are you serious?” He just wanted to learn poker.’ Her poker superstar status nowadays makes her as likely to appear on a talk show as a poker show, and has attracted plenty of detractors along the way who seek to belittle her achievements. ‘In the beginning there were players that called me a media whore. But what’s interesting is that those players who were once criticising me are now doing the exact same thing.’

It’s not clear if she is referring to one player in particular, but the cap most definitely fits her biggest critic, Daniel Negreanu. Step into the world of poker forums and you will find yourself tripping over posts attacking her just for being Annie Duke. And it all stems from an accusation by Negreanu that she cheated in a high-stakes cash game.

‘That was probably the most hurtful thing that anyone could say about me, because I really pride myself on my honesty and I don’t pull punches when talking about people who are cheating,’ Duke says.

At this point in the conversation her mood darkens considerably. Her voice gets louder and she seems genuinely angry. ‘I got an email saying my children should never have been born.’ She pauses, and regains her composure. ‘But I challenge anyone who has read something online and thinks I’m a bitch to reserve judgement until you have sat down and had a drink with me. There are always two sides to every story.’

Horror story

After the poker and the fame, there’s a third side to the Annie Duke tale. She’s recently turned her hand to movie production and scriptwriting. She has two films in production, including a horror film that she spent a year of her life helping to create.

Her movie career is part of the reason Duke prefers to live in Los Angeles rather than Vegas. But only a part. ‘I hate Vegas. Really fricking hate Vegas. I lived there for ten years, and driving through Vegas kills my soul. People’s differences aren’t celebrated and they’re not the values I want my children growing up with.’

Despite her $3.5m in winnings, Duke is about as far removed from the conspicuous consumption culture of Vegas as you can get. She drives a Toyota Prius and flies economy. ‘I don’t understand the need to buy expensive crap. I don’t get it,’ she says. ‘I don’t want my kids to think they should be flying first class. The day my kids say that we are better than anyone else is the day I melt and die. There are people that work their butts off and earn $20,000 a year and I am no better than them.’

With her fledging film career, and her DVDs, magazine columns, fantasy camps and self-imposed WPT exile, it’s easy to understand why seeing Annie Duke at the poker table is an increasingly rare phenomenon.

‘When I started out playing it was all I freaking did. I was completely obsessed – and you have to be if you want to be a great player. You have to devote yourself so totally that everything else falls by the wayside. But I learned you have to have balance in your life.’

Don’t be mistaken though. Annie Duke is still first-up a poker player. She plays regularly on and will be a fixture at the WSOP this year. But you could be forgiven for thinking she’s lost the passion needed to win. I ask if it would bother her if she never won a poker tournament again. Her answer is brief: ‘No.’

‘Do you still try?’ I add, and her eyes go wide as saucers. ‘Are you kidding? I didn’t get out of bed for a week after I got knocked out of the World Series in 88th. I was so tortured. Trust me, I want to win so badly, but I have had so many wonderful things happen in my life that if I never win a tournament again it would be okay. How much is one person supposed to get in their life?

‘The one thing I do understand is what is important. I have an amazing family and that’s what matters,’ Duke says, and then stops and looks quizzically at me, screwing up her face. ‘I’m still allowed to come second, right?’ she asks, looking genuinely worried for a moment. I nod. She bursts out laughing. ‘Then I’m okay.’

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