Posted: Thursday May 26, 2005 12:12PM; Updated: Thursday May 26, 2005 1:22PM
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.