Annie Duke: From Disgraced Poker Player to Decision Scientist (Whatever That Is)

  • In 2009, Annie Duke was runner-up to Joan Rivers on NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice”
  • Duke fell from poker grace after the UltimateBet and EPL scandals in 2010 and 2011
  • After leaving poker, Duke wrote two books on decision-making, drawing the ire of poker players 
  • This week, she announced her new role as a “decision scientist” with the company “First Round”
  • She also revealed the cover of her new book “Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away”

     

    Confused scientists
    Annie Duke is still trading off her former celebrity as a poker pro and “Celebrity Apprentice” runner-up, about to publish another book: “Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away.” [Image: Shutterstock.com]

    Annie Duke: Would-Be Celebrity Apprentice

    It was a stupid decision on a TV show with an incredibly stupid premise: Donald Trump is a business genius so whoever he thinks is most deserving must be most deserving. 

    …poker players are trash, darling! Trash!”

    Thirteen years ago, I was watching the “The Celebrity Apprentice” Season 2 finale, rooting for Annie Duke to triumph over Joan Rivers who had been classless, graceless, and downright vicious towards the poker community, with whom I felt a growing affinity. During the show, the legendary comedienne said Duke was a duplicitous and conniving operator, calling her “worse than Hitler” and adding later that “…poker players are trash, darling! Trash!” 

    In the final, both contestants were tasked with organizing a VIP party and silent auction fundraiser for their respective charities. They also had to help promote Kodak as the sponsor of the event. Duke went into the final boardroom meeting confident that she had done enough to win. After all, she had raised substantially more money for charity both over the course of the thirteen episodes and in the finale itself. 

    However, in the end, Donald Trump chose his old friend Rivers, bestowing the “yuuuge” $250,000 prize on her charity “God’s Love We Deliver,” rather than Duke’s charity “Refugees International.” TV viewers, myself included, were stunned bigly, as we witnessed what could only be described as a less than “perfect boardroom meeting.” Could it be that the benevolent and wise Trump, NBC’s modern-day King Solomon, had succumbed to favoritism?

    With his reputation in tatters after committing such a blatant miscarriage of justice, The Donald would never again be given responsibility for a big decision. His celebrity ultimately faded into obscurity as he finished up his career in the showbiz doldrums…but whatever happened to Annie Duke?

    Annie Duke: Ultimate Bettor 

    Well, the very next year, Duke won the 2010 National Heads-Up Championship, yet another feather in the cap of a player who had a World Series of Poker bracelet and was the winner of the 2004 WSOP Tournament of Champions. It would be all downhill from there, though, as by December, she was parting ways with UltimateBet in the wake of a cheating scandal.

    In a statement, she said: “Knowing what I know today, I would have never encouraged anyone to play on the UltimateBet site under that management. I’m horrified at the lengths to which these people went to try to cover up their actions, and I am very sorry that I ever agreed to work with them.”

    her words were hollow comfort for the players who had been cheated out of their funds

    Her words were hollow comfort for the players who had been cheated out of their funds and it was generally rumored that she had known about Russ Hamilton’s “god-mode” scam. 

    Just four months later, UltimateBet was shut down as part of the US government’s “Black Friday” crackdown on the largest US-facing online poker sites, another stain on the poker site with which Duke had worked in various roles over the previous decade. Not only this, but she also found herself at the center of another scandal. 

    Annie Duke: Epic Poker League Founder

    In 2010, “sportification” was a buzz word in poker as the industry sought ways to market the game, capitalizing on and building upon a decade of poker boom. The Epic Poker League (EPL) was the brainchild of Duke, who envisioned a competition played exclusively amongst the game’s elite players. Of course, she understood that poker players wouldn’t enter a tournament that was only populated by top pros. There would have to be a sweetener and that took the form of a $1,000,000 end of season freeroll, added by the sponsors. 

    The EPL was certainly an interesting idea, but once the US Department of Justice unsealed their indictments against Full Tilt, PokerStars, and Absolute Poker/UltimateBet, the poker world fell to its knees. The chances of sponsorship quickly vanished into thin air and after a few months of struggle, the EPL was forced to file for bankruptcy. Needless to say, the players never got their $1,000,000 freeroll.

    she became persona non grata in poker circles

    Many in the upper echelons of the poker community held Duke – co-founder, executive vice president, and commissioner of the EPL – responsible for what had happened and felt cheated by her. It didn’t help that her brother Howard Lederer was a senior figure at Full Tilt, where it was discovered that there was a significant shortfall after an omnishambles of reckless business practices and the scandalous non-segregation of player funds. Duke’s already tarnished reputation was in tatters and she became persona non grata in poker circles. 

    In 2013, audio recordings released by Travis Makar proved that Duke knew about the “god-moding” at UltimateBet. She allegedly did not use it, as Hamilton had, to “pot-rip” players and had only seen her opponent’s cards on a time delay. If true, it was a lesser offense, but nonetheless an unforgivable breach of trust. In any case, by then, she was well out of the poker limelight, having literally written a fresh chapter in her life.

    Annie Duke: Author

    In 2018, Duke authored “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts.” She followed that up in 2020 with “How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices.”

    These books have done well, as Duke has shrewdly identified and exploited the overlap between poker and high performance in business. Great poker players are good at blocking out what isn’t important and making probabilistic decisions based on incomplete information. They also possess a composure and clear-headedness under pressure which helps them to execute well. 

    Many people have been gripped by Duke’s writing, including Josh Kopelman, who enthusiastically wrote: “Hearing renowned retired poker player and decision-making expert Annie Duke about concepts like ‘resulting’ and ‘why luck and skill are confused’ really struck a chord. I immediately picked up a copy of her book ‘Thinking in Bets’ and quickly tore through it.”

    Others have been less impressed and veritably cringe at the notion that Duke is seen by many as a spokesperson for poker in the mainstream. Back in 2018, Danielle Anderson made her views abundantly clear: 

    As did Ari Engel:

    Annie Duke: Decision Scientist

    This week, Duke also announced her acceptance of a new role, one which takes her supposed credentials into an even more preposterous place: 

    Once again, Josh Kopelman, now her “First Round” colleague, was generous in his praise. “She’s helped us create decision-making rubrics, build systems to reduce bias from our decision-making, and improved our data collection so we can conduct retrospective reviews post-decision,” he said.

    Personally, I would have leaned into my apparent “decision science” expertise and provided a quote that was less of a business-speak word salad. 

    Unsurprisingly, Duke’s visibility is once again drawing ire from the poker community, and rightly so. Jason Strasser was first to pull the trigger, suggesting Kopelman should have done a proper background check:

    Isaac Haxton rightly satirized the gobbledygook idea of a “decision scientist”:

    “Reading Poker Tells” and “Verbal Poker Tells” author Zachary Elwood was also quick to speak out. 

    Annie Duke: Quitter

    These comments and this article might seem like a witch hunt to some, but the bottom line is Duke did real damage to people through her various roles in the poker industry. It might have been a decade ago, but there is no statute of limitations, particularly if she is directly benefitting from her poker background. 

    So long as she trades off her career in poker, the poker community will be there to tell people about her true legacy. So long as she claims to be a decision scientist, the poker community will be there to tell people about her track record of poor decision making. Turning lemons into lemonade is one thing. Stealing lemons, using them to make lemon juice, and selling it as lemonade is quite the other. 

    On Wednesday, Duke tweeted out the cover of her upcoming book entitled “Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away.” 

    It doesn’t appear that she plans to do that any time soon.