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Annie Duke on Gut Instincts

Poker champ Annie Duke on gut instincts and bluffing.

Annie Duke, one of the world's top professional poker players, is an excitable fast-talker, a shameless flirt, and an affectionate mother of four children. And when she's at the poker table, Duke, 41, is an enigma who crunches numbers while divining her opponents' intentions. In 1991, she impulsively dropped out of a Ph.D. program in cognitive psychology to play cards for money and ran off to Montana to marry a friend she'd never even dated. Her gamble paid off in 2004, when she nabbed the $2 million prize at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

CF : Do you rely on intuition at the poker table?

AD : Yes. It's all about decision-making. You have to look at what you have, guess what other people have, sense what mood they are in. There are layers upon layers of information. I can't think of all of that consciously, but I'm making instant decisions based on my experience.

How can you tell when someone is bluffing?

Poker playing is storytelling. People aren't good at telling a logical story when they're lying. So I call a bluff when I can't figure out a story about what they're doing.

Do you read people well in real life?

My kids complain that they can't lie to me! White lies are a necessary social skill. Children haven't learned this yet and are terrible liars. I actually advise my poker students to learn tells by watching children trying to lie.

Have you caught your boyfriend in a lie?

He doesn't really lie to me. I know when he is upset and covering it up because he has trouble looking my way and chews his lips.

Do you make personal decisions in the same way you make poker decisions?

Poker is a zero-sum game and life isn't. So my life ends up being more spontaneous. I'm win-win in life—I want everyone to do well. But I do apply principles such as doing what's right for the long-term.

Your brother, Howard Lederer, is a fellow poker champ. What's it like to play against him?

I compartmentalize things. During the 2004 championships, every cell in my body was pushing toward getting him out of the tournament. But the minute the hand was done and he was out, I reverted back to being a sister and burst into tears.