It’s 2004, and I’m playing in a $2million winner-take-all poker tournament called the Tournament of Champions, and I have two tens, and I have to decide whether to put the last of my remaining chips into the pot and risk getting knocked out. And I’ve already taken fifteen seconds with this decision, and it’s just way too long.
See in poker you make these very complex mathematic calculations, these very deep reads of your opponents, and you have to do it all very quickly because there are ten people at this table, and the action needs to keep moving along, so fifteen seconds in poker is an eternity. But I am having tremendous difficulty with this decision, and there are a few reasons why.
The first is that $2million is just by far the largest amount of money that I have ever played for. And in fact, earlier in the year, in 2004, I won a World Series of Poker Championship, and I had only won about $150,000, so $2million was putting a lot of pressure on me. But the second reason, and the more important reason for me, was that this was the first time I was playing on television with these new little lipstick cameras that they were putting in the rail of the table that could see your cards and expose them to the world. And this was causing me a lot of difficulty in thinking about this hand.
ESPN and Harrah’s World Series of Poker had invited ten players – who they said were the ten best in the world – to come together and play this winner-take-all $2million championship against each other on television. And I was there among these nine great players, five of whom were Hall of Famers. And the knock on me was that I was only there because I was a woman — that while I was good, I wasn’t actually one of the best players in the world. ESPN had just decided that since women were a novelty in poker, it would be really good to have a woman at the table. And in 2004 I was, in fact, the winningest woman in the history of the World Series at that time. So I was just the logical choice if they were going to put a woman in, but I didn’t actually deserve to be there. The problem for me was that I actually believed them.
And so for the first time, as I’m sitting here trying to decide whether to put my money in this pot with these two tens and risk getting knocked out, I realize that my mistakes might be exposed to the world, and I might prove all of my critics right. And as thirty seconds pass I look over at my brother Howard. My brother at that time was, and he still is actually, one of the best players in the world, and he too had been invited to this table to play this big tournament.
About a decade before, when I was still in graduate school and living on a graduate student’s stipend, and I couldn’t really afford to go on a vacation, my brother had offered to fly me out to Las Vegas while he was playing in the World Series of Poker and put me up at the Golden Nugget for two weeks, which was the most luxurious place I had ever been at the time. And he brought me out for this vacation, and we’re sitting there after midnight in the basement coffee shop of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, kind of a run-down casino on Fremont Street with this faux-Western decor. And you might say, Well why were you there after midnight eating? And the reason is that after midnight they had a $1.99 steak special. So for $1.99 you got a steak, a salad, a vegetable, and a roll, and this was really awesome for someone who was living on a graduate student’s stipend.
My brother asked me how my vacation was going, if I was having any fun.
And I said to him, “Actually I’m kind of bored.” My brother was playing poker all day at the World Series, because at the time he was already one of the best players in the world. And you couldn’t really watch poker back then; there was a rail and you couldn’t see the cards, and it was just hard to watch, so that wasn’t any fun for me. And I really don’t enjoy gambling, which I know, because I’m a poker player, sounds kind of crazy. But actually poker is very different from gambling since it’s a skill game, and I didn’t enjoy things like baccarat or craps or anything like that. And one night my brother’s friends had kindly offered to kind of take on the burden of his sister’s entertainment and taken me over to Glitter Gulch, which was the seediest strip club you’ve ever seen, down on Fremont Street. Somehow seeing naked women grind their breasts against my brother’s friends was not only not fun, but slightly uncomfortable and unnerving, so I really didn’t want to repeat that experience.
So I said to him, “I really don’t have anything to do.”
And he said, “Well, why aren’t you playing poker? You’ve watched me play so much poker!”
I said, “Well, I don’t really know if I know what to do, Howard.”
And he took one of those little black Keno crayons out of the Keno well on the table, and he took his napkin from the table, and he wrote down all the two-card starting hands I was allowed to enter the pot with in Texas hold ’em.
He said, “As long as you just play these hands, I promise you you’ll do OK.” And he handed me this napkin and $100. And he sent me across the street, clutching this napkin, to the Fremont Casino, which, if anybody’s been there, makes Binion’s look like the Taj Mahal. At that time the nicest restaurant in the Fremont was a Carl’s Jr.
So I went in there, and I played a dollar-to-three game, and I actually won $300 that trip, which was like, a lot of money. And very soon after that I kind of caught the poker bug, and I left graduate school to pursue a life as a professional poker player. And I just loved the life because it was so anonymous.
People would ask me, “Well, what do you do for a living?”
And I’d say, “Well, I play poker for a living.”
And they’d say, “Oh! Where do you deal?”
I’d say, “No, no. I don’t deal cards to people. I actually play.”
And they’d say, “Oh! Well, what does your husband do?”
And I’d say, “Well, actually he stays at home, I support the family.” And usually the conversation would devolve into some- thing about the merits of Gamblers Anonymous, which has a lot of merits, but I don’t think for me. But I loved that. I loved that people didn’t understand what I did, and that I was eccentric, because I valued eccentricity so much. And I loved that nobody was going to know who I was. I was doing this in private on the margins of society, because at that time, nobody in poker could have imagined that ESPN would be airing this big thing that three million people might watch.
But the other thing that was so great about what I did was that I wasn’t the only one who was anonymous; my cards were anonymous. So I was the only one who could see them, because they were facedown, which meant that when I made mistakes, I was the only one who knew.
As I started to find success, people would say, “She seems to be pretty good. She seems to have a lot of talent.” And that felt really good. But all I saw while I was playing were my own mistakes. And so I started to feel just a little bit like a fraud. In fact, I started to feel a lot like a fraud.
So now here I am with these two tens at this table, and forty- five seconds has passed, and I am so afraid that the world is going to find out what I already know about myself, which is that I’m a fraud. And I am trying to make this really difficult and complex poker decision, and I am paralyzed.
I am up against this guy named Greg Raymer. I had opened the pot with these two tens, and he had pushed all his chips in, and he has more than I do, so I am trying to make this decision whether to risk all my chips against this guy. And I really don’t know anything about him, because he’s just come on the scene a few months before. Nobody had ever heard of him, and all of a sudden he won the Main Event of the World Series of Poker in July of that year. So I’ve never actually played a hand of poker with him.
The only thing I really know about him is that his nickname is the FossilMan, because he uses fossils as his card protectors— he sticks them on top of his cards—and if you manage to knock him out, which would be completely impossible on this hand, because I have fewer chips than he has, but if at some point during the tournament I could knock him out, I knew that he’d give me one of those fossils, which, you know, in comparison to the $2 million prize, is not really what I am trying to win, but I guess it would be something.
I really just have no idea how to figure out what he has, and the poker decision itself should actually be quite easy. I’ve got two tens, and if he has a hand like aces or kings, I’m actually just supposed to fold because those are much better than my hand. But if he has a hand like an ace and a king, I am supposed to call. But I am having trouble focusing on the poker, and as sixty seconds has passed at this table, I hear myself, as if it’s someone else outside of my body, apologizing to this table of great players, these Hall of Famers, my brother, saying, “I’m so sorry. I know I’m taking too long, but this is just a really hard decision.”
And they think that the hard decision is the poker decision. But I am so afraid of making a mistake, and what I really can’t decide is whether I’m playing to win or just trying not to be the first one out.
And as I’m trying to figure this out, I look over at my brother, my mentor, trying to find some sort of solace, some way out of what was going on in my head. And in that moment I remember that we had watched Raymer playing on TV that week. And my brother had pointed out that there was something Greg did called a tell—that telegraphed the strength of his hand. And as I was looking at my brother, I suddenly remembered this, and I looked back over at Raymer, and I saw him do that thing that my brother had pointed out when he had watched him on television. And I knew in that moment that he had to have a really good hand. He had to have that pair of aces or kings, and that I could easily fold my tens because it was the right poker choice. And I did it confidently.
But the problem was that this was the hand right before dinner, which meant that we were now going to have to get up from the table. And as we were walking out the door to go take our hour break, Phil Hellmuth, twelve-time World Champion, “the poker brat,” six feet, five inches towering over me, “reader of souls,” says to me, “Annie, I know you had to have jacks or tens on that hand. Don’t you know Raymer had to have ace king? It was totally obvious to me.” And all the confidence that I had found in that hand just seconds before went out of me, and I was left for an hour in my room at the Rio, ruminating, filled with self-doubt, thinking that while I might have fooled myself into thinking I was good, clearly I had just made a decision to try not to lose so I wouldn’t prove anybody right.
So I came back to the table after what seemed like an eternity, and clearly with no focus, no ability to really feel like I could play well. But the great thing in poker is that sometimes the cards save you from your own self-doubt, and you just get really good cards that aren’t hard to play, and you win every hand.
And that’s actually what happened to me. I came back, and I had two queens against Johnny Chan’s two eights, and I won this really big pot. And then I actually had a really big hand against Greg Raymer, where I took a lot of his chips. And I wasn’t the first one out of the tournament, or the second one out of the tournament, or the third one out, or even the fourth or the fifth. And now all of a sudden we’re five, and I get into this huge pot against Greg Raymer, the FossilMan, the person who had put me to such a difficult decision earlier. And this time I have more chips than he does, and we get all the money in, and I actually knock Greg Raymer out. And he picks up his fossil, and he brings it around to me, my gift for knocking him out of the tournament, and he whispers in my ear, “Annie, I know the hand you had earlier was really hard for you, and I want you to know that I had two kings, and you made a really good fold.”
So, in that moment, Greg Raymer gave me not just the gift of the fossil, but the gift of my confidence. And I realized that I could start playing to win again.
Now we were four people left, and I had the most chips, and the next one out was Johnny Chan. And then actually it was just three: me, my brother, and Phil Hellmuth. And I got a huge hand against my brother, and I actually knocked my own brother out of the tournament.
My brother wasn’t happy for himself, but he was happy for me because he taught me how to play, and he taught me how to play hard. And he would have expected me to play just as hard against him as anybody else. And I suppose if he was going to lose all his chips, he probably was happy he lost them to me. And as he was getting up to go out of the room, he came around, gave me a big hug, and said, “Annie, you’re really playing great, now just beat Phil.”
So now I was heads-up against Phil Hellmuth, the thief of my confidence. And I got in a big pot with him when I had more chips, and I had king ten and he had ten eight, and I won the hand, and I actually beat Phil to collect the $2 million prize and win the tournament that no one thought I even deserved to be at.
And now when people ask me what the most important hand of poker I ever played in my life was, I don’t say it was the king ten that I beat Phil Hellmuth with to win that big prize. I say it was the two tens that I found such a difficult fold with, because sometimes it’s not the really big things that you do that get you the win, it’s the really big things that you don’t do.
Annie Duke has succeeded as a poker player, teacher, reality television star, business consultant, charity fund-raiser, and a co-author of Decide to Play Great Poker. The Moth’s latest book, Occasional Magic, is available here.
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