Annie Duke for President?

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It’s November and the smell of freshly printed ballots are in the air. Politicians are scrambling for your votes and voters are tired of recorded messages ringing their home phones during dinner. But this election year Ante Up has found a potential candidate who could climb atop Capitol Hill and put tremendous fear in the big boys. Of course we didn’t actually ask Annie Duke if she wanted to run for office, but we’re certain she’d make quite a few career politicians squirm in their comfy leather chairs if she did.

Let’s look at her resumé, shall we? She’s beyond bright, attending Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. She founded Ante Up for Africa and is tied to more charities than Bill Gates. She’s an author; a mother of four, and her boyfriend is actor Joe Reitman. She spoke so eloquently and intelligently on behalf of poker in front of Congress that she gained the respect and admiration of politicians and poker players everywhere. She’s led numerous boycotts, including one against the World Poker Tour, when the rights and livelihood of poker players were callously disregarded. Oh, and when Joan Rivers besmirched Duke on national television she was calm, graceful and defended professional poker players (and herself) to the end.

And we haven’t even gotten to her poker accomplishments yet. She is one of only a handful of women to win a World Series of Poker bracelet in an open event (Omaha/8, 2004) and she captured the Tournament of Champions and $2 million later that same year. With more than $4 million in career tournament winnings she is one of the most successful players in poker history.

Clearly she’s shown the ability to deal with pompous, over-the-hill public figures (yes, Joan, we mean you, too) in a professional, productive manner and can handle stressful situations, as evidenced by her poker prowess. Yes, she has been known to blow up at fellow poker players, but don’t you want a feisty woman fighting for you behind closed doors? She may never choose to run for office, but if she did she’d have our vote.

Recently Ante Up’s Christopher Cosenza caught up with Duke at the Vinny Lecavalier charity poker tournament at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, Fla. “This is my first time in Florida outside of the Miami airport since I was 14,” she said. “We grew up very poor and it was my first real family vacation at Disney World.” Annie and Chris chatted about everything from charity and being a vegan to her views on the progress of online poker regulation and her boycott of the Commerce Casino.

How important are charity events to you? I play more charity tournaments than I do regular tournaments, so I guess that’s where my priorities are. … I just find it really difficult to say no because from my perspective poker is a very effective fund-raising tool, and apparently I can bring some publicity to those events. I feel like I would be an asshole if I said no. It’s just such an effective way to raise money and it’s so easy and the only thing I’m giving up is my time. So I just feel like how could I say no? I’ve ended up doing more of this than actual poker lately. … None of this is about me.

I hear it was kinda tough for you to adhere to your vegan diet in Florida? I’ve been making my way through the menus, but today we ate lunch at a chophouse and had to order a regular dish and ask them to remove the main item. I’m really spoiled because I live in L.A. and in L.A. everywhere you go they have not only vegetarian options but vegan options. So it’s a little tough when you say to people “I don’t eat meat,” and they say, “But we have fish.” (laughs) … and it’s not anything with a face. It’s not an ethical issue for me. Somebody said to me the other day, “What about the baby cows?” And my response was, “I’ll kill a baby cow; I just won’t eat it.” So it’s completely a health choice for me. I eat basically no animal products at all.

How difficult was it for you being a face of UltimateBet after the cheating scandal? Obviously when I found out what happened the real difficult decision was whether I was going to stay or not. Basically my decision was based on what I felt like Paul Leggett was going to do. … The big frustration that I have is that, here you have this guy, Paul Leggett, who’s COO of the company, who truly inherited a problem, and through that made sure almost $23 million got refunded to the players, when he could have said, “It’s not my problem; it’s (software company) Excapsa’s problem.” And he said, “No, these are our customers,” (and) refunded this money.

I know people are frustrated with how long it took for the list of names to get released, but that was because the investigation had to be done properly. I wish that it could’ve gone faster, certainly, but the fact is they did get released, and I felt that at every turn Paul Leggett has stood up and tried to do the right thing. It frustrates me that people try to give him flack as if he was the perpetrator, as if this happened under his watch or something, and it didn’t. … I had a really difficult decision and I actually talked about it in-depth with my brother (pro poker player Howard Lederer). What I said to (him) was, “I feel like the easy choice is to leave,” clearly. And that’s going to be the easiest choice for me to make. But, when this all happened I had actually just come from testifying in front of Judiciary. What I had said in front of Judiciary was essentially, to paraphrase, obviously cheating is going to happen. It happens in every single financial market; it happens in the stock market; it happens in business; cheating clearly is going to happen. But, what we want is companies to do the right thing.

Online poker is uniquely suited to give reparation for cheating. You have this huge database and you can scrape all the data and make people whole, which in that sense made it better than playing in a brick-and-mortar casino. If you play in a brick-and-mortar casino and you suspect somebody of cheating, first of all it’s almost impossible to prove, and second of all, the casino’s not exactly going to hand you your money back. But online poker isn’t like that, and I said the majority of companies behave that way. And that was a good thing about poker, to not all put our heads in the sand and say cheating’s never going to happen, but to realize that when companies are standing up and doing the right thing and use leveraging the transparency of the data to make people whole in a real way that we should be supportive of this industry.

So now I’m faced with this scandal and Paul’s telling me what he’s going to do, that he’s gonna scrape the database and he’s gonna leverage the transparency of the database and he’s intending to refund everybody, and deal with this in a way where you come out and you say, “This is what happened.” And I realized that this is literally just what I had testified in front of Congress about. My brother was really urging me to leave the company when I explained this to him. But he understood; he felt bad for me. He realized that was going to be a difficult choice in terms of the way people were going to react to me. But what I said to him was I felt like if I left I would be a complete hypocrite. I would be leaving a brand that was intending to do exactly what I said the brand should do, and that I really didn’t feel like I could do that. I understood that this might be really bad for my reputation, but I wanted to know that I wasn’t casting aspersions on, particularly in Paul Leggett’s case, a person that really didn’t deserve to have that happen to them. I needed to stand up and say this is the way companies are supposed to behave in the face of this kind of thing.

How come you didn’t just join (Lederer’s) Full Tilt Poker when it launched? When Full Tilt was starting I was under contract to UB, and it would have required me to break a contract. Obviously I could’ve broken the contract. In retrospect given the quality of the people I had a contract with I wish I had. But at the time I didn’t realize the quality of the people I had a contract with. As far as I knew they were honest people and I try to honor my obligations. So I didn’t feel like I could break that contract. In the end I don’t think it necessarily was a bad choice to say, “Look, this is an industry as a whole that’s probably going to do well, but we don’t know how Full Tilt’s gonna do; we don’t know how UB’s gonna do, so why not just spread it out and not put all of the family eggs in one basket?”
In retrospect given what happened, would I have gone to Full Tilt when they asked me to? Absolutely! Obviously. But I thought I was in a contract with honorable people at the time. And that was a bad judgment on my part. It is what it is.

What’s the best piece of poker advice Howard has ever given you? When I used to moan to him about hands, he was very, very curt with me about it. What he said to me was, “What’s the point of this story? … Why don’t you tell me a story that matters? Why don’t you tell me about a hand you won that you played like shit? Why are you telling me some story about when you got your aces cracked? What’s the point?” And that’s probably the best thing he ever did for me. … There’s really no point in telling bad stories. If you read my Twitter stream (realannieduke) I probably have like 10,000 tweets and you might find two moans. He really taught me there’s really no point to it. … His point was to think about things that can actually change your game for the better, as opposed to just random occurrences where you’re just whining, which was the best advice he ever gave me.

Are there any points you differ on? We had a big fight this summer about a hand he got knocked out of a tournament on. In the end people agreed that I was right, though. (laughs) But it was a game he doesn’t know. It was the first time he had played this particular game. We actually don’t disagree on a lot.

Were you approached to be on the “Second Chance” Apprentice this season? I think they know not to call me again, honestly. (laughs) They asked me to come back for the finale last year and I asked them if they had started a career in comedy. … So I don’t think they’ll be calling me.

Your Congressional testimony is so appreciated by the poker community. How do you think the fight to regulate poker is going? I think it’s going better than it ever has. I’m very optimistic. To give you an idea, four years ago when a similar piece of legislation was in committee it got defeated 2-1. Two years ago, really with (Rep.) Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., having to leverage a lot of political capital to get it won, it was a tie. And he really burned up a lot of favors to get it to just be a tie. And this time it was 2-1. And I think one of the reasons why there’s been such a shift is that four years ago so much of what was being talked about were moral objections. This is immoral; people are going to go bankrupt. … There was that story about that kid who went to college and accumulated $3,000 worth of gambling debt. And then robbed a bank. … It’s completely ridiculous to blame his robbing a bank on playing online poker. His robbing a bank says that there was something really wrong in that family because his father knew that he was accumulating this debt as he went along, didn’t really do anything about it, certainly could’ve intervened at some point. And then what’s going on in a family where a son doesn’t feel like he can go to his parents and tell them?

So what I had said when (Congress) asked me about it a few years ago, I said I would think that’s a symptom of a problem, not the cause. But those were really the kind of objections they had. … “What constitutes direct harm? If you’re playing poker can you actually cause any direct harm to anybody? Is it really immoral? Should we be legislating morals?” So that was really swinging a lot of people, were those types of arguments. But those arguments have lost of all of their weight.

There are a lot of consumer agencies that are now for this. They say the best way to protect children is actually to regulate as opposed to what’s going on now. … As those kinds of groups get on board … the moral arguments have really fallen away. The only opposition that’s really left at this point are the people who don’t want the competition. And that’s not very sympathetic when you’re talking about the upper end of the estimates is $41 billion in tax revenue in 10 years. That’s the upper end of the estimate. But the low end of the estimate is $10 billion in tax revenue. It’s probably somewhere in between, but either way it’s just hard to take such an anti-competitive stance when there’s so much benefit to the U.S. that could come.

I think that’s why it switched to 2-1. I think there’s a not-surprising-scenario where they go off to the elections Nov. 2 and then they come back for the lame-duck session where they have to pass all the spending bills, and it gets attached to the back of one of those spending bills. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened. Does that mean online poker’s gonna be legal and regulated the next day? No, it’s probably going to take 2-5 years to figure out some sort of regulatory scheme. But obviously that would be a huge step because it will make a lot of people feel safe at that point.

A lot of the objections that even some of the anti-competitive people have were addressed in the amendments to the bill. … The anti-competitive stuff is so weird to me because they’re like, “Oh, you’re going to take jobs away from Americans.” My response to that is, do you think for a second that a site like UB or Full Tilt or whatever doesn’t want to have offices in the U.S.? Full Tilt and UB originally were in the U.S. … and when they saw the legislative climate was kinda going against them they moved out of the country. These were thriving companies that were paying U.S. taxes that got chased away from the job base and the tax base. One would assume they’ll certainly be opening up branches here, and there’s actually an amendment that says they have to do that. … So we can be rest-assured that jobs will be created.

Can you talk a little about the Commerce and your stance against them? They currently back no online poker legislation at all. For those who don’t know … they were pushing for a bill in California that would allow intrastate California gaming, so that would mean you could gamble with only people in California. Now, first of all, that’s not even true at the Commerce. At the Commerce you can come from Germany and go gamble (there). Basically that particular form of the bill that they were backing allowed for a hub for licensing, and that hub was the Commerce. It’s not that Pechanga (Casino) couldn’t get a license … it was that if they wanted a license they would have to get it through the auspices of the Commerce. … The problem with that kind of system is it’s vulcanized, meaning you have little fiefdoms that have their own little gaming where you can only gamble with people within those fiefdoms. It might look OK from the standpoint of Californians because California is a big state, but think about it from the standpoint of Delaware, which is really terrible.

Then the other problem is, once you set up state-to-state it’s very hard for the government to come in and have any kind of consistent regulation across the industry. So you’re really talking about each state deciding its own regulatory system, which is bad. Frankly, it’s just not much of a choice for the consumer. If the consumer can gamble with people from all over the world you should really let them.

So (the Commerce was) backing this. They commissioned a study — and this was to get the Indian gaming interest on board — that said in the face of online gaming that the number of people that go to brick-and-mortar casinos doesn’t change. And this is what really annoyed me. In Congress they testified that if you allow online gaming the Indian gaming people would be destroyed because nobody would go to their casinos anymore. Yet they commissioned a study that showed that’s not true. So I felt that was very hypocritical.

That bill was having trouble, so somebody else in the California legislature introduced a bill for intrastate California gaming with three hubs, with the Commerce still being one of them, and (the Commerce) wouldn’t back it. They would only back the one where they were the only hub. … And now they’re opposing the federal level with Internet gaming with a licensing scheme in America.

This is an institution that has benefited from online gaming almost more than anyone outside the World Series of Poker. In 2000 the LAPC had like 70 players in it. Last year it had almost 800. That’s from satellite winners being sent to them and the online gaming industry creating poker players that then end up at the Commerce. … For them to now back no online gaming, and not only back no online gaming but do something so offensive as to use as their comparison for the operators, the drug cartels. As if the people operating UB are the Escobars. And what I said in front of Congress was, these sites are licensed, they just aren’t licensed in the U.S. They are licensed by our allies; they’re licensed by the U.K. by France, by Italy, by Gibraltar. These are licensed companies, behaving in a licensed environment, offering games to the U.S., wanting to be licensed by the U.S. And to compare them to murderers, because that’s what the Escobars are, is so offensive, when they’ve benefited so much. I see that you’re still taking the satellite money, from the Escobars. It was just so incredibly offensive. And to say that somehow all the people playing on these sites are participating in some sort of underground drug-cartel-like business is just offensive to poker players; it’s offensive to the operators who are honest business people who are working in a licensed environment. …

They’re truly just being anti-competitive; there’s no logic to it. … Any charity that I’m involved with has been asked to move away from the Commerce by me because I can’t show up otherwise. I think it’s really too bad. I think they could’ve taken a much friendlier stance and understood that as the ocean rises all of the ships rise as well, and they could’ve had a nice piece of the pie.

What is one thing our readers would be surprised to know about you? That I cook everything from scratch for my children. I wake up at 6:30 every morning and make breakfast from scratch, and I cook them dinner from scratch every night. … We don’t have cans of … if they want soup, we make it. So we go to farmers markets every week we get all of our ingredients. The other morning I made homemade potato latkes for the kids. I grated the potatoes and everything. Everything in our house is homemade. S