The Profile Dossier: Annie Duke, the Master of Uncertainty
As a complement to the regular Sunday newsletter, the Profile Dossier is a comprehensive deep-dive on a prominent individual. The dossier editions are only available to paying subscribers.
Annie Duke, one of the top poker players in the world, says uncertainty is constantly lurking in our everyday lives — even in areas we don’t think present any risk. “We live in an ambiguous world,” she says, “and everything has a little bit of risk involved in it.”
An average person makes thousands decisions per day, and Duke has mastered the art of reducing the uncertainty in that decision-making process. In 2004, Duke was the first (and only) woman to win the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions, beating out her brother and nine former world championship winners to pocket a whopping $2 million. (Watch the video below see poker rival Phil Hellmuth fuming over Duke’s win.)
Duke retired from professional poker in 2012, and has since dedicated her time to helping people streamline their decision-making process. She has a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, so she’s been able to pair her academic work with her real-life experience at the poker table to demystify high-level decision-making. Everyday life, she believes, closely mimics the dynamics of a poker game.
“Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do,” she says, quoting John von Neumann, the father of game theory.
‘Thinking in Bets:’ In her book, Thinking In Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts, Duke explains that even the best decisions don’t always yield the best outcomes. She notes that there's always an element of luck we can't control and information hidden from view. So the key to long-term success is to train yourself to think like a poker player. Duke shares tools people can use to mitigate uncertainty, avoid unnecessary worry, and become less susceptible to knee-jerk biases. Read.
‘Annie Duke Will Beat You at Your Own Game:’ A reporter spent weeks engaged in “a polite game of psychological warfare” with Duke in an attempt to profile her. This bizarre New Yorker feature details how Duke agreed to participate in a profile, met the reporter, and then began negotiating the terms of the interview. “I became attuned, moment by moment, to infinitesimal shifts in power and grew obsessed with the notion that [Duke] might be playing our negotiations like a card game,” the reporter writes. Finally, Duke decided she didn’t want to participate, after all. Take a look at how Duke applied some of the concepts from her own book to derail a prying reporter. Read.
On navigating chaos: What a fascinating conversation. In this Farnam Street podcast episode, Duke delivers a masterclass on how to make the best possible decisions in chaotic environments. She reflects on how she herself disciplined her thinking and began using mental models to understand the intersection of luck and skill in high-stakes situations. Listen.
On thinking strategically: In this conversation with Marc Andreessen and Sonal Chokshi, Duke goes beyond the typical discussion of probabilistic thinking. It goes deep into the role of consensus, transparency, forecasting, backcasting, pre-mortems, and even regret. “You need to think about regret before you make a decision,” she says. This one’s packed with actionable wisdom. Listen.
On avoiding the trap of cognitive biases: Duke starts off the podcast with a thought experiment. In one scenario, you get set up on a blind date and it goes horribly. Was it a good decision? Of course not. In the other scenario, you go on a blind date, and you meet the love of your life. Was it a good decision? Absolutely. She calls this “resulting,” the tendency to equate the quality of a decision with the quality of its outcome. Paying attention to this mental fallacy could lead to clearer decision-making. Listen.
On preserving a positive self-image: In this TEDx Talk, Duke pairs lessons she’s learned from cognitive science with those she’s learned at the poker table. She explains why we attribute our success to great decision-making and our failure to bad luck. “We tend to self-delude about how great we are,” she says. Watch.
On identifying your blind spots: Uncertainty has the power to make people more open-minded. In this Google Talk, Duke highlights the importance of creating optionality by surrounding yourself with people whose opinions and perspectives don’t align with your own. She recommends seeking people who disagree with you and asking yourself: “What does the other person know that I don’t?” Watch.
On stereotypes as a secret weapon: In 2004, Duke was about to win $2 million. She was at the final hand of the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions. She had beat out some of the best poker players in the world — all men — to get to this point. But she wasn't sure she deserved to be there. This episode tells Duke’s story through the lens of stereotype threat. Listen.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY TODAY.
Be a scenario player: When possible, Duke says, deconstruct decisions before the outcomes have occurred. She recommends writing down all the possible outcomes and assigning a probability to each various scenario. This way, even when the unlikely happens, you don’t overreact because you’ve thought about it in advance. “Do as much work as you can before you get to the outcome,” she says.
Don’t infect others with your beliefs: If you allow people to talk to each other, they’ll pretty much always come to consensus. So if several people are interviewing a candidate for a job, it’s best to have them write down their opinions about the person separately before talking to each other. In other words, bias is infectious. “If I’m asking you for your true opinion, I shouldn’t give you mine first,” she says.
Be selective about the bets you make: One of the top mistakes poker players make is playing too many hands. Sometimes, making a decision is just as substantive as not making a decision because, well, they’re both decisions. “Not changing course is a decision in and of itself,” Duke says. “You should frequently take time to look at the status quo and treat it as though it was a new decision.”
WORDS TO REMEMBER.
“Improving decision quality is about increasing our chances of good outcomes, not guaranteeing them.”
“In most of our decisions, we are not betting against another person. Rather, we are betting against all the future versions of ourselves that we are not choosing.”
“Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.”
“Despite the popular wisdom that we achieve success through positive visualization, it turns out that incorporating negative visualization makes us more likely to achieve our goals.”