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The Call of the Cards

A brother and sister are lured from ivory-tower academia to the cutthroat world of professional high-stakes poker.

Special to The Times

March 27 2002

LAS VEGAS -- Annie Duke, a suburban mother of four, is the product of a New Hampshire boarding school and two Ivy League universities and was once poised for a life in academia. Her brother, Howard Lederer, followed a similar track: St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, then on to Columbia University.

Now they are professional poker players.

Together, they have earned poker celebrity--for being siblings, for being smart and for making a lot of money in a game that sometimes still has the aura of the Wild West. Lederer, 38, has been World Champion in two events, garnering two coveted gold bracelets and making a name for himself among the golden lights of poker, such living legends as "Texas Dolly" Doyle Brunson and David "Chip" Reese.

Duke, 36, was nine months pregnant when she made the final table at the World Series of Poker two years ago. Some people--men--thought it was a little weird that a pregnant woman would play. She was incredulous. Did anyone really think that after all this time--and with all her experience--a little excitement would send her into labor?

On a recent day at a tournament at the California Commerce Club casino in the City of Commerce, where the pot eventually grows to $1.7 million, Lederer is not doing so well. At this early game, his competitors include a guy in shades and gold chains with a portable fan whirring in front of him. Another is the editor of Card Player magazine. Satin jackets and baseball caps abound.

They play hand after hand after hand, almost mechanically. There is little emotion and little excitement so early. Lederer will play today's game for 12 hours, getting up once every couple of hours for 10-minute breaks. The clatter of chips sounds like a slot-machine parlor, as 600 players nervously clink them through their fingers. By game's end, only one person will have won any money.

Players bet based on two cards dealt to them and a communal set of five cards in the middle. Lederer is going through his chips quickly, when someone says: "You're the best poker player at the table, you don't need chips."

He answers: "Even a fine craftsman needs good tools."

And on this day, his tools aren't good enough (though at another tournament here the following week, he took home $5,000).

For Lederer and Duke, losing is all part of the job. Duke has lost $50,000 in the span of two weeks. That's fine, if "very annoying," she says. She expects to make it back and, indeed, reports a few weeks later that she has.

The siblings are, in some ways, notable for their very middle-classness, if only because of how long they've stuck around in a crowd that isn't known for stability. "Usually, there's a lot of people that come and go, but Howard manages his money well," says Phil Hellmuth, one of the top tournament players in the country.

A big man--about 6 feet, 5 inches tall with an imposing girth and a disarming smile--Lederer is serious and mathematical. He could be a stock analyst and answers questions as though he were, with business talk and formulas. At one point, he talks about luck: "If luck is L and time is T ..." he begins, setting up the kind of math equation that peppers his talk.

He arrived in New York at 18, fresh out of prep school to attend Columbia. He had been a chess wiz at boarding school and was immediately drawn to the competitive chess clubs downtown. They were homes to the smart and eccentric. But back-room poker, with its dangerous and sleazy glamour, was even more of a draw. "The allure was gambling."

He skipped out on school and studied poker hard. He returned to Columbia for a year, but decided he had more of a future in gambling. He spent the next 10 years moving up through the city's table limits. In 1994, he had exhausted the resources of New York's underground clubs, so he packed his stuff and moved to Las Vegas, where the action is bigger and out in the open. He now plays nontournament high-stakes games at the Bellagio a couple times a week and, when the pots are big enough, travels to tournaments as far away as Mississippi and London.

His sister is chatty and vivacious, with a brush of brown bangs and an enthusiasm that can sometimes rattle her opponents. Her kids range from a newborn to a 7-year-old, but she does not consider herself a soccer mom--even though one of her children "does play soccer and I do go to her games." Her husband works on his own small venture capital projects.

Duke's start was very simple: She was a Columbia grad and was nearly done with a doctoral program in psycholinguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, but when it came time to defend her doctoral thesis, she quite literally got sick to her stomach. "I knew that wasn't a good sign," she says. She decided she just couldn't take the academic track anymore.

Newly married and living in a rustic cabin in Montana about 10 years ago, she called her brother, who had tutored her in poker in the past, and asked him to help her get started as a pro. He gave her some more advice and sent her a couple thousand dollars in backup money, and she was ready.

Soon she was a champion of small stakes games in Montana, so she headed to Vegas where the failures of untold hometown champions preceded her. Now she plays the biggest games in town several days a week and is a regular celebrity player on the Web site, where she pits her skill against challengers. At the Bellagio, Lederer is as often as not one of her challengers.

"We're not brother and sister at the poker table," Duke says. "If my emotions were that ratcheted up, I'd be a pretty bad player." Once they leave the table, they are very clearly siblings again. "Whenever I do well, I am referred to as the brother of Annie Duke," Lederer says. "I just find it amusing, considering I taught her to play."

It is a world far removed from their old-money boarding school upbringings, but perhaps truer to their natures.

"To St. Paul's people, their lives project this image of freedom, a lack of restraints," says Katy Lederer, their 29-year-old sister, who is at work on a memoir, "Poker Face: Growing Up in a Family of Gamblers," to be published next year by Crown Books. "All the things preppies don't do are done in Vegas."

In Vegas, deceit is written into the game. Katy Lederer says it's the opposite of boarding school. Lie to a guy's face in poker, be openly ruthless, and he's still a good buddy later. "It's all about the con, but you have fun and you have friends too," Howard Lederer says.

The Lederers were always a little different at St. Paul's. The children of faculty--their father is Richard Lederer, the author of "Anguished English" and other books that chronicle the eccentricities of the language--they didn't have the blue blood of their schoolmates.

But they did have the instinct for competition that has come in handy in Vegas.

"The household was very competitive," says Katy Lederer, who made her own short-lived attempt at poker fame after graduating from UC Berkeley. "It wasn't just the card games; it was who got to eat the last Oreo, who decided the show [to watch] on TV. Everything was cutthroat in that household."

Howard Lederer and Duke project an image of normalcy, but it is clear that it is normalcy only within the realms of poker. The poker economy is a different world, one that rewards the analyst, but sometimes even more the risk taker. Duke compares her job to options trading.

At one point in the Commerce tournament, Howard Lederer taps Hellmuth for the $500 he owes Duke. Hellmuth peels off five $100 bills, although he says he doesn't remember owing Annie any money. Still, he is unfazed; money is just a way of keeping score.

Hellmuth tells a story: He once invited Lederer to his Palo Alto home for a weekend. After the visit, as they waited for Lederer's flight home, they got into a friendly little game. Lederer either won or lost $25,000 in the hour before the flight left. Hellmuth doesn't remember which. "Part of it is understanding that chips are power. They're just units," Duke says. "You can't say, 'Oh, God, this is my mortgage payment.'"

The siblings dance around how much money they net in a year. It's up and down and changeable, they say, but, clearly, they are doing well. They own comfortable homes in exclusive areas of town, with doctors and casino executives for neighbors.

Both Lederer and Duke, whose friends from college are now professors and business people, say they plan to play for a long time. They each have a tremendous faith in their ongoing ability to make money in the bubble that is Las Vegas. "If I win or lose half a million dollars, life won't change a bit," Lederer says.

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