Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Duke on Decisions

Yesterday a reporter named Sonja Sherwood who writes for the Philadelphia Business Journal published a piece describing her experience attending a 40-minute talk given by Annie Duke at World Cafe Live sometime last week. Sherwood’s report is titled “What Annie Duke can teach you about decisions.”

I know... the sort of headline that is practically impossible for anyone involved in poker over the last several years to read without an exaggerated eyeroll, followed thereafter by a quick click to move on without reading further.

Hooked me, though, and so I kept going.

It’s an earnest report from Sherwood, aside from her occasionally tipping her hand regarding what seems like gushing fandom of Duke. She explains early on how the theme of Duke’s PowerPoint presentation was to explore the reasons “why most people -- gamblers, brand marketers, business owners and employees -- fail to learn from bad decisions, and how companies can counteract that.”

We learn in the article that over the last year Duke has “put poker on the back burner” in favor of such speaking engagements. The audience for this one was about 65 professionals, most of whom Sherwood pegs as venture capitalists or techies.

It’s a curiously pitched piece, actually. Sherwood shows she has knowledge of Duke’s educational background and career as a player, at least up through 2004 when she won a WSOP bracelet while also earning that $2 million score in the invitation-only, 10-player WSOP Tournament of Champions. But if she has any awareness of UltimateBet/UB or the Epic Poker League -- the contexts for some truly poor decision-making by her subject over the last decade -- she doesn’t let on.

Sherwood shares some of the persuasive analogies between business and poker included in Duke’s talk, such as the way people often believe their successes come primarily from skill and failures the result of luck. Duke also passes along the very practical advice that “you have to be willing to admit the possibility that you’re a bad decision maker, but that’s very painful.”

It’s impossible to read such ideas and not think about the myriad bad decisions made in association with the EPL debacle, or about Duke’s involvement with UltimateBet/UB all of the way through its scandals and up until the very end of 2011 -- i.e., the very precipice of the site’s final, Black Friday-hastened implosion.

Duke mentions some companies encouraging employees to address publicly the process of decision-making by having actually “created a prize for the stupidest idea or biggest failure of the month.” An interesting idea, although again one wonders if Federated Sports + Gaming (the EPL’s parent company) had such a contest -- and to think that if they did, how incredibly competitive it must have been!

To Duke’s credit, following the talk she did share with Sherwood a little bit about her own missteps with regard to Epic. “I had a business go into chapter 11 last year,” she tells Sherwood. “I think I made pretty good decisions along the way, but when I look back I realize, oh, I should have seen this and I should have seen that and I was overconfident here, and I really believed in my own idea too much in this place....”

Is Duke following her own advice? Is she admitting the possibility that she was a bad decision maker? Perhaps, in the most delicate way possible. I can’t help but think of the interviewee who upon being asked to name a greatest weakness can only answer “I work too hard.”

Sherwood says “that seemed like a good place to end our conversation,” articulating exactly the opposite thought that most of us from the poker world would have when reading the article. Indeed, for a good number of us that seemed like a good place to start the conversation.

It’s sort of interesting to step back and think of Duke’s new career as a public speaker and how it perhaps can be understood as an extension of a career in poker.

In 2005 Duke published an autobiography titled How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker. (In fact, reading Sherwood’s piece again, it almost feels like consulting that book represents the extent of the author’s research into her subject.) Duke is no longer raising and folding, but I suppose one might say she is bluffing her way to more modest sums at the moment. Maybe flirting, too, some, I guess.

Like I say, ironies abound here. I’m tempted to end with a snarky one-liner about people attending a talk about learning from one’s mistakes coming away having decided not to attend such talks again. But to do so would ignore another irony.

After all, I just read an article titled “What Annie Duke can teach you about decisions.”

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