Annie Duke, former World Poker champ, says it's ok to say 'I don't know'

Annie Duke-28032018-0002
Annie Duke, author of “Thinking in Bets,” lives in Villanova. She also co-founded a non-profit to help teens in decision-making called HowIDecide.org

Annie Duke studied at the University of Pennsylvania to be a cognitive psychologist. Then Duke made what she thought was a bad decision — to leave academia and play poker professionally.

It turned out her “bad” decision had a terrific outcome. Duke, 51, is now retired from the professional game, having won more than $4 million in tournament poker. She is the only woman to have won the World Series of Poker bracelet, the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions, and the NBC National Poker Heads-Up Championship.

In February, she released a new book for a non-poker audience: Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts (Penguin 2018). Penn professor and super-forecaster Philip Tetlock called the book “an elegant fusion of poker-table street-smarts and cognitive science insights.” Duke has appeared on Celebrity Apprentice and tutored Hollywood A-listers including Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in poker.

A mother of four children between ages 16 and 23, she recently cofounded the nonprofit HowIDecide.org to equip youth with fundamental thinking skills and strategies to manage everyday habits, in-the-moment choices, and deliberate decisions through self-regulation and managing uncertainty effectively.

So does she illustrate her latest thinking on decision-making?

Take the Eagles winning the Super Bowl. (Duke is a fan; her father grew up in West Philadelphia and went to West Philly High School, and she returned to live here in 2012 and raise her family).

To most analysts of Super Bowl LII, the Philly Special, the trick play called by Eagles coach Doug Pederson on fourth down at the New England one-yard line near the end of the first half seemed like a brilliant decision, she said.

“The conventional play would have been to kick a short field goal. Instead, Pederson made two bold decisions. He went for it on fourth down, and he called a trick play, the Philly Special, which called for quarterback Nick Foles to catch a pass in the end zone from tight end Trey Burton. The play worked, giving the Eagles a ten-point halftime lead. That play and the reaction to it turns out to be a great parallel to how I open my book Thinking in Bets,” she said.

In the 2015 Super Bowl, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll also made an against-all-expectations call on the one-yard line. Despite the levels of sophisticated thinking behind the play, it failed, leading to an interception and victory by the Patriots. “The headlines the next day screamed ‘Worst play in Super Bowl history’,” she recalled.

“These were two similarly unexpected, creative, and mathematically well-reasoned play-calls. Two different outcomes. High praise for the one that worked, condemnation of the one that didn’t. The reactions reveal a common decision trap — judging the quality of a decision by relying on the quality of its outcome, despite the significant intervening element of luck in the way any decision turns out.”

Judging a decision only by its outcome is the wrong approach in football — and in life, Duke argues. People make good decisions and experience bad outcomes. And good outcomes can result from very bad decisions. “In life, we never have all the information we need,” she notes.

When trying to learn from outcomes, what she dubs “resulting” can make us believe that “some good decisions should never be repeated and some bad decisions should be reinforced. It can make us believe that Pete Carroll is an idiot and Doug Pedersen is a genius. The outcome of Super Bowl LII is a shining moment for Philadelphia, and for me as an Eagles fan. It is worth remembering, though, that while Doug Pederson’s genius will not fade, neither should Pete Carroll’s. There’s a lot of noise in decision quality and outcomes. That allows for biases to dig in — like resulting, which means deriving quality from one instance.”

Camera icon Penguin
Annie Duke, a former professional poker player, trained at Penn as a cognitive psychologist. Based in Villanova, she now works as a business consultant and founded “How I Decide” to help at-risk teens in Philly make mindful decisions 

What about some decision-making tips for us non-poker mortals?

Duke recommends two tools to follow through on our plans and keep goals on track: backcasts and premortems. A backcast is an exercise where you imagine having reached a goal and then work backward to figure out what happened to get you there. A premortem imagines the opposite — you imagine failing to reach your goal — and ask “how did that happen?”

For CEOs and leaders: “We tend to conflate confidence and certainty. I want to help people to tease those apart — you can be confident and uncertain. You’re less likely to self-recriminate and it’s a way out of decision-analysis paralysis. Certainty is an unrealistic goal. There’s no way to know all the information.”

She also likes to say she doesn’t know — a lot of the time — in conversation and on her blog, AnnieDuke.com,

“In the November elections, will the Democrats take back more seats? I’m uncertain. I literally have no idea. So in a situation like that, I like to say ‘I’m thinking about this and my beliefs are in progress.’ I’ve let people know that I’m interested in it, and I’m not well sourced on this. So, judge my opinion accordingly. I have signaled my belief is in progress, and I’m open minded. Now I’m more likely to get back more information. If you tell me something different, I won’t think you’re wrong.”

And yes, she’s changed her views on things — like parenting.

“I’m such a better parent to my youngest than my oldest. If my first teenager did something against the rules, I had to show them how mad I was. Now, I just say, ‘here are the rules, now, here are the consequences. And if you break them, we’ll get the consequences,’ and we’ll move on and watch Black Mirror. My relationships with them are so much better as a result.”