Q&A: Poker champ Annie Duke translates card skills to everyday life

NEW YORK (Reuters) - You may think high-stakes poker has little in common with your life and career. Annie Duke thinks you would be wrong.

Annie Duke competes in a $10,000 buy-in, no limit Texas Hold 'Em event at the World Series of Poker in 2005. REUTERS/File

Long one of the top female poker players in the world, Duke has been repositioning herself in recent years as a speaker and strategist, helping people and companies navigate those critical moments when everything is on the line.

She spoke with Reuters about how everyone from the chief executive officer to the janitor can improve his or her prospects with smart strategies, careful planning and the occasional big bet.

Q: Can poker skills really translate to everyday life?

A: Poker is actually a good way to thinking about decision-making because it shares a lot of elements with real life. There are some things we know, some things we don’t, and there is some luck involved as well. So we are making decisions in a system where things are pretty uncertain, and yet we have to put at risk all the things we have: time, money, happiness.

Q: One of the first major decisions in life is college. What advice do you have for those making that choice?

A: People tend to be poor forecasters of what will make them happy in the future. So don’t get fixated on one specific place, like Columbia or Harvard. No matter where you go, you will probably come out OK, so it is more important to think about smaller decisions like which classes you want to take.

You should also think about other options, like taking time off or doing an apprenticeship until you figure out what you really want to do. Like in poker, you don’t have to exercise your option right away. If you take a semester off, college isn’t going to go away.

Q: As with “tells” in poker, should people learn to read body language?

A: In general, that is a very helpful thing, to be able to read the cues people are giving you. One great source of information on that is anything written by Joe Navarro, who used to be an interrogator with the FBI.

Don’t use that information to crush people, though, just to learn where they are coming from and if they are lying or telling the truth.

Q: If you are negotiating or weighing job offers, should you ever bluff like you do in poker?

A: Honesty is almost always the best policy. At the poker table, you are perfectly within the rules to bet when you don’t have the best hand. But in the workplace, you want to be seen as a trusted actor.

That being said, there are certain times in negotiations when you might want to appear stronger than you really are, or when you don’t want them to know all the information you are holding.

Q: Since your poker career was about maximizing assets, any advice on spending and saving?

A: Retirement saving is a discounting problem: People will take a discount to get something now instead of something more valuable in future. They will take $1 today instead of getting $2 down the line. So people have to imagine themselves at the end of their careers, rather than the beginning.

Q: In poker, the most dramatic moment is going “all in.” When should people make a big bet like that in real life?

A: One example of an all-in moment is: “Give me a raise, or I quit.” The only time you should do something like that is when you have thought through to the end of the play.

What happens if I lose all my chips? Am I OK with that? What if the other person calls my bluff, and I am left with nothing? Don’t go all in until you have imagined all possible outcomes.

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Lisa Von Ahn