World poker champion: Here's how to make big decisions in the face of great uncertainty

Dan Schawbel, Contributor
Annie Duke at the 2004 World Poker Finals
J. Rogash | Getty Images

Once a world renowned poker player and now a consultant and author, Annie Duke has learned firsthand about making quick decisions, career transitions and embracing uncertainty.

She holds a World Series of Poker gold bracelet and has won the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions as well as the 2010 National Heads-Up Poker Championship. She has also had to rebound from the bankruptcy of the Epic Poker League, a series of televised poker tournaments that she co-founded in 2011.

She went on to write instructional books for other players. In her new book, "Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All The Facts," Duke explains how to best manage uncertainty and make better decisions.

She spoke to me about how she made her career transition and how she advises people to embrace uncertainty, even or especially as you make significant decisions.

Ease into a career transition

Back in 2002, Duke was asked to speak to a group of option traders. In preparation for the speech, she figured out how to let her cognitive science background explain the decision-making abilities you need as a poker player. "That experience really helped me rediscover the joy I got from teaching when I was at UPenn," she says.

After that successful talk, she received enough referrals that she was able to open up a speaking business. A decade later, she transitioned out of poker entirely to pursue her work on decision strategies full-time as a speaker and consultant.

She admits that, after 18 years of poker, she was anxious about making a change. Part of that may have been because of the controversy that stemmed from the failure of the Epic Poker League.

From 2011 to 2012, Duke was co-founder, executive vice president and commissioner of the league, which filed for bankruptcy after financial mismanagement.

For her part, Duke points out that American poker tournament director Matt Savage said that Duke "doesn't deserve the blame" for the dissolution of the league and "tried hard to do right by the players." She also notes that, "according to Fast Company, 75 percent of venture-backed start-ups fail. It's frustrating when something you work hard for and believe in is not successful, but it is a fact of business and life. It's how you respond to failure that is important. I have taken many lessons from those experiences and continue to apply them to the decisions I make today."

Ultimately, Duke says, "I moved forward. I had to let that go, which was challenging." It was a slow transition for her, and she only took the leap when she felt ready.

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Think about probability

Duke believes that we can't make our own luck because luck consists of variables that are outside of our control. When she was playing poker, she realized that the best decisions don't always turn out to have the best outcomes because of hidden information.

Instead of focusing on luck, she says we can improve the probability that we'll have favorable outcomes.

"Approaching decisions in a probabilistic way, getting help from people who offer different viewpoints, exercises to get ourselves to see decisions from other perspectives, learning the right lessons from outcomes — these are all habits of mind that will improve our decision quality."

In other words, don't try to court or create luck. Instead, seek good advice, weigh the odds and get everything you can to go your way.

Embrace uncertainty like a venture capitalist

When you're playing poker, you will lose many great hands even if you're a champion. You can start with a pair of aces and still lose, or start with a bad hand and win. In either situation, you have to learn from outcomes.

In business, you need that same mentality. "Venture capitalists spread their bets among a bunch of these long shots, creating a basket of high volatility, high potential return investments. They know that any single investment is likely to fail, but the basket of investments will likely win," says Duke.

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Find a decision group

In order to make better decisions, surround yourself with people who can help you. Duke suggests forming a decision group with peers, former classmates, coworkers or friends. "We are limited in our ability to spot and address our own cognitive biases in decision making so we need other people to help us out," she says.

Even though playing poker professionally is a solitary job, she found people willing to call her on her biases and help her deconstruct hands. She respected her decision group and valued their input instead of trying to take sole credit for a good game.

Learn from diverse sources

It's easy to criticize those outside of our core group or industry, but Duke says we should be eager to learn things from diverse sources: "Instead of seeking opinions that confirm what you already believe, seek out those with which you disagree. Listen with an open mind."

You can become a better decision maker by learning from those you never thought had anything to teach you.

Dan Schawbel is a partner and research director at Future Workplace and New York Times bestselling author of "Promote Yourself" and "Me 2.0." Follow him on Twitter @DanSchawbel

Correction: This article has been revised and updated to reflect the bankruptcy of the Epic Poker League and to include a comment on it from Annie Duke.

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