How this Professional Poker Player Turned Author Makes Writing Books a Team Sport
“Annie was definitely a long shot to win this all. But as the only female at the table, she is now the last man standing,” the commentator says. After a quick hug, Phil Hellmuth walks away from the table in a huff of disbelief.
Annie Duke recalls this story for The Moth, describing the difficult circumstances and the emotions that she couldn’t show. (Highly recommended.)
As a professional poker player, Duke made millions reading other people at the table. So for her, writing is not purely a solitary act spent in front of a computer. Rather, she works with others in different capacities to put a book together.
Together, she and her collaborators form a version of a truthseeking group. In her latest book, “Thinking in Bets,” Duke describes explains these groups are committed to accuracy, accountability, and celebrate a diversity of perspective. For example, her second book, “Decide to Play Great Poker: A Strategy Guide to No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em,” was co-written with poker analyst John Vorhaus. Duke says of the experience:
“I had given a lot of seminars, so I was essentially delivering my seminars to him. And he had actually been at a lot of my seminars as well, but now we’re doing it in a typed form.
“He turned my spoken words into written form that I could then go in and edit. Then, he would come back, and clean up after me, and I would re-edit. That’s how that process was.
“It was a great process for me, because I acted… It really created an accountability mechanism for me. I was accountable to this other person for producing the content for getting it back to him for making the time to make sure I was getting the content to him for doing my edits.”
Similar to how author Sarah Cooper shares her ideas with a small group of friends and family before publishing, Vorhaus’s perspective as a writer and limited poker experience also double as market research for Duke:
“He’s asking me questions, because he’s a poker player. When he didn’t understand something, he pointed it out to me. And because of that, some of the ways I expressed things changed. Some things got left out, when I realized I couldn’t explain it very well.
“As we were going through the editing process, he was holding me accountable to the audience that I was trying to communicate to, because he was the poker player of the level of the audience that I really wanted to communicate to.”
Duke wrote “Thinking in Bets” herself the old fashioned way, but still put a collaborative twist on it. She recruited a friend with a Juris Doctor degree, who was also a writer, to be her editor — outside of her editor at Penguin. “It was really really helpful in this back and forth in terms of producing the content… But again, somebody who I felt was really in my target market.”
That’s not to say she limited her feedback to this friend…
Duke advises, “Take every opportunity that you can to try your material out… Every time that I would be at a party, people would be like, ‘Well, what do you do?’ And for a while, my answer was, ‘I do keynotes and consulting on decision making and critical thinking skills.’”
As they prompt her for more information, Duke takes the opportunity to practice explaining her job in less than 30 seconds. And in the past few years, as she told people she was writing a book, the resulting question, “What’s the book about?” enabled her to create a clothesline — a string that connects all the ideas in the book, and pruning away irrelevant ones.
The explanation isn’t merely a broadcast. Duke makes sure she signals that she wants to hear the person’s thoughts or feedback, with phrases such as, “‘This is what I’m writing about right now, this is where I’m at, but…’
“I try to think about all these different ways to kind of open the door, so that if they have a different way to think about the material, I can hear what they think. Then they’ll tell me back what I’ve said to them so I can see if they’ve processed it well.
“I say, ‘This is what I’m thinking about… and I’m trying to think of examples that fit in with this…’ When I say that, people will offer me amazing examples…
“It has to do with communicating in a way that signals to them that you want them to contribute.”
Similarly, with her writing, she went out of her way to solicit truthful — rather than cordial — feedback from friends. It goes beyond just asking them for their thoughts, as friends want to be supportive. Here’s what she asked:
“You can frame is not as, ‘What do you think?’ which I feel produces the response, ‘It’s great, thanks for sharing it with me.’ I would definitely frame it as, ‘Please tell me, it’s a draft now. Now is the time I can change it. Please tell me what you really think needs to be changed or what you’re really not understanding.’
“So I would try to really phrase it better if I was out, specifically trying to solicit constructive criticism… I wanted the other kind of feedback while I still had a chance to incorporate it.”
Duke’s speaking career amplifies these types of conversations and opportunities for feedback. She highlights neuroscience speaker Adam Gazzaley for his Q&A portions:
“Even if the question is difficult, or if the question comes off as combative, he responds to that with genuine gratitude. It’s so clear that he is thankful for that question. I definitely didn’t do enough of that, I think I still don’t do enough of that. That’s from watching him speak and seeing how deeply grateful that he is for the questions he’s getting, and thinking for myself that this is a great thing that he does. I really want to aspire to that, I want to try to incorporate that into what I’m doing.
“And I think that whenever you watch anyone speak… By the way, even if, overall, they’re not a great speaker, there’s always something that you can find that they are doing really well. You should always look for that and try to figure out how you can incorporate that.”
Duke’s speaking career started in a very improvised way. “I didn’t even have a slide deck, I had a whiteboard,” she says of her first speaking engagement. “I started writing things down on a whiteboard. I actually used a whiteboard I think for the first three or four years I spoke, I didn’t use a slide deck, I just used a whiteboard.” And this conversational method blends in to her way of speaking as well. Duke actively seeks unspoken feedback from the audience.
“People think that when you’re up on stage and you’re giving a speech that it’s a one-way experience; that you’re talking, like, at the audience. But it’s not at all, it’s very much a conversation. When you’re up there, you can absolutely feel what people are responding to. You see when you’re sort of losing the room, and when you’re not, and when people are really engaged, and when they look excited, and when they’re confused and… all of those things.
“And in that way, it becomes a real conversation. And then, when you’re done with the talk, people come up to you afterwards which can be tremendously good feedback on how you delivered the message.
“That probably is the most helpful way in order to hone what you’re saying, and realize what’s hitting the mark and what isn’t.
“Try to find that right level of not being too surface, where they’re really not going to get anything from what you’re saying, but also not going really wonky on them with details.”
As we wrap up, Duke says she has some questions for me, unrelated to the interview. She’s thinking of trying another project, related to this one. It sounds like a good idea, and I tell her that, suggesting some technology solutions and book references. Slower than I’d like to admit, I realize that she’s interested in my feedback, putting into action her points through our conversation.
Through the past few decades, many authors compare “writing” to “bleeding on the page.” But, it doesn’t have to be like that. Annie Duke combines her own thinking with the best of other people’s, simultaneously making sure she’s clear in communicating and figuring out what’s most interesting to them. It’s not by chance that each of her books and speeches get better. In this sense, writing resembles less a solo performance, and more a collaborative team sport.
Annie Duke’s latest book, “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts,” is available now.