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A pair of poker aces

LAS VEGAS -- To understand how two of the world's most celebrated poker players would happen to emerge from the same New England family, it may be helpful to consider the incident that occurred two months before Annie Duke was born.

Her parents, Richard and Deedy Lederer , were big card players who had met when paired up for a bridge game at Harvard. When Deedy was seven months pregnant, they were playing a card game in which competitors must reach swiftly for a spoon at certain points, and they both grabbed for it at the same time. Neither would give up, and Richard went on to drag his seven-months-pregnant wife across the kitchen floor of their Concord, N.H., home before he lost his grip. "I wasn't going to let him win," Deedy, now 67, recalled with a haughty laugh. "He didn't have the spoon part, so I won."

Odd? They know. Dysfunctional? They admit it. But both parents, now divorced, point to that moment and thousands of less violent, equally intense household matches over the years as a key inspiration for a hypercompetitive drive and a fascination with games that unintentionally yielded a pair of world-class poker aces.

"We are the greatest breeders of poker players in the country," said Richard Lederer, 69, who raised his family on the bucolic campus of the tony boarding high school St. Paul's, where he spent decades as an English instructor. "It doesn't surprise me that they're doing what they're doing."

What Annie Duke and her brother, Howard Lederer, are doing is looming large over the professional poker world, which commences its most famous, richest annual event Friday in Las Vegas with the so-called "Main Event" at the World Series of Poker : the $10,000 Buy-In No Limit Hold 'Em tournament. Last year's tournament drew a record 8,773 players with a top prize of $12.6 million; it's unknown until the 10-day contest begins how many players will compete or what the championship purse will be, but it's fair to say millions are at stake.

The siblings are here to take their shots. Both have won lesser WSOP titles and the coveted gold bracelets that signify a champ; the WSOP comprises more than 50 tournaments in a wide variety of buy-in levels and poker games. Howard has made it to the Main Event's top nine contestants, known as the Final Table, once in his 20-year career -- his first time in, back in 1987 -- and Duke came in 10th, just outside the Final Table, in 2000. Each has finished in the money more than 30 times in various events, and each has won well over $3 million playing poker.

Still, the brass ring is the Main Event.

"It's the biggest tournament of the year," said Howard , 42, who lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. I certainly have expected to win it in my lifetime."

'We never let them win'
Both stars and their parents want you to know: This is no Venus-and-Serena tale of hard-driving parents propelling their children and saddling them with their own high expectations. In fact, back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Annie and Howard were growing up, few people even knew that poker was a profession, much less a path to fame, fortune, and book contracts.

No, there wasn't even much poker played in that house that the Lederers occupied amid the student dormitories of St. Paul's. But some sort of game was usually on. The spoon incident notwithstanding, the parents' stormy marriage took a breather when cards were dealt.

"If they won, fine, but we never let them win," Richard Lederer recalled.

The message was delivered: Win at all costs.

"I certainly wouldn't exchange my childhood and obviously that kind of environment to create me and my brother," said Annie, 41, a divorced mother of four young children. "That said, there was a lot of stress involved in that. I had a big challenge when I grew up. I didn't know when to turn it off."

At age 18, Howard fled for New York City to pursue a career as a chess player, then realized there was little money in it. But he discovered a poker game in the back room of the chess club where he played, and soon he began playing at the Mayfair Club in New York, a famed backgammon and bridge club where the games-obsessed denizens were, by the mid-1980s, starting to learn Texas Hold 'Em.

"We were all starting to play poker and starting to get good together," Howard remembered. "We were the punk New York group. Back then, there wasn't anything in between the World Series of Poker, so we'd come out to Vegas for it, go home, and get ready for next year. Eventually the New York school started making its mark."

Howard's unconventional path wasn't an issue to his Harvard-educated parents. Richard Lederer had bucked his own family's expectations by going into academia rather than entering the Lederers's ribbon-making business.

"Howard always had this very measured view of what he was doing," said Deedy , who eventually left the marriage to dabble in acting. "He would say, 'Mom, I have so many bets I can lose in a night.' It was an intellectual problem for him."

Annie's detours were more unexpected and troubling. As Howard built himself into a world-class poker star and moved to Las Vegas by the early 1990s, his 11-months-younger sister was pursuing a PhD in psycholinguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. In the summer of 1992, she realized she didn't want it.

"Annie walked away from PhD. She could've had it for the asking in a couple of weeks," her father said ruefully. "Wouldn't it be fun if this beautiful young woman, mother of four, the most successful female poker player, also had a PhD?"

She bolted to Montana and married Ben Duke, a college friend whom she hadn't even been dating. Money was tight, and she began to wonder whether she, too, could make a living playing poker. She became a regular at a poker hall in Billings, Mont., with Howard as her phone mentor.

By 1994 the Dukes had moved to Las Vegas so she could turn pro.

"There came a point when her questions were getting harder or more complicated to answer, and that's when I knew she was becoming a great player," Howard recalled. "It's kind of a proud moment. No mentor gets you from expert to world class. You get there yourself."

Upping the ante
Spending time with Annie and Howard means being subjected to lots of shop talk. While they were being photographed for this story, the siblings exchanged thoughts on staying healthy through the two-month WSOP season.

"Sometimes people feel on the outside when they're out with us," said Howard. "We're arguing about a hand or some theoretical concept, and they're like, 'I just want to talk about "Lost." ' "

Each formed a distinct public persona. Howard, nicknamed "The Professor," sits laid-back at the table, everybody's chum. Despite winning two bracelets and millions of dollars in his poker career, and hosting a series of instructional DVDs, he still seems sheepishly shy when a fan approaches him for an autograph.

Annie is a whirling dervish and sometime trash-talker at the table, whose unusual status not just as a woman but as mother to small children is a humanizing touch for the scene. She was eight months pregnant when she finished 10th in the Main Event in 2000 and caused a stir another year by breastfeeding in a room near the WSOP. She also adds glamour; she's tutored Ben Affleck, among others. And she cemented her bona fides by besting nine other top pros, including Howard, in a special 2004 ESPN tournament that won her $2 million.

Accustomed to flirts and misogynists in her midst, Annie has learned to exploit opponents who treat her as a cute lightweight or a female intruder. "A lot of poker is developing table image and using the table image to your advantage, and as a woman you sit down at a table with a table image and you don't actually have to invent one," she said.

As useful as that is, Annie has a love-hate relationship with her status as a poker trailblazer. She doesn't play ladies' events, wondering aloud if black people wouldn't be as offended by blacks-only tournaments. Yet she cried when she clinched her 2004 WSOP bracelet in the $2,000 Omaha Hi-Lo tournament, notoriously saying, "I guess I'm just a girl."

With both players and their parents now living in the Southwest, there's little reason to return to New England. Howard feels the most affinity for his Concord roots and attended his 25th high school reunion last month . He believes the wooded 2,000-acre campus provided a key element of his poker acumen.

"That kind of connection to nature and that kind of quietness is something city people don't get," he said. "It helps to return to those places to find some calm at the poker table while all the excitement of what's happening is washing over me and not overwhelming me."