Annie Duke was about to win $2 million.
It was 2004, and she was at the final hand of the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions. Annie had beat out some of the best poker players in the world — all men — to get to this point.
But she wasn't sure she deserved to be there.
In fact, in spite of her skill, there were many times during that tournament when Annie felt like an impostor. She worried that ESPN had invited her not because of her abilities but because it was "good optics" to have a woman at the table.
Annie spoke with Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam in 2014, and described what it was like to succumb to the fear that stereotypes about women in poker might be true. This is an idea in psychology called stereotype threat.
"I'm sort of thinking, if I fold and I'm wrong, everybody's going to be like, 'See, she plays like a girl, look how he pushed her around,' " said Annie. In becoming distracted by her worries about proving herself, Annie became more likely to play poorly — fulfilling exactly the stereotype she was trying to avoid.
But Annie also found ways to use stereotypes to her advantage — which illustrates a second idea, called stereotype tax. Annie learned to make her opponents pay, quite literally, for the stereotypes they held about women. As she said, "Given what I know about them, given that they're treating me that way, how can I come up with the best strategy to take their money? 'Cause in the end, isn't that the best revenge?"
Social science researchers might have figured out a way to help people overcome stereotype threat. Greg Walton at Stanford University was concerned that black students at Stanford might feel that they were impostors on campus. He conducted an experiment where he pointed out that if they got a bad grade or had a difficult interaction, two weeks later, it wasn't a big deal anymore. As Shankar explains, "It's only when you see local setbacks as global problems that the risk of stereotype threat comes in, and you start to feel like an impostor."
Annie said that's a strategy she has used at the table: "You know, when I lose a big pot and it feels like the end of the world, I try to think about how will that really affect my bottom line in the long run."
And in the end, using stereotypes to her advantage, Annie defeated nine of the best poker players in the world to become the winner of the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions.
The Hidden Brain podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk and@maggiepenman, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.
Note: Shankar spoke with Annie Duke in 2014, and some of the figures she mentions in the episode have since changed slightly. In 2013 the number of female entrants in the World Series of Poker main event was 3 percent. In 2015 that number was 4 percent.