08/04/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Annie Duke is rushing through a Las Vegas mall. One of her four children needs a wig (for a school play), she needs new eye shadow (brown), and, oh yes, there's the matter of lunch (a cookie). Then it's time to return to what Duke calls the "perfect job for a mom": competing on the professional poker circuit. "If I have a sick child or a soccer game," she explains, "I don't have to play."
When she does play—as she did in May at the World Series of Poker in Vegas—the rest of the field keeps a sharp eye on her. She has, after all, finished the series in the money more times than any other woman and "is one of the world's top five or 10 players," says Erik Seidel, a fellow pro. (This year Duke took home close to $150,000.) Duke admits that her background as an Ivy League grad with kids ranging in age from 20 months to 8 years still unnerves pros used to competing against guys named Slim and Doc. "And it throws people off," she says, "that I talk so much."
Duke, 37, grew up in New Hampshire, graduated from Columbia University and married Ben Duke, 40, who works in the oil and gas industry, in 1992. That same year, unable to settle on a career, Duke—whose game-playing youth is chronicled in sister Katy Lederer's new book Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers—asked her brother Howard, 39, also a I poker pro, to coach her. As yet, however, Duke—who lives with her family in Portland, Ore.—has no plans to teach her kids the family business. Says Duke: "We don't even have a deck of cards in our house."