Jennifer Harman is among the upper echelon of poker players in the world, male or female. Few players can boast a resume of her caliber. Not only is she successful in the highest cash games in the world, but she also has two World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets, 11 WSOP finishes in the money, and 8 cashes in major tournaments in the past twelve months. In part one of this exclusive two part interview, we sat down with Jennifer to discuss, ESPN’s ‘Tilt’, poker’s explosion, and what makes a poker pro. In part two, Jennifer talks “The Big Game”, her kidney transplant, and what it was like writing her Limit Hold’em section of Super System 2.
PokerLizard: How long have you seriously been playing poker?
Jennifer: I’ve been a professional for about 15 years, and I’ve been playing poker my whole life. I might have been a professional before that since I didn’t have another job, but…well 15 years sounds good.
PokerLizard: In your bio, it says you learned to play poker when you’d take over for your Dad when you were young.
Jennifer: Well he wasn’t very good…when I was 13, my Dad’s friend was having a poker game and I was just over there watching. My Dad was losing in the game and he asked me to play for him. So I did. And I got even! And he kept coming up to me saying, “Now don’t be drawing to any inside straights” and I’d say “I know, I know, leave me alone!”
But I had been playing poker before then…and I really don’t know how I learned the game. I used to play with cousins and I just knew how to play. I don’t remember the very first time.
PokerLizard: I noticed that in the new show, Tilt, they show one of the main characters playing in a game when she was a young girl. Are they using your story?
Jennifer: Seems like it. When I saw it, I thought, “Hey that looks like me.” So they might have [used my story], I’ll have to ask them. I did a cameo for it, but I had no idea the show would be about cheating and scamming.
PokerLizard: They do seem to portray all poker players as cheaters…
Jennifer: Yeah, they make us look like scum. If they’d just focus on young poker players trying to make it, I think it would be a better story. Maybe I’m wrong. But I guess in the end all the good is supposed to come over the bad…at least that’s what I hear.
PokerLizard: Well, let’s hope. Ok, back to your game. What do you consider the strongest part of your game – reading opponents or calculating the odds?
Jennifer: Definitely reading. I mean the math side is non-existent with me. [laughs] I mean, I know the math, and I know when to raise, when I should call, etc. And cash games are different. If you’re a slight favorite, raise. But in a tournament, the chips are much more valuable, you know, to where a call would be more appropriate than a raise.
Sklansky asked me a math question the other day and I got it wrong…according to him. He asked me what I would do with A-10 suited in the small blind. I mean, mathematically you’re going to win the hand…well, I don’t even remember what he said… [laughs], but mathematically I guess it’s correct to raise it there. But as far as I’m concerned, you’re out of position, and with a lot of people in, you’re making the pot so big they’ll be taking cards off, and end up beating you with their mediocre hands. I mean even if you do flop an Ace, someone might have a bigger kicker with an Ace. You do have more outs just because they’re suited, but I don’t think it’s as clear as he thinks it is.
But I don’t know the math, I just go by feel, and if the game is playable and I can control the table, then I’ll raise. But if I feel like I don’t have much control over the table, I’m going to call and see if I can flop something. And that’s how I play poker.
PokerLizard: What is the one thing that has helped your poker career the most?
Jennifer: Hmm….. a lot of experience and actually talking to poker players about hand situations. You know once in awhile I’ll get stuck in a hand, and I’ll go to who m ever’s best at that game. So if it’s NL Hold’em, you know, I’ll ask Daniel [Negreanu] a lot of questions, or I’ll go to Howard Lederer or I’ll go to Doyle. I may ask three different people the same question, and that just helps a lot, talking about the game.
So I would say table experience and talking about poker with friends.
PokerLizard: Do you think those players, Doyle, Daniel, etc., think about math the same way that Sklansky does?
Jennifer: Well it depends. I mean, most pro poker players play by feel. Now, tournaments are different – there may be a way to mathematically figure a system to win in various tournament situations. But cash games I don’t think you can just have a system. You have to adjust your play every couple of minutes. It’s not about always doing what’s mathematically correct…you have to play that person and how he’s playing. So I may be a huge dog with a marginal against his stronger hand, but if he’s losing, then I’ll take advantage of him because I know he’s going to fold a lot of hands and he’s playing real tight. And that’s not a mathematical approach.
I remember talking to this poker player who got mad at me because I went after him when he was losing. He said, “how can you play those hands when I’m raising…” yada, yada, yada…but I know those players are losing, they’re not playing their best game, and they’re losing their capability to bluff. So I can take full advantage of that and take the pot away from them. That’s what I mean by playing the player.
I’ve read interviews about myself that say I’m a mathematical genius and I start laughing.
PokerLizard: So you play in pretty much the highest stakes games in the world. Is it strange trading money around with people who are basically your colleagues /friends ?
Jennifer: Well, it’s the nature of the beast. Everyone knows that anyone sitting down in that game is going to play their hardest to win. There’s no friendship in poker. There’s friendship outside of poker, but at the table, there’s no friendship. Like Doyle was telling someone the other day, “I love Jennifer, but I freaking hate her in a poker game.” So, you know, that’s just how it is.
PokerLizard: So has there ever been a “poker intervention” where everyone sits down with a fellow player and says, “dude, you’re just getting slaughtered. Take a break.”?
Jennifer: Yeah, that does happen, like if I’m playing with friends and they have a short bankroll, I’ll advise them not to play. But once they sit down and they make that decision, it’s no longer in my hands. I just have to do my job. If it means going after that person because they have a smaller bankroll, then that’s my job. Do I feel bad? Well yeah, but once they make that decision to sit down, I’ve done all I can do to keep them out.
PokerLizard: “Buyer beware.” One thing I’ve always wondered – at what point does an amateur player who plays all the time officially become a “poker pro”? Do you have to play so many tournaments? How does that work?
Jennifer: All you have to do is say you’re a pro and you’re a pro. I mean, people say some outrageous things, then it’s written, and that’s how it goes. I read so much stuff that’s just plain bullshit. If you say it, then it’s true.
It’s the same with pros and amateurs. “I’m a professional poker player.” When in fact, probably half of the poker-playing population can actually make money at it. Maybe more with all the big tournaments, because when you cash, you cash big. But still, it’s hard to make money at poker.
PokerLizard: Do you still enjoy poker even though it’s your job?
Jennifer: I love it. I love poker, love thinking about it…I’m working on my cash games right now, since I’m playing more tournaments and haven’t played as well in the cash games. I’m missing bets…so I’m constantly working on my game, and I love it. It keeps my mind sharp, and I love the challenge.
PokerLizard: You’ve been playing more tournaments recently – is it because of the bigger payouts? The fame?
Jennifer: Well you know, who knows where poker will eventually go, and you don’t want to miss the boat. As far as fame goes, I think that’s all fake. As far as sponsorships and money down the line, that’s all real.
PokerLizard: So do you have anything in the pipeline to take advantage of the poker craze – book, video, etc.?
Jennifer: I’m actually writing a book for the WPT on cash games. Harper’s and Collins is publishing the books for the WPT – Mike Sexton did the first one, Eric Lindgren and I are doing one, and I’m not sure who else they have.
PokerLizard: You’re affiliated with FullTiltPoker – are you on there frequently? How busy are you with that?
Jennifer: Yeah, I try to play on there regularly. When I do, I try to talk to the players, the email me and I try to help them out with poker questions. So yeah, I’m pretty active with FullTilt.
They don’t sponsor me , though, at tournaments. I put up my own money to play. But I do wear FullTilt gear in tournaments sometimes to advertise for them.
PokerLizard: Speaking of tournaments, what is your favorite venue?
Jennifer: Hmm …, the Bellagio…[laughs]…because it’s in my home, Las Vegas . The Mirage is pretty cool, too, and then we’ll see how the Rio is. I mean, the Horseshoe is great. The WSOP – I don’t think anything can compete with that tournament. Because when you walk in the room of the Main Event, there is just so much energy…I can’t even describe it. It just makes your skin perk up! It’s unbelievable, and I’ve never experienced anything like that.
PokerLizard: How does the WPT hold up against the WSOP?
Jennifer: The WPT isn’t quite to that level yet. I mean, it is very exciting playing a WPT event – they’re great. It just doesn’t have the history that the WSOP does. But give it enough time, and it’ll catch up.
PokerLizard: How about the WSOP Circuit Events, like the recent one in Atlantic City ?
Jennifer: They’re still working on getting the blinds structure right. This first one in AC had blinds go up too fast [making luck more of a factor ], but they are changing it up for the coming circuit events, which is good. But what really makes these great tournaments is the $2M free-roll at the end of the year. That qualifier is a huge reason to play in the circuit events.
PokerLizard: So are you just blown away by poker’s recent boom in popularity?
Jennifer: Yes and no. Because everywhere you go, people are always playing poker. So it’s always been popular – TV has just made it acceptable. So I guess I have to say I am blown away, because it’s just unbelievable. I mean, how many people do you think will play in this year’s WSOP – 5,000?
I was talking to Phil Ivey the other day at a game about the WNBA, and I said, “You know, you’re probably more famous than any of the women basketball players.” TV has turned poker players into celebrities.
People ask me if they should increase the buy-in to the WSOP, and my thoughts are, the more the merrier. It’s a great challenge to make it through 6,000 players in an event, especially with so many of them first-time amateurs. I mean you have to constantly adjust your game depending on who you’re up against – either pros or amateurs. And that’s where reading your opponents comes into play, instead of a mathematical point of view.
PokerLizard: You won a WSOP bracelet playing “2 to 7 draw”, your first time to play it. How’d you pull that off?
Jennifer: Well, I really wanted to play it. I had a bankroll, it wasn’t very huge, which didn’t make it a good decision to play, But I was out that night with some friends at dinner, and I really wanted to play in that tournament…so everyone who walked by, I’d ask them to stake me. And they looked at me like I was out of my mind.
Well, it got to be 3:00, and the tournament started at 4:00, and I wanted to play…I really wanted to play so bad. So I said, “Screw it, I’m gonna play.” Then I saw Howard Lederer who was coming in to play in the tournament, and I pulled him aside . So I said, “Give me the starting hands, and when I should stay, draw, etc.” And you know, it’s [2 to 7 draw] all a feel game. Once you know what to play, when to call, then it becomes a complete feel, which happens to be my strong point in poker. I got lucky in some hands, but by the end, I had a really good feel for the game – it had been like 10 hours. So I ended up winning it.
I know a lot of the players were like, “I’m gonna squash her like a bug at the final table,” you know, which I think they were trying to intimidate me. But it only made me more driven, like, “I’m gonna show you.”
PokerLizard: So are there a lot of players out there who still think they can “squash you like a bug”?
Jennifer: Well, I don’t know, I’m sure there are. A lot men still think that women don’t know how to play, but lately I have a lot more respect than I used to.
PokerLizard: Did you learn anything about yourself or the game while writing for Doyle’s book, Super/System 2?
Jennifer: I learned that I can’t write…[laughs].
I know Limit Hold’em so well, that I wanted to give other people some of my ideas. I didn’t really learn anything new, but it was a great experience. You know, to think about poker and actually put it down on paper. It wasn’t that easy…it took me six months.
PokerLizard: Is it geared to more the beginning player, or advanced?
Jennifer: I think it’s geared to the experienced player, but it has a lot of beginning concepts. It has situations that apply to all different limits.
PokerLizard: You mentioned your kidney transplant before. Can you tell us a little about the ‘Jen Harman’ challenge?
Jennifer: Sure. Right now, we’re looking for a place to hold it. It’s called CODA – Creating Organ Donor Awareness. I’ve been through this huge experience, and I want to bring out the positives. There are so many people on the waiting list for organs that are dying everyday. If someone had not come forward for me, it would be another five years for me to get on the list. And even the most popular blood type takes three years…so if you’re on dialysis that long, you probably won’t make it. Once you get the organ, it’s an instant cure. I think most people are not aware they can donate their organs, and I’d love to create that awareness.
A lot of people came up to me after my operation to tell me they were on the list, and I knew they wouldn’t make it. Many people don’t sign up for the organ donor program because they’re afraid of the paramedics or doctors looking to get their organs instead of save their lives – when that’s completely not the case. The donors/injured patients take priority, and then second is actually taking the organs if they don’t make it. Just having it on your driver’s license is not enough – your family has to give consent. So I’d like to use my experience to educate people.
PokerLizard: What do you enjoy the most about the poker lifestyle? The least?
Jennifer: I like the freedom – I can do what I want, when I want. I don’t have an alarm clock that I have to set my day by. The things I don’t like are the swings, where you won’t get a paycheck during bad times. You feel trapped, like you don’t want to spend any money. You think you don’t know how to play poker, or that you’ll never know how to again. Your mind plays horrible tricks on you.
PokerLizard: How about the professional crowd? Are there players on a “blacklist”? Meaning, are there some people that are not welcome in the regular high-stakes cash games anymore?
Jennifer: Oh yeah, but they have to be pretty “black” [laughs].
But for the most part, poker players are good people because they understand the business and lifestyle. All the great poker players have been broke, and when that happens, you count on friends in the industry to help you out. So you understand that side of it. When players stop realizing this and stop caring, that’s when they become “blacklisted”.
PokerLizard: Do poker players make up the majority of your circle of friends?
Jennifer: Mostly, yes. We’re all vampires. I get phone calls up to 4 or 5 in the morning, but never before noon. It’s just a different lifestyle.
The more popular poker has become, I find myself talking about it with my family, other friends…just groups where I would never talked poker before. I owned a sandwich shop for a year, and had to play poker at night to support myself while the shop wasn’t doing well. So I understand the “normal” side of working peoples’ lives. Now it seems crazy that I ever tried running a shop…
PokerLizard: What kind of advice would you give to an aspiring poker pro?
Jennifer: I would tell them to read as much as you can about the game, and to actually think about how you play every time you’re at the table.
PokerLizard: What about the common answer we get which is to not even consider going pro?
Jennifer: Well, no, if someone comes up to me with that question, then they want to play. Everybody has to go through their own lessons. Being a pro player is a great life if you can make it . And if someone’s not going to make it, they’ll find out real quick.
If my kids came up to me and wanted to be a poker player, I would probably persuade them to do something else. [laughs] It takes a long time, a lot of work, and is a very emotional thing to get to that level…takes a lot out of you. But if they really wanted to be a player, then I’d do my best to help them out.
My father disowned me for being a poker player, which gave me more incentive to be a better player. Now he’s really proud of me – but it comes from understanding what it’s about. People don’t realize at first that it isn’t gambling and that luck is only short-term. It’s hard for the 9-5’er to understand that.
PokerLizard: You’re a part of that big game with Andy Beal from Dallas , which has gotten a lot of press, even in the Wall Street Journal. Are you ever out of your comfort zone playing at those levels?
Jennifer: I have two stories about that game, the first story is we were playing heads-up Hold’em for $1 million buy-in, with $10K/$20K blinds, and I couldn’t win a pot to save my life. I was running so bad. So I decided to stay home, and my husband was kind of watching me play, but didn’t really know the game. So he said, “Why don’t you play me for a million dollars heads-up.” And my husband was a beginner, just like Andy was, so I played him. And my husband beat me! So my confidence is brutally destroyed. Next thing I know, Doyle calls from the Bellagio saying, “Andy wants to play you next so get down here now.” What do I say to that?? “My husband just beat me in poker.” [laughs] So I said ok and I went down there. It took like seven hours and I finally beat him, but it was really stressful. My mindset was a complete lack of confidence. So I felt much better after that, but it was brutal.
Andy kept coming back, and I played him every time. I wanted to pass on the one during the WSOP last year because it was the Friday before my scheduled transplant, and I had the flu on top of that! But Doyle called me up and said we were running out of people to play, so I was up. It was the highest limits ever – $100K/$200K. I was really sick and tired, but I sat down, and it was amazing trying to focus on the biggest game of the world. It was quite stressful. But I actually broke even. I won like $6Million right away, then gave it back within an hour. He actually had to leave, and I was like, “man, I wish I could play you when I was healthy.” [laughs]
Was I scared? Well, when you sit down with those limits, at first there are butterflies. But that goes away in like 3 minutes. It’s kinda bizarre throwing around bets of $200K, but you after a little bit, you don’t even think about it.
PokerLizard: too bad you couldn’t just call it a day when you were up $6M!
Jennifer, thank you very much to taking the time to enlighten us on all things poker, and we’ll look for you on an upcoming episode of Tilt!
Jennifer: Haha…take care guys!