An exclusive conversation with poker legend Jennifer Harman

In a world dominated by men, Jennifer Harman occupies a very special place in the poker world.

She is one of  the only three women to have won two World Series of Poker bracelets in open events. But her greatest success has come from playing the biggest cash games, including the “Big Game,” in Bobby’s Room.

Gaelle Jaudon took some time to talk with Jennifer and bring us back a long-format interview with this female poker legend.

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Jennifer Harman – Photo pokerolymp

-You’re from Nevada, and you’ve lived in Vegas for many years. It seems like poker has always been a part of your life. What does your everyday life look like?

My everyday life is not very glamorous. I have 2 kids, and I’m divorced. I get my kids on alternating weeks, so when I have them I go to soccer practice, help them with their homework, host play dates with their friends at the house, and stuff life that. So I’m just a regular single mom when they’re with me, and I play a lot of poker the rest of the time.

-You play at Bobby’s Room most of the time. Which games do you play the most, and who are the regulars?

A lot of games are played there during the WSOP, so I have more choices in terms of playing better games. I try not to play in the big games when it’s only pros. I’d rather play at smaller stakes, like 200/400, 300/600, or 500/1K and sometimes 1K/2K and 1,5K/3K, because they’re worth more. The regulars are Doyle Brunson, Nick Schulman, Brian Rast, and people like that. Elior Sion comes sometimes, or David Oppenheim and others; usually these are people who nobody knows or hears about regularly, but they are the best players in the world.

-You’ve been playing high stakes for a long time, which is a very roller coaster kind of life. You started playing at a very young age, and as you said, you’re a single mom. How do you manage to find a balance and still have the strength to keep playing at this level?

I don’t! Honestly, I don’t have the strength. I’ve been trying for 10 years to find balance, as my kids are 10 now, and I finally just gave up. I decided to take life as it comes, and that’s what I do now. I’m not a morning person, so I still struggle a lot to take my kids to school in the morning. It’s hard. My life never had a set schedule for going to bed and waking up like most people usually do. It’s just not my life, so on the weeks that I have my kids it’s difficult to get up early and bring them to school. Also, on the weeks that I don’t have them I play really late at night, so I have to switch my schedule pretty much every week. I finally decided to just throw control out of the window and stop worrying about it. Whatever happens, happens; if I have the chance to play, it’s nice, and if I don’t, that’s fine too. It is the way it is, but summers are always easier for me because my kids go to Italy. They have a blast, and it gives me a chance to work harder.

-Do you feel sometimes different from other women, for instance, from other moms at school? You’ve always had a non-conventional way of life. Have you ever felt odd?

I don’t think I feel different. There are a lot of successful working mothers out there. Some moms have it all together; they seem to do everything perfectly, and I guess I’m kind of envious of them. I’m not one of those moms! But I don’t think I’m special. Being a mother is not easy, and I guess everybody shares the common ground that it’s difficult to be a parent. I don’t know how to be a mom, but I do my best to be a good one.

-Your life is really inspiring for many people. You’ve struggled with health problems, including going through 2 kidney transplant surgeries. Has that changed anything about the way you’ve managed your poker career or the way you’ve wanted to live your life?

I had my health problems at a very young age. My mother died from kidney failure, and I had kidney failure myself really young. When I had my first transplant, I decided that living life day by day is the most important thing. It’s hard for me to plan the future because that’s not my mindset. I just try to live life to the fullest when I can and not think about anything else, because I know how important life really is. I’m also probably not raising my kids the right way because I’m kind of a marshmallow. A lot of mothers probably wouldn’t do what I do. I let them make decisions for themselves, I raise them to be street smart, and I don’t put a lot of rules on them. I’m there for them obviously, and I hope to make them strong, but it’s just that I live life differently. I’m not really politically correct, and I don’t want my kids to be either. I want them to think outside the box. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing, but life is too precious, too short, and if they ask to do something that is not so bad, I usually say, “sure, just do it”.

-You created a charity organization, Creating Organ Donation Awareness (CODA), to raise awareness about the importance of organ donation, and you’ve hosted many tournaments for the National Kidney Organization. What can you say to people who don’t really know about this issue? Is there is still a lot of work to do?

I had a donor. I know what it’s like to go from being very sick to suddenly being completely healthy and feeling great. There are a lot of people waiting on lists to get organs, and it’s really sad, because so many people aren’t aware of what’s going on. Giving somebody an organ is giving somebody a life, and a lot of people just don’t know about it. So, I wanted to raise awareness. It’s so important because people are dying while they wait on those lists. If you’re waiting for a kidney, for instance, you might wait 5 years, and many people die waiting. I really wanted to say to the maximum number of people that donating organs save lives. It’s probably better now than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but a lot of things still need to change. People need to become more aware of organ donation.

-What are you most proud of in your life?

I think it’s my kids; obviously they are my life. About poker, I’m happy about everything I’ve accomplished. I’m a very driven person. When I started playing, I always thought, “I want to be the best. I want to be the biggest.” It wasn’t expected, but with my determination and drive I was a favorite to get to the highest games and play with the bests. And I also want to be the best mother I can be—not to the world, but just to my kids.

-You may not agree, but I’ve read many articles about you that claim that you are a great example of handling the pressure at a poker table and keeping your emotions out of the game, which is one of the most important issues for players. For example, you played against Andy Beal with The Corporation just a few days after your second kidney transplant, which is very impressive considering all the stress it could cause. What do you think?

Well, if I say that I am the most emotionally stable person, I’ll for sure receive a text message from one of the players I play with telling me that this is completely crazy! Poker is a lot of pressure. Sometimes you can stay with it, and sometimes you can’t. I applaud the people who appear to stay completely balanced, but I’m sure they’re not that way on the inside. I’m sure their stomachs hurt. I can’t say that I don’t let it out, because I do; I just try to not let my feelings affect the way I play.

A few years ago, I decided to drink one night during the WSOP. I was fairly drunk, and Johnny Chan told me to go back to playing. I said I was too drunk, but he told me, “Yeah but your chips aren’t drunk!” So, that’s how I feel about emotions. I can be emotional sometimes, but my chips are not. I learned to not let my emotions control the way I play, because I am an emotional person. Everybody has obstacles they have to go through with poker and with life, and I learned how to manage them.

-Have you ever thought about quitting, or are you a player for life?

I’ve always played poker because I love it. I love learning and studying the game and competing, so I think I’ll always play poker. However, I also think about doing other stuff. Maybe a business, but it has to be something that I really enjoy. I’m always looking for something else, but poker is always going to be there in my life. It’s a fantastic game. My brain is always working, and I love that aspect of the game. I’m very competitive, and it’s just a wonderful game for me.

-You’re part of the Poker Hall of Fame. What did that induction mean to you? Do you see it as a big achievement?

Yeah, the thing is, poker is basically a lonely profession. You usually just have yourself to pat on the back when you make a good decision and when you play well, but being in the Poker Hall of Fame means that you’ve gained the respect of other players through the years; other people recognize your hard work and your success and celebrate that, so obviously it means a lot.

-You started playing when it wasn’t the popular game it is today, and you were the only woman playing in high cash games. Do you think it was harder to earn your place then than it is today? What do you think of the evolution of the poker world?

When I started playing, I was 16 and sneaking into casinos, but I was welcomed pretty easily. I don’t know why that is, but I was never really abused or treated badly. Then, I moved to LA, and I sat down in a poker room and just thought, “Wow, I’m home!” I felt totally comfortable and never had trouble fitting into the poker world as a woman. I never felt that I had to be a certain way or that I had to struggle more. I was just who I was, and I’ve always felt accepted into this world pretty easily. I never thought I had to be more aggressive at a poker table because I was a woman. I just played my game, and if a man felt that he had to act more manly with me, I never cared; it’s fine. I’m there to play poker and win money, not to worry about what they think of me and how they treat me. This is also why I fit in, because, in general, nothing bothers me.

-Who are the best people you’ve met in that community?

I have some really good friends in the poker world. Throughout the years, they’ve become part of my life. I’m thinking of Daniel Negreanu, he’s like a brother to me; Phil Ivey, I really love him; Matt Glantz, Nick Schulman…it’s just kind of a big family. I love them.

– I guess you’ve had a lot of ups and downs playing at high stakes for so long. What was the toughest moment in your career?

There have been so many tough moments in my career! Poker is a struggle. Recently, I was talking with some friends about a woman who wanted to play poker as a living, and we all felt the same about it—that it’s a very tough living. You can go through a losing streak, and it’s hard to stay positive. You get really depressed, and you have to reach deep down inside to the core of your body and pull out some positive aspect or positive emotion to put you back on the floor and start thinking more positively. It is really hard and special. Everybody goes through ups and downs, and everybody experiences depression. It’s tough to stay balanced and be able to go back playing.

Jennifer Harman - Photo Pokercentral
Jennifer Harman – Photo Pokercentral

-You’ve won 2 WSOP bracelets, a 5K No Limit Deuce to seven draw in 2000 and a 5K Limit Hold’em in 2002. The story goes that for your first bracelet, you didn’t know how to play that game right before the tournament, and Howard Lederer coached you for 5 minutes. Is that a legend, or is it true?

Yeah, it’s true. I won the bracelet when I didn’t know the game beforehand. Howard basically gave me a sheet to study, with what hands to play in what positions. But No Limit Deuce is a draw game, so you don’t see any cards; it’s basically a feel game. You feel your opponent, and when you know how to play—you know the hands and the positions and know a little bit about the game—it becomes a feel game, and I’m good at that. And you need a little luck too! A little luck always help to win a tournament!

-What differences do you see between the younger generations of players versus the old-school pros that you used to play?

There are many winning styles of poker. Basically, the younger generation changed the way of playing No Limit Hold’em and other poker games, but it’s not necessarily a good way to play. The older generation has to study and keep up, but that doesn’t mean that their style is the losing style. I play mixed games, so I think it takes a good 5 years to be a winning player at my level. Everybody studies the game, and the good players, young or old, are always going to win. Today, if you play a No Limit Hold’em tournament, everybody kind of bets the same and acts the same, and it’s a bit boring honestly. I feel that it’s more fun to play with people who are more animated and have some character at the table.

-I interviewed John Monette 3 years ago, and he told me that the cash game world here in Vegas, especially at this high stakes level, is a completely different world than the circuit, and that he had no idea what was happening in the tournament world and who the new players were. Do you understand what he was saying? Do you agree that high stakes live is a very closed and particular community?

Yeah, I think the cash game world is much more closed. You know everybody. But in tournaments too, there are different groups. The tournament world has all these separate groups, such as high rollers players, middle stakes, etc. I really don’t follow tournaments. At Bobby’s Room we kind of live in a cave. When new players sit there to play, I usually don’t know them, but obviously if somebody new sits down at my game, I’m going to do everything I can to get to know them.

-Before I interviewed you, a lot of people told me they see you as a badass, because you chose your way—a grinding life—and stuck to it with a lot of determination, which is a very cool compliment. How do you feel about being seen as an example for poker players and also for women in general?.

Oh, first of all, I really don’t think I’m a badass! I’m 100 pounds and 5’2. I did once ask a guy to go outside and fight, but that was a long, long time ago! I’m happy he said no. I’m just determined in what I do, and I won’t let anyone or anything stop me. My mind is just too aggressive, too driven. I love the game; I love poker, so why not do something that you love. I don’t let any external stuff bother me. I look at things as black and white in the poker world, I guess. I’m just there to play, learn, and be the best I can, and if it’s with some of the best players in the world, then that’s how it is. So, I don’t know if it’s badass; it’s just always been my passion.

Sometimes I think it’s hard to take money from my friends, but they also take money from me, and they might feel bad too. That’s just the nature of the game; no hard feelings. That part is hard to do when you always play with people you know and love, but we’re all in this world together, and it’s the way it is.

-If your kids come to you in 10 years and tell you they want to become professional poker players, what would you think about that? How would you feel?

I don’t want my kids to play poker. You almost have to be robotic to play the game, and nobody is. There is a real dark side to poker, and when I was saying earlier that you have to really go deep inside yourself to bring out the positive vibes and the energy and feel good about yourself, it’s true. It’s really hard sometimes, and there is a lot of negativity in poker. When you lose money, obviously it’s not easy, and I don’t want to see them go through that. I would rather have them do something easier and less stressful, but if it’s what they really want and love, I’m going to do what I can to support them.

-What is your new goal today?

I would like to direct and produce a documentary—not about poker but about something totally different. I always wanted to invent something having to do with beauty and skin and those kinds of things. And maybe write a book. I have a ton of ideas all the time; maybe start a blog like Daniel Negreanu is doing, talking about how to be mother in poker and finding time to raise your kids, something like that, touching women in a way to show that nobody is a perfect mother.

Women have to be easier on themselves. I want to raise awareness about this, because I think it is really important. And, of course, I always want to keep studying the game to be the best I can.

Interview by Gaelle Jaudon


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