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Playing in the Big Game - Part II

by Lee Munzer |  Published: Mar 22, 2005


Editor's note: Part I of Lee Munzer's interview with Jennifer Harman appeared in the last issue as the cover story. That interview continues in this special feature. Part I can be found at

LM: Let's pick up with a problem that most of us fight to avoid. Do you ever steam or go on tilt after losing a big pot to an opponent who got lucky on the river?

JH: No, I can't remember steaming due to one pot. (smiling) It takes a series of pots. But, I don't know if I really go on tilt. I get very emotional, so my face turns red and I'm sure my opponents see the change all over me. I just can't change my emotions, period. I have to let it all out, so what I had to do was learn to adjust my play to how opponents thought I was going to play due to my emotions. I hope that makes sense. It's like I have to read the way players are reading my emotional reactions.

LM: Can you give our readers advice on how to break the habit of going on tilt?

JH: I can tell them how I look at it. When I experience a bad beat, I think of it as overhead. If you own a business, you have to pay your bills, and I consider a bad beat one of my bills. It's going to happen, and there's nothing I can do about it.

LM: If a new player watched the provocative Thursday evening ESPN series titled Tilt, he or she might think a majority of the high-limit games spread in casinos are frequented by packs of cheats, and the casinos are aware of them. Having played in the games and tournaments that this series is attempting to sensationalize, give us your views on what players can expect "in real life" when playing in the big game.

JH: I think the show has set poker back quite a bit. As far as cheating is concerced, I wasn't around in the old days, so I know only what goes on now in the high-limit games. I mean, these guys are really good people. They're honest and honorable. If an extra $500 chip goes into the pot and a player is aware of it, he'll give it back. Sometimes a player will miscount his money and later realize it, and will give the winning player the amount he miscounted. Your reputation in poker is based on your word and your integrity. People in the big game trust each other. There's loaning money back and forth and people watch out for each other. I am sure I have never been cheated in the game. It's not even close to what we are seeing on Tilt. I hope and think the show will come around with the good winning over the bad, but that doesn't take away from the fact that, so far, the show is unrealistic.

LM: ESPN had a star running back leave the locker room at halftime to smoke crack on Playmakers, the defunct series that depicted professional football, so I'm not surprised at the tabloid approach. Hey, you would have been perfect to play the role of Miami in Tilt. I'm convinced you are her archetype. Tell us as much as you can about your planned poker projects.

JH: Yeah, I watched Miami playing poker and chewing gum as a kid and thought, "That's me identically." (laughing) But, I never stuck gum under the table. In a few of the scenes, I saw myself, but who knows? As far as what I have planned, I'm really excited about writing a book. The WPT will be coming out with a series of books, and I'll be one of their authors. My focus will be on no-limit cash games versus limit cash games. I'll also be discussing the big game I play at Bellagio, because it seems a lot of people are intrigued by that game. We hope to have the book available by year's end. I spend time working with the FullTilt people and promoting their website, because I think it's a fun, informative site.

LM: Many of our readers know you have successfully battled through some serious medical problems. Are you comfortable with sharing your experience?

JH: I've had kidney problems my whole life. When I was a kid I had a transplant, and last year I had my second one. Sometime in 2002, I started to become tired and run-down. Then last year my kidneys started failing badly, and I felt really sick. I was trying to use poker as sort of a crutch that was helping me forget about how I felt and what I needed to go through. This gets back to focus, since I've always been able to exclude almost everything else when I'm in a game. But, I also believe that to become a winning player, you need to be completely balanced in your life, and that means no illnesses. So, I had a problem, in that poker was helping me take my mind off my problems, but not completely. So, when I was really sick, I tried to play in smaller games. I never played higher than $1,000 and $2,000. (Realizing how her last statement might be taken, Jennifer hesitated and looked at my tape recorder.)

LM: (shrugging my shoulders) Everything is relative.

JH: Yeah, what I mean is, I stopped playing $2,000-$4,000 and I wasn't playing $4,000-$8,000. I wasn't putting myself in jeopardy of losing a ton of money and feeling horrible in both my physical condition and my profession. Tournaments, due to the long hours, should have been out of the question. But, I remember thinking that I really wanted to play in a tournament at the World Series of Poker last year. I shouldn't have pushed myself, because I just didn't have the strength. Anyway, I played in the $1,500 no-limit event … at least I think that's what I played. At about 1 o'clock in the morning, I had a lot of chips and knew we were going to play until 2 a.m. When I signed up, I had said to myself that maybe I could get through 12 hours. But by midnight, I had become very tired. Then, a floorperson announced that play was going to be extended to 3 a.m. I just couldn't do it. I knew there was no way I could play two more hours and then come back the next day for another 13 hours. I started playing recklessly and lost all of my chips. As I walked out, I decided not to play another tournament until I was healthy again.

LM: Well, after a successful operation, you are playing tournaments and cashing consistently. I know you are feeling great. I also know you have been on the forefront of an awareness program.

JH: Yes, after the second transplant, I had sort of an awakening. It threw me in touch with what I feel I need to do. I want my experience to become a positive thing that can have an effect on other people. I want to get in position to help … through television coverage, for example. I'm also working to create a charity event called the Jen Harman Challenge. The name of the charity is CODA – creating organ donor awareness. I want to explain the importance of donating organs. I know people in poker who need a liver or kidney, and it breaks my heart to also know that some may die before their names get to the top of the list because not enough people volunteer their organs. That kills me. I want people to know that when they give an organ, it's not like the receiver has a long period of recovery. Recipients get instant and complete health. It's just so special for people to be able to save a life. People like those who volunteered to help me and help others are our little angels of life.

LM: It's time to relax. What's your favorite way to spend your days off?

JH: I love the outdoors and love to take hikes. It clears my head, and what's better than playing outside? When it snowed here in early January, I was outside building a snowman and playing with the dogs. But, there's so much less time for relaxation these days. When I do take some time off, I sometimes just hang out on the couch with Marco and watch stuff like Court TV, a movie, or a history show. I'm actually not much of a television person, but now that I'm so busy, it's convenient, and I can just slip away into something else and completely relax my head.

LM: Televised poker comes with some new concerns and opportunities. Potential opponents see your pocket cards on every hand when you're on TV at a final table. Conversely, you can study others when they make final tables. What are your thoughts and strategies concerning lipstick camera technology?

JH: The cameras do change things. I play a lot of different ways, so I'm not really worried about players picking up on my tendencies. But now, I can't just play a hand badly, go home and try to work things out. Now, everybody sees me play a hand badly. I guess it's somewhat of an ego thing. As far as studying the players, I do. I have Tivo and tape the televised events. I look for tells, of course.

LM: You portray professionalism at the poker table. What are your thoughts concerning the new breed of "jump up and shout" player?

JH: You know, I really try not to judge anyone in poker. When you're playing in big tournaments for big money, who knows how you're going to react. There's just so much adrenaline flowing through your system. I'm sure some of it is too dramatic, but so much of it is because you're so excited or if you lose a key pot, it can be devastating. I would draw the line at abuse. When a player crosses that line, I lose respect.

LM: The good news is, you have made a World Poker Tour final table. The bad news is, your five adversaries are the players you rate as your toughest tournament opponents. Who is sitting at your table?

JH: OK. (looking toward the 10-foot-high ceiling in her nook area) Who's sitting at my final table? Daniel (Negreanu) is one. John Juanda is another. He's an incredible preflop player. Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, and Doyle (Brunson). (realizing she has excluded some great players) I forgot about Johnny (Chan). (sighing) This is tough, but I'll stick to those five.

LM: What makes these players great?

JH: Well, they play their hand and they play your hand. They get into your head. They throw out the cards and they play the players. They can do it in every game and they simply excel at it. I play with some unbelievable minds in the big game. Sometimes I feel like I haven't even graduated from kindergarten when I see some of the plays.

LM: So, what areas are you working on to improve?

JH: I'm really working on two things. I started playing no-limit hold'em about three years ago. I've dabbled in it for longer than that, but I've really been trying hard to learn the game for just the last three years. By trying hard, I mean I'll talk to Daniel (Negreanu) and he'll help me improve my game, or I'll talk about situations with other players and get advice, or have them analyze my play to see what I'm doing wrong. The other area is seventh street in seven-card stud. That's my weakest area in stud. I miss too many bets. There are times that I should be betting, and I'm not. I seem to be checking at the right times, but not value betting enough. I chicken out and don't stay with my intuition. So, this year, one of my goals is to improve my play on seventh street in seven-card stud.

LM: How will you try to improve?

JH: I'm going to take a few more seconds to act and think about how the hand was played. If you're going to call anyway and you know your opponent can't raise, you should bet. That's one of the things I'll be thinking about.

LM: What's the best and worst thing about playing poker for a living?

JH: The best thing for me is my freedom. I don't have a boss and I don't need an alarm clock. Everything I do concerning work is done because I want to do it. I love poker and think it's the best job in the world. I know that a lot of players love the travel opportunities, but I'm scared to death of flying. Although, the more I fly, the better I've become. So, I guess poker is helping me conquer a fear. I think you hit on the worst thing for me when we talked about the emotional impact of the losing streaks (in Part I). Of course, I know the financial stress isn't great for us, and casinos have smoke, but at least now most of the poker rooms are nonsmoking, and that's cool. I try to keep my life balanced, stay emotionally fit, eat right, and exercise (mainly cardio and Pilates), so I think I'm OK with combating the stress. It's really hard for me to think of bad things about poker.

LM: You must have a pet poker peeve.

JH: I really dislike it when players act out of turn.

LM: If you could implement one change in poker, what would you recommend?

JH: Poker, especially tournaments, has become very expensive when you include overall costs. I think hosts and television companies should consider giving some money back to the players in the form of reducing the juice or adding to the prize pools, because that would help everyone in the long run. I think dealers should be paid more, also. They work every day, and often 12-hour days.

LM: You are known as one of the best short-stack players in tournament poker. Can you give our readers some general strategy suggestions for playing a small stack?

JH: First of all, when you're short, you have to play with a lot of heart. Every decision you make is very important. It's not like you can just dump off some chips here and there. You can never lose focus. I try to prevent myself from getting too short because when that happens, all I can do is move in, and it's too easy for opponents to call. So, when I move in, I want them to face a difficult decision. If I think a player is capable of laying down a hand, I'll move in over his bet. That's where reading players is really important. I have to say that my poker is all about feel, so I just seem to know when to go with it and when not to. I might have seen a player do something weird when he put his chips in, and I just go with it and move in. And sometimes I don't move in when logically I should. I was sitting behind a player I had covered at the final table at Borgata. We both had relatively short stacks. He went all in. I had A-Q suited. A player with a big stack behind us had peeked at his cards and I just felt he was very strong, so I mucked my hand. He called and showed pocket kings. There's often a fine line between decisions. Again, you just have to pay attention. It's amazing how much people give away, because we're only human.

LM: Here are some human choices: breakfast with Matt Damon or Matt Savage?

JH: I want breakfast with Matt Savage and dinner with Matt Damon.

LM: I see that we have to set some rules. This is like the ESPN SportsCenter hot seat. You must answer, and you can't hedge.

JH: OK, breakfast with Matt Savage, because I like him and I think with Matt Damon, I'd be nervous and freaked out that I'm having breakfast with Matt Damon.

LM: Lunch with Marilyn Manson or Marilyn Monroe?

JH: That's easy – Marilyn Monroe. I mean, look at that woman. She was a sex symbol, she was really famous, and she'd have a lot of history to give me. I would love to have lunch with Marilyn Monroe.

LM: Dinner with "Wild Bill" Hickok or Bill Clinton?

JH: This one's easy, too. How sweet would it be to know how poker was played in the Old West and hear some of the stories? Poker's my life. Bill Clinton? You can see him on television any day, who cares?

LM: Late night with Leno or Letterman?

JH: Letterman. I grew up watching him and I like his personality. He's cool to me, so Letterman, for sure.

LM: Do you think you'll ever get tired of playing poker for a living?

JH: No way! I love poker.

LM: What do you see when you look into your future?

JH: Well, the important thing is kids. Secondly, I want to stay healthy forever. I'd like to play higher-stakes games when they become available. And, like most poker players, I'd like to win the World Series of Poker championship. I think we'll see sponsorship, added money, and possibly appearance fee money like they have in golf, and all that will be great.

LM: If you hadn't possessed and acquired the attributes and ability to excel as a poker player, what do you think you'd be doing today?

JH: (after five seconds of thought) I'm really interested in the medical field, so maybe I would have become a doctor, but maybe not, because I've had so many challenges with illnesses and I don't deal well with people suffering or death, so I probably wouldn't be a good doctor. Also, I think I'd be too emotional. So, let's see, there's the corporate world and the entertainment world. I probably would have directed or produced movies. I would love to challenge my creative abilities and I've always loved movies. I think it would be great to direct movies.

LM: Speaking for the poker community, we're glad to have you in our world. We appreciate the terrific insight and information you gave us. spades