I’m not even sure anymore what casino it was in. Bellagio? Probably the Bellagio. The year? Let’s call it 2004.
But those details aren’t important. What’s seared into my brain is the recollection of watching one of the poker greats ply her craft.
“Her” refers to Jennifer Harman, arguably the best female poker player of all time, and certainly one of the best poker players—gender irrelevant—of the modern era.
Here’s a quick curriculum vitae:
When a consortium of top Las Vegas pros was in a series of insane-stakes limit hold’em matches against billionaire Andy Beal during the 20-oughts, Harman was one of their go-to players.*
In 2000, she won a WSOP bracelet in a game she had never played before—2-7 no-limit draw. Right before the event started, she got a five-minute lesson in the game from poker theory expert Howard Lederer; apparently one poker genius can convey a lot of knowledge to another in a short time. She then beat 29 other top players (including Lederer). The deuce-to-seven event is notorious for having the strongest field of any WSOP tournament.
For years, she was the only female player in the biggest cash games in Las Vegas. Games that ultimately settled in “Bobby’s Room” at the Bellagio, but happened wherever and whenever the best players (and biggest whales) found themselves.
But those games, and the tens of thousands of hours she put in at other, less famous, tables were played in relative obscurity. Cash games—Harman’s true specialty—are not the stuff of ESPN and documentaries. There’s no start-to-finish narrative, no arc ending with a single victor sitting with all the chips in front of them. Just hand, after hand, after hand, the chips moving back and forth. But over the months and years, the winners pay their bills with their income at the table.
There’s a reason it’s come to be known as “grinding.”
Nobody “grinded” like Jennifer Harman. Whether it was in the brightly-lit Leroy Neiman-accented Bobby’s Room, or just “Table 27” out on the floor, she put in her hours, winning and losing at the biggest games in the U.S., but winning more than losing enough to provide a luxurious living for herself and her family.
It was at one of those anonymous cash tables that I got to watch her in action. I was standing on the rail watching her game. She saw me and recognized me from PokerStars I suppose. There was an empty chair behind her—itself a bit unusual—and she waved me into it. Why, I’ll never know, nor do I care. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
We made brief hellos and then I shut up and watched. It was a 1000/2000 limit 7-card-stud game with a 200 ante. They were rotating through regular stud, stud high/low (8-or-better), and razz (7-card stud played solely for low).
A brief note about stud: it demands more concentration than other forms of poker, because you have to remember what up-cards have been folded. A good stud player can tell you all the exposed cards that have been removed from play so far in a hand. A great stud player can tell you when they were folded, because their presence or absence at any point in a hand could affect how other players acted.
Jennifer Harman is a great stud player.
I sat, fascinated, as she worked. She stayed completely focused, her demeanor never blipped as she won and lost multi-thousand-dollar pots.
After a few minutes, I worked up the nerve to ask a question, very quietly. “Why no flop games?” She inclined her head to an older gentleman in the #4 seat on the far end of the table. “Because Bob likes to play stud.”
There you have it, my friends. A consummate pro doesn’t say, “I am a 5/10 no-limit hold’em player.” She says, “I am extremely good at whatever today’s species of cetacean is playing.”
Jennifer Harman is a consummate pro.
My time watching her play had no great “Aha!” moment, no 50,000 pot being pushed to (or away from) her. After what I felt was an appropriate period, I thanked her for the opportunity to sweat her action, wished her well, slipped back through the rail, and was on my way.
I am sure when she came to the poker room the next day, had somebody said, “Who was that guy sitting behind you yesterday?” her response would have been, “What? Who?” Me, I still remember those few minutes, more than 15 years on.
But Jennifer Harman, she had folded up-cards to track, bills to pay. Just like she had for decades prior and since.
The cameras would come for her later when she joined Team Full Tilt and was a superstar through poker’s go-go days. But she said something to me at a Las Vegas pool party during those days: “The TV, the reporters, the publicity—that stuff doesn’t interest me. I just want to play poker for silly amounts of money.”
I was proud to watch Jennifer Harman do what she loves best—play poker really well for silly amounts of money.
* The book, The Professor, The Banker, and the Suicide King, by Michael Craig, is a riveting history of these matches.
Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.