Sexton's Corner, Vol. 53: Jennifer Harman, Part 2 – Poker's Only 'Big Game' Lady
Perhaps the first question a few may wonder about the high-stakes world of Jennifer Harman is this: Does she really play on her own money, or is she sponsored or staked, meaning she is only playing for a piece? After all, how many people in life do you know actually have to go to work and bring $100,000 to $300,000 with them to buy in to a $2,000/$4,000 poker game? This is a fair question, so I decided to ask her as a follow-up interview this past week. Her answer was very emphatic: "I have never been staked in the Big Game! I've always played on my own money! When Andy wanted to play a group of us heads-up for the highest stakes ever played in the world for $10,000/$20,000 on up to $100,000/$200,000, this is the only time I played as part of a consortium, where our side had to pool their money to play that high. Of course, Andy knew this on the front side of our game, just as the public learned through media reports later on.
"When I was called upon to get in the hot seat to face Andy, the truth is I was only one week away from having a kidney transplant, and was death warmed over! I thought they were crazy to put me in the game against Andy right then, but they needed someone to fill in and asked me to do it."
I asked, "Do you remember how you did?
Jennifer replied, "Yes, I broke about even, maybe losing just a little bit."
As I'm writing this article, something just distracted me on TV. It is 2:00 AM early Tuesday morning, July 8th. I had been watching the WPT on GSN from midnight until 2:00 AM, and surprisingly an older episode of "High Stakes Poker" followed it, unannounced, from the Palms Casino/Hotel. There she was, Jennifer Harman, the only female player in the lineup. Her opponents on this show were Daniel Negreanu, Antonio Esfandiari, Phil "The Unabomber" Laak, Mike Matusow, Sammy Farha, Minh Ly, Todd Brunson, and amateur Freddy Chamanara. On this show, you can be sure some players get staked, in order to be able to play, just as it may be true in the 'Big Game' in Bobby's Room at the Bellagio. However, one fact is for sure… no one ever has had to stake Jennifer Harman! She is the real deal in high-stakes cash games. She uses her own money to play on, which speaks volumes for her tremendous success over a long period of time.
By the way, the show that aired on "High Stakes Poker" showcasing Jennifer's performance highlighted one hand of hers against Sammy Farha. Jennifer came out firing $4,000 and $25,000 to take down the pot, holding with a flop of . Sammy held , and felt he had to muck. On an interview on that particular episode, Jennifer said, "I love to play with Sammy. He is fun and makes people laugh. The first time I was on this show before, I was really relaxed a ton, and had a ball." Jennifer was implying that the high-stakes scenario that this TV show format features is in her comfort zone, almost like playing with the big boys in Bobby's Room — one table with well-known pros and a lot of fun banter between the eight or nine players.
It was interesting that during the taping of this episode featuring Harman, the TV announcer, Gabe Kaplan noted, "It looks like an interested Kathy Liebert has just entered the room to observe." Jennifer would be the first to tell anyone that Kathy Liebert is the most successful female tournament player in the world, as it is what she specializes in instead of cash games. Kathy has won the most money in poker tournaments among all woman competitors, around $4,500,000, while Jennifer has won about $2,200,000 in tournaments. Of course Kathy has literally played in hundreds of more tournaments than Jennifer, yet Jennifer has two WSOP gold bracelets in open events, while Kathy has recently picked up her first WSOP gold bracelet. As great as Kathy Liebert is, she doesn't enter the dangerous high-stakes cash games that have been Jennifer Harman's trademark for many years now. In fact, no other lady poker player enters Jennifer's high-stakes world either. Jennifer's accomplishments in the 'Big Game' for the past twelve years make her one of a kind.
Jennifer Harman in tournament play</center>
As surreal as Jennifer's successful life is today playing in the world's biggest cash game, combined with her happy personal life that includes two beautiful 19-month-old twin boys (and a wonderful husband of eight years we will soon be learning more about), not everything has been easy for her to overcome. Here, Jennifer shares her thoughts with the readers in her own words:
Sexton's Corner: Jennifer, are you comfortable talking about your kidney transplants and some of the adversity it has caused you to have to overcome in your life?
Jennifer Harman: It's cool… no problem.
Sexton's Corner: Perhaps you can take us back in time when you were a kid and tell us how this affected your life.
Harman: When I was a kid I had to be on a dialysis machine, about two months before I got my first kidney transplant. It was successful as it lasted about 20 years. This is something I've had to live with my whole life. I watched my mom die from it by age 17. It was hard getting a kidney transplant, knowing my sister needed one too. It ran in the family, as I said… I had already watched my mom die from the same thing! So it was a little bit scary, but I pulled through.
The second kidney transplant I needed in 2004 was probably harder than the first, because I was sicker and older. On the first one they only gave me two months to live, unless I found a kidney quickly. The second one was tougher, as for some reason the old kidney caused havoc on my blood pressure and my blood pressure was at stroke level for weeks.
I was so scared I was going to get a stroke, I remembered calling my family with instructions in case I did have a stroke — not to keep me on a machine, etc. I was sicker than I thought I was. The day I had my transplant I lost 35 pounds, because I was carrying so much water with my kidney not working… 35 pounds of water and toxins.
Sexton's Corner: Without that kidney transplant there is no question you would have died! I have heard your niece donated her kidney for you in 2004. What a gift she gave you. What was her name?
Harman: Yes… her name is Aunnie. She jumped right in when I found out I needed a kidney, and she said, "I want to give it!" A couple of cousins and family members, as well as three people I didn't even know offered. I was very fortunate. I thank God every day how fortunate I was.
Sexton's Corner: I'm going to be doing a story on your husband, Marco Traniello, and since you two have been married eight years and your transplant happened in 2004, it must have been comforting to have his help and support during this crisis?
Harman: Yes, he would sometimes stay awake and watch me to make sure I wouldn't die on him in the middle of the night.
Sexton's Corner: You know I've talked to him a few times, and I have to tell you, he is one of the nicest people I've ever talked to in the poker world. He seems a little shy, but he seems very genuinely nice.
Harman: Marco is great. If I had to write a letter to God in what I would want in a man, he would send me Marco.
Sexton's Corner: (I found this beautiful thought to make me pause in the questioning for a moment, as it was emotionally touching to me.) You're going to make me cry….
Harman: Don't make me cry, because I cry when everybody else cries.
Sexton's Corner: How long have you been married?
Harman: Eight years, but we were only together about five minutes. We dated for six weeks, and three of those weeks he was in Italy. So it was a phone dating thing.
Sexton's Corner: Where did you first meet Marco?
Harman: I met him downstairs in the Bellagio parking garage. Our cars were parked next to each other, and we got there at the same time. He started up a conversation about 3:00 AM. He wanted to go dancing, and I told him he has to be out of his mind. I don't even know why I told him, but I said I lost $50,000 in a poker game. I think he thought I meant $20 like it was lira. He was very persistent… very persistent. So we ended up dancing that night in a nightclub outside the casino. We dated the whole week he was here on vacation. Then he went back to Italy for three weeks, came back and we were married in two weeks!
Sexton's Corner: It is amazing how fate works sometimes. Your cars had to be parked right next to each other in the Bellagio parking lot, and you both had to head for them from different places in the casino at 3:00 AM. Then he had to be charming enough to convince you to go out dancing with him that first night. With everything happening so fast, how did his parents react?
Harman: Marco lives a little south of Rome and we both went there right after we got married in Las Vegas. He told his mom on the phone but thought his dad might have a heart attack, and decided to wait until we got over there. So when we went there Marco's dad asked who is this, and Marco said, "This is my wife." His dad started crying and was very upset. He didn't speak to me the whole time we were there. His first son running off getting married was hard for him to accept. In fact, we decided to cut our two-week planned trip after one week, and go back to Las Vegas. After we got back, his dad decided to hop on a plane and come to Las Vegas to see if his son went crazy or not. He wanted to know how Marco made this crazy decision. That visit helped, as he began to accept the marriage more after the initial shock wore off.
Sexton's Corner: Did Marco's dad know you were a professional poker player?
Harman: He was from the old school, so he really didn't believe I could play poker… so he challenged me. He wanted to play limit hold'em. I didn't want to take his money, as he had never played limit hold'em before. He wanted to play for 50 lira. I finally agreed to play him four matches, and I won all four of them. I gave the money to his mom and brother. I'll never forget when we were back in Italy, Marco wanted me to play in the local poker game, but they didn't want to have to explain to me what a flush, straight, or full house was!"
Sexton's Corner: From the time you met Marco, he didn't really play poker at all, did he?
Harman: No, he had never played. He watched me play in the Big Game about five years. I noticed he had a lot of natural talent as after a game he would tell me which player needed to be called more and which player never seem to bluff, etc. I could see he had a lot of natural ability, and he has become quite a good tournament player himself today.
Sexton's Corner: If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
Harman: I wish there were no more wars. I just wish people could get along. In the Iraq war people are getting killed everyday, including innocent children. In poker we all get along, even though we're all under a great deal of stress. I wish this was the way the rest of the world was. If I could make a wish and change one thing in the world, it would be no more wars!
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I must say interviewing Jennifer Harman was a total joy. She is such a caring person, as is evidenced with all of her charity work for the Nevada Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I attended her 2nd Annual Jennifer Harman Charity Poker Tournament held this past April at the Venetian. A fantastic turnout of pros and celebrities helped raise about $350,000. The team support that Jennifer received was overwhelming! Jennifer said, "It was unbelievable the support our charity event received at both the Venetian and Full Tilt poker, where our charity tournament had 6,000 entries. I'm so happy to be able to raise that kind of money for little animals. Our shelter is a no-kill shelter, where we provide a home, where they are safe and potentially adopted into a nice home. In the meantime they have a family and a safe home to enjoy. The first year Jennifer started her charity event $125,000 was raised, which helped build a new wing for the animals. Jennifer is proud that every dollar raised goes directly to the animals care and well being at the shelter. There are a lot of us who love animals, but we don't follow through and donate our time and energy to really make a difference. We should all say "Hats off!" to Jennifer Harman, who has led a wonderful cause that is making a difference in this world.
Last thought about Jennifer Harman: In 2000 she won her first WSOP gold bracelet in the $5,000 No-Limit Deuce-to-Seven. She was not familiar with this game or its variation, and asked for a 10-minute crash lesson, right before the event started. I was there, as the official WSOP photographer and remember this. It was Howard Lederer who gave her that famous 10-minute crackerjack lesson of pointers, as Jennifer captured the title and her first WSOP bracelet! Lyle Berman who was runner-up, has won multiple WSOP bracelets, and Steve Zolotow took third place; Steve has also won multiple WSOP bracelets. The field was extremely tough, and for Jennifer to come out on top, it truly underscores just how much natural talent she has in poker.
I finished with this: "Jennifer, you are so fortunate to have it all in life from a wonderful husband, to a beautiful family, to all of your personal success in the poker world. You seem to have everything in perspective. Jennifer responded with "My life is all about perspective. I'm so thankful that I have what I have, especially four years ago when I was literally on the brink of death. Now I have two wonderful babies, a beautiful husband, and a job that I love. I feel very fortunate to say the least! There is nothing like going home to two smiling babies after a big loss in poker, because they just lighten your day up, and you're able to forget about everything. I thank God every day for my good fortune."
Stay tuned for next week, as I share my interview with you Marco Traniello, who has been Jennifer's husband for the past eight years. What a dynamic couple these two make together!
The Cab is Parked,
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Poker's Trivia Question # 3 From Last Week & Answer:
Who were the first two winners of the WSOP Main Event who were not from Texas? What year did each win? Here is a bonus question: What was unique about what was done with the prize pool when the second non-Texan won the Main Event?
Answer to # 3:
Puggy Pearson, who won in 1973, was from Adairsville, Tennessee.
Bobby Baldwin, who won in 1978, was from Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1978 the prize pool was divided up for the very first time, which was a precedent that has carried over right up to today. From 1970 through 1977 it was winner-take all. The total prize pool in 1978 was $420,000: 1st- Bobby Baldwin - $210,000; 2nd – Crandell Addington - $84,000; 3rd – Louis Hunsucker - $63,000; 4th – Buck Buchanon; 5th – Jesse Alto - $21,000
Poker Trivia Question # 4 (to be answered in next week's column):
Who was the first player at the WSOP to win $1,000,000 in the Main Event and what year? Name the first player and year to win $1,500,000; $2,000,000; $2,500,000; $5,000,000; $7,500,000; and $12,000,000! This is a seven-part answer.
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Tom Sexton is a featured columnist for PokerNews.com. Tom attended the University of Oklahoma on a full gymnastic scholarship, where he was captain of the team four straight years, becoming the first NCAA All-American and Big Eight Champion in OU's gymnastics history in 1968. The Sexton family is well established in poker and includes Tom's brother Mike, the World Poker Tour commentator and poker's "First Ambassador", as voted by his peers. Tom welcomes your thoughts and comments about any of his articles. His e-mail is TSStarbuck1@aol.com.