Loni Harwood had a summer that most poker players dream of. The 23-year-old professional poker player from Staten Island, NY boasted one of the most impressive runs by a woman in World Series of Poker history.
Harwood topped a field of 2,541 players in Event #60: $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em to scoop $609,017 in prize money, plus her first career gold bracelet.
Harwood’s win marked her sixth cash of the summer. She finished sixth in Event #31: $1,500 Pot-Limit Omaha and fourth in Event #53: $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em. In addition to winning a WSOP title, Harwood also tied Cyndy Violette's 2005 record for most final table appearances by a female in a single series.
Her bracelet victory also landed her the record for the largest payday awarded to a woman in a Las Vegas WSOP event, surpassing Allyn Jeffery Shulman’s Seniors Event victory at the 2012 WSOP. With $874,698 in tournament earnings for the entire summer, Harwood has also jumped to the No. 8 spot on the all-time WSOP money list for women. That total was also the most a woman has ever earned at a single WSOP in Las Vegas.
This isn’t Harwood’s first taste of success, though. Harwood holds two WSOP Circuit titles, proving circuit grinders can be just as competitive as big-time players. With her success at this year’s summer series, Harwood moved to third in the running for WSOP Player of the Year just behind Daniel Negreanu.
Finally, Harwood’s bracelet achievement put her alongside Dana Castaneda as the only women since Annette Obrestad to have won an open-field no limit hold’em event.
PokerNews sat down with Harwood to discuss her achievements, how she got her start in poker, and her future in the game.
PokerNews: How did you get your start in poker?
Harwood: I was about 16 years old when I saw my dad playing on PokerStars. He had a lot of success online. He even won a World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) tournament. I really wanted to learn so I would sit next to him and watch him play. The way I started was playing satellites. I started grinding $11 re-buys, eventually moving up to $215 buy-ins. I started making a couple hundred a week and just kept going. I started playing more live poker when I started college and really focused on playing live cash-games more towards the end of my college career. I started at the $1/$2 limits and was earning probably above average so I then jumped to $2/$5.
How did you find the will to finish college?
It was tough. Toward the end, I was doing so well in live cash-games that I didn’t want to finish college at all. I knew right away that I just wanted to play poker and nothing else but my parents pretty much told me that they wouldn’t support me unless I completed my degree. So I really had to push through mentally to get through school. Finally, the time came and I graduated in January of 2012 with a business degree in finance from University of Albany-SUNY in New York. I couldn’t wait to start my life in poker though. Two weeks later I moved from New York to Florida to pursue my dream. The following month, in February, I played my first series in the circuit and happened to win. It was my first WSOP Circuit ring. It was an incredible feeling. I knew that playing poker was what I wanted.
Your first circuit cash was in 2008, but not again until 2012. What happened during that gap?
I was under 21 in 2008. I played the March Madness in Verona because it was at an Indian casino that allowed 18 year olds to play. I didn’t turn 21 until 2010 but at that time I was in college. I didn’t start playing tournaments until I moved to Florida. I didn’t play any other circuits and just focused on cash games. I then went to New Orleans in May of 2012 and won my second ring there.
You played five WSOP events in 2012 and didn’t cash once but this summer just crushed, what did you do to improve your game?
Between last year and this year I have seen so many more hands and just have so much more experience. I also met a lot of new people. I’m not really big on coaching but I talk hands all the time with different poker friends. We’re not big time or anything, but I think we’ve all learned enough to strategize with each other.
When did you realize that you could really play poker for a living?
When I moved to Florida I told my parents to give me two years. My (father) has been playing poker his entire life and tried to persuade me out of it. He pretty much said, "don’t play poker as a profession. The swings can be really bad and if you go on a bad variance it could crush your confidence." He really warned me about the negative side of the game but I was determined and knew I at least wanted to give it a try. But you know what, it’s almost been two years and I made it, thankfully. If the two years came I probably would have extended that deal to three years. I’m glad it’s so far working out.
What differences have you seen from the WSOP Circuits to the WSOP?
The starting stack is very difficult to adjust to. With the WSOP you normally start with 10-15K as opposed to 3,000 or 4,500. The first couple of tournaments at the WSOP I had to really be mindful of how I was playing. With a bigger stack, players have more opportunity to play more hands. Also the fields are much bigger. On the circuit there are a lot of grinders and regular players that you see pretty often. But in the summer series you can draw a table that has eight people trying to get lucky and you.
Will you continue to grind circuits or focus on bigger tournaments?
I just had this exact conversation. I think I’ll make a couple of circuit stops this year. Not only do I think the circuit is awesome but all my friends travel to these tournaments. Being able to travel with them is one of the best parts of traveling the circuit. I’ll also be making a couple of stops that I normally wouldn’t be making. In January I will probably head to the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.
How about traveling the European Poker Tour, Asia Pacific Poker Tour, or the World Poker Tour?
No promises but it’s possible I’ll go to Europe. My friends have been egging me on to go to Europe but I’m still not sure if I will. I honestly haven’t put that much thought into it yet but maybe if scheduling works out, I’ll make my way over there. But like I said, no promises.
Considering you're not sure about going to Europe, is chasing Player of the Year even something you want to do?
I’m really not sure if chasing Player of the Year is important to me. I’m very happy with the success I’ve had. I wouldn’t be sad to come in third for Player of the Year or drop to tenth or even drop out of the top ten. At this point chasing that title is not something I need to do. That can change though. Once I leave Las Vegas, relax a little bit, then maybe that drive will take over and I’ll end up going.
During your bracelet run you had support tweets from various players like Maria Ho, Christian Harder, and many others. How does it feel to be recognized and acknowledged?
Vanessa Selbst, where you at? (laughs) No, honestly it was pretty awesome receiving so many tweets from different players. I thought receiving support from one person was amazing but then they just kept coming in. With each message I received or each handshake I got in the hall, it just amazed me more and more each time.
You broke some records this summer; does any of it mean anything to you?
It’s pretty unbelievable that I was out here last year and thought there was no way I could win a tournament, especially if I only played five. When I lost in all five tournaments, I pretty much just hung out the rest of the summer and played cash games. This year, now that I went from $0 to $800,000, I feel it is so humbling. It’s so I mean I can’t even put the words together to say what I truly feel. I think that is the answer. I can’t think of what to say or how to say it but I’ll let my emotions do the talking. I’m here with tears in my eyes because this summer has been the greatest, most overwhelming, unbelievable experience of my life. I couldn’t be more grateful.
My dad called me up and told me how proud he was of me. Obviously I know my parents love and support me but my dad never told me how proud he ever was of me. I’m very blessed to have some money for my family.
What pro do you aspire to be like, both male and female?
Vanessa Selbst is my obvious answer. Just go through her rap sheet and you’ll see why. I liked watching the Main Event last year and just seeing some of the hands she played. She has no fear. It doesn’t matter what player she is up against, she will keep the same aggression and just own you. It’s truly amazing how great of a player she is.
As far as a male pro, Phil Ivey is the man. Actually, my boyfriend got to the final table of one of the $1K events and Ivey busted in 14th. Well before that happened, they got to play on the same table. It was a really cool experience watching them play against each other. The next day Ivey ask my Phil, ‘what place did you get?” My Phil was so excited he sent out a group text, “Phil Ivey just asked me how I did.” It was really great for him to have that experience.
Is poker a long-term or short-term grind for you?
That’s a very good question. For at least the next few years it will definitely be poker. As far as playing forever, I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll open my own business or something. I think if I had a lot of money saved then I could see myself devote my time to something other than poker. I’m sure yet what I could see myself getting into but maybe something related to investments.
Since you now have a bracelet under your belt, what other poker achievements do you still wish to achieve?
I wish to achieve back-to-back successful summers. It was amazing to do so well this summer that if I continued that same run for next year then wow. That would be truly remarkable. Winning the Main Event, I think, is something all poker players want for themselves. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t do so well but I will never complain because it’s been a great summer.
Is sponsorship something you would like to have?
That would be absolutely amazing if I was approached for sponsorship. It’s something I think every player should aspire to achieve. Sponsorship just brings so much more opportunity and gets your name out there faster than you could on your own. Yes I’ve had an amazing summer but I think I need to prove that I can do it again before anyone considers picking me up.
How did you and your boyfriend get together, seeing how he came from a professional golf background?
Last year I made two stops on the circuit and ended up meeting a group of kids who invited me to Lake Tahoe. A mutual friend introduced us and we hit it off right away. It was both of our first stop on the circuit. He pretty much got into poker from that moment on. He had always played but I’ll say he probably traveled the circuit because of me.
Is there any competitive energy between the two of you?
We fully support each other. We don’t look for anyone of us to do better than the other. I know we just want to see the other be successful and happy. But I do have a bracelet now so I have to rub it in his face from time to time. Other than that, I want to see him excel in poker and I know he wants the same for me
What was his reaction when you won the bracelet?
He was more than ecstatic. He jumped from the rail, gave me a kiss, told me what an amazing job I did. It was all caught on camera, too, so that was fun.
If you two end up on the same final table of a major event, will either of you change the way you play?
I would probably try to avoid playing hands with him. He could get away with a couple of bluffs but I know we would still play the way we need to. I wouldn’t be looking to be in a big pot against him, but if I have a big hand I wouldn’t throw it away for his sake. We would both still try to win.
Do you feel you are receiving more recognition for being a successful female in a male-dominated industry?
Pretty much, yes. I think if I were a male then people would say, “He had a great summer,” and wouldn’t think much beyond that. I think because I am a woman, though, it has stuck like glue. I definitely can’t compare my success to the best male poker players out there but it’s nice to be considered a strong female competitor. But you know what, I’ll take it. Male or female I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished this summer and no one can take that feeling away from me.
So for this summer, you earned $874,698. What will your first big purchase be?
You know what, I am going to buy a brand new car! I have no clue which kind yet but I bet I’m going to have fun figuring it out.