Jennifer Harman has earned her status as a true poker elite.
She has the respect of famous players Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu, both of whom play regularly against her in the biggest live nosebleed tables.
She has remained active and successful while other poker pros rise and fall in the darwinian poker ecology that we live in today. Somehow, she’s done so while fighting kidney failure, a divorce and raising twins.
It may seem cliche to ask ‘‘how does she do it?’’ … but seriously, how?
For this answer, we’ll need to go beyond the poker table.
A lot of poker players experience a burnout after making the jump to professional life. The passion they once had disappears after suffering through countless bad beats and the tilt that comes with them. In some cases, they simply can’t help but feel unfulfilled as a human being. Their favorite hobby became their dream job and their dream job became just that: a job.
It’s hard when burnout happens for any job, but for a poker player who relies on his or her wits and emotional control, it’s devastating. Why do we feel like that? Why can’t we just keep a cool head be happy with this supposed dream job?
The truth is that poker as a job is pretty self-serving. The point of playing poker is to become good enough to win at poker. It’s a great mental exercise and that’s enough for a lot of people.
Many feel the need for their work to reach beyond themselves, for it to make other lives better. We are social animals and a lot of us are wired to want to lift others up with us. At it’s core, poker is simply not designed for that. This leads to burnout in some people who end up wanting to return to their 9-5s, just so they can feel like part of larger society again.
Does any of this sounds like you? Jen Harman’s story exemplifies this struggle, and her perspective can teach you how to fight this.
Keep your emotions out of it.
If you are reading this you’ve probably heard of “The Corporation”. No, it’s not the name of a villainous organization from a young adult novel. The Corporation is the name of an association of players who decided to join their bankrolls to play the “Moby Dick” of poker, Andy Beal. Harman was an active player in The Corporation, among many other poker elites.
A lot has been written about the Corporation, so I won’t go into it too deep here, but a little factoid that has often been ignored involved Jen Harman. When playing Andy Beal, Jennifer Harman was just days away from her second kidney transplant, and in constant fear of having a stroke due to the high blood pressure caused by her first transplant.
Imagine playing a high stakes poker game with that on your mind.
One would think that whoever was running the show would have given her a few days to rest. After all, it wasn’t like Beal was running out of money or his will to gamble it away.
An agreement could have been found in light of these extreme circumstances had Jennifer Harman needed it, but as you may have guessed, she didn’t. As a matter of fact, she knew about her operation before she agreed to step up for the Corporation. She managed to just about break even during that match.
Now, keeping your emotions out of it is solid advice for any player of any mind game, but it rings particularly true for Harman. Her poker strategy relies heavily on her hand reading and what she describes as ‘‘playing the player’’ rather than solely math and theory. This implies that she needs more emotional control than the average player to avoid being exploited herself.
How can she achieve this? Because even in these extreme circumstances, for Jennifer Harman, poker is a job.
It’s no surprise she, along with friend John Juanda, was inducted to the Poker Hall of Fame in 2015.
Once emotions are off the felt, where do they go?
Keeping your emotions off the table is all well and good, but what do you do with them?
You may bury them, ignore them, or lie to yourself about them, but they are still there and suppressing them just makes them stronger. This is as true in poker as it is in life. Jennifer Harman has led by example in this through her own experiences, on and off the table.
Harman’s kidney was failing for a second time. She had to face her own mortality in a way people her age rarely do, eventually pulling through when someone stepped up and donated her a kidney. It’s hard to overstate how lucky she was compared to other patients in her situation. It takes three to five years to get a kidney and even if you get it, there’s a chance it will fail.
Recovering was a relief, but suddenly, Jen was confronted again. This time not by her own mortality, but by everybody else’s:
‘‘A lot of people came up to me after my operation to tell me they were on the [organ transplant] list, and I knew they wouldn’t make it. ’’
This hit her hard, but like a true poker player, she decided not to let her emotions take control of her. Instead, she did something about it.
Jennifer Harman used her poker earnings and celebrity status to establish and promote Creating Organ Donor Awareness (CODA). CODA is a non-profit dedicated to raise awareness of people’s options as organ donors and dispel myths that could cost lives. CODA has been helping to combat misinformation and organ shortages for 11 years now.
Emotions, fear and sadness in particular, can make you hopeless if you let them. You can let them control you, or you can let them motivate you to ensure other people don’t end up in the same situation as you. You can channel your emotions and turn weakness into strength like Harman did. All you need to do is to accept these emotions as an integral part of you, and then do something about it.
Poker is a way to make a living, not a life.
Once you become a professional poker player, poker transforms from an activity you use to fill free time, to what your livelihood depends on. At the end of the day, it’s just a job to pay the bills.
To see it as more, as your whole life, puts a lot of pressure on the game and your results. It will never be your calling or your reason for existing. If you delude yourself to think like this, your poker problems will become your life problems and vice versa.
What playing poker for a living can be is an avenue for life experience and the freedom to find your own path. This is exemplified by Jennifer Harman’s life story. If poker is not enough for you to feel fulfilled, then no one could blame you. But it’s up to you, and only you, to take advantage of the freedom poker provides to explore who you really are and what you truly want to do in life.
Jennifer Harman found the philanthropist inside of her after she separated her poker life from her personal life. She was able to use the game as the powerful tool that it is to create her path. You can do the same.
You just need to stop for a moment and ask yourself, ‘‘what do I really want from my life?’’ and move forward from there.
So, what do you want from your life? And how are you going to get it?
When in doubt, look to Jennifer Harman.
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Latin American Poker and Film blogger. When I’m not playing Stud 8, I’m complaining that not many people play Stud 8.