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When your life’s work is a solo mission, it can be hard to find “help” in hard times – a bit of recognition or validation to put the spring back in your step. Often you have to just keep trudging forward with whatever energy you can muster, knowing things will eventually get easier. I had been stuck in a depressive funk for weeks, yearning for something or someone to get me excited about working on my novel again, when my parents called and spurred a chain of events that landed me an hour in Bobby’s Room, interviewing poker legend Jennifer Harman.
I’d promised myself a year prior that I would visit the World Series of Poker (WSOP) that year to do research for my book, but accepted the fact I couldn’t afford to follow through days before my dad’s call. His voicemail said he was going out of town for a week and mom wasn’t recovering from hip replacement surgery as quickly as expected. They wanted to pay me to come to Arizona and help around the house for the week. I thought it was the perfect excuse to stop in and visit the WSOP and emailed my only friend in Vegas immediately to inquire if I could “book” a room for the days before my parents needed me. Once she agreed to provide me lodging, I confessed my entire plan to my dad and, somewhat to my surprise, he happily agreed to pay enough to cover whatever spending money I would need for my time in Vegas as well.
As soon as the plan was set, I felt like my dynamic self again – the girl who can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. Staring at a former art class project I’d recently uncovered, I remembered that, for some reason unbeknownst to me, Jennifer Harman had begun following me on Twitter before I’d ever looked her up. (I wasn’t actively following anyone at the time.) I took it as a sign and began drafting a letter to request an interview. I spent the entire evening trying to find a concise way to describe the moments that had led me to that day and my dream of writing a poker themed novel with a character inspired by her. The next morning, I messaged her a photo of my art project to prick her interest and request her personal email address so I could send the full story.
Less than five hours later, Jennifer Harman had read my email and decided she would “love to sit down with [me]” while I was in Vegas. She also offered a bit of advice in regards to the career struggles I’d admitted to: “Remember that you don’t ever have to be off track on your goals. You just go for it. It’s only you that you have and this very very short life.” Suddenly my problem became floating down from Cloud Nine long enough to prepare for my interview and pack for my trip. I was going to meet one of the women I admire most in the world despite having a sparse resume and two throw away drafts of a novel as my only qualifications.
Before I knew where the time had gone, I found myself seated in Bobby’s room at the Bellagio, inches from Doyle Brunson’s backside, discussing life and poker with Jen Harman between hands, on tape. For the first time in my life, I was the writer interviewing a celebrity. I felt like somebody and my hero had made it happen. For an hour, Jen let me peek into her life like a friend. She taught me new variations of poker, showed me all her hole cards, and answered any question my heart desired. At one point she stopped Johnny Chan to ask what game he was going to play and lost the chance for an answer by introducing me instead. And, even though she’d hugged me upon arrival and I was departing because she’d just lost ten grand, Jen gave me a second hug and told me to feel free to contact her with any questions that come up later. She even waited patiently while I tried to calm down long enough to hold my cell phone still so I could get a good selfie.
In the months since, one thing Jen said keeps popping in my mind, “We were all living in a cave before TV came along.” It was right before she pointed out multiple players she called some of the best in the world who most people wouldn’t know because they mostly play cash games. Being the type of rare specimen who hasn’t had cable in over a decade and has never subscribed to a streaming service, I hadn’t truly pondered how publicity might affect a poker career beyond the increased competition it could bring until those words continued to echo in my mind. On the other hand, I am intimately familiar with the hermit’s life. When the Poker Hall of Fame (PHOF) nominees were announced, it finally hit me. Perhaps those words stuck with me to help me see that one thing Jennifer Harman’s career currently lacks is the same thing my writing career was lacking before I met her – proper validation and recognition.
Of course, most poker players know who Jennifer Harman is and would say she’s a great player, but she has yet to win a title the men (aka the vast majority of players) truly covet (other than those two WSOP bracelets). Possibly due to prodding from fans like me, Jen continues to enter the WSOP main event in hopes she can set another female milestone (with no luck) and, time after time, she has been passed over for the PHOF. Perhaps the judges can’t see what I see – the facts that the figures can’t measure. The life Jen has lived away from the table has been just as stressful (if not more so) than her time on the felt. She’s a single mother and kidney disease survivor who went from being a hermit to being a celebrity, all the while being called a degenerate by at least some. She became a poker player to make a living and has spent the majority of her career battling the fiercest high stakes competitors in the land. On top of all that, Jen dedicates time to improving poker’s image by being available for interviews and mixing poker with philanthropy, i.e. her annual Nevada SPCA charity poker tournament.
Poker is, was, and always will be a big part of Jennifer Harman’s life. I dare say she inspired a fair portion of today’s players to join the game. Jen doesn’t actually need the validation or recognition. Not getting it will never change who she is. However, if years of service, dedication to the craft, and raw skill are the marks by which one establishes themselves as part of the elite, then Jennifer Harman has long been a member and I hope it will soon be official via the Poker Hall of Fame. In the mean time, she’ll have to get by knowing she is, has, and always will be the Queen of Poker in my book.