[ Profiles ]
The Killer Instinct of Jennifer Harman
She’s tiny, with wispy hair, enormous eyes, and the fragile look of a bewildered waif. But we’re sitting in the enormous kitchen of a multi-million-dollar house which was financed, by and large, by what this woman refers to, with a matter-of-fact shrug, as her killer instinct.
“When we’re at the poker table, I’m trying to take your money,” she says. She also says she wants to be the best at whatever she does—“not for anybody else, for me.” But when I suggest that many women have a hard time wanting to be the best because of worrying about other people’s feelings, she looks puzzled. “I don’t see where feelings come into it,” she says. “It isn’t about any other person—it’s about me.”
Indeed, Harman can make a connection that from someone else might sound chilling but which from her sounds, again, matter-of-fact: “I’ve always wanted to be the best poker player; now that I have kids, I want to be the best mom.” In the abstract, that image of “best mom” conjures up a woman pushing her kids to get straight As or loading them up with lessons. When Harman invokes the term, she seems to be thinking only about what she demands of herself—wanting to be there for her kids and also to spend time with them, enjoying every minute, “because everyone tells me, it all goes by so fast…”
I get only a glimpse of her children, when she and her husband, Marco Traniello, drive past where I am waiting after the interview for the car service to pick me up. But as their car pauses for the security gate to open, the twin three-year-old boys in the back seat seem both relaxed and exuberant–remarkably so for children who’ve just had a long day at school. While Marco and Jennifer express concern for my taxi’s delay, one of their sons sticks his arm out the window so I can see the birthday invitation he’s just received. He’s neither showing off nor demanding attention —just sharing his delight. “We have to pick the kids up in Marco’s car because it’s new and they’re so excited about it,” Harman told me as we all rushed to leave the house. Today both parents can bring home the kids —Marco’s not in Italy, Jennifer wasn’t up late last night with a game—and everyone seems to be enjoying the ride. “Being with them as much as possible is what I love most,” Harman says. Although she’s spoken of husband Marco Traniello as “the true love of my life,” the first six years of her marriage to him changed little about her relationship to poker. What really changed things, she tells me, were the kids.
What does it take to be one of the best in the world? Focus, commitment, passion—these, perhaps, are the raw materials, ingredients of the fuel that carries you to the top. But for the potential to become actual, for the fuel within you to ignite, you need a quality that I have come to think of as relentlessness: the unwillingness to ever give up. If you’re truly relentless, you don’t even want to slow down, though sometimes bad luck, or your own shortcomings, or perhaps the very nature of your task simply force you to. “You can’t rush your poker education,” The Numbrist keeps telling me. “Though I know how much you want to.” “Our books take as long as they take,” we keep telling each other. “We just have to accept it.” Relentlessness in this case means not minding the slowdowns, the roadblocks, the grinds. Relentless means whatever it takes, however long it takes. . . even when there’s no end in sight.
Relentlessness, like poker itself, isn’t a one-shot deal; it’s the commitment of a lifetime.As Harman is at pains to make clear, relentlessness is not the same as ruthlessness. Someone who refuses to relent will not pause, reconsider, or be turned aside, whereas someone who is ruthless quite literally lacks ruth, or compassion. Harman has compassion: she says her least favorite opponent is the one who’s under-bankrolled, who’s an addict or compulsive gambler, the family man who shouldn’t be playing and does anyway. Her favorite opponent, by contrast, is the wealthy businessman who just loves to splash around; yes, he’s giving his money away, but he’d be the first to tell you he’s getting full value in return. In either case, though, her job is precisely the same: to take their money. If she can, she will, and as much of it as possible.
In my experience, wanting to be the best was almost always a zero-sum game: if you’re the best, then someone else is not; your becoming more means that your rivals are now less. Even the notion of rival seems more intimate, more personally invested in conquest than the neutral opponent or the comradely fellow competitor. But Harman seems to have a different view: best “for myself” rather than best “against them.” She’ll tell you she wants to be the best in one breath and tell you that Phil Ivey currently is the best in the next. Relentlessness, like poker itself, isn’t a one-shot deal; it’s the commitment of a lifetime.
My killer instinct has often made me feel lonely, especially lately, when so many of the friends with whom I seemed to share my ambition have either seemed to slow down or are no longer speaking to me. But at Harman’s high-stakes level—she routinely plays in Bobby’s Room, in the world’s most famous game—there’s a kind of fellowship that only the elite understand. When you play with the world’s best players, who else but they can really grasp who you are and how you think? Who else knows what it’s like to be you? Even Harman’s husband, who met her by chance in a parking garage while visiting from his native Italy, is a kind of outsider in that world. The week they met, there was a big game going on at the Bellagio, and of course, Harman had to play. “He wanted to spend every minute with me, but the games began early that week, at noon. So right from the beginning, he got how it was.”
When she talks about the demands of the game, Harman is at least as relentless with herself as she could be with an opponent. “I’m pretty good at knowing when I’m playing bad, and then I stop,” she tells me. “But sometimes you fool yourself. You convince yourself that you’re playing right and the cards are just against you. Then, when you stand up and you start going over the hands, you realize that you were really playing bad and you should have gotten up long ago.” Harman has a rigorous set of rules to keep her play in line. She sets stop losses, usually about 30 big bets, so that the downswings of any one session never seem daunting when she returns to the table the next day. She makes herself get up and leave the game when her concentration is off. She won’t play when she’s tired, distracted, or in any way off her game. Yet all of these considerations go out the window when a “live one” is in town: when the game is simply too good to give up.
Back in January, for example, a wealthy businessman called Harman at midnight and asked her to set up a game. He was in town for a convention, he’d just finished work, and now he felt like a little poker. Harman called around, found another player, and set up the game, sending Marco home to relieve the babysitter and stay with the kids. “When I got up that morning, I wasn’t planning on staying up all night,” she says. But the opportunity was too good—she had to go, she had to play, and she had to stay until the game was done. “With only a three-handed game, it wouldn’t have been politically correct for me to leave,” she explains. “I couldn’t break up the game.” For both cash game players and tournament players, the need to play when you don’t feel like it and really aren’t up to it is as much a part of poker excellence as the discipline not to play when you don’t feel like it and really aren’t up to it. In this most independent of professions, players are ultimately dependent on either the tournament schedule or the whims of the whales. Being the best means transcending these obstacles—not just tonight, not just this week, but for the rest of your poker life.
How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?
By the time I was in high school, I had played the violin for about nine years. I’d even gotten paid for playing in Fargo-Moorhead Community Orchestra. I liked being in the midst of the symphony so much it actually occurred to me to turn pro. I had no illusions about being the best in the world or even a soloist. I simply liked being inside the music.
Then I got to college and realized how much I didn’t want to spend two hours a day practicing. Yet two hours was the minimum practice that would allow me to feel even a little bit satisfied with how I sounded. Like poker, playing the violin is enormously demanding—there may be a middle level of competence, but unlike, say, piano or perhaps chess, there is definitely no acceptable low level. The vast majority of poker players—easily 90% or 95%—aren’t even winning players (though most lie to themselves and believe they are); the vast majority of violinists (those who have played fewer than five or six years and who practice less than 2 hours a day) are simply un-listenable. To this day, I miss the joys of making music. But with violin, even if it’s not all or nothing (there are many amateur and semi-pro musicians who make simply lovely music, satisfying themselves and others), it’s definitely a lifetime commitment.
Poker is at least equally demanding, so much so that Harman, who final-tabled three events at last summer’s World Series of Poker, can tell me that her live game is “rusty,” though, she adds quickly, “everyone’s is—there just aren’t enough games.” When I ask her about online poker, she’s equally self-critical: “I’m not where I should be yet. I don’t play enough hours.” The problem, this time, is the children: either Harman is taking care of them, or she’s tired from having taken care of them. The tiny window in which neither is true is the time between dinner and bedtime when her kids are still awake: not requiring care, perhaps, but ready for fun with Mom. Sometimes there’s an online game so good that Harman simply has to play it, and the children have learned, even at age 3, that poker on the screen means “Mommy is working now.”
But Harman is the first to tell you that she hasn’t yet put in the relentless online sessions that she knows she needs, the endless hours that, in violin terms, make the difference between a screech and a symphony. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice…” When Harman first learned poker, she played 80 hours a week: there was simply nothing else she wanted to do. Now, there is.
Novels and Numbrism
The Numbrist and I have been talking lately about what makes for excellence—in writing, poker, or anything else. He’s kind of a fundamentalist, in my opinion, because he is—well, relentless in his insistence upon the centrality of passion. “If you want to be good at something, you have to love it enough to do it all the time,” he says firmly. “And I know that’s true, because if you look at anyone who’s ever been great at anything, they faced ridiculous obstacles—just ridiculously hard. But they kept going anyway, because more than anything, they loved what they were doing.”
I think about my lost women friends, the comrades of my twenties, thirties, and forties, with whom I shared an Odyssean pact: tie me to the mast, we said to each other, and don’t let me succumb to the siren song. . . The seduction we feared was neither success nor ease but simply the temptation to despair. So many reasons not to succeed: the world’s scorn; our own lack of faith; the need, finally, to earn a living; children. Harman was in her forties when she had hers—older than most of my friends, and far more established; by the time she met Marco in that parking garage, she was already playing the high-stakes games in Bobby’s Room; by the time she had her boys, she was a two-time bracelet winner. And even she wonders about splitting her focus, since now, in The Numbrist’s terms, she loves something else as much as poker or maybe even more.
Unlike most of my friends, I neither married nor had children; for most of my life, I haven’t even had a boyfriend. I published one novel with the most prestigious publishing house in America, but it hasn’t done very well; I’m wondering, as I begin my revisions on the second 10-year opus, whether I won’t have to self-publish the work that I (and the Beowulf Buddy and the Consigliere and even The Numbrist) think has a shot at greatness. If there’s anyone who can lay claim to giving up everything in pursuit of what I’ve loved, it ought to be I.
And yet. . . I’m thrilled to hear Harman speak of her killer instinct, so matter-of-fact and free of guilt. I love that she takes money from any man foolish enough to sit down with her—so what if he can’t afford to lose?–that’s his problem. But can I be that relentless, in poker or anything else? When I was little, my father told me—I think we were all playing miniature golf—“You play so great until the end, then you give up,” and I thought, Yes, because I was the oldest, and my brothers were always mad at me for beating them. I think about that now, when I get up to the final dozen but finish tenth, when I make the final table but end up 2nd, too impatient to settle in for that long grueling round of heads-up. I’ve seen so many of my friends fall by the wayside, unwilling, finally, to love their work enough to sacrifice their marriage, their kids, unwilling, finally, to choose that love and defy the years, the decades, of what seemed, at times, like unremitting failure.
For me, apparently, it wasn’t a choice, or maybe it was the only choice. And so I love to think of Harman, who played poker with stroke-level blood pressure to take her mind off her health, who weathered life-threatening kidney failure by concentrating on her game, who thinks of Doyle Brunson as a father but takes his money whenever she can, who fell in love with one hand while playing cards with the other, who now says that her kids and her family come first—but then wonders about going on the tournament circuit or spending more time online.
Much as I love the example she set, I wonder if I am indeed like her, or if I should look instead at all the compromises in my life, all the stumbles. I don’t know what to do with all those broken friends and broken friendships (how much was my own fault?), with all my own bad detours (or were they really necessary?), with all the failure that has brought me to this brink of—what? A brilliant novel (next year!), a life in poker (wax on!), maybe even room for the kinds of relationships that would once have split my focus but that now, perhaps, will deepen it.
Love—true love—is nothing if not relentless.Or not. Killer instinct may be the fuel, but the car still has to travel mile after mile after endless mile: practice, practice, practice… I know, as perhaps The Numbrist does not, how passion for a goal can be eroded by too many failures, too many voices, inside and out, that mock and undermine and eat away at your soul.
And yet. When passion fails, love may still remain, and love—true love—is nothing if not relentless. Maybe that’s the gift that Harman and The Numbrist and their fellow greats give to the rest of us: the visible presence of a love that won’t give up.