Excellence is memorable
Brash, loud, cocky these are generally the ties that bind between television professionals. They know the value those seats hold. They know that the big TV games attract the fish and get them their sponsorship deals and thus, they're going to ham it up for all it's worth. Get in the door and you'll get in again as long as you provide action and charisma. Entertainment is their bread and butter.
Reasonable, thoughtful, intellectual these are the qualities you won't see quite so often from those aforementioned pros. Online star Phil Galfond made it onto "High Stakes Poker," played tight poker, didn't say a word and was shown the door for the next two years. Sadly, "nice" doesn't sell, nor does it attract eyeballs. We all know aces beat kings four out of five times and as a result, it's the personalities that sell the product. You can have your "respectable," TV wants "action."
Fortunately, one occasional visitor to the world's biggest tournaments manages to bridge the gap. Dan Harrington is far more accurately described by the second set of descriptors.
"Action" Dan Harrington.
Really, the only action he brings is in the form of what most interpret to be an ironical nickname, but he also produces the realization that even in an entertainment-driven game, excellence sells. Harrington appeals to our intellect through remarkable results and contributions to the modern poker environment. Well, that and a slightly tilted, flat-brimmed, awkward-looking, green Boston Red Sox hat. Harrington will be amongst those featured this Tuesday on ESPN's broadcast of the 2010 World Series of Poker main event.
Harrington started out in chess, winning the 1971 Massachusetts State Chess Championship. With little to show, even for that title, he realized that he'd have to look to other games if he were to make playing viable.
"I actually enjoyed chess more than poker," Harrington remembered from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. "To be profitable in chess though, you need to be top five or six players in the world and I wasn't good enough. Then I went to backgammon and that was more for financial reasons than competitive ones, but there really wasn't enough money there either, so I made it to poker, which I liked a lot and had a lot of money. I was happy to be part of that endeavor."
No doubt. Harrington started getting a real taste for the game at New York's famous Mayfair Club. There, along with players like Mickey Appleman, Jay Heimowitz, Steve Zolotow, Erik Seidel and Howard Lederer, he butted heads and learned the game the hard way, shaping himself into the player who'd earn himself one of the finest records in tournament poker history.
"Dan's an interesting guy," said Lederer, one of Harrington's closest friends in the poker community. "He might be one of the toughest gamblers I've ever met. He just refuses to not do the right thing at the table. I mean, I almost think he doesn't have to fight tilt. Dan just gets that part of poker is variance. Thinking about variance or being unlucky is a waste of mental energy. There's no value in it, so he doesn't do it. If you knew him and played for years with him, you'd ask, 'Have I ever seen him upset at the table?' He just has a wonderful, rational understanding of what he does and he executes it with a devastating approach where he won't let anything get in the way."
In the 25 years since he embarked on a tournament career, Harrington's made the final table of the World Series of Poker main event four times. He won the event in 1995 en route to one of the greatest individual stretches in hold 'em tournament history, with four wins in the five biggest tournaments that year. He also accomplished what Norman Chad calls "the greatest achievement in WSOP history" with his back-to-back final table appearances in the 2003 and 2004 main events. His $1.6 million win at the 2007 Legends of Poker is the cherry on top of his player résumé.
Of course, Harrington's contributions go far beyond those bullet points thanks to his decision to publish his poker knowledge. While "Doyle Brunson's Super System" and David Sklansky's "Theory of Poker" are the bibles of the game, "Harrington on Hold 'em" and the four books that have followed are considered by many to be the most crucial in sculpting the present day tournament world.
"I can tell the books had an incredible effect on the game," Harrington said modestly. "One way you can tell is to check Amazon. I have some 300 reviews on the first book. It hit a responsive chord. It made tournament poker a more professional thing. It gave people a standard to adhere to. I'm hopeful the books will remain the standard. I didn't teach how to play -- I taught how to think like a poker player. I think that's a universal thing that remains forever."
Did Harrington expect the books to have the effect they have?
"Yes and no," he admitted. "I know that's not so clarifying. I was innocent in what books can do and how to write or publish and how it would be received. I thought it would be about the best book done about tournament poker and that it would be done in an educational way. I figured my name gave it promise. It turned out to be a big winner, but as I investigated the book industry a bit more, I realized how lucky I was. You can write the best thing in the world and it might not catch on. Now? I think I was lucky."
Lucky or not, the mark has been made and that as much as anything is the reason Harrington's sitting in lofty company. This week, the WSOP Hall of Fame's list of 10 nominees was released and Harrington's name was on it along with Seidel, Barry Greenstein, Phil Ivey, Linda Johnson and five others.
"I think it's inevitable he'll get elected," said last year's hall inductee, Mike Sexton. "I don't know if it will be this year. I think he's a very worthy candidate and a very worthy nominee. I think Dan's a great player. Considering the number of events he plays, his record is as good as anybody's, if not better. Obviously, his contribution with 'Harrington on Hold 'em' has been phenomenal and his character is as fine as anyone in the poker world. I really respect him off the felt as well."
"I think Erik Seidel is my first choice," Lederer said. "Dan would be my second. It would be appropriate, two Mayfair guys going in together. As an age thing too, I think on that list, I'd have to go with Dan."
"It's illustrious company," said Harrington of the hall's membership. "To get in would be fantastic. If it happened while I was alive, that would be extra special. A lot of times, when you get honored, it's after you've died. It's nice when it happens when you're alive."
At 64, Harrington has started to think about mortality and leaving his mark. Retiring last year from his CEO position with Anchor Loans, he now has plenty of time to read, travel and think about such things. Whether or not he's inducted this year, there's little doubt of the importance he's had in shaping the poker world today. Sometimes, those are things that matter, whether calling him "Action" is ironic or not.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter via @GaryWise1.
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