What does “Action” Dan Harrington want the poker world to know about him? “As little as possible,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. And he’s not kidding! Perhaps that’s why not much has been written about this talented, consistent, highly accomplished, ruddy-faced Irishman, who can often be seen peering out from under his familiar bright green Boston Red Sox cap.
One of Dan’s greatest skills is gathering information at the poker table while simultaneously disclosing very little about himself or his game. He loves it when people are chatting at the table, because that gives him information. He loves it when other people wear headsets, because they are not privy to the valuable subtleties that occur at the table. He is an information hound. Like a finely tuned computer, he stores each piece of data methodically and then relies upon that information in his decision-making process.
He actually exhausted himself so much in the championship event of the World Series of Poker last year when he finished third that he had a game plan this year that included consciously not paying complete attention all six days, for fear that his stamina wouldn’t last. His plan paid off — to the tune of one and a half million dollars. Good plan.
Dan Harrington hugs Jack Binion — and a million bucks — after winning the 1995 World Series of Poker.
If you are not acquainted with “Action” Dan Harrington or his accomplishments, he is a top money winner at the WSOP, having raked in about $3.5 million. He was at the final table in the championship event in both 2003 and 2004, when the fields contained 839 and 2,576 players, respectively. In 2003, he won $650,000 for finishing third, and in 2004, he won $1.5 million for fourth place. These amounts of money are staggering compared to the other luminaries who not only made it to the final table two years in a row, but went even further and won back-to-back championships.
Let’s take a look the at back-to-back champions and the amounts of prize money they won in their back-to-back wins:
Johnny Moss — 1970 (voted the champion by his peers) and 1971 ($30,000)
“Texas Dolly” Doyle Brunson — 1976 ($220,000) & 1977 ($340,000)
Stu Ungar — 1980 ($385,000) & 1981 ($375,000)
Johnny Chan — 1987 ($625,000) & 1988 ($700,000)
Compare those extraordinary results with Dan’s astonishing back-to-back final-table performances and draw your own conclusion about his consistency.
Did I mention his performance in 1995? He played in the WSOP $2,500 buy-in no-limit hold’em tournament and won it, pocketing $249,000. Then, he went home, rested up, and came back and won the 1995 WSOP $10,000 buy-in championship event for a big fat million bucks!
The final hand of the 1995 World Series of Poker
Who is Dan Harrington? He is the player’s player who consistently brings home the bacon. If poker were a team sport, Dan would be the kind of teammate you’d rely upon at crunch time. He wouldn’t choke. He has proven himself over and over — but not in a boisterous, flashy manner. In his dignified, stately, and quiet way, “Action” Dan Harrington consistently gets the job done.
How does a “rock” get the nickname “Action” Dan? The long answer can be found in the famous “Prospect Theory” of Noble Prize winners Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and Paul Slovic. Dan explains the short version: “These men studied how people deal with uncertainty. Since people need to make sense of the world, they do it in predictable ways. One of the errors people make along the way is to incorrectly latch onto adjectives.” Kahneman, Tversky, and Slovic discovered that people respond differently to similar situations depending upon the manner in which the facts are characterized. More about situs poker online
Dan decided to name himself “Action” Dan because when people observed him, they would think: “He doesn’t give one bit of action at all; he’s a rock.” By having people latch onto that adjective about Dan, he is able to make more undetected moves and bluff more often.
The Guy Loves Games
Dan loves and excels at all different types of games; he always has, and always will. As a young man, he excelled at chess and won the state championships in Massachusetts and New Jersey. Thereafter, he became a backgammon pro, quitting only after winning a $27,000 championship that the organizer failed to pay.
In his younger days, he was involved in some very exciting “games,” which the now-grown-up man wishes not to discuss. I can tell you that in his college days as an undergraduate at Boston’s Suffolk University, he took up poker and played with a few guys from Harvard, one being Microsoft king Bill Gates.
Now, much of Dan’s time is spent at his successful business, Anchor Loans, where he loans money and invests in the stock market and real estate. He admits, “I’m very good at learning games and playing them. Real estate and the stock market are just other types of games, as far as I’m concerned. There’s hardly any difference.”
“I’m very good at learning games and playing them. Real estate and the stock market are just other types of games, as far as I’m concerned. There’s hardly any difference.”
In the game of poker, Dan has pocketed about $3.5 million; if you were to see his stunning Santa Monica offices overlooking the ocean, bustling with friendly employees, you would probably conclude that he must play the stock market at least as well as he plays poker.
In Between Then and Now
Born and raised in Boston, Dan was an undergraduate at Boston’s Suffolk University and then attended Suffolk Law School. He practiced bankruptcy law in Boston for about 10 years, but abandoned the field because he just didn’t enjoy it.
Because he likes the risk versus reward model, he found the field of law to be a lot of hard work that he didn’t enjoy. He conceded that his worst quality is that he’s lazy. I argued with him: “No, you’re not! You couldn’t have a record like yours if you were lazy!”
He explained, “If I’m not interested in an outcome, I am very lazy, but I do have endless energy when I care about the results.”
He certainly cared about the outcome of his poker game. In 1980, Dan moved to Philly and began taking the train two or three times a week to the Mayfair Club in New York to play poker with the likes of Howard Lederer, Jay Heimowitz, Steve Zolotow, Al Krux, and Erik Seidel. They played no-limit hold’em way back then! At the same time, he began “playing” the stock market and excelling at his new favorite games.
A few times a year, Dan flew to Las Vegas to play poker. In 1987, he played in his first WSOP championship event and came in sixth. Although he was disappointed to have lost with the best hand (A-Q vs. A-6), he couldn’t be too upset about placing sixth in his first WSOP appearance and taking home $43,750.
In 1989, Dan moved to California, near both Commerce Casino and The Bicycle Casino. He was so busy in business that he didn’t play all that much poker until the recent poker frenzy — except for 1995.
1995 WSOP Champion
Prior to our interview, I had read a story about Dan and the 1995 WSOP final table. As the story goes, no one at the final table figured Dan to be a serious contender, because he plays such a decidedly conservative game. At the final table in 1995, he played J-2 and had to show it. Although he lost with the hand, the other players appeared astonished as they glanced at one another trying to figure out what the heck had happened. Dan went on to win that event.
Dan Harrington at the 2004 World Series of Poker
His account of the play was a simple, analytical explanation. He was in the big blind, sitting on a million dollars in chips. The blinds were substantial. It was folded to the button, where the daunting 1992 WSOP Champion Hamid Dastmalchi moved all in for about $100,000, one-tenth of Dan’s chips. The small blind folded. Dan explained that he made the logically correct play. “My hand should beat a random hand 38 percent of the time. On numbers alone, it was the right price.” When Dan called, Hamid tapped the table, as if to say, “Nice hand,” and showed J-10. The other players’ mouths dropped open when Dan showed J-2 offsuit. Although Hamid won that hand, no one tried to steal Dan’s blind for the next six rounds. He lost the pot, but he gained a huge psychological advantage.
He went on to win the coveted gold bracelet, respect, and — oh, yes — a million big ones that year. When I asked him who the great players were, he told me in a humble but matter-of-fact way, “Ten years ago, I was the best no-limit tournament player in the world.” He had stamina, skill, and an unyielding hunger to win the big one.
Dan admits that luck is a factor, explaining that in 1987, the first time he played in the big event, he came in sixth when his A-Q was beaten by A-6. Yet, in 1995 when he won, he had kings against A-Q, won that hand, and got enough chips to continue on to win the event. This year, his pocket jacks beat pocket rockets (aces), propelling him to the final table. Luck plays a factor, but it is no match to skill. Luck will not bring a player to the final table two years in a row against a world-class field of thousands of opponents.
The 35th World Series of Poker
Dan explained that with 10 players left, he made a big mistake that ended up working out OK for him. “I had A-J. Marcel Luske raised; I reraised, but I didn’t look back at my cards because I didn’t want to show weakness. Marcel called. The flop was Qspades 8spades 6spades and I checked. Marcel moved all in. I knew he had a small pair. I looked back at my cards and saw the Aspades. I quickly started calculating: nine outs for the spade, three outs for the jack, three outs for the ace, and so on. I called.
“As I suspected, Marcel had a small pocket pair with the 4spades. A jack came on the river and I busted him, but I really didn’t like my play. I was supposed to move all in on the flop.”
“Well,” I said, “you won a bigger pot this way because he would have had to fold his underpair if you had gone all in on the flop.”
Dan started to laugh, and said, “Yes, I guess I cleverly check-called!”
The “Final Four” at the final table of the 2004 World Series of Poker championship event, from left to right: David Williams, Dan Harrington, Greg Raymer, Josh Arieh
When Dan busted Marcel, he was left with $2,245,000 in chips going to the final table. He went home to get a good night’s sleep before the final day. Last year when he finished third, he was so exhausted on the final day that he could barely play. He tried to do things differently this year, explaining that he just didn’t have the stamina of the young guys.
Dan had another concern. Because there were so many players this year, the field was divided in half, with half the players starting on Saturday and the second half starting on Sunday. As it turned out, he was the only guy at the final table who had the bad luck of starting on Sunday, and thus had to play six days in a row.
After a restful night, he felt great — much better than last year when he came to the final table feeling like he had gone through a meat grinder. In a prior interview with ESPN, he had made a prediction that no one over 45 would win. When he arrived on the final day, the first thing the ESPN commentator wanted to know was whether Dan wanted to change his prediction? “‘Nope,’ I said. And, unfortunately, I was right.”
Dan was all smiles as he remembered arriving that final day of the 35th-annual WSOP: “I walked in late because I was doing the ESPN interview. Having been at many televised final tables, I walked up to the players and said, ‘I know you think this is important, but it is really so much more important than you can imagine! You’re going to be walking down the street and everyone will recognize you — so don’t forget that!’ Some of the players started shooing him away.
When he sat down, he scrutinized the players. “I liked Raymer’s play a lot, and I liked his chip count, so he was the one I was watching.” The chip count was as follows:
1—Gregory Paul Raymer—$8,215,000—4
Dan carefully watched the action and didn’t play many hands. At one point, Raymer raised a hand preflop and Dan called. The flop was J-9-7. Dan had Q-9 and thought his hand was good. He checked, Raymer bet, and Dan raised all in. Greg called and showed A-J. Dan needed some help. The turn card was no help, but the river was a 9! Dan’s trips left him with a comfortable $3 million in chips. Even a pro needs to get lucky!
“You Dance With the Girl Who Brung Ya!”
After many hours of play, Dan called from the small blind and David Williams checked in the big blind. Dan was confident he could make the novice lay down his hand. With a 5-3-2-9 board, Dan moved all in with 8-6, a double belly-buster straight draw. David quickly called with two small pair. The river paired the board, giving David a full house and knocking “Action” Dan out of the tournament.
When Dan walked away with $1.5 million, it was reported that with his long face, he looked as if he had just lost his best friend. I asked him about that, and he explained, “The closer you come to winning, the worse you feel when you lose. I wanted to win it all.”
His last play with the 8-6 has been criticized as being too aggressive. When I asked him what he thought about the hand and the criticism, he answered wistfully, “You dance with the girl who brung ya!” Dan’s parting words of advice were, “Try to live well until you die, because that’s all there is.”
Dan Harrington has been at four WSOP championship event final tables, the last two being in 2003 and 2004. When Andy Glazer interviewed Josh Arieh, who finished third in this year’s WSOP, Josh said something about Dan that sums up how we all feel: “Dan is this year’s story, getting right back to the final table in the two biggest fields ever, and being a former world champ, too … “