Although "Action" Dan Harrington tends to shy away from the public spotlight, he has quietly carved out a legacy as one of the most influential poker players of all time.
His career highlights include winning the WSOP Main Event in 1995, making the WSOP Main Event final table a total of four times (17th in 1987, first in 1995, third in 2003, fourth in 2004), writing three critically acclaimed books on poker strategy and winning the 2007 WPT Legends of Poker.
Despite spending the bulk of his career playing in the era of much smaller buy-ins, his tournament winnings still exceed $6.6 million. Not bad for a guy whose last name isn't Brunson, Hellmuth or Negreanu.
Chess Ace to Backgammon Champ
Harrington was born Dec. 6, 1945 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Growing up, Harrington showed exceptional skill at chess, and went on to win state championships in Massachusetts and New Jersey later in his life.
Harrington would never become a world champion of chess, however. There just wasn't enough money in the game to keep his interest.
Harrington went to Suffolk Law School in Boston. During his time at the school he played chess, backgammon and poker. Harrington played poker with then-unknown Microsoft founders-to-be Bill Gates and Paul Allen who were, at the time, attending Harvard.
During his time at Suffolk, Harrington was a member of an MIT team that gained an advantage over casinos at roulette. He was also a part of a different team that specialized in blackjack. It seemed that Harrington was always looking for an edge.
Eventually Harrington started to see that backgammon could potentially be quite lucrative and quickly established himself as a top-tier player. Harrington was lucky because he had a great teacher in two-time world backgammon champion Bill Robertie.
Harrington would go on to win the World Cup of Backgammon in 1981 and he still credits the game for giving him a rock-solid foundation in strategic play. Harrington allegedly quit backgammon when an organizer failed to pay out when he won a $27,000 championship.
Mayfair Club to WSOP Champion
Having built up confidence playing backgammon, Harrington returned his attention to the game of poker. Harrington played at the prestigious Mayfair Club in New York City where poker greats like Erik Seidel, Howard Lederer and Steve Zolotow were all regulars.
Many of the players from the Mayfair Club started making appearances at the WSOP and in 1988 Harrington played in his first Main Event. He managed to finish sixth for $43,750. The impressive debut was a sign of things to come for Action Dan.
1995 was the golden year for Harrington. He won his first bracelet in $2,500 No Limit-Hold'em against players like Chip Reese and Chau Giang and then followed it up by winning the Main Event.
Although the field was relatively small in those days, comprising only 273 entries, Harrington managed to outlast them all and win World Champion status along with $1 million. Action Dan beat Canadian Howard Goldfarb in heads-up play to win the championship.
According to Harrington, he was able to blank out everything around him and just focus on solving the problem that was right in front of him. He just kept solving problems until he had solved the entire tournament.
Part-Time Poker Lover
Harrington wasn't the flashiest world champion in history and there's no doubt he enjoyed the money more than the fame or glory. Ironically, Harrington had suggested a nine-way deal when he got to the final table and even said he would invest the money for everybody and make them all rich.
His tablemates declined. One by one Harrington started picking his opponents off until every one of them was probably regretting not making the deal.
After winning the Main Event in 1995 Harrington didn't make much noise in the poker world for some time, which probably suited him just fine. Harrington likes to stay out of the public spotlight as much as possible.
Poker is really a part-time endeavor for Harrington; he spends most of his time managing his real estate investment company.
Harrington did make a serious effort at repeating as champion in next year's Main Event. Unfortunately Harrington was denied an appearance at the final table when he busted out 17th. Huck Seed would go on to capture the 1996 WSOP Main Event bracelet.
Over the next six years Harrington maintained his low profile, winning several minor tournaments and cashing in the 1997 WSOP.
Back-to-Back Main Event Final Tables for Dan Harrington
Over the course of 2003 and 2004 Harrington would perform one of the most stupendous feats in modern-day poker.
During the 2003 WSOP Main Event Harrington outlasted an incredibly skilled field that included players like Phil Ivey, David Singer, Freddy Deeb, Scotty Nguyen and Howard Lederer. It all came down to Harrington, Sammy Farha and a fellow by the name of Chris Moneymaker.
Harrington ended up finishing third but still won $650,000. All things considered, you have to wonder if Harrington was just as happy to take the money and duck out of the limelight.
In 2004 Harrington was once again on top of his game at the WSOP Main Event. He made it all the way to four-handed but then ran into David Williams on a board of 5-3-2-9. Action Dan held 8-6 for the double belly-buster straight draw while Williams had a small pair. Harrington moved all-in and Williams called.
The board paired and Harrington was eliminated by Williams' full house. Harrington finished fourth for $1.5 million.
Making back-to-back final tables at the Main Event was truly significant event in poker and with the size of fields these days it's increasingly unlikely many players will ever do it again.
Although Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson actually won back-to-back Main Event bracelets, it's important to note they did so with relatively small fields. Harrington had to compete with 838 opponents in 2003 and an astounding 2,576 in 2004.
Harrington on Hold'em Changes Poker
In 2005 Harrington had a strong odds to win his first WPT event at the second annual Doyle Brunson North American Poker Championship. Harrington outlasted 418 players only to be bested by noted cash game player Minh Ly in heads-up play.
In 2007, at the WPT Legends of Poker, Harrington rectified his failure to capture a WPT title in 2005. He made it all the way to a final table that included poker powerhouses like Tom Schneider, Thu Nguyen and David "The Dragon" Pham.
Harrington had mentioned recently that playing in marathon poker tournaments was becoming increasingly difficult because of his age, so many doubted the wily veteran would get far at the final table.
By the time he got heads-up with Pham, poker fans were starting to believe. Harrington would go to win the event and $1.6 million in the process.
Over the years Harrington has co-written three poker books with Bill Robertie. Volumes one to three of Harrington on Hold'em are considered some of the best books ever written on the subject of poker strategy.
Countless poker players have listed them as the best way to begin to learn poker.
Business First, Poker Second
Ironically, despite all his success, Harrington still considers himself a businessman first and a poker player second. The majority of his time is spent running Anchor Loans, his investment company, which has been extremely successful.
These days poker is dominated by super-aggressive players, but Harrington is the benchmark for those rooted in strong conservative play. Harrington is exceptionally successful because he plays a rock-solid tight game but is quite crafty as well.
Harrington has more or less shut down his tournament poker career but if you're ever lucky enough to share a table with him at the WSOP, be sure to be on your toes.
Barry Greenstein on Dan Harrington:
"Dan was a solid player in the ‘80s before moving on to a successful business career involving some sort of real estate loans. His running-buddy in the ‘80s was Ray Zee who always ridiculed tournaments (as did many winning cash-game players) and advised Dan of the foolishness of playing in them.
What I like best about Dan is he not animated like a lot of poker players and not too full of himself. He is incredibly thrifty, to put it mildly. When Dan goes to a new venue his mission is finding the cheapest place to eat. I’m not sure if he owns a car and he used to rent rooms in friend’s houses at discount rates even when he was well off financially.
When Dan made it to the final table of the 1995 World Series of Poker, he proposed a nine-way settlement to the other players. He explained how they would each get enough money that they could invest it and be rich.
Chuck Thompson, one of the players and a friend of mine, rejected the idea and told the other players that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a million dollars. One by one, as each player got knocked out, Dan tried to sell the idea, even offering investment counseling. There were no takers and eventually Dan came away with the full million."