Poker Faces in the Crowd: Jenn Lien

Ben Saxton

Shortly into a 2/5 session at the Rio, a Borgata reg comes up to me and says, ‘Jenn, you’re my hero. Your hourly must be insane.’ I respond the only way I know how: “Don’t you mean ‘heroine’?”

For the last few years, between marathon training and a corporate job in New York City, Jenn Lien has embraced her role as poker heroine. In May Jenn penned “Another Girl, Not Just Another Dream,” a Two Plus Two thread inspired by Las Vegas pro Matt Moore. Then she flew to Vegas herself. When we met at the Rio during the World Series of Poker, Jenn was more interested in juicy cash games than tournament glory. We discussed weekends at the Borgata, life as a female grinder, bumping into Annette Obrestad, and balancing work with poker.

Ben Saxton: You’re a weekend warrior at the Borgata. What’s your normal routine?

Jenn Lien: On Friday I’ll work till five or six, then I’ll catch the bus to Atlantic City. One of my rules is that I do not play on a traveling day. Coming into a session, I want to have a clear mind and get a good night’s rest. It helps that the Borgata is specific about what you need to do to earn free rooms, so I never have an issue.

What does your Saturday look like?

There’s a quote that I like from Boiler Room, when Ben Affleck’s character says, “Motion creates motion.” I don’t just roll out of bed onto the table. I like to have a light breakfast, go for a small run, and get to the poker room around eleven. On a good Saturday, I play for about ten to twelve hours. Sunday is another traveling day.

You don’t play on Sundays?

It depends. I’ll peek into the room, and if looks decent I’ll sit for a while. But come Monday morning, I have to put on my other hat and go to work.

How did you get into your current line of work as a planning analyst?

In the business program at Cornell [University], I majored in strategy and marketing. When people ask me about the first poker book I read, they might expect to hear Super System or something. But The Art of War [by Sun Tzu] is my first poker book. People emulate themselves — their actual selves — at the table. They’re not going to do something out of their comfort zone or against their nature. Once you understand people, then you understand their strategy.

What job did you settle on in New York City?

I’ve been at NBCUniversal for four-and-a-half years, and I work with great people. I think it helps that I don’t have many co-workers, friends, or family who play poker — if they do play, they’re not breaking the game down the way I would — so I’ve felt like I have two identities.

Are these two identities separate?

They are. I’ve kept them separate. I used to take great personal offense when someone would say, “Jenn’s a really good gambler.” I’m sure that’s how a lot of people feel. But I try to distinguish between blackjack, roulette, or craps — or any table game — and poker, which is a completely different experience. It took a while for my parents to become more accepting of their only daughter going to Atlantic City by herself. And I appreciate that they’re concerned. It’s understandable. One reason why I hesitate to grind full-time is that I see players get involved in things they shouldn’t.

Life leaks?

Yeah. I’m super-thankful that I don’t have any. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t abuse anything, I’m not into the gamble-gamble. I’m very adamant, because I have a job, to keep my life-roll and my bankroll completely separate. There is no cross-contamination.

“Another Girl, Not Just Another Dream” explores the relationship between your professional and poker lives. Why did you choose that title?

My title plays off a thread started by Matt Moore, who epitomizes the poker success story and who is rightfully idolized by the poker community. When I say “Another Girl,” I think we’re at a time when we’re going to see more females in poker. Unfortunately, in such a male-dominated game, I think we’re challenged in ways that men aren’t.

What specific challenges do you face?

There are some players who will immediately test you. And you have to decide: is this person really testing me? Or do they have the stone cold nuts? Some guy three-bet me the other night at the Venetian, I folded, and he showed me a card to make me believe that he was bluffing. Then he said, ‘Do you think I’m going to let a girl push me around?’

So people might three-bet you light or bomb the river with who knows what.

Absolutely. It used to be intimidating. It takes a while to come to the table without any fear of failing or anxiety. Playing at the Borgata has conditioned me to handle these things.

When you say “conditioned,” do you mean that you expect players — especially men — to go out of their way to mess with you?

If I were myself — the same exact person but the gender of a male — I believe that my experience would be completely different. There’s always some remark. If I rake a pot someone will say, ‘Oh, you can buy yourself a purse now.’ No one would say that to a guy. There have also been times when I’ll sit down and someone will say, straight up, “I’m coming after you.” And that’s OK. It’s hard for someone to play his A-game if he’s too emotional. Isn’t it great if someone has chips in front of them and wants to challenge you? As I like to say, flame on!

Do you have any poker role models? You mentioned bumping into Annette Obrestad at the World Series.

I told her that I really respect what she’s done for female players. I mean, she won her bracelet when she was eighteen.

Yeah, that was incredible. She’s an online legend.

I remember something she said years ago about improving her online game: she wouldn’t look at her hole cards and only played position. When you’re a beginner, all you hear is “position, position, position.” But when you’re actually applying the concept — that’s how you can improve. In terms of players I look up to, there are a few female Borgata regs whose games I respect. They have more experience than me. I’ve only been playing 2/5 for about a year.

You only play about ten hours a week, on those Saturdays at the Borgata. Do you see that schedule staying consistent?

I think so. I’m in a Catch-22 right now. If you want to get better at the game, you need to put more hours in, which put pressure on your job. But if you don’t have your job, then you don’t have anything to sustain your life-roll if your bankroll busts. All things being equal, I can’t risk leaving everything behind to venture into full-time poker. Sure, you can be a successful part-time player, but that’s because of your circumstances. If you change those circumstances, there’s no knowing what’ll happen.

It seems like going pro is a leap of faith.

It’s absolutely a leap of faith. And I find that people who make the jump have backing or — who knows? — maybe they don’t care if they fail. In any case, the consensus is that poker will always be here. There will always be money somewhere. At the moment, I’m going to keep with the weekend grind. I think the balance works for me.

*originally published in the August 2015 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine

Ben Saxton

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reading, writing, teaching, pokering @McGovernCenter

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