Between 1989 and 1997, the American sitcom Family Matters ran for nine seasons. It starred a young Jaleel White as the gangly, bespectacled Steve Urkel, the consummate nerd. He became an icon, one Shaun Harris has never forgotten.
Family Matters‘ television run coincided almost exactly with the time Harris was in elementary, middle, and high school. And the comparisons were inevitable.
“In high school and elementary school, I was always the ugly duckling,” Harris said. “I was really self-conscious about my weight and my looks.”
That kind of hyper-awareness of one’s appearance doesn’t go away. Barbs and taunts can hold on for decades. You can run all the way across the country. You can hop from state to state. The difference between what you want and what you have? The difference between you are and who you want to be? Those differences have an open first class seat to follow you, no matter where you go.
Shaun Harris knows that as well as anybody.
You may recognize Harris. He’s not (yet) a famous poker player, but his name and face have been part of some of the biggest poker events in recent history. He’s dealt the WSOP since 2005. He dealt the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for the past two years.
At the 2012 PCA, Harris found himself dealing to WSOP champ and Team PokerStars Pro Jonathan Duhamel. The two had crossed paths before, but Duhamel couldn’t quite make the connection.
“He didn’t know who I was,” Harris said. “He didn’t know I dealt him the bracelet.”
So, Harris pulled out a picture of Duhamel sitting across from John Racener. In between them sat Harris, the dealer who would eventually pitch the cards that made Duhamel the first WSOP champion from Canada.
Duhamel looked at the picture, flipped out, announced on Twitter that he was back at Harris’ table.
It didn’t take long for Harris’ Twitter account to take off with new followers. Before long, mentions from Daniel Negreanu and other big players made Harris a popular figure among poker fans. He has close to 3,000 Twitter followers today.
That was all well and good. Harris enjoyed the cult following, but he had little idea what–if anything–it meant.
In short, it’s fine to have some fame, but if there isn’t any meaning behind it, what’s the point?
Top players recognize Harris for his almost mistake-free dealing. He’s obsessive about it. Any mistake digs at a sensitive part of his confidence. He’d spent many years as the guy everybody called Urkel. He’d spent as many years since trying to rise above it and be as perfect as he could.
After growing up in New York City, Harris moved to Washington state in 2004. He started out working security for a small casino. He moved to dealing poker. A year later, he was working at the WSOP where he developed his reputation for perfectionism.
But even that–a reputation as one of the best dealers around–left Harris wanting. And a lot of it came back to not liking the way he looked or the way he felt.
It wasn’t vanity so much as it was wanting to be, in a word, better. His hands hurt from dealing. His eating habits were terrible. Despite the fact he was good at what he did and was well-recognized for it, there was room to improve.
“I just decided to hit the gym and hit it hard,” he said. “I wanted to show myself I could do it. I wasn’t out to impress anybody or prove anybody wrong.”
He didn’t need to lose weight. Remember, he was the gangly Urkel type. Instead, since the end of the WSOP in 2012, he’s put on about 40 pounds of muscle. He’s grown from 196 pounds to 233.
“A lot of people are noticing the transformation, which is really flattering,” he said. “I see myself every day, and I don’t really see it.”
Now 35 years old with a decade of dealing behind him, Harris has come to realize he wants more. While he gets a lot out of sitting in the box, he sees himself in another seat at the table. When he looks down at the felt, he doesn’t necessarily want to see a stub. He wants to see a stack.
It hit Harris recently that he’s been witness to some of the best poker playing in recent history. He’s not afraid to ask questions of the pros who have since become his friends.
“There are times when we have down time that I ask a simple question because I’m curious,” Harris said.”I get information that people would actually pay top dollar for. I get it for free, and I want to do something with it.”
That’s why, if you happen to be in Vegas, you may find yourself in a hand that Harris is playing rather than dealing.
“I have a strong love for the game and a strong respect for the game,” he said. “I want to try to break the stereotype of dealers being aggressive, horrible players.”
Harris knows he won’t be able to simply wish this transition into being. He knows this because of the discipline it took him to become a top dealer. He knows it because of the mental and physical strength it required to turn him from Urkel to Hulk.
“It comes from within. You have to want it,” he said. “You need to know where you want to be. You need to know what kind of goals you want to achieve. You can’t just sit on your butt and hope it falls in your lap.”
And so, now Harris looks forward to the coming months not as a chance to deal the WSOP, not as a chance to pitch cards to a future world champion, and not to sit across the table from Daniel Negreanu and chat about strategy. Now, Harris is setting out on yet another mission.
He turned a skinny kid into a super-fit adult. He turned a security guard into a top poker dealer. Now he hopes to turn a poker dealer into top poker player. If there’s one thing he knows, it’s that he’s capable of more than even he imagines.
In short, Harris has figured out one of life’s simple but most important secrets.
“You can always improve,” Harris said.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging