The poker world isn’t always an easy place for the “good guy”. They don’t make for good television, and are usually passed-over for the big promotions. More interested in doing what’s right for the game, as opposed to the constant self-promotion that seems to permeate this industry, these pros are too often left to quietly succeed in the shadows of the big egos. Kenna James bucks that trend. A successful tournament pro (sixteen final tables in 2003, eight of which were wins, a 38th place finish in that year’s WSOP Main Event, and first, second, and third place finishes in 2004), Kenna could easily head home with his winnings and call it a day. (After raking in approximately $240,000 at this year’s World Series of Poker, Kenna is approaching $1 million in tournament winnings.) But that’s not what he’s about. This is a guy who’s never content with his game (always looking to learn more), has respect for everyone at the table, and aspires to build something positive out of his poker success.
Kenna: The World Series is an animal in and of itself. I got here on the 1st of June, so I’ve been over a month – 5 weeks of grueling competition. I actually split a tournament across the street at the Palms, so that helped. I had a couple cashes here, but all in all, it’s been a hard road. So I’m looking to turn it around tomorrow in the Main Event.
PokerLizard: That makes for a brutal month and a half. How is the poker away from the Rio?
Kenna: Oh The Palms is really nice, great room. I like going over there…it’s like the driving range for pro golfers, warming up before a big event.
PokerLizard: So you begin your Main Event tomorrow. As a player, are you given your table assignment ahead of time, so you can get an idea of who you’re up against?
Kenna: No, actually we don’t. Last year, I was able to do some behind-the-scenes work with a few inside contacts and look up some of the players I had at my table that first day – check out their backgrounds, careers, etc., and just try to figure out their personality types. But this year, I’m going in blind.
Last year, I finished the first day with $46K, so if I can do that again, I’ll be in good shape.
PokerLizard: So what’s your strategy on the first day?
Kenna: You won’t post this ahead of time?
PokerLizard: Oh there’s no way…don’t worry.
Kenna: Alright, well, the strategy is determined a lot on your table selection. If I don’t know anybody, I’ll ambush them early and try to create some footholds that separate me from the rest of the table. Even a difference of a couple thousand in chip stacks is huge. Let’s say I’m at 12K chips and my opponent is at 8K…not a massive difference on the surface, but if I make a 4K bet, that’s half their stack. Whereas if I lose the 4K, I’m back in line with them. That little advantage at the beginning is huge.
There is a lot of opportunity for this that first hour. I’ve seen a lot of puddles on the floor during those early, stressful rounds. After they get past that, they loosen up and start slinging chips like cookies. So my plan is to go in and chip up, so that when they open up, I’m in good position to sit back and coast.
I did have to go to the doctor today with a pretty good fever, so I’m hoping I can just duplicate what Layne Flack did on his first day. He came in sick, only played about half the day, and finished around 60K in chips.
PokerLizard: Is there anyone you’d rather NOT see at your first table tomorrow?
Kenna: Well, as a general rule, I’d rather not see anyone I know. I’m on the tournament trail and know a lot of people, who in turn know my style.
But when you’re talking about a field of 2,200 tomorrow, there are going to be a lot of unknowns. They won their seats online, maxed out their credit cards, or convinced their wives to take out a second mortgage on their home for the buy-in. Hopefully I’ll have a lot of those people at my table.
PokerLizard: Walking around the floor, it sure seems like the big name pros are well spread out.
Kenna: That’s very true. Five years ago, I knew everyone. Now, more people know me than the other way around. It’s scary, really. I miss the intimacy of the old tournaments where you went to dinner with your competitors, told stories together. Now it’s all about making a buck. And yes, we’re all trying to make money, but I miss the feeling of the old days.
PokerLizard: So has this event just become something you feel you have to play?
Kenna: It’s definitely lost some of its luster, but it’s still a great time to be a poker player, as far as the living and making money off of the commercialization.
PokerLizard: I see the GamingClub logo on your shirt.
Kenna: I’m on a team called Four Aces, working out a contract with GamingClub right now. They’re part of the monster Prima network, and are backing me for the Main Event.
PokerLizard: So tell us about your professional poker career. When did it start? Any regrets?
Kenna: I’ve been playing for a little more than 10 years, but full-time professionally, for about the last six. Regrets? I wish I had saved more money [laughs]. I live an expensive lifestyle and travel all over the world, but I have no regrets about that. That’s what life is about to me – traveling and experiencing new things, cultures.
I would like to do more with my tournament winnings and not just be self-absorbed. Maybe developing a business model for community involvement. I’m actually playing on a new show on the GameShow Network called “Lingo” with Chuck Woolery, which is for charity. I’m also a commentator for Poker Royale, which you can catch tonight at 9:00.
PokerLizard: How about taking time off?
Kenna: I typically try to take a couple of weeks off in between tournaments, and have a vacation planned to visit my family in Michigan. My downtime during the World Series is relaxing at the pool, under the waterfall. I’m having a hard time getting on that treadmill though… [laughs].
PokerLizard: The events this year are such grueling matches, going 12, 13, even 15 hours at a time. How do you handle those marathons and keep your focus?
Kenna: You go through so many cycles; it’s so difficult, because if you let your guard for even one hand, you could be out of the tournament. Maybe you find yourself on a draw and over-invested in a pot and you try to bluff your way out, all because you didn’t take that extra 30 seconds to think it through. The five, six hour tournaments are pretty manageable, but when you’re talking about 12 hours a day, you can make it through a day or two. But by days 3 and 4, people start getting punchy, and they make crazy moves like going all-in with pocket 3’s with over $500K in chips. People see those hands on TV and think, “What the hell are they doing?” You actually get punch-drunk, and subconsciously your body is looking for a way out.
I think that’s why these young players are doing so well – because of their stamina. They don’t sleep much anyway…they stay up all night playing online. That’s where we older guys are at a disadvantage.
PokerLizard: Older? I wouldn’t put you in that category…
Kenna: Well, let’s just say that in less than a decade I’ll be playing on the Seniors Tour. [laughs]
But that’s what I love about poker. Not only can you make some money, but you will always meet interesting people.
PokerLizard: Very true – a real lifetime “sport”. So the World Series branched out this year with the new Circuit Events. Have any luck on those?
Kenna: Well, yes, I qualified for the $2M free-roll through the circuit this year, and I believe that will take place in the next two weeks here…not entirely sure. But that’s always nice, earning a spot in a free-roll. Hopefully in the next few years, we’ll get more corporate sponsorships involved which will help the Circuit grow and also open things up for more players, with the financial burden of entry taken down a bit.
PokerLizard: Congratulations – that IS a huge bonus to make the free-roll event. Speaking of corporate sponsorships, there has been a lot of discussion recently on a “players’ union”, and the extent to which players can market for other companies. What are your thoughts on the major poker entities, WPT and WSOP, combining into one large organization? Something along the lines of the PGA?
Kenna: It’s definitely going to happen…or at least I hope so. I’d like to see the big corporations go the extra step for the players. I mean, here at the Rio, they’ve definitely done a great job inside the room – the tables, dealers, atmosphere – it’s all top-notch. But when you step out into the hallway and pay $2 for a banana, $4 for one slice of pizza, and add that to the percentage they’re holding back from the prize pools for tournament staff, it becomes more and more difficult to keep up with.
And yes, they pretty much dictate how and when we can advertise [other products]. So it’ll be difficult, but sooner or later, the players will have to band together and form some type of an association or union to protect their rights.
PokerLizard: Back to this year’s World Series. Have you performed at the level you were expecting?
Kenna: I cashed in the $3K Hold’em Event, 31 st out of about 350 players…one of the smaller fields. Other than that, it’s been a tough series. While it’s been competitive, I’ve probably been my own worst enemy this year. And that’s what I love about poker – it’s so much you against yourself.
I did have some concern coming into this World Series because I haven’t started this year out so well. But last year I had a really bad first half of the year, and closed strong with some final tables and a couple of wins, so I’m hoping to turn it around again this year.
You’ve got to be able to weather the storm. It’s like having a house down in Florida this time of year – you have to have a good foundation, as well as a strong support group to help you through the tough times. Luckily, I’m blessed with a lot of great friends and supporters, so I’m very fortunate.
I’m looking forward to the next couple of years – it’s going to be an exciting time!
PokerLizard: It definitely should be! Thanks for taking the time to fill us in on the poker world, and good luck in the Main Event.
Final note: Kenna’s first day strategy paid off in a big way, as he took down over $235K with a 44th place finish in the Main Event. Nice job, Kenna and best of luck!
If you liked this interview please consider making a small donation, all proceeds will go toward my children’s college fund, Thanks.