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A Poker Life - Allen Kessler

by Brian Pempus |  Published: Nov 26, 2010


Longtime poker pro Allen Kessler never had the respect of his peers — but that all seemed to change after the 2010 World Series of Poker.

Kessler, who began competing in the Series about a decade ago, has consistently been a losing player at the WSOP. However, this past summer, he tied for the most WSOP cashes, and did so in eight different disciplines. (He added a cash at the WSOP Europe, for nine on the year).

His accomplishment, which fell just one cash short of the WSOP record of 10 cashes in a single year, was long overdue for the veteran from Pennsylvania.

“A lot of people don’t respect my game,” Kessler said. “They say that I play too tight, and that if I am in a hand in no-limit hold’em, I have kings or aces. This summer earned me a lot of respect from my peers. People criticize me all the time, and this year, everywhere I go now, it’s different. I was just in London, thousands of miles from home, and complete strangers would walk up to me and offer congratulations. After all these years of playing, I’m starting to get recognition. It feels good.”

The success of this past summer was especially crucial for Kessler after a disastrous 2009 campaign. He didn’t cash in a single WSOP event out of the 20 or so that he entered — resulting in a loss of more than $200,000 in buy-ins. Fellow players were wondering how he could keep playing, Kessler said.
His reputation as a tight player has followed him to every tournament stop during his lengthy career on the felt.

Here’s his story.

The Start of a Poker Career

Kessler began playing poker at Temple University with friends and co-workers from his marketing research job. Although he doesn’t remember how the games initially began, he has fond memories of the early years as an East Coast gambler.

In the beginning, Kessler cut his teeth in high-low games. Omaha eight-or-better and seven-card stud eight-or-better soon became his specialties. While home games fostered his love for poker, it didn’t take long before he began making trips to nearby Atlantic City.

“I grew up in Atlantic City,” Kessler said. “I would go down there a lot and play the machines. When I was in college, I would work a regular job Monday through Friday, and on the weekends I would go to the casinos to gamble and get a free room.”
The casinos opened in the ’80s, and didn’t have poker at first, Kessler said. However, by the mid-’90s, when poker had gained popularity, Kessler found himself playing high-stakes high-low games with the likes of John Hennigan, Cindy Violette, Nick Frangos, and Phil Ivey.

He found success in the $75-$150 and $100-$200 mixed games, and held his own against some of the game’s best for nearly a decade in Atlantic City.

While Kessler was building a bankroll at the casino, he also was working as a market research interviewer after graduating with a dual degree in marketing and management from Temple.

“If you watched the ABC News for the 10 years that I was working and they showed any poll numbers on the screen, I was feeding them those numbers,” Kessler said. “I got to suggest questions for the polls, and I was really good at the job.”

That routine continued for the Philadelphia native until 2004, when he learned to play no-limit hold’em and took a job working for his sister.

Kessler’s older sister, who owns numerous businesses and is a multimillionaire, provided a flexible work situation that allowed for extended poker trips. It wasn’t long after he started working out of his sister’s house that he made his first trip to Las Vegas for a poker tournament.

The tournament that got him started in the no-limit hold’em world was the 2004 WSOP main event, for which he won a satellite. Although he didn’t make the money, he became interested in this rapidly growing variant of poker.

“I started going to Las Vegas once a month,” Kessler said. “After a while, it became a 50-50 split between Atlantic City and Vegas. Eventually, when I got hooked on no-limit tournaments, I was staying in Vegas for long periods at a time. It got to be such a grind that I had almost 2 million air miles saved up. In 2005, I decided to buy a house in Vegas.”

A Video-Poker Grinder

Even though Kessler has roots in high-low forms of poker, his interest in gambling machines developed into a video-poker career.

“I’ve played video poker as far back as I can remember,” Kessler said. “I play it quite a bit to this day. However, your best hope at the game is to come out somewhere close to even over the long term. You can hit a bad run and lose a lot of money. It’s a high-variance game.”

Kessler has won and lost huge sums of money playing video poker.

“The casinos right now are offering games with good returns,” said Kessler, who has hit a $100,000 jackpot twice in his career. “But even if you play perfectly, you are going to lose a small amount. It gives me something to play while I am in the casinos. Even if you lose a small amount, sometimes you get free rooms. However, you can still lose quite a bit. I went to a tournament series one time and ended up losing more at the machines than I did in all of the tournament buy-ins.”

Although Kessler grinds the machines, he doesn’t dabble in many other gambling games.
“I am not a degenerate gambler like Michael Mizrachi or Phil Ivey,” Kessler said.

The Chain Saw

Not many pros on the tournament circuit have a nickname that supersedes their real name, but Kessler is one of them.

He picked up the nickname “Chain Saw” at the 2007 World Poker Tour final table at Foxwoods.

“I was doing really well there,” said Kessler, who eventually finished sixth. “People were calling me ‘The Intimidator.’ Somehow, that evolved into ‘Chain Saw,’ for running through people. Either the local people started it or Gavin Smith said it originally. The origin is in dispute.”

After a successful 2010 campaign at the WSOP, the poker veteran is hearing a lot more “Chain Saw” when he travels the globe for tournaments.

“If I go somewhere, people will say it and I will turn around, because it’s like a second name to me,” Kessler said. “No one calls me by my name anymore. Eric Baldwin, for example, calls me ‘Chain’ for short.”

The nickname and the added attention are enjoyed by Kessler, who has been looking for recognition and respect over the course of his career, and he wants to keep both.
Playing Against His Image

While he sometimes may not take full advantage of it, Kessler has always been aware of his image at the poker table.

“People think I am one of the tightest players in the history of poker,” he said.
Part of his recent success has resulted from switching gears, enabling him to steal more pots and make more bluffs.

“I’ve played a little more aggressively this year,” said Kessler, who thinks East Coast players are generally more conservative than those from the West Coast. “I wasn’t afraid to put all of my chips in. I wasn’t afraid to go broke on certain hands, in no-limit hold’em events especially, because if the people at my table knew me, they never called my three-bets. In Omaha eight-or-better, if they don’t have the nuts one way, they will fold. People always think I have the absolute nuts in a hand. However, in this year’s main event on day one, I tried to bluff an unknown player off a high pair on a scary flop, and it didn’t work. If he was a regular player on the circuit, the bluff would have worked. People who play with me a lot will lay down big hands against me.”

Kessler has been spending a lot of time thinking about ways to increase his aggression. He has been focusing on understanding the actions of Internet players at the table and trying to widen his own button range.

“You have to be a lot more aggressive today,” said Kessler, who has a lot of respect for Jason Mercier’s game. “People always think they know what I have. If I raise and someone calls, he is putting me on A-K or better. To be successful, you have to play a variety of hands.”

Looking for the WSOP Bracelet

With a new perspective on poker and a breakout year at the WSOP, Kessler is hoping to parlay his success into a future that contains a sponsorship deal and that elusive big win. The critics have been silenced for now, but they will be back, Kessler said.
Although the WSOP Circuit schedule is Kessler’s current priority, the summer Series will always be his focus for a major tournament win.

“Everyone wants to win a bracelet,” said Kessler, who has made three WSOP final tables. “In 2005, I was the chip leader with three to go. In 2006, I was the chip leader with four to go, and had kings versus aces in stud. This year was different in the $10,000 seven-card stud eight-or-better championship, as I was never really in contention. I just kept hanging around and refused to lose.”

Kessler, who took home $276,485 for his runner-up finish to Frank Kassela, has no regrets about how he played near the end of the event.

“Kassela was playing unconventionally, and was running really well,” Kessler said. “You have to run well to win bracelets. By the time we were heads up, I was way outchipped and the limits were so high.”

Even though he has a house in Las Vegas and spends the majority of his time in the desert, Kessler still has his eye on major tournaments where he grew up.

“I have never missed a United States Poker Championship at the Taj,” Kessler said. “I really like that tournament. I have been on TV twice there in the past. I have always done well at the Taj, and I’ve played there so much over the years that everyone knows me.”

Although Kessler’s image of playing tight to hang around still persists, he doesn’t mind. Out of the realm of people who travel the tournament circuit, Kessler is one of the few who has been able to survive in the long term.

“Every day this summer, people would come to me and collect money; it was like I was a bank,” Kessler said. “A lot of people want to swap a percentage with me, because I am a very consistent casher. I don’t always get to the top, but I’m like money in the bank, people say. In the last five years, I think I have well over 100 cashes on the circuit.”

Kessler grew up during the days when video-poker machines would spit out coins and his hands would turn black after a big win, and he has had very little trouble keeping his bankroll in the black over his career. ♠