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Tournament Trail Q and A -- Kenna James Part II

Kenna James Talks to Card Player About His Poker Beginnings, Prop Playing, and Life Lessons


With more than $3 million in tournament winnings over the past 12 years, Kenna James has proven his place among the greats of the green felt. In part II of this interview, James speaks to Card Player about his poker beginnings,  his time as a prop player, and lessons learned along the way.

Rebecca McAdam: I heard something about you being a prop player back in the day. How did that come about?Kenna James

Kenna James: It was a long time ago. Back in ’98 or’99 maybe. I wanted to make the transition from working to playing. It can be a tough transition and a lot of people want to know how they can become pro, where that’s their only source of income. A prop player is a person who gets paid by the casino to come up and play. I figured since I was gonna play anyway, why not get paid for it. The problem is you’re put in the worst games, you’re expected to stay in those games, you can’t select your own games, and you can’t come and go as you want. So it takes a tremendous amount of patience and discipline to succeed as a prop player, and I didn’t have it.

RM: Did you not get a lot of experience from that though?

KJ: I got a lot of experience, but it cost me a lot of money and a lot of tears, but I got through it.

RM: They don’t put you into the game then?

KJ: No they don’t, you have to come up with your own money.

RM: What are the perks of that?

KJ: The perks are you have a job where you can play the game for a living, you’re not out there shovelling show or anything. They paid a good wage, I think it was like $25 or $30 at the time.

RM: But that didn’t make up for your losses...

KJ: No it couldn’t. The key of being a prop player is just trying to stay even and make your wage, but I couldn’t handle that, I was always out there trying to win. I wasn’t good enough, I really wasn’t. But it was something I think I thank God really that I had the courage to step out and take that chance, even though I failed, because it led to other opportunities and gave me some experience that perhaps I needed somewhere down the road.

RM: What would be the biggest lesson you’ve learned about yourself through poker?

Kenna JamesKJ: I’ll share one that I had at the Irish Poker Championship in Galway. Most people think winning and losing is just your result. I went out of the main event and then I went out of the second event, and of course it would be very easy to think I had lost, because in fact I did. But I was reflecting on my play and my performance, and I noticed that I had a common theme in my play, and that was that I was always in conflict with the toughest player on the table. I wasn’t avoiding the toughest player, I was going after him. I didn’t go after any easy spots, or take the easy road, I took the hard road, like a challenge. Whether that was boredom or bravado, or “Hey I have to be recognised, I’m the table captain!” — that ego.
It wasn’t until after I realised that this is a pattern I have in my game and it’s not the best way to play if your purpose is to win the money. I think my purpose for a long time was to learn this game, even though now it’s 12 years later, I think the thing to remember is you’re there to win the money and the event, which means let somebody else have their time. You have to pick your matches, and it would make no sense for me to step in the ring against Muhammad Ali, but that’s kinda what I do. I saw that and I could see there was a pattern, so now I can change, I can say it’s a catalyst for me to change. So, I could take this away from the tournament as a win — to make my game better, and choose my battles more wisely, that’s the theme there. That’s the lesson I learned, and I’m gonna take that as a win.  I’ll carry that over into the rest of my life, where I can say, “Hey, is this really worth fighting for?”

RM: Where did the interest first spark that you wanted to play poker?

KJ: You know it was really desperation I guess. I didn’t really have a formal education, I was always an artist, an actor, doing odd jobs ... I was never going to be a doctor or a lawyer. I fell into it just looking for a job — I became a dealer. I grew up in a very competitive family, and I was the youngest. always fighting to get respect and recognition. We always played cards. So, when the time came, it wasn’t until I was like 32, when I just said, “Hey, this is a good fit!” Then I just happened to be lucky enough to have enough skill to do better than most, and so I just gravitated to it.

RM: So, you’re looking for your next few big wins now?

KJ: Well I tell you one would be nice, but more than that I’m really looking to enjoy the journey more, and not so much the result or the goal. Just enjoy the moment and not look to the prize, because when you’re always looking to the prize, you’re not living in the moment, are you? And when you win that prize, I can tell you (and I’ve been fortunate enough to win a few), it doesn’t last for as long as the journey takes. So, “enjoy the journey” is a phrase I use all the time, and that’s what I would say that not only will I write, but I will try to do.

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