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Poker News | People in Poker | Poker Superstars

Where Are They Now – Kenna James

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Where are They Now is a series of an in depth look at all poker players - not just the pros - as they travel through one long game. Some of the players profiled are deceased but not forgotten.

A lot of the poker players in this series played poker as a youngster with thoughts of playing the game later in life.  Others took to the game seemingly out of the womb, and have been successful at the game ever since.  Kenna “Cowboy” James didn’t take either of those approaches.  As a child he has said he simply enjoyed playing all types of games, not just poker.  While he took to poker, it was just one game of many he enjoyed playing with his family.  A poker career wasn’t really an option early on, but while trying to exceed in another field he took what he has called “just another job,” as he has said, as a poker dealer.  The rest, they say, is history.  For James the decision to take a job as a dealer eventually worked its way to a poker career that has seen him earn over three million dollars in tournament prizes.  Not bad for just another job.

Kenna James was originally born Kenna Grob on December 18, 1963 in Chicago, Illinois.  As mentioned, he enjoyed playing games with his family as a child, but his first true love was acting.  The first time James really left home was for school, when he obtained a scholarship to the Michigan School of Arts.  After completing an acting program there, while participating in local productions of plays, James made his way to Los Angeles to try to become “the next big thing.”

One of the first things James did when he moved to L.A. was to change his last name from Grob to James.  The name James is his father’s middle name, making the switch because he was sick of hearing people mispronounce his names at rehearsals.  At first he just changed his name for the purpose of auditions, but he eventually legally changed to James.

James had a few small roles in theater productions and television shows, but he still needed to find a way to make money, and as he has explained in interviews, you can only wait tables so long before it gets old.  That’s when James made his way into a local casino, the “Hollywood Park Casino,” and took a job as a poker dealer.

By 1995 James was working as a dealer and playing $1/$2 limit Hold’em.  He said because he had read just a few books he was at an advantage over players who hadn’t.  In this time period players didn’t really read books, or believe that they could get better at poker unless they played it.  It was also around this time that James thought he might be able to make a living from the game.  In 1996 he finished second in a $100 dollar buy-in tournament, winning over $3000.  That was way more money than he was used to, and he knew right then and there he was in love with the game of poker.  While continuing to deal, and eventually working his way up through the ranks, including floor manager and tournament director, he began playing smaller tournaments in the California area.  He also began making somewhat frequent trips to Las Vegas, dipping his toes in with the Sharks.
An early defining moment in the career progress of James was at the Master Classic of Poker in 1998 in Amsterdam.  James finished in 7th place for $8,280, once again, not huge money, but because the tournament was filled with known professional players, it gave James the confidence to continue with his poker career.

The turn of the century found more success coming James’s way.  In 2001 James cashed in his first World Series of Poker tournament, finishing 23rd in the $2000 No Limit Hold’em event.  In July he came away with by far and away the biggest cash of his career at that point when he took down the 2002 Grand Slam of Poker for $65,740.

The next couple of years, 2003-2004 was somewhat bittersweet for James.  His wife at the time, fellow poker pro Marsha Waggoner, was enjoying the biggest success in her poker career, but began feeling a bit sick.  It turned out she had been suffering from brain aneurisms, and needed major surgery to correct the problem.  Her recovery took a long time, and James spent a lot of his free time taking care of her, but at the same time he continued to excel in tournament poker.  In 2003 he cashed in four WSOP tournaments, including 4th in the $2,500 No Limit Event for $36,000.   James also finished 38th in the Main Event. That year ended beautifully for James, and he finished first for a prize of $156,168 at the $2,500 2003 Bellagio Five-Diamond World Poker Classic.  In January of 2004 he placed 3rd of a $10,000 second chance tournament in Australia, winning over $100,000.

It hasn’t been all winning for James, however.  Early in his career he says he went broke at least three times and maybe more.  He said he was lucky enough to eventually start taking after other professional players, learning proper bankroll management and investing in other things besides poker to make sure he’d be all right even if he were to go through more bad poker runs.  It’s probably a good thing he learned those things early on, because in 2007 he also had a horrible WSOP.  James bought into 17 tournaments and didn’t cash in a single one of them.  He said it was tough, but he kept his head up, making up for it the following year, cashing in 4 WSOP events.

The only thing lacking from James’s impressive resume is a WSOP bracelet, which he says is his major goal in poker.  In the meantime, James has started donating 1 percent of his poker winnings to the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps injured war vets after they return home from war.  James also runs various charity poker tournaments.

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