There are thousands of stories to be told at the 2017 World Series of Poker Main Event, 7,221 to be exact. One thing these stories have in common? Everyone wants to leave their mark on poker’s biggest and most prestigious event.
Kenneth Cleeton, known to his friends and family as K.L., did that.
Fighting for poker chips isn’t the only adversity Cleeton has to face though. Cleeton was born with a neuromuscular disorder known as spinal muscular atrophy. This means he is paralyzed from the neck down, while still having feeling in his limbs.
This keeps him confined to a wheelchair, and unable to participate in physical sports. But that couldn’t keep Cleeton from competing. Poker has all the elements of competition, without the actual physical requirement. While most of his play has been limited to his computer at home, playing against others on the virtual felt, he was determined to play in Las Vegas one day. When he plays live poker, Cleeton plays from his motorized wheelchair and verbalizes his moves, while his father Kenneth Cleeton Sr., sits beside him, holding his cards and placing the bets.
His biggest dream was to play in the WSOP Main Event. That became a reality when K.L. entered poker superstar Daniel Negreanu’s “Fantastic Fan” contest, where Negreanu agreed to pay the $10,000 entrance fee for a lucky winner. Out of thousands of video submissions, Negreanu ended up choosing three winners and Cleeton made the cut.
After being selected, he was ecstatic for the opportunity, yet had a few obstacles to overcome during his journey to Las Vegas.
Cleeton’s condition doesn’t make commercial airline travel possible. He was forced to make the 1,712 mile trek by car from their hometown in Effington, Illinois to the bright lights of Las Vegas.
The road to Sin City was filled with some additional challenges. The three-day drive was delayed when their car broke down en route. But the Cleeton’s know how to persevere, and although later than anticipated, they made it to the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in time for the start of the event.
After meeting one of his poker heroes in Negreanu, and registering for the event, Cleeton began living out his dream of playing in the WSOP Main Event.
Cleeton hopped into the third and final starting flight of the Main Event, and it couldn’t have gone smoother for a first-timer. Cleeton survived the first day of playing with 61,200 chips, nearly 20 percent more than the 50,000 he started with.
After a short night’s rest, Cleeton and his dad were back at it for Day 2. Things went well again. After a long day of play, he put a whopping 120,800 in his bag, nearly doubling his stack.
Day 3 was a big day for Cleeton, as the 7,221 entrants would be trimmed down to the 1,084 who make the money. He outlasted Negreanu and the other two contest winners and continued steadily as he got closer and closer to the money. Tournament intensity grew, and Cleeton began to feel it.
“This will put hair on your chest,” said Cleeton.
In what felt like an hours-long battle on the money bubble, Cleeton survived and did what more than 6,000 others in the tournament couldn’t.
“I made the money in the biggest poker tournament in the world,” said Cleeton.
With excitement in his eyes, Cleeton was ecstatic to have made the money and survived three days of the WSOP Main Event. Although he was proud to have guaranteed himself the minimum $15,000 payday, the dollar amount wasn’t what made Cleeton’s smile light up the room. It was the statistics.
“I made the money in the World Series of Poker Main Event,” said Cleeton. “Top 15 percent of all players. It’s amazing. I don’t really know what to think right now. $15,000 is a lot, but for me, you know, it’s about being in the top 15 percent in the WSOP Main Event.”
Despite having just 126,000 in chips, he headed into Day 4 with radiant positivity.
“I don’t have many chips left, but that doesn’t matter,” said Cleeton. “I’m out here having a blast. No matter what happens, nobody can take this away from me. Forever I’ll be able to say, ‘In 2017, I was in the money at the Main Event.’”
On Day 4, he made his way through the first pay jump, but unfortunately was eliminated shortly after the first hour of play in 917th place, earning $16,024.
Cashing in the WSOP Main Event is a difficult feat, even for the most experienced professionals, but Cleeton achieved this and so much more at the World Series of Poker.
Although he didn’t win it, Cleeton left his mark on the 2017 WSOP. His dream was to simply play in the Main Event, and he ended up in the top 13 percent of the 7,221-player field. Cleeton proved that poker is about immersing in the atmosphere, giving it your all, and having the time of your life.
Cleeton’s devotion to the game is contagious, and he perfectly embodies what it means to love the game of poker.