Wheels in Motion on the Smoothest Ride in Poker

Kenneth Cleeton (K.L.) has a long way to go if he wants to catch Bryn Kenney atop poker’s all-time money list. According to the Hendon Mob, the world’s largest live poker database, he is currently ranked in 91,559th position with $16,024 in tournament earnings to his name. Kenney, meantime, has a World Series of Poker bracelet and an incredible $56,403,502 in winnings to his. An astounding $20 million of that came from his title run at last year’s Triton Poker Super High Roller series in London, England. He finished first in the $1 million buy-in charity invitational. It’ll be a long climb for Cleeton to surpass Kenney’s lofty totals, but don’t tell him that. He’s a positive guy, and it would only be a matter of time in his mind if given the chance. Now, if he could only get a van.

“I’m unable to fly,” he said regretfully, after a long day on the grind playing online poker.

To be fair, Kenney is an experienced player, one of the best on the planet, and has played thousands of tournaments in his career. The resident of Long Beach, California, has 40 cashes at the WSOP alone, not to mention nine final table appearances. In 2014, he captured gold in the $1,500 10-Game Mix Six-Handed event. He pocketed $153,220 for his efforts. He’s entered and won events all over the world, including Montenegro, Monte Carlo, Las Vegas and the Caribbean. Conversely, Cleeton has only ever played in one major event live, but he made the money, literally cashing in on what has so far been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Airline companies will not let individuals with disabilities bring a power wheelchair onto a commercial flight. There’s so much equipment we need to pack, and I need to remain in my wheelchair at all times, therefore we drive everywhere.”

For Love of the Game

Like millions of North Americans, Cleeton loves poker. He is attracted and mesmerized by its intricacies, its competitive nature, and the strategic mental warfare involved. He appreciates everything about the game and its beauty. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, he has found equal footing on the felt, where he is just like everyone else, a competitor.

KL Cleeton

“Poker really is one of the truest forms of competition that you can take part in. Obviously, there is some luck involved, but there is luck in any sport. You can play better than other people, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be beat. Football has the ‘Any Given Sunday’ rule, and so does poker. If it weren’t for suck-outs, nobody would play. All you have to do is out think your opponent, and I enjoy that. I like the challenge of trying to understand what somebody else is thinking. Trying to figure out what’s going on in their head and then trying to figure out ways to exploit and take advantage of that. Whether it’s through bluffing or value. The game really intrigues me.”

The problem? He has trouble getting to where the action is. Cleeton suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which has left him essentially paralyzed from the neck down. He can feel everything, but his muscles don’t work, and he can’t move his arms or legs. He manages to operate and steer his wheelchair thanks to a tiny amount of use in his right thumb.

Man with the Van

And, that brings us back to the van. Family and friends have come together to organize a fundraiser at gofundme.com. Their hope is to raise enough money to purchase the state-of-the-art vehicle he needs for more independence and mobility. Created back in March, the campaign is called ‘Stack KL’, which is how he is known in poker circles, K.L., short for his first two initials. The ‘Donate’ page falls under the category ‘Mental, Illness & Healing’, and reads in part, “K.L. needs a reliable form of transportation, so we can all stack him at the WSOP or any other poker tournament. Let’s just help him get around!”

Unfortunately, Cleeton’s current mode of transport is less of a vehicle and more of a “driveway ornament” at this point, as he describes it. And what he really needs is a fully accessible van, specially equipped with a ramp, and with enough horse power to pull a trailer. The price tag for such a sweet ride can easily push the $100,000 mark. It’s not cheap.

Contests & Cashouts

Make no mistake about it, Cleeton is a fantastic card player. He’s a professional, who makes a living playing online poker from his home in Effingham, Illinois. Afforded the opportunity to strut his stuff more in brick and mortar casinos, there is no doubt he’d move up the ranks quickly. He’s already proven his skills in the live arena, and on the game’s biggest stage, too.

In 2017, after winning an online video contest, he was backed and staked into the 48th World Series of Poker main event by Canadian legend Daniel Negreanu, a six-time bracelet winner, two-time WSOP ‘Player of the Year’, and member of the Poker Hall of Fame. ‘Kid Poker’ ran the promotion as part of his Youtube channel with the idea of having three finalists, before sharing their submission videos on social media and eventually choosing a winner to play. But, as fate would have it, Negreanu decided to buy all three finalists into the world championship main event at a personal cost of more than $30,000. Nice guy, eh?

Measured and methodical, Cleeton managed to increase his chip stack day-by-day, and eventually made the money. An incredible achievement. He finished 917th out of 7,221 entries for his lone cash of more than $16,000. That’s called taking full advantage of a freeroll. With one live tourney played, and one live tourney cashed, he’s batting a thousand. It was an inspired performance, which made international headlines, and he became a symbol of hope for other players. He received hundreds of messages of support from all over the world. People in countries like Australia, Ireland, Israel and Brazil reached out, all uplifted by his story.

K.L. Cashout slip from WSOP

Helping Hands

“No better time has ever been had in Vegas,” boasted Cleeton, as he reflected on his deep run in sin city. Of course, he wasn’t alone in his exploits. His father, Ken Sr., was right there with him the entire way. And, he played a major role in his son’s success. Fan, cheerleader and support system all rolled into one, Cleeton’s dad also held his cards for him and handled his chips. Talk about nerve wracking. Imagine the emotions he was going through with each turn of a card, the highs and lows of a good flop or bad river card, all the while trying to keep his cool. Dad was in the spotlight as well, and the world fell in love with the K.L. and Ken show.

“He had to have a good poker face, too,” Cleeton stressed. “When he showed me my cards, he would inadvertently see my hand, and had to be sure not to react. He was also careful not to block my view. We had a system, so he wasn’t checking to see my cards, he was checking to make sure I could see them. He was just sweating bullets on a few of the moves I made. I know he was nervous. He was like, ‘what the hell are you doing man?’ (Laughing) I play the game more aggressively than he does, so he was on the edge of his seat, and I think he was more upset than I was when we finally busted.”

KL Cleeton and his father at WSOP

The disappointment didn’t last long, though. After a few minutes had passed, and once he realized how much support they had garnered worldwide, their feat was all over twitter, facebook and youtube. Not to mention the poker news outlets. The elder Cleeton was brimming with pride and excitement, and his facial expression suggested he had a full on blast.

They were a dynamic duo, a winning pair, and both had the time of their life. You think it’s still a topic of conversation around the house?

“Absolutely. Anytime it comes up with someone new, dad knows precisely how many runners there were and exactly what position I finished. I can’t even remember that. I’m just so grateful that all of us, dad and mom both, were able to have that moment. It was so fun. It’s hard to come up with adjectives that do it justice because it’s something that’s so unusual and so out of the ordinary for me that it’s hard for me to articulate just how amazing the entire experience was. I would be saying the exact same thing even if we hadn’t cashed, I can guarantee you that.”

Cards & Community

The funny thing is, it never even occurred to Cleeton to enter Daniel Negreanu’s contest. Fortunately, some close friends from an online poker chat group urged him to submit a video, then they insisted, so he did. Two days later Negreanu posted the video, and it went ballistic. The response was overwhelming, or “insane” as Cleeton describes it, and when he won the seat his friends were more ecstatic than he was.

“It was amazing, they all bought plane tickets,” he said. “Everyone in my poker group, people who I had never even met in person, they just started planning their trips immediately. It was very cool to get all this support, and not just on a poker level. I got to meet all of these good friends for the first time in person, and it was an amazing time. They have become family at this point, and it was one of the absolute highlights for me on a deep personal level.”

Attitude & Gratitude

It was no easy trek from his home in Central Illinois to the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip. On just five days’ notice, he and his parents had to travel more than 1,700-miles, a three-and-a-half-day drive. And despite some electrical issues along the way, about 800-miles outside Vegas, they managed to arrive safely. And just in time for the cards to fly on Day 1C of the main event. The pressure was on, too. If Cleeton didn’t fare well, they’d have to turn right around and head straight back home.

“We didn’t run very well getting out there, but we ran well once we got there. I’ll take that any day. I actually said to my parents at the repair shop, ‘Let’s run bad now, so we can run good in the main.’ They both agreed that sounded like a pretty good idea.”

KL Cleeton and Daniel Negreanu

Once there, he got to meet and hang with Daniel Negreanu, the other two winners, and friends from his Skype poker chat room. He was 28 years old at the time, and he was on top of the world.

“I can never express how grateful I am for that opportunity. It’s a memory I’ll never forget. I was able to embrace the ambiance and the experience. You had thousands of players shuffling their chips, and you could hear the clatter. The cards, the felt and chairs, the groans and sighs of excitement, I was able to soak it all in. If that doesn’t give you chills, you need to play a different game.”

Entrepreneurial Spirit

With a taste of it now, Cleeton is working hard to replicate the experience. He has certainly made the most of his one chance. Not only did he make a name for himself in the game’s marquis event, but he’s also used his fame and notoriety as a catalyst. And has parlayed that success into other ventures. He has transformed now from poker pro to businessman. He is a manager learnpokerpro.com, a poker training site co-founded by WSOP bracelet winner Ryan Laplante.

Learn Poker Pro Logo

Cleeton has also launched his own application called Range Trainer Pro. An idea he first came up with three years ago while preparing for the WSOP. Frustrated by the lack of tools available online to help players study and learn poker’s opening ranges, he decided to develop his own. He has been working on the project ever since.

“THE EASIEST WAY TO MEMORIZE GTO RANGES,” screams the bold print at rangetrainer.app, where the homepage goes on to boast, “our app makes memorizing hand ranges a task you actually want to work on.”

The concept is simple; In order to truly know your ranges, you must practice. If you don’t have a rock-solid understanding of pre-flop ranges, then it’s impossible to compete and succeed in the long term. Cleeton is a big proponent of this philosophy. He also believes the process should be fun and entertaining.

“With Range Trainer Pro, users can save and access their ranges from absolutely any device that has an Internet connection. But the real power comes from our Range Trainer. Players are given a real-world simulation of a hand and then asked what action they should take in that situation. So, you get to learn your ranges by actually playing them and not by simply staring at a chart.”

Social Media

If he’s not grinding it out online, playing upwards of 12 to 16 tournaments a day online, or working to enhance and promote his poker-related enterprises, Cleeton is ever-present on social media. When he does play, he occasionally streams the action live on his twitch channel, where he has more than 2,300 followers. On twitter, @HighHands89, he has close to 3,000 followers.

“I play poker and make jokes,” reads his bio profile for both sites.

Cleeton has a terrific sense of humour, and really likes to mix it up and have fun on social media. He recently provided a perfect example of that when on the hunt for a new screen name. He took his search to the public for ideas.

“Must be funny, and wheelchair and poker related,” he tweeted, before noting, “Double entendres get special attention.”

The responses were fantastic. “HandicappedRange,” replied @jsmith84poker. “Roll2Win,” was suggested by @Grind2WinPoker, while @HighRollerRadio put forth “MurderCall,” after the famed documentary Murder Ball. It was all in good fun, and Cleeton really enjoyed the banter. It was comedic thread. As for the screen name he was most partial too? “CantEvenLimp”, submitted by David Lappin.

Final Tally

Having had a taste of the World Series of Poker, Cleeton wants more. He is working fervently to get back there, to replicate the experience and, who knows, maybe win the whole enchilada next time. He wants nothing more than to play more live tournaments. To feel that rush again. And to do what others simply take for granted, play cards in a live setting.

“Get this man a van,” said Jason Phillpott, after donating $100 to the ‘GoFundMe’ page. Others have also responded in kind. Vaughn Youtz pledged $50, and then typed, “We love K.L.” Rick Teixeira, meantime, offered up $20. “He’s a good guy and I wanna see him win a bracelet,” he said.

Stack KL GoFundMe

So far, $7,100 of the $75,000 goal has been raised for the new van. Just like catching Bryn Kenney on the all-time money list, Cleeton’s got a long way to go on the fundraising effort as well. He could use your help. Determined to play more poker inside more casinos, he is working hard to make his dream a reality. Who knows? You may just see him at the World Series of Poker next summer. He’ll be the one smiling, laughing and joking around. And he’ll be on a roll, too. He and his dad both looking to go one better in the main event.

Please keep in mind, Cleeton wears a glove on his right hand, which is velcro’d to the table it rests on, attached to the wheelchair, preventing it from bouncing around or falling off. So, if you happen to meet him do not attempt to shake his right hand as a welcoming gesture.

“That could get ugly,” he joked.

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver Dewan is the founder of High Roller Radio, and has interviewed a number of the world’s top poker players including Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Barbara Enright. A former, long-time radio and television broadcaster, Derrick has always had a passion for all things gambling (and darts too). He has even played at the World Series of Poker and other cash games all around the world.

To see more of Derrick is up to on a day-to-day basis, go follow him on Twitter @HighRollerRadio


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