As he grinds out his living at $20-limit, seven-card stud, Kenny often finds himself sitting only a few away from a table occupied by the greatest poker players in the world.
Every young player who comes to this town with a modest bankroll and a big ego dreams of moving up into competition with men like John Moss, Chip Reese and Texas Dolly Brunson, the game's living legends. Kenny had dreamed that dream once too, a long time ago, until he learned that he could survive here only if he abandoned it.
Like all of the poker-playing arrivals to this town, Kenny had been what the pros here half-derisively call a Hometown Champ. In his case, the hometown was Fitchburg, Mass., and the game was $5-limit dealer's choice at the Hillside Club. He thought he was invincible. So when his marriage went on the rocks for the first time in 1973, he quit his construction job and headed for Las Vegas.
He started near the bottom rung of a well-defined hierarchy. The cheapest stakes here are $1-$3, meaning that in seven-card stud the maximum bet is $1 on the first four cards and $3 the rest of the way. There are games for $5-$10, $10-$20, all the way up to the stratosphere of $500-$1,000, where the highest of the high-rollers play.
Kenny began playing at $5-$10, won consistently and said, "I thought if I could beat that game, I could beat anything." So he moved up the ladder as high as $50-$100, where he was beating up-and-comers like Rod Pardee and Eric Drache, players who were bound for stardom. And suddenly Kenny learned what poker was all about.
"They can make your head spin," he said. "Let's say you have a pair of jacks. One of them has a pair of fives and an ace or king in the hole. You raise and they reraise, making you think your jacks are no good. Then you back off; you check and they see you think your jacks are no good. Then you back off; you check and they save a bet or two. If they make their hand, they got an extra bet in.
"They're so advanced. They can put you on a hand so fast (meaning that they can identify the type of hand an opponent is pulling for). If they put you on a flush hand and have a small pair, they'll keep on betting. And it's not as if they're guessing. They always know where you're at while you're just guessing with them."
In one session against this type of competition, Kenny was separated from $4,200, almost all of his bankroll. "I was ready to go to Hoover Dam," he said. "I'd failed. I left town with $600 and I was totally sick."
Kenny went back home to Fitchburg, but two years later, when his marriage had broken up for good, he headed back to Vegas again. "I knew I could make a living at poker," he said. He was not suffering from amnesia; he had come to grips with reality.
"I knew I'd never make it big," he said, "because I don't have the temperament. I get too involved. You know what 'steaming' is? Well, I steam, and the ones who make it in this game don't. Like Rod Pardee; I never once saw him get mad or lose his cool."
Acknowledging his limitations finally enabled Kenny to look realistically for his proper rung on the poker ladder. He would play $10-$20, maybe a bit higher if the competition looked weak enough.
Kenny lifts weights in the morning, swims a bit and goes to one of the major hotel card rooms about noon. ("The weaker players will usually be there in the afternoon.") He sizes up the competition, hoping to find some of the less able players in his league or (best of all!) some tourists.
"I usually play from 12 to 6," he said. "If I wanted to work eight hours a day I'd go out and get a job, though if I'm stuck I may play a little longer and try to get out a winner. I don't take any shots. I grind. If I win $400 in a sesion, I'm very happy."
This is one of the toughest paths to follow in Las Vegas. Gamblers naturally yearn to be high-rolling big shots, and so they tend to play at their proper level until they amass some cash, then overreach themselves, go broke and repeat the whole cycle again and again. Kenny may not get to share their dreams of glory, but he will hold on to his bankroll most of the time.