This is part two of our exclusive interview with poker pro Ebony Kenney (read part one here). Kenney is playing the $200K Coin Rivet Invitational at the Triton Super High Roller Series in Cyprus, which starts on Saturday, September 10. She warmed up by recording her biggest score in the first tournament of the series, netting $240,500 from the $25K buy-in.
Can you describe the process of coming to this $200K Coin Rivet tournament. How did that happen, right from the first call?
The irony is that I had just left Las Vegas after two and a half months for the WSOP and I was going to Joshua Tree to decompress, be alone, stay off my phone for three days. I was like, I just don’t want to talk to anybody. I need to be alone. And about 30 minutes after getting in my car, I get a call from Phil [Nagy – CEO of Winning Poker Network], and he was like, “Oh, there’s this, you know, the Triton and there’s this tournament.” And I’m like, “Oh, sick. You’re going?” And he’s like, “Yeah, you are, too.” I’m like, “What!?!” I know he’s not joking because Phil wouldn’t do that, but it still feels like the world’s worst practical joke. I’m like, “All right, what the fuck?” And he’s like, “Yeah, you’re playing.”
It went from me hitting my steering wheel and being like, “What?” to fear. I was asking myself, should I take this? Do I deserve it? There were so many things coming up for me. I know there are a lot of people who are better poker players than me that Phil could have chosen for this. (And he, in fact, tried to invite three so I was number four.) And there was a part of me that really was saying, I might call him back and tell him, “Oh, I shouldn’t do this.” But then I got out of that way of thinking and I was like, okay, this is going to happen and I’m going to do my best.
Why did you consider turning down the offer?
To be honest, any time I get concerned about what other people have to say is when I step so far away from who I am. And that’s exactly what it was. I was just thinking about all of the naysayers that were going to say, “Oh, she doesn’t deserve it or she’s XYZ.” I mean, who cares, right? But honestly, that’s what it was. It was just me taking on other people’s implied doubts, future doubts. It wasn’t even anything that had happened in that moment. I was just imagining everything that people would say. And I was like, I don’t want to deal with this. And then I just realized: I played poker for 20 years and I have felt like I’ve kind of maneuvered in and out of being myself. I did that for the first five years and then after that I just decided I was going to wholeheartedly be myself.
You’re the first woman ever to be invited as a professional player to one of these huge buy-in events. How does that make you feel?
It feels really good. It also makes me very sad because I want more women to be here. This is a game I love and it’s unfortunate that I’m the first, but I’m not going to be the last. And not only am I the first woman pro, I’m the first black woman to play. So these things aren’t lost on me. You know, I’m a woman of color. I’m queer. There are so many things that are really important to me, that are part of my identity that I don’t want to get lost. But I want to bring everyone with me. I’m not going to gate-keep. I want four women at the final table next time. And I know that’s highly unlikely, but it doesn’t mean it has to always be that way.
Does it get boring for you coming into an interview like this, thinking: “He’s definitely going to ask me a question about being a woman.” Don’t you wish you didn’t have to answer questions like that?
God, no, no. I love, I love being a woman. Especially because for so long, I was a “pick-me” woman, if you’re familiar with that phrase. I was a woman who kind of hated on other women and I used to gate-keep and I used to kind of hate on women, and that’s even in my poker career. So it wasn’t that long ago in the scheme of things that I was the exact opposite of how I am now. And so for me, I want every woman in poker to hear something like this from someone like me. I just played a 25K and it’s not about me specifically, but it’s about I was the woman who just played a 25K. I’m telling other women that, “Hey, I love you, I support you. I want you here. I don’t need to be the only one.” In fact, why can’t we have, like, 500 women and one guy at these Triton events?
I will never get sick of talking about being a woman and a woman in poker, because I think it’s important. I wish I would have heard something like this when I first started playing, because I think it would have saved me from creating a lot of toxic moments and it would have helped me heal faster and maybe see what was possible. Maybe there are a few women out there right now that are maybe experiencing some sort of hate or cattiness or jealousy within the poker community among women. And hearing this is like there is a path that’s filled with love and support.
Do you have any solutions to these age old problems of women in poker? Why are there so few women in the game, and how can we get more involved?
I think that is impossible to answer in any one interview. I do think, however, it starts with empowering the staff and players to speak up on behalf of women and to get out of this antiquated idea that this is the good old boys club and just get over it because it’s not anymore. This isn’t 1950. We’re here, you know? And this idea that women just have to deal with these things is such an outrageous thing. Because I just implore people, if this was your mom, if this was your sister, if this was your daughter, this was a woman that you cared about and wanted to protect and someone that you valued, how would you want them to be treated if they walked into the poker room? And if your answer is, I wouldn’t want them to walk in, then let’s consider what kind of environment you are facilitating. Because when you don’t speak up and you’re not protecting humans from bad behavior, not just women, anyone. If you’re not speaking up when things are completely wrong or dangerous or toxic, then you’re being complicit. I think that has helped me build a bridge with a lot of players over the past year because I just explained it to them that way.
Is it frustrating that you have to use such basic terms to explain this kind of thing?
Yeah. But I think it’s a way to keep the human element. I think a lot of people forget. Because poker is such a selfish game that we tend to get distracted and forget about the human element. And because it’s just a zero sum game, like, I got to make money, and in order for me to make money, I have to crush your soul. And I think the the sweet thing that I figured out is I get to crush your soul, but also still be very kind about it, you know, and crush part of your soul, not your entire soul.
Is the elite, super high roller world a different environment for women than other tournaments?
Yeah, absolutely. I think, honestly, everyone was so kind and so nice and just outwardly encouraging me. And I made a joke. I was like, of course they’re going to root for me, I’m the fish in this group, right? But it’s more than that. They are just the epitome of being competitive and being nice and polite to each other. And I’m sure that not a lot of these players, not all of these players get along, you know, away from poker. But the thing that I have noticed is that they don’t bring that to the table. They are just extremely professional and kind. And yes, some of them are robots and they don’t talk. But the alternative that I’ve sometimes experienced is mean robots.
I think Triton sets the tone for the type of environment it is, which is why I think it’s very important for dealers and for staff to empower each other to make decisions. When you walk into someone’s home and no one says hi to you, you don’t really feel welcome, you know? So that’s what poker is for me. This tournament felt like home. You just walk in and feel at home immediately. When you’re starting with that kind of energy, it’s very hard to move away from that into very negative energy.
More broadly, can we say that poker is moving in the right direction or not in terms of gender roles?
I think we have grown. I mean, we have definitely shifted some things. It’s gotten somewhat better, and I think with the evolution of social media and the different platforms now and the way that we can discover new poker players, I think that’s helped a lot in representation matters. That goes hand in hand. But I do think there’s so much work to be done still.
I know that there’s probably going to be some women that are going to come for me for this statement, but my thing is, it’s not about saying, okay, men, sit down and shut up. It’s about working with them. Right? Because the fact of the matter is that it’s 95 to 5% ratio. And we shouldn’t have to bear the emotional brunt of the work. I should just be able to say: just don’t treat anybody bad. But I’m starting with people from where they are, not where I want them to be. And I think that is how we’re going to really effect change in culture and create more loving and safer and welcoming environments.
I’m going down to Aruba at the end of this month for the WSOP Circuit event, and before the ladies event, I’m hosting a little seminar. No poker coaching, but just a way for women to know that they can support each other and be competitive. Because I think historically women have been pitted against each other so much in poker. There’s this idea that there can only be one at the top. When we talk about women, we pit them against each other. And I just want to stop that, and I know that it starts with me. It starts with us. It shouldn’t have to. But I know that I used to be a part of this cycle, and I used to perpetuate the negativity. And in order for me to really affect the environment that I love so much, I have to start.
You’re an ambassador for ACR. How do you see an ambassador’s role in modern poker?
I really think that people forget why they started playing poker in the first place. Yes, there are some people who see the money and and that’s their why. But I think a lot of the old-school players and even probably a large portion of the people who have found poker recently, we started playing poker because it was fun, period. This was a game. This was fun. And the upside was we can make money. You know, we have the potential to make money. But have fun. And so for me, I think that’s my job. That’s my role. It’s my honor to facilitate fun on the table and to not judge because someone is acting out of turn or they raise the wrong amounts or they’re shaking or they’re taking too long. Because I was there and I used to do those things. I used to snicker and, you know, make little faces with the other more experienced players whenever there was a new player. When I look back, I’m like, what the fuck was I doing? I’m just bullying people. And for what? This isn’t the Cool Kids Club. We don’t have to pretend like somebody is not good enough to be at this table. Every expert was once a beginner. You had your first time at this table, you didn’t know what the hell is going on. Why do you want to perpetuate that type of negative energy? There are some people who think that since they went through it, that other people should have to go through it, too. And I’m just like, oh no. I want better for you.
You’re clear that things from your life feed into your poker, but are there any lessons you have learned at the poker table that help in your broader life?
My God, yes. Dating, my lord. I’ve gotten really good at reading people. And for better or for worse, you know, the little gambly energy that I have has definitely leaked into my dating world. We could put all the people I’ve dated in a room. It’d be a very large room, and you’d be like, what? But I’m not afraid to try new things. And I think when especially as a woman, when I walk into a room full of men every single day to show up for work, there is like inherently a little bit of fear that’s attached to it, maybe even subconsciously. So it helps me just put on my confidence pants and just take everything, grab the bull by the horns and just decide like, okay, this is what I’m going to do.
You can watch Ebony Kenney’s progress in the $200K Coin Rivet Invitational through Triton’s official live Twitch stream. The action starts on Saturday, September 10. We’ll have a comprehensive tournament round-up once the winner has been announced.
Images: Joe Giron via Triton Poker