This is part one of an exclusive interview with poker pro Ebony Kenney at the Triton Super High Roller Series in Cyprus.
Confidence coach, bad bitch, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and lover. Pleasure engineer, leadership coach, online card-room ambassador, streamer, and professional poker player.
Ebony Kenney uses many, many titles to describe what she does – none of it in half measures. And true to form for someone committed to testing her own boundaries and abilities in every field, Kenney has recently taken a huge step up in her poker game as well.
After amassing tournament career earnings of a little more than $400K, and building a reputation in the north American card rooms and the World Series of Poker, Kenney recently received an invitation from Phil Nagy, the CEO of the Winning Poker Network, to partner him in the $200K buy-in Coin Rivet Invitational tournament at the Triton Super High Roller Poker Series in Northern Cyprus.
The tournament’s unique format divides the field into high-stakes recreational players, typically poker enthusiast business-people from Asia and North America, and poker professionals, all of whom can only play after being invited by one of the recreational players. Kenney, an ambassador for Americas Cardroom, became the first woman ever to receive an invitation to play as a professional, and on Saturday will sit down in a tournament with a prize pool of at least $15 million.
Despite having previously played tournaments with a maximum buy-in of $10,000, Kenney made an immediate splash on the Triton Series when she played a warm-up event in Cyprus ahead of the $200K tournament. Kenney entered the opening $25,000 buy-in tournament on the schedule and became the first woman to make a final table on the series. She finished fifth, for a career-best score of $240,500.
In an exclusive interview with Poker.org, less than an hour after being eliminated from that tournament, Kenney opened up on her career to date, her hopes and expectations for the future of poker, and why elite poker players should consider twerking before they play…
Was that really your first $25K tournament?
It was absolutely my first 25K. But not my last. I’m going to be processing this for a very long time. Also, I’m a crier, so definitely I’m going to cry.
Did it feel like a clear step up from what you are used to?
Oh, my gosh. The entire experience. Triton does such a phenomenal job in the way that they care for the players. It is exactly what you think it is at home when you’re watching – they actually just treat every single person like a VIP. You have updated chip stacks on the app, which is such a luxury as poker players that we just don’t get in any other events. And then when your table breaks, they move your full stack for you and just make sure that everything is okay. Then they are texting me to let me know, hey, the tournament is starting today, when I was running a few minutes late. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to go back to playing these regular tournaments because I just need to hire someone that does everything Triton does.
And in terms of the play? Obviously Triton is also known for the standard of the players it attracts.
Ever since I found out that I was going to play the $200K (Coin Rivet Invitational), there’s been a whole series of realizations. A week before I came out here, I also found out I’d get to play the whole week. The thing that I said is that no one is going to be expecting anything from me, which is good because it takes pressure off of my shoulders. So I get to just relax and have fun. And the fact that I cashed the $25K, the very first Triton event of the week, the very first Triton event that I’ve ever played, and then to final table and get fifth and, you know, five-x my biggest score it’s…. I am just so grateful and it is unbelievable. I’m just really happy.
I remember when I registered, Kate [Badurek] from Triton, who is the VIP host, sent me a personal note, saying that me being here meant a lot for her as a woman. And so for me to be on the final table with all the crushers, the best in the world and still get them to brighten up and laugh and have a good time. It means a lot to me.
Did you prepare any differently for this one than you have done for previous, smaller events?
Yeah. I immediately hired a mindset coach. I had been following Jason Su on Twitter and I’d been on his newsletter list for a few months, and I knew that I eventually wanted to hire him at some point because I was transitioning to how seriously I was taking my game. I immediately messaged him and we started working together about five weeks ago, right after I found out I was coming here. And then the past couple of weeks I’ve been working with Chance Kornuth, from Chip Leader Coaching, and having someone like Chance in my pocket and having access to Alex Foxen, through Chance, is such a humbling thing for me. Never in my life did I think that I would be here and have access to, like, the super elite. Seth Davies reached out to me and offered to give me an hour or two of coaching and just the amount of support that I was feeling from the best players in the world. It’s been super surreal for me and I’m so grateful.
Did you feel nervous?
Yeah, I was so nervous [before the event]. It was weird because yesterday I wasn’t too nervous while I was playing. But I think what helped tremendously is my first table had Danny Tang, who was at the final table with me, Shaun Perry and Ike Haxton. Danny and Shaun were on the opposite end of the table and they were talking about dating and sex and relationships, which if anyone’s been following me for any length of time, they know that this is my wheelhouse. It’s my other obsession aside from poker. Just being able to join that conversation literally within five minutes of sitting down in my first $25K completely distracted me from the nerves I was feeling. And then there were a couple of hands that happened on my new table where I just I remember I texted my friend Camille and I was just like, okay, they’re doing wild shit in 25Ks too. It’s okay. So yeah, I was really nervous, but I was able to zone in while I was playing, even though, you know, I made some mistakes and I’m not thrilled all the way with my play. But it was on the break when everything hit me. That’s when I realized how intense everything was. It hit me as soon as I stepped away from the table.
Among all your other pursuits, you’re also a “confidence coach”. But do you think nerves can actually be a positive?
Yeah, absolutely. I think for me personally, the only difference between nerves and excitement is what you call it and how you decide to take in that energy. Trying to avoid nerves is never going to do you any justice. It’s like absorbing this energy and carrying it with you. And just being like, “OK, your a passenger and you’re coming along with me”. Instead of trying to kick them out of the car, you’re like, “Oh, I’m glad you’re here.” So that’s been been really good for me. And Jason Su is a phenomenal, phenomenal human. And I’m so lucky to have him because he just helps me kind of work through my energy. And even last night on the dinner break, I had a quick, you know, 12-minute call with him and it was really good for me. And then this morning before playing, another 15-minute call, and it just helps me move that very exciting, intense energy through and let me kind of control it instead of it controlling me.
Do you have a regular routine before a day of play?
Normally, yes, but this has been a lot different just because there’s been so many things that we’re filming and things that we’re doing, plus the traveling and the sleep schedule. And there’s just a lot of things that have been out of my control. But the one constant is me dancing and having fun and meditating and really just trying to get in touch with my body. I’m a person who’s super connected with my body and that helps me show up in all the ways in my life. So it’s very important for me to still adhere to that. I think the biggest thing that I do that’s very different than a lot of poker players is I just decide I’m going to dance all the time. At the table, in hands away from the table, because it brings me the most joy. So if I can pair the two things I love so much and bring them together, why not?
You literally dance or are you talking metaphorically?
Yes. I literally twerk. I was like, oh, we’re having a Triton twerk. After I bagged yesterday, I was twerking with the bag. I was like, “Let’s fucking go.” I want to take it in. I’m not going to be like everyone else because I’m me. And so I’m going to bring my energy and not decide that just because everyone else is very stoic when they play, I have to be stoic. I can be stoic and still have fun.
What part of your routine do you recommend other players borrow?
Definitely twerking. Honestly, if all of the final tables involved like a little twerk-off right before, I guarantee you there’d be a lot more like jovial energy at every final table. If I could just lead a little three-minute twerk sesh, I’d put on a little Beyonce and it’d be “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”
One of the criticisms about modern poker players is that they take things too seriously, so do you think they should lighten up?
I think they could lighten up a little bit. I don’t like to say “should” or “should not”. But I definitely think you could. I think the thing that was nice throughout this event is me being there and me being, like, really honest about this being the biggest event I’ve played. It helps the players that do this all the time, helps them kind of remember a little bit of perspective and they were really encouraging me and everyone was laughing and rooting for me on the tables I was at. We were just having a good time. As poker players we get jaded, right? I’ve been guilty of it. There have been times in my career that I’ve felt entitled or I’ve just been taking everything so seriously. And I think people think it’s mutually exclusive, that in order to take something serious, you can’t have a good time or you can’t appear to be having a good time. And I just want to throw all that out the window.
You do so much else away from the tables, how does poker even fit into your life? How do you juggle all the things you do?
I can honestly say I haven’t managed to juggle them well. Something always takes a hit. And in the past couple of years, I have gone through a lot that has helped me grow and helped me kind of shift and realize what things are important to me. And specifically over the past year with the last two World Series, me having breakeven summers and having 40K scores each summer, effectively reminded me how much I truly love this game. And this was after being under lockdown and being away from everyone. I just realized that I can still be a very good, kind person at the table, which before COVID, I didn’t think was possible because poker is such a cutthroat game. So I think deciding to be a good person while I’m playing is helping me balance the other parts of my life that involve so much of who I am and how I connect with others.
You seem happy to share a lot of intimate details about your life to this point and are open about the mistakes you have made. Do you think those mistakes have helped make you who you are now, to some extent?
Oh, my God. Tremendously. My two kids being here in Cyprus is the first time they’ve watched me play poker. And they’re 21 and 18. I had my daughter a month before my 19th birthday. I was a baby having kids. And I made so many mistakes, so many, and I’ll make more mistakes. My daughter’s the oldest. She’s 21. And so she’s really had to kind of be a mom sometimes when I wasn’t able to, which is unfair to her. But in the past year we’ve really like healed and worked on our relationship. And she truly gets to lean into me as a mom. And it’s such a beautiful thing. And so for my kids to be here during this time… My mistakes made me who I am, so I’m very, very happy.
Is there any particular reason why your kids have not come before and why they are here on this particular trip?
Well, they weren’t really old enough. They’ve been with me. They’ve traveled. They used to travel with me when they were younger. But when Phil [Nagy] told me that I was going to play the $200K, he called me the next day and was like, “You know what? Bring your kids.” And I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe how generous that was, after already a very, extremely generous offer. But to bring them here and to let them have this experience. And, you know, they’re old enough to sit and watch now. They also don’t play poker. They don’t understand. They have literally been the most disinterested humans when it comes to anything I do in poker. But I think honestly, healing our relationship has helped facilitate their interest in what I do. And having them here is such a gift.
Poker is a game where you try and make as few mistakes as possible, and where you try to hide your emotions. But here you are admitting to lots of mistakes and also baring your emotions. What lessons can other poker players learn from that?
I think, honestly, vulnerability is one of my superpowers and it’s helped me become the person I am today and be able to have the relationships I have with the people in my life. Because honestly, saying I’m sorry and meaning it emphatically is one of the things I know I’m really good at. And having a level of self-awareness has helped me become a better poker player and be more humble. And then, you know, I ask questions now and I can realize more quickly and with more certainty when I am making mistakes and when I need help. And even when I think I’m doing it right, I still ask for perspective and for help. And I just realized that no one has gone anywhere completely alone. Maybe my life hasn’t always been easy and I started way behind other people’s starting lines. But what’s got me here… yes, I worked hard and yes, there were other things, but I couldn’t have done it alone.
Ebony Kenney is playing the $200K buy-in Coin Rivet Invitational on Saturday, September 10. Poker.Org will be there and we’ll bring you the definitive round-up on what’s shaping up to be a huge event. You can read part two of our exclusive interview with Kenney tomorrow.
Images: Joe Giron via Triton Poker