Interview: KL Cleeton on his biggest WSOP lesson and meeting Phil Hellmuth

Jon Pill
Posted on: March 08, 2022 15:50 PST

KL Cleeton went to the WSOP in 2017 as one of several competition-winners that Daniel Negreanu bought into the Main Event. Unfortunately, he was unable to go back.

Cleeton has spinal muscular atrophy. He has some mobility in one finger which allows him to operate his wheelchair. But otherwise, from the neck down he is paralyzed without loss of feeling. The result is that any trip to Vegas is a major logistical operation. The wheelchair alone is a major piece of machinery weighing several hundred pounds. For longer trips, KL needs a medical bed and other specialist equipment. In 2017, KL's father attended with him, sitting at the poker table with KL for his entire WSOP run. The elder Cleeton checked the younger's cards, cut out his bets, and bagged his chips.

As a result of these logistical considerations, a second trip to the WSOP was out of the question. Until last year.

While in conversation with Veronica Brill — one of Cleeton's closest friends — she proposed crowdfunding a specialist van and trailer. This would allow KL and his parents to make the long-distance drive to Vegas with all his gear.

The fundraising campaign was spectacular. The poker community pulled together in a charitable effort that paid off. KL got his van.

I interviewed KL last year, around the time that the van arrived at his home for the first time. He was in full planning mode for the 2021 WSOP.

With the 2021 WSOP now in the van's rearview and the 2022 WSOP coming up, I caught up with KL to see how it went and what's next for him.

On the edge of the desert...

The first challenge of the 2021 series was just getting there. It was the van's first long-distance drive and so served as something of a test.

KL gives the vehicle a definite passing grade. “The truck and trailer were perfect,” K.L. said. describing it in cyberpunk terms. “A door that should swing open, slides up. The ramp has underlighting like one of those Fast and Furious style aftermarket mods.”

There was a hiccup in Alberquerque. The Cleeton family’s request for a room that could fit a hospital bed had been misunderstood. The staff, in a fit of misplaced helpfulness, had removed the hotel beds from the room to make space. This left KL’s parents without a place to sleep.

The hotel in Vegas was rather better prepared.

“We stayed at a place called the Platinum," KL said. "It’s right behind Bally’s. So we’re hoping we can get to go back this year and be within a five-minute walk of where we’ll be playing. The Platinum’s room are all like little apartments. They have a washer and dryer, oven and stovetop, dishwasher all in the room. It was nice because we didn’t have to eat takeout every single day.

"We couldn’t have done any of it without the trailer because of all the stuff we need to bring. But it all fell into place for the most part.”

The 2021 WSOP

After driving through the desert, with his chair locked in and tilted back so he could watch the stars through the sunroof it was time to get down to the business of poker.

“It was amazing. The first time I was there it was just the main event. So being able to put in something close to a full schedule was a dream. But also the culmination of a lot of work.

People inevitably ask ‘how’d it go?’ and I like to say, ‘I had fun,'" Cleeton told me with a self-deprecating smile. Adding, "Then they ask more forcefully, ‘Yeah. But how’d it go?’ and I remind them that ‘I had fun.’ It wasn’t the most profitable series, but it was a blast. I learned a ton.”

The experience was educational. Cleeton has been dialing in his game against online players for years. Adjusting to the “significantly more forgiving" live player pool — as he tactfully puts it — was a crash course in exploitative play.

“Adjusting to that," he said. "And to the amount of information that’s available."

"There’s so more information, but it's much less digestible. Online you’ve got a HUD and all that. You can very easily look and find the exact piece of info you want. When you’re live you don’t have that. But you also have human interaction. Being able to understand what certain things mean, especially finding the useful info through the noise, that’s something I’m aware I need to get better at.

"It’s something I can learn to do. But it isn’t something I even knew I needed to get better at until I had this experience. I’m really excited about it. I’ve had people reach out to help me with getting better at the exploit aspect of live play. Especially working with one of my Ryans, Ryan LaPlante, who is one of my best friends in the industry and also just happens to be really good at poker.”

"Nice to meet you"

One of the things Cleeton was most looking forward to on getting to the series was getting to see his poker friends in person, many of them for the first time.

“I was able to hang out with so many folks that I got to know so well virtually — for years in some cases, borderline family some of them. You see them for the first time in person and it's like, 'Nice to meet you… No. No, that’s not right.'"

KL also got to meet Phil Hellmuth. Before the series, Hellmuth cut a cheque for the van. He also used his enormous platform to amplify Brill's fundraising efforts.

"I wasn’t going to bother him, because it looked like he was not in a great mood," Cleeton explained. "In fact, it turned out that he had just busted an event. But my dad wanted to say hello and thank you. So my dad said, ‘Hey, Phil’ and Phil didn’t actively respond, which I get. I mean he just busted… but my dad’s really persistent and so he yelled, ‘Phil!’ Phil turned around and there was no recognition on his face. "

My dad explained he wanted to say thank you and who we were. Everything about Phil's facial expression suddenly changed. He chatted with us for a bit so we could thank him for the donation and promoting the fundraiser.”

An anonymous donor

Gratitude was a key thread of our conversation. Cleeton seemed almost awestruck by the generosity of some individuals and of the poker community as a whole. From the van donors to the staff at the Platinum to the people who helped him find staking in a dry market, Cleeton's appreciation was explicit.

For example, Daniel Negreanu picked up $10k worth of Cleeton’s staking package. A huge relief as the staking market ahead of the series was much less liquid than usual.

“Having the ability to reach out to someone like that. Then having them buy five-figures worth basically sight unseen is something I’m aware is not normal for most people. But it's something I am extremely grateful for.”

Cleeton couldn't resist thanking one person who had asked to remain anonymous. reached out to the donor in question. In the absence of a response, we’ve opted to respect that request for anonymity.

“I simply wouldn’t have gone, period, if it hadn’t been for [Redacted] and Scott Ball," Cleeton explained.

"Once we had sorted backing and transport the next hurdle was: where are we going to stay? Even just staying for a few weeks you need a room that fits the specific needs I have. Scott was like, ‘Cut the bullshit, how much do you need for the whole series?’ We looked it up and got in touch with the Platinum. They gave us a special rate. We gave Scott a dollar figure and literally three and a half minutes later he was like, ‘Done. [Redacted] is going to send you the money.’

"So I asked what [Redacted] needed from me, like patches or gear — whatever I needed to do to be earning this. Scott came back with ‘No, you don’t understand. He just wants to help out.’

"It blew me away.”

What's next?

Coming out of the series, K.L. returned to his work launching the ever-growing post-flop database for RangeTrainerPro.

“We’re in a bit of a holding pattern. Before we launch any software upgrades, we’re spending all our time and resources on growing the database. We have over 200,000 simulations in the database. The goal is 1 million by the middle of 2022.

"In that time, we’re looking to extend our feature list too. We’re getting ready to launch a version of our application in conjunction with Felipe Ramos and his training site Poker Lifestyle. He's the biggest name in the Brazilian poker world.”

RangeTrainerPro is available in free and subscription versions on the RangeTrainer site.

Featured image source: Haley Hintze