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K.L. Cleeton Interview
917th, 2017 WSOP Main Event ($16,024)
Full audio of this Q&A HERE
Alright High Rollers, this is gonna special. Our guest today is one of the great stories of the 2017 World Series of Poker main event, perhaps only eclipsed by John Hesp’s marvellous performance over the past week or so. This guy wins a contest, gets bought into the biggest tournament in the world by one of the game’s true greats, puts on a stellar display, cashes and is now the talk of the poker world. K.L. Cleeton joins snow, K.L. welcome to the show, thanks for being our High Roller today.
Q: Hey man, thank-you very much for having me.
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K.L. Cleeton Interview
High Roller Radio has interviewed some of the greatest gamblers, casino insiders, sports bettors, authors and poker players in the world. Here, our Q&A with K.L. Cleeton, a recreational poker player who won a Daniel Negreanu contest and then cashed in poker's world championship.
"No better time has ever been had in Vegas!"
Q: Man oh man, what a trip. Its great to be speaking with you. Has it sunk in yet? I mean you travelled a long way and you basically did Vegas?
KL: Honestly, it’s just now sinking in. I’m looking back trough my twitter feed. My twitter feed is kind of like the diary of my Vegas trip and looking back through the photos and all the love and support from everybody it's pretty special. Everytime I read something it’s like an instant smile, ear to ear, my cheeks are starting to hurt from reliving it. The internet is really an amazing place and I want everyone to know I did read every single tweet, every single word of support. It helped pushed me through. That support is maybe one of the reasons I was able to cash.
Q: Were those tweets coming in from all over the world?
KL: Ya man, I was getting stuff from Australia, Ireland, Israel, and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Literally, all over the place; Europe, Asia, I’m not sure if I saw any African tweets but I’m sure there were a few in there as well. South America was well represented. Brazil was one of the first ones on the story when Daniel retweeted my original submission. An outlet down there called Super Poker did a write up almost immediately. They liked the story and the next thing I know ‘Highands89' is mentioned in this random Portuguese article. I was like, ‘What the hell?” I don't speak a word of Portguese, obviously, I barely speak a word of English. I did the google translate and it was neat. They were talking about information I had on my twitch profile. Actually, the first day I was in Vegas, the kid who wrote that article saw me in line as I was waiting to get food. We had been there two hours and we were famished. We went down to Guy Fieri’s Mexican restaurant in the floor area at the Rio. He comes up and was like, ‘Hey, can I get a picture?” I thought that was pretty weird but he said, ‘I’m the guy from Super Poker.’ That was a neat little happy coincidence. One of the first contacts I had in Vegas was one of the first to pick up the story about Daniel’s contest. It was neat that it happened through happenstance.
Q: Okay, so I watched every single single Daniel Negreanu VLOG, as I’m sure you did. It was great behind the scenes stuff. A glimpse into the life of a poker superstar. Then, he announces this contest. From your vantage point, what’s going through your mind when you learned he was giving away a seat?
KL: It never occurred to me to even submit a video. I’m in a poker group and that group basically forced me to do it. They said I have a cool little schtick, if you will, and convinced me to put something in. As I was on break during one of my streams, I put together a little video with my dad in the background. I didn’t really think about it and went back to playing poker and studying. Two days later, the video went ballistic. It went absolutely insane. Daniel had retweeted it and I was like, ‘Guys, I think I’m going to he main.’ They all freaked out more than I did. Daniel told everyone to calm down, that he hadn’t decided anything yet, but as it got closer and closer I made the final cut. Once I won the seat, everybody in my poker group, who have never met in real life, just ‘snap’ got plane tickets and Air BnB. It was neat for me, not just on a poker level, to get all this support. I got to meet all of these really good friends I have and who have never actually hung out in real life. It’s all been Skype. We were able to get together and have a real world Skype session in the hotel after Day 1. It was an absolute blast. I don’t think we ever would have been able to that, like this, without this opportunity. Aside form the meta, amazing experience just for me on a really personal level, it was great to have that connection with some really, really good friends. They have become family at this point. That was one of the absolute personal highlights for me.
Q: Poker gets a bad rap sometimes but from my perspective, and yours as well I’m sure, poker is a great community, with some great people.
KL: I said in the blog, and I’ve said it on the twitch stream often, it really was the dream. It really, honest to God, and I’m not just saying it because it’s a cliche, I was really was living the dream. I got to something that even a bunch of pros don’t get to do. And even if they get to play in the main they don’t get to cash. I’m not going to say I made the money because of any particular skill I have, I mean, I ran really well let’s be honest. I won a flip one time and I sucked out another time, pure and simple. Just being able to embrace the ambiance, embrace the experience, you’ve got hundreds of players shuffling chip, you hear the clickety clatter of chips, cards, felt and chairs, groans, sighs and excitement. Everything! If that doesn’t give you chills you need to play a different game.
Q: So you get the tape made, get it sent in, you know there are going to be thousands of entries. A few days later on his VLOG there is your video. Now it’s down to three contestants and Daniel pulls her card, the Queen, and it’s a major disappointment. But, only for a few seconds?
KL: Yes, I got slow rolled by Daniel Negreanu. I was happy to take that slow-rioll. You’re right, financially it was tough for us, we’re not in a great position, but thanks to friends and twitch poker, which really came through for us, we made it. We had a three-and-a-half day drive. I am unable to fly, so we drove from central Illinois all the way to Vegas, 1,700 miles one way. Then, of course, we had to get home. I didn’t win so we didn’t get to stay. It was very much five or six days notice. We had a few hiccups on the way out. The van actually had an electrical issue about 800 miles away from Vegas. We were like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen?’ Thankfully, we made it in time for Day 1C without too much of an issue. We didn't run very well getting out there but I was able to take it because we ran well once we were there. I actually said that to my parents at the repair shop. ‘Let’s run bad now so we can run good in the main.’ Both my parents said that sounded like a 'pretty good idea.'
Q: Can you tell us about spinal muscular atrophy…and some of the challenges it presents for you? I know you’re a competitive guy and poker is, I take it, just perfect for you?
KL: Spinal Muscular Atrophy, I could go through all the medical jargon but nobody wants to hear that. The best way to understand it, at least my version of it, is that I’m something like being paralyzed from the neck down but I feel everything. So, my muscles just don’t work. I am able to move my right thumb a very tiny amount and that’s what I use to steer my wheelchair. So, if anybody sees any of the photos, I have a glove on my right hand. That glove actually has velcro on the bottom of it, it sticks to the table that it rests on, so it doesn’t bounce around and fall off. I’m able to move a very tiny joystick to drive my wheelchair. Anybody out there, if you see me, please come up, please say hello, but don’t try to shake my right hand, that could be bad news. Essentially because of that, I’m not able to move my arms and legs but, as you tell, I’m able to talk just fine and thankfully in poker verbal is binding. I’m able to play poker. I’ve said it over and over and over again, it really is one of the truest forms of competition that somebody can take part in. Obviously there is some luck involved but, my argument is, there is luck involved in any sport you play. Poker is the same way. You can be better than people but that doesn't mean you can’t be beat. Football has the any given Sunday rule and poker has the exact same rule. If it weren’t for suck-outs then nobody would play. It’s one of those things where all you have to do is out think your opponent. 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 figure out ways to exploit that, to take advantage of that. Whether it's through bluffing or value, whatever that is, it really intrigues me. I think it’s the same for a lot of people. Maybe they don't articulate it like that but I think my thoughts about poker are the same thoughts that a lot of people have. Another reason I love poker is all the interesting people you can meet from all over the world. I don’t really play live very often but when I do I always meet someone interesting. You can meet someone you never would have met in a million years but poker has brought you together. Now, you have a chance to interact and learn about them, understand life from a different perspective. I think that’s really important. I think people need to engage other people and learn about them so they have a better vision of the world. Poker allows you to do that.
Q: You meet the other two winners, you meet Daniel, and now you’ve got chips in front of you. How long did it take you to settle in and realize, ‘ Hey, this is the real thing and I can hang with these guys?’
KL: It’s such a deep tournament in the beginning. It’s such a slow structure that I just had the plan to go in there and not do anything out of line Day 1. My entire rule was just survive Day 1. Don’t put yourself in weird spots. What that came down was being able to project two and three streets down the road and figure out what may or may not happen in this hand if I choose to play it. I won't say I made very many tight folds. I don't think too many of those situations came up but I maybe did choose not to three-bet where I might have if it had been a different structure. I definitely didn't want to play a massive pot out of position with 10, 9 suited. I would just avoid that situation knowing I could get some value with a very good hand later on. You could fold the entirety of Day 1, not play a single hand, and still end the day with eighty big blinds or so, which is absolutely insane. My entire goal was just survive Day 1. We did better than survive, we ended up bagging around 60k, so we chipped up a little bit. I got placed at a landmline table Day 1 because I had ‘Barstool Nate’ at my table for the entire day. If I’m not mistaken, Nate was the chip leader of my Day 1, or damn close to being chip leader of my Day 1. I’m not saying I would have gotten in a pot with him and got busted by him, but when you have a monster stack at your table on Day 1 and you can do better than just survive? That’s a win in my books. My Day 2 table? It was full of crushers too. It was a little bit ridiculous actually. I was like, ‘How bad can I run?'
Q: You make the money, big thrill for any poker player, and you get a lot of attention. When you finally busted, what was the moment like between you and your dad. I mean, he’s there sweating your bluffs too?
KL: He said to several people, ‘Man, you’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing two people.' The way we do it is, whenever he shows me my cards he inadvertently sees my hand. He has to make sure that his hand isn’t blocking my view of the cards. So, it’s not like he’s looking to see what I have, he’s looking to make sure I can see what I have, if that makes sense. He was like, ‘Man, I have to have a good poker face too.’ He was just sweating bullets on a couple of the moves I was making. He was like, ‘What the hell are you doing man?’ (Laughing) He’s a bit tighter than I am. I’m a bit looser than my old man. Immediately after we busted, I think he was a more upset than I was. I play tournaments a bunch, 12, 14, 16 tournaments a day when I’m on the full grind. I’m used to it. That’s how it goes. He was a little bit more upset but I think once a few minutes had passed and we got all that support on the internet, he got to the place where I was. ‘Good game.’ You know, this was a blast! I’ve said it on the stream the past few days but no better time has ever been had by anyone ever than the time that we had in Vegas. 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. If I didn’t cash I would be saying the exact same words, I can guarantee it.
Q: This is the biggest poker tourney in the world and you’re batting 1000 man. Too many times people are sulking around those hallways at the Rio but you did it right my man.
KL: Yes, it was a great time. I just want to say this before we wrap up, you know poker is supposed to be fun. It’s a game. I’m going to always say this and always try to live by it as well. If you’re not having fun playing poker than don’t play poker, period. That’s all there is to it. Obviously you’re allowed to be upset if you lose. You’re allowed to be frustrated if you get sucked out on. What you’re not allowed to do is be sulky about it. You’re not allowed to let it stew and let it build up. You have to understand that’s all part of it. What you can’t do is be mean to other players because somebody else gets lucky. It’s a game. It’s supposed to be fun. We’re supposed to make it fun for everyone. I’m a recreational player. I would love to be a professional but I’m not, I’m not good enough. I understand that. One day I hope to be. I hope for any recreational players, that I played with in the main, had fun because of the experience they had at the table just like I did. I tried to do that as well. I was chatty and having a good time. I was talking to people. If anybody out there, who doesn't get to do this ever, had a good time because of my table talk, and they happened to be at my table, then I think it was a WSOP main event job well done for me personally. Poker is supposed to be fun man, let’s keep it fun.
K.L. Cleeton Thank-you!