The £1,050,00 buy-in Triton Million charity invitational no-limit hold’em event held in London in the early days of August of 2019 will go down in history as a record-breaking tournament. With a buy-in equivalent to more than $1.3 million USD and 54 players, it set the new standard as the highest-stakes tournament of all time.
When the dust settled, it was none other than Bryn Kenney who secured the biggest payday in poker history: $20,606,421. Kenney struck a deal heads-up against Aaron Zang while holding a lead of roughly 4:1. The two left the trophy to play for, and Zang won a series of all-ins to emerge with the title, but it was Kenney who locked up the largest payout. The unprecedented score increased the 32-year-old poker pro’s career live tournament earnings to $55.7 million. As a result, the New York-native surpassed Justin Bonomo ($48.5 million) to take the top spot on poker’s all-time money list.
This accomplishment was anything but an accident for Kenney. He has been singularly focused on achieving this honor for years. He told Card Player in February of 2016, when he had just $8.5 million in live tournament earnings, that he wanted to be the “absolute best tournament player in the world.”
“That’s my goal,” he said. “That’s why I still grind so hard.”
In June of 2019 Kenney had climbed into fourth place on the money list, having already accumulated more than $9.2 million in 2019 before the World Series of Poker even got underway. When asked if he was excited about joining the top five, Kenney quickly reiterated his mission statement.
“The end goal is number one all time.” Less than two months after reminding Card Player of his mission, he achieved it.
Not only did Kenney aim to take over the top spot, but he also seemed to circle this particular event on the calendar as an opportunity to fulfill that dream. Kenney skipped much of the 2019 WSOP in favor of mentally preparing for this tournament.
“I don’t really feel like playing small buy-in events on a daily basis. Instead, I’d rather get myself focused and ready for the million-dollar buy-in in London at the end of the WSOP,” he said at the time. “I just want to rest and get in the right mindset for that.”
Apparently, Kenney felt quite confident in that preparation. He spent the days leading up to the event stirring up seven figures worth of side bets on the tournament and sharing on social media that he believed had the most of his own action of any of the pros.
Just calling my shot babe Ruth style. I def have the most % net worth in play tmrw in the field so lot richer than me :)
— Bryn Kenney (@BrynKenney) July 31, 2019
He called the shot, and then knocked it out of the park. Card Player spoke to Kenney a few weeks after his historic accomplishment to hear more about becoming number one, why he risked so much on one tournament, and much more.
Erik Fast: What does it mean to you to have reached the top spot on poker’s all-time money list and when did you first decide that was what you were aiming for?
Bryn Kenney: I guess I never really had it as my goal until I made it into the top 100 and saw it as something real. I like to set high goals for myself, but I knew that if I wanted to really make that happen, I was going to have to work harder than everybody else, put in more time, effort and just really want it more. I made poker my whole life, and that’s why I feel like I’m at the top now. I was able to get through big downs when I lost everything and more. I was kind of able to take it in stride and not let it affect me or my mindset or my mentality. If anything, I was better when I was back against the wall because I felt like I had to win, so I had to come there and play my best because that’s all I had. I got myself into a winner’s mentality and just expect only the best.
EF: You’ve been open about those big ups and downs, sharing how staking deals have gone wrong and downswings affected you in the past. Now you’ve managed to secure the single biggest payout in tournament history for more than $20 million. How is this going to change your life?
BK: Now I can kind of play poker for fun, because all stakes feel small now. I was just thinking about this. Playing a $25k feels like playing a $2k buy-in to me now. Playing a $50K maybe feels like playing a $10K. I’ll still play all the biggest tournaments, [because] I love to play poker, but I’m going to take more time to enjoy myself and maybe focus on some other things.
I think having a good balance is really important. My poker game is super strong right now, and my mentality is very strong. Everything is going well for me everywhere. So, I think balance is the thing for me. It is something that I didn’t prioritize earlier in my career, but in the past maybe three years I’ve gotten some balance in my life and it’s just made everything better. Not even just my poker game, just life in general. I’m happy where I’m at, just going to try to continue to make good decisions and enjoy it.
EF: You said previously that you wanted to take the top spot and never give it back. Is that going to be your new focus, defending the top spot? You took a $10 million lead on the previous leader Justin Bonomo, and just a few days later he won an event for $3.2 million to close the gap a bit.
BK: Yeah, but after Bonomo, it starts really dropping off. I have about a $15 million lead over Daniel Negreanu, who’s the next highest. I mean, I have a big lead over everybody. It’s going to take a lot of wins for anyone to even start thinking about it. People are going to have to start winning three, four, five $100k events in a short time span just to even get close at all. And right now, I’m at the top of my game and I feel like I’m just going to keep winning, making it impossible for anybody to catch me.
EF: With more of these ultra-high-stakes tournaments that you want to play available, what do you think your final career earnings number could look like when it’s all said and done?
BK: Who knows how many million-dollar buy-ins there will be five or ten years from now? I’d definitely guess that I’m going to hit that $100 million mark. Who knows, it could be $200 million, $250 million. Probably not more than that. Probably most likely somewhere around $100 to $150 million in earnings. But if they just start popping out bigger tournaments and start having more $300k re-entries and $500k and $1 million dollar tournaments, then we could start hitting a number like a quarter billion.
EF: You gave an interview to Liv Boeree and discussed how for you, preparation for this event was just about getting in the right mindset.
BK: I flew in for the first big tournament at the World Series of Poker, the $50k, and I min-cashed in it, but I just didn’t really want to be in Las Vegas. So I left and went on a three-week road trip from San Diego to Calistoga Ranch, which was just away from everything. Very quiet and relaxed. I just walked around, hiked, ate good food, and was calm and zen to get myself relaxed. I’ve already played so much poker, trained myself so much in poker, that most of my preparation was just being in the zone mentally, physically, for the biggest battle that I was ever really going to have. It’s all about kind of looking [inward] and finding what makes you your best and keeps you in a confident, relaxed flow.
EF: You sure seemed confident in the lead up to this tournament after drumming up big side bets and taking a large piece of your own action. Can you tell me more about deciding to bet so much on this one tournament?
BK: It’s not like something that I planned. I was confident that I was going to go in there and play the best. I know people like to bet against me, so I kind of like to make myself like the lone wolf, me against everybody. I want people to think maybe I’m overconfident. Maybe I’m going to go in and make a careless play because I’m too confident? Maybe I’m overzealous or something?
I was confident, but at the same time, I was super relaxed and wasn’t going to push anything and try to make something happen that I didn’t need to. I feel like I got myself into a really sick trance where I was just on an amazing level of brainpower. People have told me I played a flawless tournament. I judge myself harshly, you know. If I got second place and played a shitty tournament and got lucky, I wouldn’t even really be happy with that. I’d just say that I got lucky. But I feel that I maneuvered perfectly and played perhaps what you could call a flawless tournament against the best.
EF: Can you tell me a little bit more about the side bets? Who was interested in making these bets and what was your financial stake going into this tournament? You’ve said in tweets you thought you were the person with the most of their net worth at risk.
BK: Oh, for sure I had the most of my net worth in play. But most of the people who were betting on the side were people who were watching it from home. I didn’t even really wind up getting much action from anyone who was playing in the tournament or anyone who would buy big pieces or has big action of high stakes. No one really wanted to bet against me. I had bet over $1 million in action on different things. I had somewhere in between 30 to 40 percent of my net worth in one tournament, and pretty much anybody would tell you that is crazy. But the thing is, I didn’t really care. If I lost, I would be able to take it. That’s really what I live for.
If I play super high stakes, I want to have a big piece. I want to have my money on the line, because that’s when I’m going to be hungry to play my best. I can’t really play with a small piece or what I see as a small piece. And for me, if I win something like $20 million and have to pay out $16 million of it, I’d rather just not play. That’s not when I’m going to bring my best game. I’m going to bring my best game when I have skin in the game.
I feel it, but at the same time, I don’t really feel it when I’m playing at all. It’s like fun for me, too. I’ve got a bit of banter. I have to talk shit to people before the tournament. Like me saying that I’ll bet against anyone. Just making people gun for me maybe a little bit more. I enjoy walking into the room with people rooting against me more than they’re rooting for me. That’s why I love poker: because it is competition at the highest level.
EF: Your results in the highest stakes tournaments in the world speak for themselves, but any single tournament has so much variance. What made you so confident to bet so much on this one tournament? Did you think that other people might be affected by the stakes?
BK: I just thought I’d prepared myself the most. I was going to be able to treat it like it didn’t matter, more than any of the other pros, even if I had more on the line than they did. I feel like people are more afraid to make a bad play than I am. I’m just not afraid to make any type of play. I’m just going to go with my instincts and believe in that.
Other people kind of, they have to think about their investors. Maybe, if they play some hand badly, they’re not going to get to play the next tournament. I’ve been crushing since anyone’s ever invested in me. No one has ever lost money investing in me, and most have made a fortune doing it. So, I have a line out the door. I could make so many bad plays in a row and I’d still have tons of people trying to buy pieces.
EF: This tournament raised £2.7 million for charity, and featured a unique format where only amateur players could sign up, with each choosing one ‘guest’ poker pro to invite to the event. After two days of action, you had survived into the money and maneuvered your way to the final table, essentially sitting in the middle of the pack when day three resumed with eight players. What was your mindset at that point?
BK: This tournament was so special, but I had to somehow keep convincing myself that it was just another day, just a normal game. Not put any pressure on myself. I wanted to be relaxed and feel like I was very confident and in the moment. Even though I was basically tied for third in chips, I knew that I was one or two hands away from being chip leader. You win one big hand and double up and all of a sudden, you’re the chip leader.
EF: That’s precisely what happened. You picked up pocket nines in a blind versus blind situation, called a shove and won to double up. Right after that, Vivek Rajkumar moved all-in over the top of your raise and you had pocket aces. All of a sudden, you’re the chip leader with just four players left. From there it seemed like you really seized the opportunity to use your chip lead aggressively. The pay jumps were relatively small early at the final table but had obviously become massive now that just a few players remained.
BK: I’m just had to put max pressure on them because the pay jumps were worth so much. If I was in their seat, I would expect someone else to do the same thing and I would just be folding all of the time also. You have to accept the point that you’re at when you’re in the tournament and not really try to push anything. I played a very solid tournament up until this point, and when I got the lead, I felt like it was time to go completely animal.
EF: The other players are kind of handcuffed, especially Stephen Chidwick, who was the medium stack in between you at the top and Dan Smith and Aaron Zang, who were shorter. Is that why you made the play on him where you three-bet all-in with K-J out of the big blind after he had opened with pocket sevens under the gun?
BK: Yeah. I mean, K-J is the perfect hand to have there. You have two good blockers. I would call jack plus a good blocker. The thing is, he’s an aggressive guy. Where some guys would shy away from opening there with 9-8 suited, A-5 suited and hands like that, I feel like he is going to also open these hands, making it very profitable to shove K-J.
I was shocked when he called the sevens. I think that was a big mistake from him. You need at least tens or A-K suited. I mean, maybe that had to do with getting in his head a little bit, where he kind of wanted to take me down because I was talking like I thought I was the best. Maybe there was a little ego in there.
Because I was shocked when I saw pocket sevens. I thought he had pocket nines or pocket tens, and I thought he was going to lay down even both of those hands. In general, a lot of people who are very good in these four-handed scenarios would say that he shouldn’t really be raising with anything with his stack here under-the-gun and he should just limp. I don’t really see a value in raising versus my big blind. It’s just going to put more money in the pot, entice me more to shove. If he limps under-the-gun now, the pot is smaller, I’m going to shove less of the time and just check a lot.
There’s no reason in any way for him to try to bloat any pots versus me. Especially a hand like pocket sevens, which doesn’t even really flop well. There’s no reason to start putting extra chips. And then it was a really crazy thing to call my all-in. He had like double or one and a half times as many chips as the other two guys. No matter what, even if my shove range is super wide, you can’t really be more than 60 percent against it. To take a 60-40 spot is crazy when the pay jumps are around $3 million between fourth and third, $5 million between third and second, and another $7 million for first.
EF: Chidwick did end up calling. You won the race and took a monster lead into three-handed play. It didn’t take long from there for you to knock out Dan Smith to take more than a 4:1 lead into heads-up play. Can you talk about the decision to make a deal at that point?
BK: As soon as we got heads-up, we stopped for a second. Aaron Zang asked me, “Do you want to deal?” I mean, we were playing for so much money. I had most of the chips in play, but I thought it would just be crazy for me to say no. I didn’t really want to gamble and run bad at the end to lose a $7 million heads-up match. So, it was an easy decision. Once we made a deal, he was way more relaxed and could actually play, though. If we were playing for it all, he might have been way more tense and way more scared. Who knows? Maybe I would have won outright if I didn’t make a deal. Anyway, I feel like in that spot, it’s kind of a goodwill thing anyway. It’s just like a friendly thing.
EF: There’s been a lot of discussion about private cash games in the poker world recently. Some pros are very against it, while others think its a result of some pros not being fun for recreational players to compete against. Can you talk a little bit about what your thoughts are on this tournament being an invitational, which in a way made it kind of like the tournament equivalent of a private game?
BK: I think that this tournament had the perfect setup. There were a lot of people that wouldn’t have played the tournament if it was just a normal million-dollar buy-in. It would have gotten just a bunch of pros and less recreational players. Instead, it was a super fun tournament. Everybody had a great time, and that’s what it’s really all about. Making high stakes fun, because even if it’s high stakes for a lot of people, there are also a lot of people out there with a lot of money. I feel like it was just the perfect event actually, and I don’t think it would have ever gotten so big with different rules. I hope they run it every year.
EF: Not long after you become the all-time money leader, Phil Hellmuth posted on Twitter an all-time money list with only results from $5,500 tournaments or lower. He was number one, and given the context, the implication seemed to be that high rollers had artificially inflated the list. You quickly responded that you would cross book him in any event. What are your thoughts about those who argue that high rollers are invalidated somewhat by the fact that a lot of pros have smaller pieces of themselves?
BK: All the players in the high rollers who are selling a bit of action, have also beaten all the other highest stakes already, playing for themselves. They’ve beat the highest stakes online, the main events live. Investors won’t buy action unless you’re one of the best and have been winning for a long time. So, it’s not like a high rollers are a bunch of random guys who got people to buy pieces. It’s all the players who have been crushing over the last 15 years.
EF: So it’s a merit-based thing? If you haven’t proven yourself at all the other stakes then you wouldn’t even have a chance to play these high rollers?
BK: Yeah, it is not easy to get to the point that you can sell for these events. If it’s such a soft game, I mean, then [Hellmuth] must do well. But instead, he comes in high rollers and dusts off horribly. The best poker players in the world are the players in my age group, because we sat on the computer all day, every day playing poker. The best way to improve is playing lots of hands, lots of tables, just to mold your mind through all of the hands that you’re seeing. The live players, they’ve played a lot fewer hands of poker versus a lot of bad players.
Now the highest levels of the game have reached the stage where the best just play versus a lot of good players, and you have to know how to maneuver and out think other geniuses to do well. So for anyone to say that high rollers aren’t the toughest fields with the best players in the world, they just have no idea what they’re talking about.
EF: What are your plans in poker and life moving forward? You mentioned earlier that you might scale back how many events you play, while still competing in most of the high rollers.
BK: As far as poker, I’ll still play at the fun places that I like to go to. I like to be in London, Barcelona, I like to go to the Triton tournaments, to Melbourne. I enjoy being in these places and competing in the high roller events there. So, I’ll keep going to these places. Otherwise, I want to get healthier and just have my mind sharp. I might look to expand into some business things with some of my friends who have been successful in those kinds of ventures, but in the meantime, I’m just looking to kind of enjoy [the accomplishment] for now, relax, and see what happens next.