No easy money being a pro poker player, says Singaporean who won $3.9M tournament

Kenneth Kee, who won $3.9 million at the Triton Poker Series tournament in South Korea, has been ranked as Singapore’s top player. (PHOTO: Triton Poker, Instagram/Kennethkeewk)
Kenneth Kee, who won $3.9 million at the Triton Poker Series tournament in South Korea, has been ranked as Singapore’s top player. (PHOTO: Triton Poker, Instagram/Kennethkeewk)

At 27, Kenneth Kee Wee Kiang is a self-made multi-millionaire. Unlike some other wealthy young Singaporeans, he didn’t make his fortune through starting a company, rising to the top of the corporate ranks or taking over a family business.

Instead, Kee is a professional poker player who has spent nearly a decade honing his craft at the tables and earns his living playing primarily in cash games overseas.

“It’s tough, contrary to what the general public thinks,” he told Yahoo News Singapore in an e-mail interview.

“I’ve been working really hard the past three years… literally every day playing up to 12 to 16 hours and sleeping, on average, four to five hours per day.”

Last month, Kee took home HK$22.5 million (S$3.9 million) from winning a Triton Poker Series event in Jeju, South Korea. It was his second and biggest tournament victory to date, earning him the 440th spot on The Hendon Mob player database’s All Time Money List.

With US$3,038,163 (S$4.1 million) in total tournament earnings to date, the site also ranked Kee as Singapore’s top earning player. He declined to reveal his separate earnings from playing cash games overseas.

Regarding his plans for his winnings, Kee said, “I’ll be looking to buy my house in Singapore and invest the rest when good opportunities come up.”

‘Like chess with luck and money involved’

Kee started playing poker nine years ago and turned professional in 2013, eventually dropping out of polytechnic to pursue his career.

“Poker is a fun game that requires you to think and make decisions based on mathematics, similar to a mind sport… (it’s) like chess with luck and money involved,” he said.

Kee said his “main game” is Texas Hold ‘Em, a variation of poker that has become more popular since the early 2000s and has even been featured in Hollywood films such as the 2006 James Bond flick “Casino Royale”.

Unlike other forms of gambling, Kee noted that poker is not played against the casino but against other poker players.

“There aren’t many options in gambling for which you can consider going professional to make a living,” he said. “Other games in the casino have been set (such that) the casino has an edge mathematically, be it large or small.”

So what are the qualities of a good poker player? Kee cited discipline, good memory, a strong understanding of the game and an ability to read the situation at a poker table.

Beyond the competition, Kee said he also enjoys the “social aspect” of the game. “You get to meet new people from all walks of life. Everybody is treated equally at the poker table,” he said.

No easy money

Kee, who travels frequently to places such as Macau to take part in high-stakes cash games, said he enjoyed the “freedom” offered by his profession when he first started.

While it may seem like a glamorous life to some, he also learnt the personal costs of his profession.

Many players, including himself, often neglect to make time for themselves to avoid missing out on a “good game”, said Kee. “I’ve put on quite a lot of weight due to having an unhealthy lifestyle,” he added.

Kee said he has also had to rebound from the “many mistakes” that he made early in his career, most of which have to do with managing his bankroll and emotions. “I was young and rash, and took for granted that I will always make it back from poker even if I made a wrong decision with my money,” he said.

Having matured as a player, Kee said he has come to realise the importance of money and bankroll management, as well as keeping separate funds “for life and poker”.

‘Just a group of degenerate gamblers’

Unsurprisingly, Kee has had to face the social stigma associated with being a professional gambler.

“My family wasn’t supportive at the start, of course. However, as time went on, when my mum saw that I was doing consistently well, she accepted my profession… with conditions that so long as I don’t dabble in illegal activities and take care of myself, she is fine (with it),” he shared.

Given that he makes most of his money from cash games that are unreported in the media, Kee said he understands why his family would be concerned as could only “let their imagination picture what I was doing”.

The media exposure he has received since winning the tournament in Jeju, however, has helped his family to further understand his unconventional career.

On the myths associated with his profession, Kee said he is annoyed by people who view poker players as being “just a group of degenerate gamblers”. These sceptics consider players who have done well as merely having been “lucky”, which discredits the hard work that professionals like himself have put in to get to where they are.

“In reality, while playing poker, you have to mentally sharp and thinking about what’s the best decision to make all the time,” he said.

Never been to Vegas

Asked if he plans to take part in bigger tournaments, such as the World Series of Poker in the US, Kee said, “It’s funny cause I haven’t been to (Las) Vegas even up till now… there were plenty of cash games in Asia in the past few years (that were) bigger than the cash games in Vegas.

“But I do have plans to go, maybe in the near future”.

When asked about his role models, Kee named American Daniel Cates and Russian Timofey Kuznetsov as the best players in the world. While beating them at the poker table would be “a bonus”, Kee added that his primary goal remains to make a profit from whoever he plays against.

For budding poker players who are looking to turn professional, Kee said that the field has gotten more competitive than before.

“Games are really tough now and most players are decently good. Aspiring professionals could still try and make poker a career, but my suggestion is to educate yourself with other things… and try to have multiple forms of income,” he said.

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