“Chess is like jazz,” Kayeen Ellis-Kemp said. “It’s music to me and it helps you to fight battles if there’s something approaching you in a bad way. Should I go this way or that way? How can I stop his attack? How far can you go? Chess resembles your life.” In 2012 Kayeen transitioned to another game — poker — that’s also been teaching him life lessons. The twenty-two-year old Detroit native spent the last three years traveling the country and playing mid-stakes live no-limit hold ‘em.
When we met in February at Harrah’s New Orleans, our home casino, Kayeen had been living in The Big Easy for three months. We discussed chess, the importance of family and friends, the best places to play mid-stakes live poker in the U.S., and rap.
Ben Saxton: How did you get into poker?
Kayeen Ellis-Kemp: I was eleven or twelve, and my family used to play Texas Hold ’em every Friday at my aunt’s house. There were actually two games in Detroit. The east side games would be me, my Auntie Pumpkin, my uncle Ryan, and my cousins DeAndre, Jeremy, Vincent, Brandon, Paul, and Desmond. We’d play for quarters or dollars. Christmastime we’d play for twenties. Then I’d go over to the west side family games and experience a totally different style of play.
How serious were the games?
They were fun and competitive. I’ve lost thousands to my uncle Ryan. I also snuck into charity poker rooms when I was fifteen — everyone called me “little D” because I was underage — and surrounded myself with older dudes, which is how you mature. I don’t like the easy way around. I want to work for what I get. With this game there’s gonna be weeks when you lose, lose, lose and weeks when all you do is win. Poker has always been challenging for me. It’s a mind game.
Since you went pro three years ago, you’ve played all over the country. Where, in your view, are the best places to play?
The games in Florida, especially at Seminole Hard Rock, are amazing. Florida has a lot of rich retired people who don’t care about money. In Los Angeles, Hollywood Park is good. From the outside the building looks scary: you’ll think, “man, I’m never gonna play in this haunted casino.” Once you get inside, you’ll see that the casino is basically a poker room. To me it’s the best place to play in L.A., especially for big mixed games. But, overall, the games in New Orleans are the best. That’s why I moved here.
How did you discover these games?
I came to visit my brother in October 2014 and made 10K the first day. I was on a ridiculous heater. I made a straight flush against the nut flush and the nut straight. I was winning every hand! Lately, though, I’ve been going through big variance in hold ’em because the 1/3 and 2/5 games are huge: you can match the biggest stack at the table. I traveled back and forth for a while, and then I moved here full-time three months ago. I live downtown and can walk straight to Harrah’s.
I’m in St. Roch, which is about a mile northeast of the French Quarter. I’ve been here for about a year.
What made you move to New Orleans?
A combination of the city, which I love, and my writing interests. I wanted to focus on a poker room that’s the right size, that has good action, and that has interesting people and culture. New Orleans is perfect.
We both moved here for the same idea. I came here because of poker. I also came here because I have a son, Kayeen Khari III, who needs more than he has. He’s not the average four-year-old. We’ll talk for thirty minutes and he’s stable enough to stay on the phone and conversate about anything. His memory is so strong. I go back to Michigan every month to spend time with him. Even though I’m not with his mother, she does a great job of taking care of him while I’m traveling and pursuing my career.
Will you teach Khari poker?
I’ll teach him chess first. I’m gonna lay the right foundation and then, if he’s interested in poker, that’s fine. Poker offers a chance to everyone, but most people aren’t willing to take the risk. I realized that, for me, success isn’t about doing things by myself, but putting together a team. Right now it’s me, my boy Damien, who’s my roommate, my boy Everett, who’s a psychiatrist in Michigan, and my boy Travaughn, who’s in school. Travaughn called me and was like, “Hey man, I need to surround myself with more poker players.” Something clicked when he said that. I called my boys and said, “We need to wake up. We’re gonna make this money together and keep the circle strong.” It’s like a brotherhood. Friendship plus poker.
What’s the long-term vision?
I want to get condos in Florida, New Orleans, and California — two or three poker houses close to the biggest action. Everybody will travel and play the [WSOP] Circuit events, the WPT, the RunGood tournaments. The key is positivity. You can’t have a negative person in your crew. I remind myself: you have the potential to be the best in the world if you put your mind to it. If you focus on poker and have someone with you — what would be possible? Me and Damien are on the same page. We drop everything for this game. We go home and play heads-up, study, talk hands.
What else do you like to do with your time?
Music plays a big role in my life. I’m signed to my uncle Kendall Stewart’s record label Key Music Group. Most of the time I’m listening to my own music or to my brother, Deadzone Tay, who raps about what he’s been through. A lot of people from Detroit can relate to the struggle and the positivity of his lyrics.
What do you like to rap about?
Anything. I’m a writer. I’ve been through it all, I’ve lived through it all. I was young, man. I grew up around thirty-year-olds, forty-year-olds, so I’ve seen so much in life — way more than the average person.
And you’re still young.
I’m still young. I’ve been to forty states. That’s a blessing. Some people never leave their hometown.
Have you traveled much outside the U.S.?
I’ve been to Canada. I plan on going to Dubai, Costa Rica, and Europe for poker. But my whole goal, man, I want to be like Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu. I love how Negreanu can just read someone’s soul, and I feel like that’s one of my gifts. I know how to play against regs, I know their ranges, I know how they bet. I know if someone’s a good person or a bad person — I can just connect to good people. That’s why I’m so comfortable in the poker world.
*originally published in the March 2016 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine