Poker Faces in the Crowd: Kenny Milam

Ben Saxton

Strolling through the Rio’s Amazon Room, ESPN commentator Norman Chad spotted a player wearing a gray horseshoe mustache, a white button-down, and an MT TRUCK SERVICE hat. Each time the man left his seat — he was deep in the 2015 WSOP Main Event — other players, dealers, floormen, and railbirds wished him well. Puzzled, Chad walked over. “Excuse me,” he said. “Everyone here knows you. Who are you?”

Kenny Milam smiled and said, “I’m the best-known unknown player in the country.”

Milam, a 62-year-old truck contractor who lives in LaPlace, Louisiana with his wife, Sheila, is a familiar face on the tournament poker circuit and along the Gulf Coast. It seems like everyone — including Norman Chad — knows him. Our conversation, which happened in New Orleans shortly after the presidential election, touched on Milam’s hopes for Donald Trump, politics at the poker table, how he earned the nickname “Mega Master,” serving in Vietnam, and kissing Miss Universe.

Ben Saxton: You’ve been around the tournament poker scene for a while. Would you call yourself a pro? A semi-pro?

Kenny Milam: To me, the difference is that a pro only plays poker. Even though I’ve had some good tournament scores, I still have a job. I had a dump truck business in Arkansas —

That’s where you’re from, right?

Originally. I was raised in a little town called Ozark. I came down to New Orleans right after Katrina. They had so much damage down here that the governor at the time — [Kathleen] Blanco — sent a letter to everybody in the surrounding states that had a dump truck, and it said, Please Come Down. So we came down, and it was bad. I lived in a tent city in Port Sulphur for seven months until they finally got power.

What kind of work were you doing?

99% of what I’ve done here is levee work, and it’s ongoing. The levees sink a foot a year, basically, and we keep them up to 26’5’’ above sea level. We’ve circled the whole New Orleans area, all the way down to the Gulf of Mississippi. That’s how I got one of my poker nicknames, “Trucker Kenny.” But the one that I like better is “Mega Master.” I keep good records, and I’ve won 117 Mega Main Event seats since I started playing tournament poker in ’07. Back when the Bayou Poker Classic was huge, the first night I won the Mega for a $1,000 seat. The next night I won another Mega, sold the seat for $4,800, and two nights later I won another one. I played the [2007] Main Event, finished 13th for about $11,000, and thought to myself, “Man, this is easy.” Then I went six months before I cashed another tournament, so the bubble finally burst.

Why do you think you’ve been so successful playing satellite tournaments?

I purposely make myself a loose image. We’d play these little-ol’ nightly tournaments and I’d rebuy, rebuy, rebuy. And then in the tournament I’d do the opposite: I’d play tight, and all these people from the nightlies think, “he don’t have nothin.’” So if my hand holds up I’ll always get paid off. I first played poker in the service.

When were you in service?

I caught the tail end of Vietnam. They still had the draft board at the time in September of ’72, right after I had graduated highschool, and my number was 16, so there was no doubt that I was gonna be drafted. Instead of getting drafted into the Army or the Marines, I joined the Air Force. The recruiters are real good at their game, and they fed me a line: “You’ll be in the States for two years before you go overseas.” Well, three months later I was in Vietnam. I had it pretty good because I was on an air base — in Danang — carrying an M16 and guarding the base. I never saw who I shot at. Most of the time I was shooting at flashes.

How long were you out there?

Eleven months, twenty-nine days, sixteen hours.

You were counting the hours.

Oh yeah. The minute you get over you get your calendar and mark ’em off. On weekends we’d play seven-card stud, split pot games, high-low Chicago. Hold ’em wasn’t a thing back then. We played with mostly enlisted guys, sergeants. Poker was the same: there were fish, the guys who would lose their whole paychecks, and they were the ones you’d want in the game.

Do you keep in touch with anyone from those days?

I keep in touch with one or two. I’ve got three friends who are on the Wall — the Vietnam Wall, they was killed. The first time I went there, it was emotional. For a lot of people it’s just names, but when you got people you know on there, it’s…

Yeah.

Yeah.

I wanted to ask about Miss Universe. You kissed Miss Universe?

It was the last Bob Hope Christmas Show in Guam. As security of police, I was guarding the stage with a friend of mine named Bobby Thompson. Miss Texas comes out and Bobby says, “Hey, I’m from Texas!” So she walks over and kisses him on the cheek. Miss Universe was standing right behind her and I said, “Hey, I’m from Universe!” She laughed and kissed me on the cheek.

That’s a great story. Where was she from?

New Zealand. She was beautiful, beautiful. I was nineteen.

When you look back at your poker career, what are some of the highlights?

The main highlight is the deep run I had in the [2015] Main Event at the World Series, when I finished in 218th place. 2011 was the first Main that I played, and I got knocked out on Day 1. The second year I got knocked out on Day 2, the third year I made Day 3, the fourth year I made Day 4, and the fifth year, in 2015, I made Day 5. Each year I felt like I got better. Early in the tournament I laid down kings preflop to an older, tight guy who came over the top of me for five times my raise. I flipped my hand up and someone said, “How can you fold kings?” And I said, “Because he’s got aces.” Sure enough, the guy showed aces. If you can play with the same guys for most of the day, you can really get a feel for the table.

On Day 5 I picked up kings again. I had 430K, the average stack was about 900K, and I made it 90K with the blinds at 20K/40K. I got called by one guy and the flops came jack-high. I check, the guy made a big bet, I shoved in over the top and he snapcalled me with queen-jack offsuit. He was already pushing the chips to me when the jack came on the river. I’ll be back this year, though.

It’s been a crazy month in politics. A lot of people are surprised by the election results. How are you feeling?

I’m happily surprised. I don’t like the way the country has been going. I don’t like the policies that have been going on. I think we need a businessman instead of a career politician. I think it’s ironic that, since the election was over, we have so many protests going on.

Ironic how?

Everyone just knew that Hillary was gonna win. Eighty protesters were arrested in Oregon the other night. Sixty-six of ’em weren’t even registered to vote. I don’t feel like you have the right to protest if you don’t vote. A peaceful, lawful protest — I applaud that. Go get your permit. But what’s going on is not a protest, it’s just a reason to riot. And…I could really into stuff —

Let’s get into it.

I’ve tried to hire people. You offer them a job making 150 or 180 a day and they won’t take it, because they get more money not to work. Why work when it’s so easy to get free money from the government? Now if you’re disabled, mentally or physically, I’m all for disability checks. But if you’re just lazy, or you’re a female and you spit out ten babies so that you can draw a big check — welfare isn’t meant to be a career choice. Welfare is meant to help you improve yourself, get a job, and be responsible. If you’ve got six or seven million people drawing checks — I know the number’s higher than that — why are they gonna vote for a candidate who will take that check away and make them go to work? Things were leaning towards becoming a one-party system because, as the Democrats stayed in power, they put more and more people on their programs. It’s hard to beat ’em. So it’s ironic in a way: all these protests, all these riots and stuff — shooting police, the BLM [Black Lives Matter], and all that — that’s what cost the Democrats the election. The silent majority finally came out and voted.

A lot of people have said that their vote for Donald Trump is really a vote against Hillary Clinton and establishment politics. What are your thoughts on Trump specifically? Were you supporting him during the primaries?

I was for Trump because, like I say, I think that we need a businessman to run the country.

So what are you hoping that he accomplishes as President?

I hope that he secures the border. I’m not against immigrants if they do it the legal way. I’ve got an owner-operator who came here from Nigeria, took his test, and became a citizen. Well, I’m all for that. I applaud him. I’m not saying “put the borders up and don’t let nobody in,” because we are a country of immigrants. But do it the right way. I also hope that he changes taxes, which are so unfair for small businesses. And — I don’t think it’ll happen — but I like that he’s pushing for term limits in Congress. I’m tired of career politicians. I can’t understand how anyone could support Hillary when there’s so much stuff that’s come out. I mean, if me or you had divulged secrets like she did, then we’d have been under the jail. They put generals in prison for less. I also don’t understand how, just because she’s a woman, and she’s the first woman — I’ve got a joke about that, but I’d better not say on the record.

What would you say to liberals, to Democrats, moving forward?

I would tell them to give Trump a chance. If you don’t like his policies and you want to legally protest, then that’s fine. But, like I say, there’s a difference between getting permits and burning down the town. I didn’t like Obama’s policies but I wasn’t out there rioting and burning. Don’t cry and moan, “Oh, he’s not my President.” He is your President. Give the man a chance.

One of the interesting things about a poker room is that it’s an incredibly diverse space. What are your thoughts on talking politics at the table?

I try not to talk politics seriously. I mean, I’ll kid around a little bit if I know people, but with a bunch of strangers I’m not gonna say nothin’. And I try not to talk religion. That’s two things you’re never gonna win an argument on, because if people are against you, then they’re one hundred percent against you. I try not to berate anybody at the table. In the whole time I’ve been playing, I can’t remember but one time when I acted up at the poker table. A few years back, in Tunica, there was one guy who said to me, “You can’t play, I’ll outplay you, you’re so stupid.” He just kept on, kept on. Well, I made a hero call and busted him. He walked off and came back to the table. Then he came back again. The third time he came back, I done had enough and started walking to him. The floormen came running over, ’cause they knew that if I got up then there really must be something wrong. I regretted it at the time, because I always try to be a gentleman. Even if you don’t like somebody, be nice to them at the table.

Another time I flopped aces full of kings, a guy shoved in with a flush, and the only card that could beat me was the jack of diamonds. Well, the river came the jack of diamonds to give him a straight flush. People say to me, “how can you take a bad beat like that?” If you play enough, you’ll see every kind of bad beat in the world. The worst thing about everybody knowing you is that everybody wants to tell you their bad beat story. I’ve heard more bad beat stories than just about anybody.

How do you handle them?

I try to be supportive. You’ve got to build your friends back up and explain that bad beats are part of poker. And it’s funny: people forget when they put a bad beat on somebody. They only remember when somebody puts a bad beat on them.

That’s one of the hardest things to do. Put the shoe on the other foot.

Yeah.

*originally published in the December 2016 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine

Ben Saxton

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reading, writing, teaching, pokering @McGovernCenter

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