A Poker Life -- Allen Kessler (2024)

A Poker Life -- Allen Kessler (1)Long-time poker pro Allen Kessler never had the respect of his peers — but that all seemed to change after the 2010 World Series of Poker.

Kessler, who began competing in the summer series about a decade ago, has consistently been a losing player at the WSOP. However, this past summer, Kessler tied for the most cashes out of any player in the poker world, and did so in eight different disciplines. (Kessler added a cash at the WSOP Europe for nine on the year).

The accomplishment, which fell just one cash short of the record of 10 cashes in a single year, is long overdue for the veteran from Pennsylvania.

“A lot of people don’t respect my game,” Kessler said. “They say I play too tight, and if I am in a hand in no-limit hold’em I have kings or aces. This summer has gave me a lot of respect from my peers. People criticize me all the time, and this year everywhere I go now it’s different. I was just in London, thousands of miles from home, and complete strangers would walk up to me and say congratulations. After all these years of playing I’m starting to get recognition. It feels good.”

The success this past summer was especially crucial for Kessler after a disastrous 2009 campaign. Kessler didn’t cash in a single WSOP event in 2009 out of the roughly 20 he entered — resulting in a loss of more than $200,000 from buy-ins. Fellow players were wondering how he could keep playing, Kessler said.

Kessler’s reputation as a tight player has followed him at every tournament stop during his lengthy career on the felt. Here is a brief look at the life of the poker pro.

The Start of a Poker Career

Kessler began playing poker at Temple University with friends and his coworkers from his marketing research job. Although he doesn’t remember how the games initially began, Kessler has fond memories from the early years as an East Coast gambler.

From the beginning, Kessler cut his teeth at high-low games. Omaha eight-or-better and seven-card stud eight-or-better soon became Kessler’s specialties after class and work were done for the day. While the home games fostered a love for poker, it didn’t take long before Kessler began making trips to nearby Atlantic City.

“I grew up in Atlantic Ctiy,” Kessler said. “I would go down there a lot and play machines. When I was in college, I would work a regular job Monday through Friday, and on the weekends I would go to the casinos to gamble and get a free room.”

A Poker Life -- Allen Kessler (2)The casinos opened in the 80s and didn’t have poker tables at first, Kessler said. However by the mid 90s, when poker had gained popularity, Kessler found himself playing high-stakes high-low games with the likes of John Hennigan, Cindy Violette, Nick Frangos, and Phil Ivey.

Kessler found success at the $75-$150 to $100-$200 mixed games, and held his own against some of the game’s best for nearly a decade in Atlantic City.

While Kessler was building a bankroll at the casino, he was also working as a market research interviewer after graduating with a dual degree in marketing and management from Temple.

“If you watched the ABC news for the 10 years I was working and they showed any poll numbers on the screen, like a certain percent say whatever — I was feeding them those numbers,” Kessler said. “I got to suggest questions for the polls, and I was really good at the job.”

The routine continued for Philadelphia native until 2004, when Kessler learned no-limit hold’em and took a job working for his sister.

Kessler’s older sister, who owns numerous businesses and is a multimillionaire, provided a flexible work situation that allowed for extended poker trips. It wasn’t long after Kessler started working out of his sister’s house that he made his first trip to Las Vegas for a poker tournament.

The tournament that started a branching off into the no-limit hold’em world was the 2004 WSOP main event, which Kessler was able to satellite into. Although he didn’t make the money, Kessler became interested in the rapidly expanding variant of poker.

“I started going to Las Vegas once a month,” Kessler said. “After a while it became a 50-50 split between Atlantic City and Vegas. Eventually, when I got hooked on these no-limit tournaments, I was staying in Vegas for long periods at a time. It got to be such a grind, where I had almost two million air miles saved up. In 2005, I decided to buy a house in Vegas.”

The move wasn’t difficult for Kessler, who has lost touch with most of his family over the years while pursuing a poker career.

“My older sister was the only person who understood the gambling thing,” Kessler said. “She was supportive of everything. My other sister lives in Florida and doesn’t know what I’m doing. I have lost touch with all my other relatives or they have passed away.”

A Video-Poker Grinder

Even though Kessler has in roots in high-low forms of poker, his interest in gambling machines later developed into a video-poker career.

“I’ve played video poker as far back as I can remember,” Kessler said. “I play it quite a bit to this day. However, your best hope at the game is to come out somewhere close to even over the long term. You can hit a bad run in that and lose a lot of money. It’s a high variance type of game.”

Kessler has won and lost huge sums of money playing the old form of virtual poker.

“The casinos right now are offering games with good returns,” said Kessler, who has hit a $100,000 jackpot twice in his career. “But even if you play perfectly, you are going to lose a small amount. It gives me something to play while I am in the casinos. Even if you lose a small amount, sometimes you get free rooms. However, you can still lose quite a bit. I went to a tournament series one time, and I ended up losing more at the machines than I did for the all the buy-ins for that series.”

Although Kessler grinds machines, he doesn’t dabble into many other gambling games.

“I am not a degenerate gambler like Michael Mizrachi or Phil Ivey,” Kessler said.

The Chainsaw

Not many pros on the tournament circuit have a nickname that supersedes their real name — but Kessler is one of them.

A Poker Life -- Allen Kessler (3)Kessler picked up the nickname “chainsaw” a few years ago at the 2007 World Poker Tour final table at Foxwoods.

“I was doing really well there,” said Kessler, who eventually faded out in sixth. “People were calling me the intimidator. Somehow that evolved into being described as a chainsaw, by running through people. Either the local people started it or Gavin Smith said it originally. The whole origin is in dispute.”

After a successful 2010 campaign at the WSOP, the poker veteran is hearing a lot more of “chainsaw” when he travels the globe for tournaments.

“If I go somewhere, people will say it and I will turn around because it’s like a second name to me,” Kessler said. “No one calls me by my name anymore. Eric Baldwin, for example, calls me ‘chain’ for short.”

The nickname and the added attention are enjoyed by Kessler, who has been looking for recognition and respect over the course of his career. He wants to keep both.

“There is this other ‘chainsaw’ from San Jose, and he was claiming he was the real one,” Kessler said. “Basically, that guy has no shot of ever using that name, even though he makes crazy chainsaw noises. It is too much associated with me at this point.”

Playing Against His Image

While sometimes he may not take full advantage of it, Kessler has always been aware of his image at the poker table.

“People think I am one of the tightest players in the history of poker,” Kessler said.

Part of Kessler’s recent success has been switching gears, allowing him to steal more pots and make bluffs that his opponents usually don’t give him credit for.

“I’ve played a little more aggressively this year,” said Kessler, who thinks East Coast players are generally more conservative than those from the West Coast. “I wasn’t afraid to put all my chips in. I wasn’t scared to go broke on certain hands. In no-limit hold’em events especially, because if the people at my table know me, they never call my three-bets. In Omaha eight-or-better, if they don’t have the nuts one way, they will fold. People always think I have the absolute nuts in the hand. However, in this year’s main event on day one, I tried to bluff an unknown off a high pair on a scary flop and it didn’t work. If it was a regular player on the circuit, the bluff would have worked. People who play with me many times will lay down big hands versus me.”

Kessler has been spending a lot of time thinking about ways to increase his aggression. He has been focusing on understanding the actions of Internet players at the table and trying to widen his own button range.

“You have to be a lot more aggressive today,” said Kessler, who has a high respect for Jason Mercier’s game. “People always think they know what I have. If I raise and someone calls, they are putting me on A-K or better. To be successful you have to play a variety of hands.”

Looking for the WSOP Bracelet

With a new perspective on poker and a breakout year at the WSOP, Kessler is hoping to parlay his success into a future that contains a sponsorship deal and the elusive big win. The critics have been silenced for now, but they will be back, Kessler said.

Although the WSOP circuit schedule is Kessler’s current priority, the summer series will always be the focus for the major tournament win.

A Poker Life -- Allen Kessler (4)“Everyone wants to win a bracelet,” said Kessler, who has made three WSOP final tables. “In 2005 I was chip leader with three to go. In 2006 I was chip leader with four to go, and I had kings versus aces in stud. This year was different at the $10,000 seven-card stud eight-or-better championship, as I was never really in contention. I just kept hanging around and refused to lose.”

Kessler, who took home $276,485 for the runner-up finish to Frank Kassela, has no regrets about how he played near the end of the event.

“Kassela was playing unconventionally and running really well,” Kessler said. “He wasn’t playing standard, and he was hitting a lot of hands. You have to run well to win bracelets. By the time we were heads up, I was way out-chipped and the limits were so high.”

Even though he has a house in Las Vegas and spends the majority of his time in the desert, Kessler still has his eye on major tournaments where he grew up.

“I have never missed an United States Poker Championship at the Taj,” Kessler said. “I really like that tournament. I was on TV twice there in the past. I have always done well at the Taj, and I’ve played there so much over the years that everyone knows me.”

Although Kessler’s image of playing tight to hang around still persists, he doesn’t mind. Out of the realm of people who play travel the tournament circuit, Kessler is one of the few that has been able to survive long term.

“Every day this summer people would come to me and collect money — it was like I was a bank,” Kessler said. “A lot of people want to swap with me because I am a very consistent casher. I don’t always get to the top, but it’s like money in the bank people say. In the last five years I think I have well over 100 cashes on the circuit.”

While Kessler grew up during the days when video poker machines would spit out coins, and his hands would turn black after a big win, the veteran East Coast grinder has had very little trouble keeping his bankroll in the black over his career.

Kessler should likely be a mainstay on the tournament circuit for the foreseeable future, even though few people know the age of the high-stakes poker pro.

“I don’t like to give out my exact age, but I just say I am in my 40s,” Kessler said.

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