LAS VEGAS — Defying the odds is nothing new for KL Cleeton.
After being born with a severe form of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), Cleeton’s parents — Kenneth and Lilly — were told by doctors that it was highly unlikely their newborn son would see his third birthday. The rare neuromuscular disorder is most accurately described as being paralyzed from the neck down, but still having feeling in all of your limbs. The recurrent respiratory problems are usually too much to overcome for a young child.
But the typically irresoluble SMA has met its match in KL Cleeton. Just two weeks away from his 28th birthday, the Effingham, Illinois native has a college degree from the University of Illinois and recently started his own advertising business called 2Fast4U Productions.
And, despite the fact that on a “good” day he uses just 20% of his lung capacity, there he was on Wednesday morning sitting at a table with a decent chip stack in front of him, playing in the most prestigious poker tournament on the planet. Cleeton realized his dream of playing in the 48th annual World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas by winning a contest sponsored by Daniel Negreanu.
“He’s a fighter,” said KL’s mother as she sat less than five feet behind her son’s wheelchair inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, watching his every move. “There have been so many times over the years where he’s had to go back to the hospital and it looked like he wasn’t going to make it, but he’s always found a way to survive. He’s such an inspiration to be around every day.”
Cleeton scooped the $10,000 entry into the WSOP Main Event thanks to the “DNeg’s Fantastic Fan” promotion where Kid Poker asked viewers of his daily video blog to send a video that was 30 seconds or less and explained why they were worthy of being handed a coveted Main Event seat. Originally the plan was to award one winner, but Negreanu ended up sending all three finalists and Cleeton was one of them.
“He wasn’t even going to do it, but all of his friends that he plays online with coerced him into it,” Lilly said. “Obviously we’re glad he did it and we’re so thankful to Daniel for giving him the chance to live out a dream.”
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Of course, playing live poker when you’re confined to a motorized wheelchair and can’t move a muscle from the neck down presents some major challenges. That’s where Cleeton’s father, Kenneth, comes in.
The 56-year-old, who, along with his wife, has cared for KL full-time since he was born, sits inches away from his son’s wheelchair and peels over the hole cards. From there, KL verbalizes all of his moves and Kenneth maneuvers the chips around and folds the cards when necessary.
In addition, Kenneth dutifully tends to KL’s other needs, such as carefully helping him sip a drink or re-adjusting his eye glasses.
“It’s mentally and physically draining, but worth every ounce of sweat because I’m sitting here watching my son live out a dream,” said the proud father. “My wife and I have been with him every step of the way throughout his illness. His illness has changed our lives and we’re there for him every day. So it feels natural for us to be going through this with him.
“KL fell in love with poker because it’s something he can do. He can’t go out there and dig ditches or punch a time clock, but he can do this. And he loves it. Obviously, we can’t thank Daniel Negreanu enough. What a class act that guy is. This is truly amazing.”
Cleeton said the reason he’s been a semi-successful recreational poker player, also explains why he has managed to outlive his doctors’ diagnosis by nearly a quarter century.
“When people tell me I can’t do something, I like to make them look like a schmuck,” he explained with a wide smile. “And that’s what draws me to poker. It’s a form of competition that I can take part in because it doesn’t matter how big you are, or how strong you are. All that matters is how good you are, and, of course, there is some luck involved.”
Through the second break of Day 2C on Wednesday, Cleeton had used his talent and luck to build a chip stack that sat at 61,200 after Day 1 to around 80,000.
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“I’m playing at a table with some really, really good professional players today, but I’m holding my own,” said Cleeton, who was named after his father with his initials standing for Kenneth Lloyd. “I think they just assume that I am just going to play A-B-C poker, but I’m proving that I have a few more tricks up my sleeve than they realize.”
While it’s quite clear by watching him and talking to him that Cleeton is savoring this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he’s also trying not to get caught up in the enormity of the moment. With 7,221 entrants, this year’s WSOP Main Event field is the third-largest in the history of the tournament, meaning any kind of semi-deep run by Cleeton would be no small task.
“I don’t want to be sitting there, looking around saying, ‘Holy cow, I’m in the Main Event,'” he said with conviction. “I’m sure in a couple weeks when I’m sitting at home it will hit me that I actually got to play in the Main Event. I mean, think about it. It’s pretty crazy and I thanked Daniel a thousand times over when I met him on Monday.
“But my goal coming into this was to have fun and cash. I’m already having a blast. And with each hour that passes, I get closer to cashing. That’s my goal. That’s what I want to do.”
So, there you go. Consider this a warning, WSOP Main Event participants. KL Cleeton has his mind set on doing the unthinkable.
Judging from his past performance as a massive underdog, is there really anyone out there that wants to bet against him?