The word cowboy conjures up all sorts of images for people. The predominant one, though, is of the John Wayne type: the hat, boots and jeans, coupled with an ingrained courtesy and sense of what is right.
Taking that into consideration, it's no wonder Kenna James has come to be known as "Cowboy" on the poker tournament circuit. The name may have sprung from his trademark hat and boots, but many people who've sat at the felt with him will tell you he's one of the nicest, most polite people you're ever going to meet.
That kindness doesn't make him a pushover in the poker game, though. He'll play a fair, polite game, but he's definitely out to win in the end, as his nearly $3 million in tournament winnings show.
So how does a guy end up becoming a successful cowboy on the poker circuit? That's a long dusty trail that begins in Chicago, winds its way to a small town in Michigan and even takes a detour through an acting career.
Kenna James was actually born Kenna Grob and was the third of four children in a lower-middle-class family. He has an older brother, Steve, and two sisters: Grace, who is older, and the youngest Kathy, who has Down Syndrome.
Kenna James was a Small Town Boy
He spent the first half of his childhood in Chicago, and says he was "forced" to move to Albion, Mich., when he was nine. So half of his childhood was spent in the big city, and the other half was spent in a small town of about 13,000 people.
"The only upside is that the home in this small factory town came with a tree house," Kenna reminisced.
It was in that small town James also found his talent for performing. While in high school he was very successful in Forensics (public speaking), making it all the way to the state championships.
That talent led to a full ride scholarship to the Michigan School of Arts in Jackson where he studied for a Fine Arts Degree. However, just a few credits short of an associate degree, he quit to try his hand in some paying regional acting work.
Like many aspiring actors, he heard the siren call of Hollywood and, at age 21, crossed the country hoping to make it big. After a number of auditions though, the repeated mispronunciation of his last name, correctly pronounced Grobe, led Kenna to adopt a more show-business-friendly moniker. Taking on his father's middle name, Kenna James was born.
He spent more than a decade in California, during which time he had small parts in a few independent films that never hit the big screen and the occasional role on a soap opera.
In 1995 at age 33, tired of waiting tables while clinging to dreams of the silver screen, James spent the money to learn how to become a poker dealer at the suggestion of a friend. It was while learning to deal he played his first game of Texas Hold'em at the Hollywood Park Casino, and a few months later he was hired on there as a dealer.
When not busy dealing at the tables, James could be found playing at the low-limit Texas Hold'em tables. By 1997 he'd graduated to playing the $20/$40 limits regularly and branched into $20 buy-in tournaments. That's the year he began to have aspirations of becoming a professional, cashing in his first big tournament, and also the year he met his future wife, poker pro Marsha Waggoner.
Waggoner was the executive host at Hollywood Park and had accused James of colluding with another player at a poker table. She was mistaken, but the event brought them together in friendship, which later turned to a romantic relationship and marriage as they continued to work together over the years.
James officially turned pro in 1999 and took a job as a prop player at the Crystal Casino in Los Angeles. That year he also began directing tournaments with Waggoner. One of his career highlights was directing Russia's first poker tournament with her at the Cosmos Casino Hotel in Moscow.
Since 1999 James has had several wins and cashes, adding to his bankroll and his poker notoriety. However, it was a win in the $1,000 No-Limit Hold'em event during the 2004 Plaza Ultimate Poker Challenge in Las Vegas where he gained a nickname, thereby solidifying his spot in poker history.
A woman in the audience at the tournament kept yelling "Go Cowboy!" and "Ride 'em Cowboy!" during the tournament because of his Stetson hat. That hat was something James just found useful while playing poker, but host Chad Brown picked up on the name, and it stuck.
Kenna has had some big paydays in 2005 and 2006. A second place finish at the 2005 WPT Legends of Poker earned him close to $600,000, and another runner-up finish on the 2006 PartyPoker Million Cruise roped the Cowboy a hefty $700,000.
Those paydays also paid out big for the Wounded Warrior Project. James donates 1% of all his tournament winnings to the organization, which assists wounded service members who come back from Iraq, Afghanistan, or other outposts.
He's also taken a more active role for the charity. During the 2006 WSOP James used his fame and performing talents to host a charity poker tournament that raised $70,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project, to which Mike Sexton added his $100,000 winnings from the Tournament of Champions.
Kenna has also found a way to combine his performing talent and his poker skills. He has commentated on the Game Show Network's Poker Royale as well as appeared repeatedly on the internet broadcast Live at the Bike.
A nickname and a solid career are enough to make you well-known in the poker world, and while James has had many big money cashes and even wins in smaller events, he's still searching for a televised win of his own on the World Poker Tour or in the WSOP.
Like every serious poker player, Kenna knows how much one big victory can do for a professional's credibility. Despite this, the Cowboy has emphasized that what he really hopes to accomplish by the end of his poker career is to earn the respect of his peers and to be able to leave the game on top.
He has said, "I want to contribute to its growing success and popularity in the years to come, making it more respectable and an accepted sport of the mind."