Two weeks before the 2009 World Series of Poker main event, 55-year old Kent Senter was lying on his couch after a particularly tough session of chemotherapy. Senter, a former shipping manager at Lowe's, had seen his hours and disability insurance cut back the day before being diagnosed with multiple melanomas. Clinging to his life, he and his wife Patty had used up their savings to the point where staples like TV, phone service and food on the table were becoming less than a sure thing.
Patty arrived home from work one day, and whispered to Kent the last words he would have expected to hear: "You'll be going to Vegas."
As it turned out, so too would she, along with the three youngest of their four children for a 2½-week adventure that couldn't have happened were it not for the kindness of strangers. You'll be seeing Kent in action on ESPN's broadcast of the WSOP Tuesday night (8-10 ET).
Senter's story is both amazing and tragic. Described by Patty as "the best husband and father you could ever hope for," Kent worked for Lowe's, oftentimes unloading trucks single-handedly.
"It was about two years ago," said Senter, now unemployed. "I had an old shoulder injury that kept getting worse. It felt like it had separated. I had the doctor look at it and he was concerned. He took an X-ray and thought I had cancer. In the meantime, I was in the process of transferring from New Jersey to Pittsburgh, so they referred me to an oncologist there. He gave me a clean bill of health, told me I was just getting old."
It turns out the doctor's mistake may end up costing Senter and his loved ones as his doctor explained that he only had six-to-24 months to live.
"It kept getting worse," said Senter. "I was more tired, there was more pain. Half a year ago, I went in to the doctor after a box fell on my back and he discovered the tumors up and down my spine. The cancer was in Stage 3 and in large part inoperable. It was surreal. You see an ad on TV and wonder if you'll be around to see the show. You hear about a movie being made and wonder if you'll get to see it. It's a living nightmare."
It was one of those revelations that inspired his story.
"We were sitting watching the poker on TV all the time and it came on and Kent got emotional," remembered Patty, whose paycheck now supports the family. "He left the room. It was one of those things that he wanted a chance to do and couldn't do. There's no make-a-wish for adults. I started e-mailing people. I mailed celebrities and the poker sites. I stumbled onto the Bluff Magazine Web site and I put out an ad there."
"We get solicited with bogus stories like that one all the time, so I wrote a post condemning the listing," recalled Bluff co-owner Eric Morris with a chuckle. "She wrote again apologizing and I was like, 'Wait, spammers don't do that. Maybe there's something to this.' I had Patty give me a call and she did. She seemed like a really genuine person and I wanted to help. She was such a nice lady and really wanted her husband to have that one last great moment he deserved. I talked to the folks at PokerStars, let them know that we wanted to help this guy and how he'd help show the good side of poker. I told them it would be nice if they brought him in, that we'd profile him [in the magazine]. They thought it was a great idea, flew him in, paid his expenses and entry and we gave him the star treatment."
The result was a trip of a lifetime.
"It built him up," Patty remembered. "Those three weeks, he got a good amount of strength back. We were afraid the trip out would be a bit much physically, but his adrenaline kicked in and he was so looking forward to the whole thing. Each day he got more excited. We all did. We pulled together."
Senter made things all the better when he made it through Day 1 with $55,000. Suddenly, the amateur was looking like a pro, while the pros were relegated to babysitter status.
"The stars took care of my kids while I played so my wife could come and watch," Senter recalled with a weak laugh. "The people at the Rio were all so thoughtful. Greg Raymer went out of his way to take time to be with the kids and advise me on playing. Joe Hachem and Chris Moneymaker and others did the same. Nelly came to our hotel room to meet the kids. I know that with everyone wanting their autographs, that time was valuable. For them to give us that time was unbelievable."
While Senter's tournament fate has yet to be decided on TV, the Senter clan's odyssey is over and reality is fighting for their attention. Since the WSOP, Senter's condition has taken a turn for the worse and so too have the family's finances.
"We owe the landlord two months' rent now," Kent admitted. "The TV was turned off two weeks ago and I'm glad you phoned [Saturday] because the phone's going any day now. We feed the kids and take care of them. I have to come up with $1,000 to reinstate my insurance. We're about two months behind in everything. It's not the kind of situation you want to be in when you get sick."
Fortunately for the Senters, they now have friends in high places. Bluff and PokerStars have jumped back into action.
"[Bluff] has put together a tournament with 'Stars where all the money will be given to Pat and Kent," Morris said. "They have real medical bill issues right now. She's working full-time, but it's not enough and [they] need some help. It's not a question of if, but when he passes away at this point. They spent all their money trying to make him better and now they have kids to plan for and they need that help. It's a great opportunity to play a tournament on 'Stars where the winner will get into the $5,000 WCOOP main event. We're giving stuff away too. It's just another opportunity for the poker community to come together and help one of their own. They didn't ask for any donations. We just know the community is very giving and this is an opportunity to help."
The $10 no-limit hold 'em tournament with rebuys for the first hour will start Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. It will have a roster of prizes that includes that WCOOP seat, a WSOP Academy seat (a $3,000 value) and PokerStars vouchers ranging up to $1,000. Bluff has pledged to match all donations of up to $1,000 made by members of their forum. In all, it's another in a line of the remarkable charitable endeavors that seem to be becoming status quo in the poker community.
"I've never met people who were so generous for perfect strangers," remarked Patty. "You hear the term 'random acts of kindness'? Well, I've never seen anything like that. I'm so grateful for everything everyone's done. I would just love to be able to have them all know how much this means to us. Anything they could do, they've done. They were the ones who jumped on it. We didn't ask for this tournament, they just offered. When I spoke with Eric on the phone last week, I called him to find out what edition of Bluff the interview with Kent would be in and Eric started talking about the benefit. It was overwhelming. I started crying. I'm close to crying all the time, but I'm so grateful and there's no way to thank everyone for what they've done except to let them know it comes from the heart and that it's something none of us will ever forget."
"It's just the amount of caring I've seen," said Kent. "I know there was some show called "The Apprentice" with Joan Rivers bad mouthing Annie Duke for being a poker player. You know, it's unbelievable. After [WSOP tournament director Jack Effel] made an announcement about me, I got a standing ovation. Strangers came up to me and wished me well so many strangers. They see what I'm going through. The passion they had, the caring it was unbelievable. It really picked me up. I just can't say enough. I have to wonder if there's any other community where people would care so much. I've never experienced anything in my life like it from anybody. I just want to say how great these people with PokerStars and Bluff are. If you could say in your story how wonderful they are, because it's amazing how much they've done for us. You can't imagine what that feels like."
Tune in Tuesday to get an idea.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.