Kenna James is on a break. Not from a poker tournament, as you'd expect from the player ranked second in Card Player magazine's Player of the Year points race, but from a poker TV show.
Called "Poker Parlor," the concept is sort of "The Best Damn Poker Show, Period." With an eye on syndication, the show features several pros discussing hands, strategy and philosophy in an apartmentlike setting.
"We sit around and analyze tape of hands," James says. "It's a real relaxed atmosphere."
Producers have shot three shows, and James has been a part of all three pilots.
"I don't know if I'll be one of the regulars," James says, "but I'll be one of the guys invited over to the apartment."
Here's the thing: In his first life, James set out to be an actor with those blue eyes, easy smile and youngish looks, and now here he is, getting all sorts of TV time after switching to poker.
"Isn't that funny how things come in different ways?" James says with a laugh. "I think I'm going to get back into acting eventually. I've learned in poker not to be so rigid. Take what the game gives to you and leave your heart open to it. Whether it's acting, directing or producing, I'll get into something in that line."
Poker, of course, is filling up with actors who are drawn to the skill and drama of the game. James came to poker by necessity.
"I came back from Florida after shooting a film, an independent movie called 'Whiskey, Riddles and Dandelion Wine,' which I think you can find in some obscure online independent film site," self-effacing James says with another laugh. "It was a legitimate movie. It wasn't a skin flick.
"But I came back and my agency closed and I just wasn't getting anywhere. I was 31. In acting, that's pretty old. If you weren't established by 31, you were done. I knew I needed to do something with my life. I was lost. I didn't know what I was going to do. A friend of mine who had made his living playing poker since he graduated from college said, 'My wife makes a good living dealing poker, so why don't you deal poker?' Immediately, it excited me. I went to a dealers school and trained for a few months and started dealing."
But he figured out pretty quickly that he'd rather be playing.
"When you're dealing instead of playing, it's kind of like watching all the other kids get picked to play on the basketball team," James says. "Everybody wants to play. Nobody wants to sit there and work. You're sitting there watching everybody else have fun and winning lots of money. It's no fun being the dealer. I wanted to be the player."
James started at $1-$2, moved up to $3-$6 and $10-$20. He was a small loser for the first three years of his career, but he started taking shots at four-figure buy-in tournaments and started booking six-figure wins.
"People want to know the secret," James says. "That's like going to Col. Sanders and saying, 'Give me the recipe.' All I can say is, it's not that easy. It's more than 11 herbs and spices, I'll tell you that. It's a lot of introspective work, it's a lot of personal growth and understanding certain things. It's not one thing. It's a makeover, at least for me in my journey, of understanding different aspects of the game.
"One of the key elements for me was just battling my self-confidence [issues]. To be a winner, you have to have a lot of courage and self-confidence and belief that you can win."
Thing is, actors tends to be insecure -- do they like me, am I good enough, am I pretty enough?
"Exactly," James says. "And we're sensitive. We're in tune with our emotions. In poker, you have to have a bit of a tough skin. It's working through those things. It's working through moral issues. Is this just a game that's about taking somebody else's money?"
Got an answer for that?
"Yeah, I do," James says. "How I resolved it was, I found that the game became not about me beating somebody else, but about me against myself. I took responsibility. It was about looking inward. The game would teach me by displaying my character flaws, whether it was my discipline, my ego, my patience. The character traits that go into making a successful poker player also go into making a good person: patience, discipline, etiquette, respect. All those type of things are what make a good poker player. Certainly, there are players that don't have the best qualities, but in the long run, they're fewer and far between."
One of the best people in poker, James certainly has established himself as one of the best players. Trailing Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi in the Card Player points race, James had made four final tables this year, winning the $2,425 buy-in no-limit hold'em event at the L.A. Poker Classic, taking second in the PartyPoker Million V cruise tournament, coming in third in the PartyPoker Football & Poker Legends Cup in London, and finishing ninth in the Crown Australian Poker Championships. You also might've seen him take second in the World Poker Tour's Legends of Poker event that aired recently.
"I'm getting a lot of recognition and validation for years and years of hard work, of sitting with the notebooks, of sitting at the tables and writing down hands," James says. "That's another thing I love about this game. When you work for someone else, you wait six months for an evaluation. Here, every time you sit down to play, you're evaluated by your results. You lose $1,500 -- boom. You got a bad evaluation. Some people look outward and say it's the dealer or whatever. Me, I look inward and say, 'Why did I lose this pot? I was greedy; I tried to draw this person in.' Or, 'I let my emotions get the better of me.' That kind of evaluation and self-criticism is what I like about the game."
Perhaps the turning point in James' poker ascension came in December 2003, at the Festa Al Lago series at Bellagio. He came back to win the $2,500 buy-in limit hold'em tournament after being down to just three chips.
"Not only was I down to three chips, but I was down to three chips with Erik Seidel at the table, one of the guys I respect the most," James says. "To come back and win that one -- wow.
"Every chip is so important. You hear about 'a chip and a chair,' and it came true for me in that tournament. I had an easy double up in the blind and got my chips in at the right time each time. That was my first six-figure win.
"I won it Dec. 11 and got married Dec. 14. It was kind of an early wedding present."
That marriage, by the way, was to Marsha Waggoner, a respected poker player herself who twice has finished in the top 20 in the World Series of Poker main event.
"How's that at home?" James says. "I've learned not to bring it home. Poker's about getting the best of it, and in a relationship, that'll kill you. We have different styles. She's more straightforward. A solid player. I play much more situational, creative."
Guess it's true that opposites attract, even in poker.
"We are opposites," James says, "but beneath that is respect and a lot of love."
Respect is a big thing for James. Disrespect gets him going. You can catch a slice of that when ESPN airs the U.S. Poker Championships later this month, specifically the episode where James shuts up Mike "The Mouth" Matusow.
"I didn't play my best poker in that show, but I did have some of my best lines," James says. "Me and 'The Mouth' went lips-to-lips, so to speak. I came to his table two different times. He likes to control the table verbally, and I don't like his style. He likes to beat up on people. That irritates me. I don't think you have to elevate yourself by putting other people down. It just seems to me that that's some of his strategy.
"So, I was going to go to verbal war with him. Rather than let him get the upper hand -- and this is the only time I've ever done this -- I just wouldn't let him top me. He'd say something, and I'd top him. Boom, boom, boom. The verbal battle got so big that at one point, he asked me for mercy. I was sitting right next to him. He couldn't think. I just wanted him to see what he does to other people. I don't think it made any difference, but at least for that day, it created a lot of fun and excitement for the cameras."
James was made for the cameras. He just didn't realize they would be at the poker table, not the soundstage.
Steve Rosenbloom's book "The Best Hand I Ever Played" is available at bookstores everywhere. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he is also author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. To leave Steve some feedback or ask him a question for his column, check out his mailbag.