A Chip and a Chair
By Sean Chaffin
It’s near midnight on June 7 at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and Ben Keeline is battling heads-up—in a two-person game—at the World Series of Poker. Keeline, 30, sits behind a mountain of chips with a chance to win the most money he’s ever seen in his life—if he can win this huge tournament known as the Colossus.
The $565 buy-in event, first staged in summer 2015, has 21,613 entries this year. The winner rakes in a million bucks and a coveted WSOP gold bracelet.
Poker at this level is a high-pressure affair, with friends, family and fans taking in the action under the poker arena’s bright lights. After playing for six straight days, Keeline is in a position any player would envy. But until recently, occupying the poker spotlight was a distant fantasy.
A Passion for Poker
Keeline grew up in Chicago and developed a passion for poker in his teens. He and several friends gathered weekly to watch the action on ESPN while playing their own low-stakes games. After high school, Keeline continued operating home games and charitable games.
“After dealing some home games and bringing home $700 or $800, I felt like I had made it,” he says. “But I was still living at home with my parents a lot of the time.” Realizing that scratching out a living through poker would be difficult, Keeline took a job as a line cook, and moved to Colorado a few years ago.
“I basically got into poker as a profession after leaving my restaurant job in Glenwood Springs,” he says. “I was supposed to be taking over the chef’s position, and was excited about that. And then it just shut down without any warning. I was living in a mountain town in the off-season when there was no tourism, so no one was hiring.”
Poker offered a pick-me-up at just the right time. Keeline was scheduled to begin a job at McDonald’s in October 2013 when a friend offered to back him at a WSOP-Circuit stop in Indiana. Keeline ditched McDonald’s and won a $150 buy-in tournament for $14,000 the first night. Three days later, he won a $580 event for $41,246. He added a fifth-place finish for $4,776 and tied for Player of the Series. He and his friend were pretty happy with his results.
Big Financial Swings
For the next three years, Keeline bounced around the country on the poker tour with some nice five-figure scores, but big financial swings can make it tough to earn a living in poker. He settled on the Front Range in 2015 after losing his backer, and has lived in Boulder, Nederland, Longmont and Westminster. Then came Uber. Keeline began driving in Denver, but college students in Boulder quickly became his best customers.
“I pick up college kids who don’t want to walk five blocks—a lot of real nice short trips,” he says. “It’s easy work. I average about 28 bucks an hour working about 30 to 40 hours a week pretty much completely in my leisure time.”
The job allowed him to scrape together enough money to play a few WSOP events. His bankroll was so thin that at one point in the Colossus, he was down to a single chip. But as the saying goes, “All you need is a chip and a chair.” His fortunes turned and he won several hands in a row. The rest would be poker history.
A Million-Dollar Win
Back at the Rio in Las Vegas, Keeline has just a bit more in chips than his opponent. They shove all their chips in the pot, and he shows two jacks to his opponent’s ace-9. He wins—a poker champion on the game’s biggest stage.
The timing couldn’t be better. With not much in the bank, the million-dollar win certainly set this Uber driver up. He plans to manage his poker bankroll so that he has plenty for his future.
“It’s been a big change from where I was a few months ago,” he says. “I’m certainly going to keep playing poker, but my desire is not to play full time.”
Keeline loves living and snowboarding in Colorado, and he hasn’t ruled out continuing to drive for Uber—just maybe in a new sports car.
Sean Chaffin, a freelance writer, photographer and editor, is the author of Raising the Stakes: True Tales of Gambling, Wagering & Poker Faces. He lives in Crandall, Texas.