You can't control the cards you're dealt, just how you play the hand. Randy Pausch
In the action of the game, poker is as individual an endeavor as you’re likely to find. It’s just you against one, two, five or even nine other individuals in a battle of wits. For so many poker players who take the game even a little bit seriously, it can also be a means by which the strongest bonds of friendship are forged - and Kevin Boudreau is a shining example.
From the time he started playing online poker, Boudreau befriended a wide variety of characters through the Two Plus Two internet forums and various meetups at live tournaments. A big group of those kids came to form a group of players infamously known as the ‘Ship it Holla Ballas’ - a faction that included names you might recognize like Tom Dwan, Phil Galfond, Andrew Robl and David Benefield.
It also included the likes of Peter Jetten, Gabe Patgorski and Mario Silvestri III - names you should remember. Boudreau - a strong-willed and passionately driven individual, benefited greatly from knowing these people - and they from their relationships with him.
When It All Went Drastically Wrong
Those poker players, along with Kevin’s family and girlfriend, were shaken to their cores when the unforeseeable and disastrous events of June 14, 2013 nearly took Kevin’s life. It would take both Boudreau’s unshakable will and the support of his family and friends, to get through this unavoidable tragedy.
Most of the details are fairly common public knowledge within the world of poker, summed up fairly succinctly in this 2014 story. While on a short break from the $3,000 Mixed Max No Limit Hold’em event at the 2013 World Series of Poker Boudreau, who was suffering bad headaches throughout the day, collapsed by his car in the parking lot of a Subway located just around the corner from the Rio.
The cause was a stroke and a major brain hemorrhage caused by an arteriovenous malformation in his brain - a genetic condition occurring in less than one percent of the world’s population. It was essentially a ticking time bomb from the time Boudreau was born. Not something affected in any way by the stresses of life or any outside factor. After he collapsed, Boudreau’s skull rapidly filled with blood and he was rushed to the hospital.
While Boudreau fought for his life in the hospital, his parents were on vacation in Colorado, utterly unaware of the horror their son faced. Boudreau’s girlfriend, Samantha, phoned them to break the awful news and Dwan, upon hearing the news himself, helped arrange for Kevin’s parents to be flown into Vegas to be with their son.
Doctor’s gave a bleak prognosis and at several points things looked impossibly bad, but Boudreau fought back from the very brink of death. His friends and family were unsure what the damage would be like, or how much he’d lost because of the stroke. But they were all bound and determined to be by Boudreau’s side every step of the way.
“It can't be understated that, by far, the most important thing for Kevin was his girlfriend Sam and his very loving family,” said Jetten. “They have done so much to help and encourage and support Kevin, and they are ones who deserve the most credit for Kevin's amazing progress.”
It's a Very Long Road
Progress was agonizingly slow, but as soon as he was physically able, Boudreau communicated to those around him that he’d like to play online poker again. It came as a great surprise to Jetten, who went to Colorado to visit his longtime friend, to walk in and see Boudreau with four tables running on his computer.
“I saw Kevin play online on one of my visits, which I didn't even know he was able to do yet,” said Jetten, “And he was playing pretty well. It's hard for me to understand, but the ‘poker part’ of his brain seemed to be working well.”
Communication was, and for the most part still is, difficult for Boudreau, but as Jetten observed Boudreau back in action he had little to offer in the way of advice.
“He could still only give me yes/no answers, so I mostly observed, but he was playing well,” said Jetten. “The one piece of advice I tried to give him was to play less tables since he was timing out occasionally by four-tabling, but he insisted on playing all the tables he could. He wanted the challenge.”
Once he had that taste, Boudreau’s drive to return to the ranks of live poker became a cornerstone of his overall recovery. It was just a matter of time and enough grueling physical therapy before Boudreau would find his way back through sheer force of will.
“I know poker has been a big motivating factor for Kevin,” said Jetten. “He loves playing the game and being able to play live at a casino again was one of the things that he looked forward to while putting in all the hard work.”
The Mini Comeback
After months of physical therapy and work, Boudreau was deemed well enough to visit his friends in Las Vegas during the 2014 World Series of Poker. Just a year out from a freak medical emergency that nearly claimed his life, Boudreau was back where he felt he belonged, and he wanted to jump right back into the fray. His friends recommended a slightly more realistic and achievable level of re-entry, and it turned into a raucous reunion.
“I knew he would want to play poker, but I didn't know how much,” said Jetten. “He would disapprove of any suggestion that we do anything else at any time. He really wanted to play in a bracelet event in 2014, and we had to talk him into playing a Sit & Go instead of entering a tournament with potentially multiple 12-plus hour days.”
A group of 10 entered the satellite area of the Pavilion Room at the WSOP, and they kicked off Boudreau’s return to live poker in style - surrounding him with friends and family in a positive environment.
“The Sit & Go was a lot of fun,” said Jetten. “Kevin’s dad Jim played also and had a blast. Kevin and Jim both finished ahead of Brian, Gabe, Jaime and I.
Boudreau headed back to Colorado for more therapy and online poker, and it was around this time that the wheels started turning in what would be a long road that would eventually lead Boudreau to cross paths with filmmaker and poker player Ian Tuason.
“I was a long-time fan of Kevin's from his YouTube videos,” said Tuason. “When I read the news that Kevin suffered a stroke during the 2013 World Series of Poker, I was shocked. I didn't know Kevin personally, but I hoped for his recovery, and was happy to hear that he was eventually released from the hospital in Las Vegas and returned home to Colorado,” said Tuason.
A chance appointment with a fellow Canadian poker enthusiast pushed Tuason and Boudreau closer to meeting.
“About a year [after Boudreau’s affliction], I began developing a poker documentary - raising financing and looking for poker players to film,” said Tuason. “I met with Peter Jetten to discuss documentary ideas and he suggested Kevin,” said Tuason.
Kevin Has Other Ideas
Unbeknownst to everyone outside Boudreau’s immediate family - even those as close to him as Jetten was - Boudreau was amping up for a golden opportunity to officially rejoin the tournament in the late fall. With the allure of an event in his backyard in Colorado, it was a chance simply too great to resist.
Boudreau showed up out of the blue for Day 1C of the MSPT Main Event at the Golden Gates Casino in Black Hawk, Colorado. By the close of that first day, he’d built up a considerable stack - and with that the cat was out of the bag.
“I think I found out about it after the first day or so of the tournament,” said Jetten. “I started getting messages and seeing posts about Kevin back playing and having some chips! I was glued to following updates from then on.”
Boudreau was cruising through Day 2, and he had the chip lead at several points late in the tournament. He nearly put himself on the brink of victory in an all-in where he had pocket nines against pocket eights but lost when the eventual champion turned a set.
With his fourth place finish in a tournament less than 18 months after such a traumatic brain injury, Boudreau received tremendous support both on the rail at Golden Gates and from every form of social media imaginable. This result also convinced Tuason he had his subject.
“When Peter told me that Kevin final tabled at the MSPT, I knew this was the story I wanted to tell,” said Tuason. “Peter connected me with Kevin, and I reached out to 888 for financing.”
Tuason received full financing for the documentary that eventually became ‘Phwap’s Back: A Poker Comeback Story” from 888. He met with Boudreau and sat down for interviews with Patgorski, Jetten, and Silvestri.
As the WSOP slowly approached - too slowly for Boudreau - he surprised everyone and struck again at another MSPT event at Golden Gates just four months later. He logged another final table on his way to a seventh place finish. In that moment, he and those around him knew he was fully prepared heading into the 2015 WSOP.
“Him making both final tables in his first two tournaments back is one of the most incredible things I have seen in poker,” said Jetten.
After playing a number of events over the course of the summer of 2015, Boudreau earned his first WSOP cash since that fateful June 2013 day. The hardest thing for him to do was pace himself as he eagerly anticipated each and every opportunity.
“I was worried about it, and I know his girlfriend was worried about it as well,” said Jetten, “Because Kevin had been waiting to play for so long he just wanted to play every minute. She got Kevin to compromise and agree to some tournaments off, and I think, given how tough the WSOP grind can be, he handled it very well.”
The 2015 WSOP Main Event: Kevin's Big Comeback
After reluctantly pacing himself, Boudreau was poised to play the biggest poker tournament of the year and, in what serves as a fitting crescendo to Tuason’s documentary, 888 agreed to put up Boudreau’s Main Event buy-in.
While the true Hollywood ending of ‘Phwap’s Back’ would have seen Boudreau fight through seven long days and make the November Nine, things didn’t quite go as hoped in the Main Event. B Boudreau was eliminated on Day 1 of the tournament. That he was even able to play that tournament, though, considering where he was two years prior, is a truly astounding achievement in and of itself.
“It made me so so happy Kevin was well enough to play in the WSOP, and in the Main Event,” said Jetten. “Best story of 2015 in my opinion. It was really tough seeing how bad he wanted to be well enough to play in 2014. So to be able to see him finally get to take on the challenge of the main event again was fantastic.”
And, It's Not Over Yet
When he’s not making MSPT final tables or cashing in WSOP events, Boudreau continues to work daily to improve himself physically. The distance he’s already covered since those first few scary days has helped put things into perspective for almost everyone who’s spent any time around him.
That’s clearly evident in ‘Phwap’s Back’. In Tuason’s documentary, which splices clips of Boudreau’s infamous Main Event run where he wore a large Peter Jetten button on his chest into the story along with numerous motivational videos from Boudreau’s YouTube page and more, it’s clear that those who’ve helped Boudreau have benefited greatly as well.
Patgorski said it best in a line that strikes so hard that it’s used at two separate points in Tuason’s documentary to drive the point home.
“Why should I ever complain about some nonsense ever again, when my best friend can come back after that; there’s just nothing that compares to it.”
“What surprised me most about meeting Kevin is how positive and joyful he remains despite all the hardships he went through,” said Tuason. “Kevin is truly an inspiration. Kevin's return is a result of his own sheer will and determination.”
If there’s one thing that Tuason wants to convey, it’s the joy that Boudreau radiates whenever he’s in the room.
“I hope people will be inspired and love Kevin's comeback story as much as Kevin loves life.”