After day one of the World Series of Poker, Hazelwood resident Kent Senter had close to 60,000 chips. By the beginning of day three on July 9, he had just 17,000.
He was short-stacked in chips, but still alive. Senter still had a chip and chair, as poker players say. He would bust out of the event later that evening, missing the money rounds of the most talked-about poker game in the world. But he hung on longer than he probably had a right to, outlasting close to 5,000 of the world's best players.
And now as he heads back home, Senter's got another battle to face. The 55-year-old was diagnosed in February with terminal late-stage multiple myeloma -- cancer of the plasma cells. Doctors gave him between six months and three years to live.
Wracked by pain caused by tumors on his spine, Senter stopped working 18 months ago. He went on disability and ended up watching, among other things, poker on television. He'd played twice before in Atlantic City, but now he was discovering a new love for the game. He'd always wanted to play in the World Series of Poker, but an entry comes with a whopping $10,000 price tag.
"I would never have been able to afford that in a million years," says Senter. "But now, even if I could start saving, I don't have years to live."
So he began playing in free tournaments on the poker site PokerStars.net. He entered an event with 14,000 other people; the top 10 finishers would get a shot at the World Series. Senter finished 11th.
"I was completely disheartened," says Senter. "I knew that playing was a chance of a lifetime" -- and if he finished strongly enough, his winnings "would help my family now and when I'm gone."
But Senter's wife Patty took it upon herself to find him a seat in the Series. She e-mailed everyone she could think of -- including celebrities who played poker and some of the game's top pros. She even posted a plea on the message board of Bluff poker magazine. That caught the attention of publisher Eric Morris, who helped secure Senter a sponsorship from PokerStars.net.
"PokerStars was honored to make Kent's dream come true by sending him to the Series," says PokerStars spokesman Matt Clark. "Kent was an inspiration to everyone who met him at the WSOP, and we couldn't have had a better representation of PokerStars sitting at the table during the main event."
PokerStars paid all expenses for the Senters, who drove from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas and plan on driving back. Senter says the trip with his family, possibly their last, has been as big a gift as the tournament was.
"To have this opportunity is just unbelievable," Senter says. "To spend all of this time with them has been absolutely wonderful. Especially since I don't know how much time I have left."
The Senters stayed at the Palms Hotel and Casino and have met celebrities like Nelly, and former poker champions like Greg Raymer, Joe Hachem and Chris Moneymaker. Senter has been interviewed by several national outlets, and his story will be a major part of ESPN's broadcast when it airs later this year.
Inevitably, Senter says, he's weighing the odds of whether he'll be around to see it on the air. Until recently, luck has not been on his side: Senter says that had doctors caught the tumors earlier -- symptoms began appearing two years ago, he says -- early treatment might have given him another seven or eight years.
"You can't help but feel a little cheated," says Senter. "Now you wonder: Will I be around to see this on TV, or to take my daughter to see the new Twilight movie in November? Did I see my last Super Bowl?
"But then I try to put it in perspective. I could have had a heart attack and died instantly and missed this time and this experience with my family. ... All I can do is live my life the best I can while I'm still here."
Still sitting at the game, with a chip and a chair.