Kevin Boudreau’s long road to recovery
One day in April, Kevin Boudreau pointed at his father.
The 26-year-old seemed frustrated, but he was unable to enunciate, having suffered a traumatic brain injury that paralyzed him less than a year earlier.
“Alright Kevin, let’s try to figure out what you want,” said his father, Jim Boudreau.
Kevin wasn’t hungry. He didn’t need to use the restroom. He didn’t necessarily want to move from the recliner.
So his father handed him a piece of paper and a pencil, and Kevin scratched out the letters: P O K …
“He wanted to play poker for a little while,” Jim said.
The elder Boudreau opened PokerStars and fired up some play money tables.
A couple weeks later, his father asked him if he wanted to play online poker for real money.
“He let out a scream and a big smile and said ‘Yeah,’ and gave me a big thumbs up,” Jim said.
They opened a couple .05/.10 tables on Carbon Poker, and Kevin played six-max for a couple hours, occasionally timing out because he’s right-handed but only had the ability to use his left hand.
He booked a small winning session.
Kevin “Phwap” Boudreau, a prodigy who had earned more than $850,000 in online poker and collected $468,176 in live tournaments, was back on the grind.
“He was making good decisions. He was being strategic,” his girlfriend Samantha Kathrein said. “That’s what he needs. He needs something that’s going to keep him going, and poker’s always motivated him.”
On June 14, 2013, Kevin collapsed in the parking lot of a Subway near the Rio during a break at the $5,000 buy-in Mixed Max No Limit Hold’em event at the World Series of Poker.
He had suffered from a brain hemorrhage accompanied by a stroke, the result of a congenital condition known as arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal connection between the arteries and veins.
He was rushed to Valley Hospital Medical Center and placed in an induced coma.
Emergency crews contacted Samantha.
“All we can tell you is we found him outside of his car not breathing,” they told her.
She had seen him just a few hours earlier. They had breakfast that morning, and he told her he had a bad headache, so he rested down for a while to get rid of it. They hung out at the Vegas house where they were staying before he left to go play the tournament.
He called her during one of the breaks, and they talked about going to see the comedy movie “This Is The End.”
After the hospital officials contacted her, Samantha frantically called hotels in Vail, Colorado, where Kevin’s parents were vacationing, and told them something was wrong.
Tom Dwan, a longtime friend, arranged for a jet to fly Jim and Kevin’s mother, Patty Maiurro-Boudreau, to Las Vegas immediately.
“It was terrifying,” Samantha said.
Kevin underwent emergency brain surgery, and afterward his father met with neurosurgeons.
“It’s kind of like you spring a leak and your head fills up very, very quickly with blood,” Jim said.
The swelling caused Kevin’s brain to shift so much that he nearly died, and doctors were uncertain he would live much longer. The severe brain injury caused abnormal posturing, his muscles having awkwardly twisted his body.
“They really felt like Kevin didn’t have much chance,” Jim said. “There wasn’t a single doctor we talked to who ever gave us any hope or optimism that Kevin was going to get better.”
They didn’t know if Kevin would open his eyes again, if he would be able to close his mouth on his own, whether he would ever eat, walk or talk.
Four days after he had collapsed, a surgeon told Jim that Kevin still wasn’t breathing on his own.
“He basically said Kevin’s not going to make it,” said Jim, who then told his wife. “We felt like we were losing our son as we spoke.”
Kevin’s parents rushed back to the hospital, where one of the workers told them Kevin had suddenly started breathing on his own, though he remained on a ventilator.
There was hope.
For nearly a month, Kevin breathed through the ventilator, and remained almost completely unresponsive. Doctors worked to control his heart rate, temperature and blood pressure.
Almost nothing could have prevented injury
Though Kevin played thousands of hours of online and live poker, the brain injury was not stress related. It had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. There was almost nothing he could have done to prevent what happened.
For the month that he remained in the Las Vegas hospital, poker friends often came to visit and share stories about Kevin.
They played Jack Johnson and classical music from his iPad to encourage a soothing atmosphere.
Samantha stayed by his side, holding his hand, telling him she loved him, sleeping in the hospital for the first week. She didn’t want him to be alone in the hospital. She told him about all the people who were praying for him and thinking about him.
It was several weeks before Kevin started to open his eyes. One night, Samantha asked if he could blink twice for her, and he did.
“I was excited. Alright, we have somewhere to start from,” Samantha said. “Honestly, through the whole thing I’ve been really positive. I’ve always felt like he was going to pull through.”
His family started a fundraiser to help transport Kevin back to Colorado.
Once home, Kevin slowly started showing more signs of improvement.
He twitched his toes. He wiggled his left thumb. He lifted his left foot. Because of the stroke, he still had no movement on his right side.
The poker life of a true ‘balla’
Like many others, Kevin delved into poker after watching Chris Moneymaker win the WSOP Main Event in 2003.
At Widefield High School in Colorado Springs, when he had spare time at the end of a class, Kevin would crack open a poker book. He believed that helped him get a better ACT score.
Sometimes, Kevin would come home after school and ridicule his math teacher because he believed he was smarter than him.
He accepted a scholarship to play soccer at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, but after only a semester, he quit school to focus exclusively on poker.
“Your greatest asset is your future income,” Kevin said a few years later in a video blog.
While some of the biggest names in poker count Kevin as a friend, the casual player may best know him from his appearance on ESPN during the 2010 WSOP Main Event.
On his white hoodie, he had pinned an 8-inch button with a picture of Peter Jetten’s face.
Kevin was all in for his tournament life on the bubble, holding [Ac] [Kd], and he kissed the button.
His opponent picked up a flush draw on the turn, but Kevin’s hand held up.
“If that Peter Jetten button gives you that much good luck, order me a dozen,” Norman Chad said. “They’re actually quite fashionable.”
Later at the feature table, when Boudreau survived another all in after tapping the button, raising his fist and yelling “Phwap!,” Chad said, “I think Boudreau’s going to win the Main Event.”
The affable color guy, as usual, was wrong. Kevin finished 213th for $48,847.
Earlier that summer, however, Kevin took second in the $5,000 Pot Limit Omaha for $313,792. It was the first time he had ever played live PLO, his father said.
Peter and Kevin met in 2005, when they were both online sit-and-go tournament specialists, and they’ve been close friends ever since.
They were featured in the book about successful online poker players called “Ship It Holla Ballas!: How a Bunch of 19-year-old College Dropouts Used the Internet to Become Poker’s Loudest, Craziest, and Richest Crew.”
Peter visited Kevin often at the Las Vegas hospital, and later in Colorado as Kevin started to make more progress.
“Seeing him in Las Vegas was tough,” Peter said. “Seeing him in Colorado was incredibly inspirational.”
When Kevin immersed himself into poker again after Black Friday, he realized his game needed a lot of work.
“A lot of people wouldn’t be that self-aware,” Peter said.
Peter saw the same hard work in Kevin’s rehabilitation.
“A lot of people might want to give up,” Peter said. “And I think his personality and his spirit and his work ethic have been really helpful to him.”
Running over the tables
Kevin was competitive even as a child, focusing intently on soccer in his teenage years. He was student body president in high school.
At 14, not long after he discovered poker, Kevin played in a home game tournament with his father and about 30 of his father’s friends.
“He just kind of steamrolled over everybody and won the tournament,” Jim said.
He was fearless and methodical about learning to play better poker and become an expert in the game. He would use winnings from home games to buy poker books.
In another tournament, Kevin, his brother and their father finished first, second and third respectively.
“We weren’t invited back to that house game anymore,” Jim said.
Kevin thought of poker as “a way to control his own financial destiny and future and not work for somebody else,” his father said.
His parents were nervous at first, but relieved when he bought a BMW with tournament winnings.
“We figured that if all else failed, at least he’d have a car,” Jim said.
Kevin started attending the WSOP in Las Vegas before he was even old enough to play. He wanted to watch the action and catch up with friends.
Many of those friends have followed Kevin’s progressing condition in the months after his injury.
His weight plummeted from 150 pounds to about 115 pounds and then back up to above normal, his father said.
Kevin spent about seven weeks at a long-term acute care facility before he could move any of his body parts. He underwent countless hours of physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, massage therapy, musical therapy and cranial therapy.
He takes several different medications. The therapy sessions are grueling, physically and mentally, but Kevin never complains, his father said.
“He knows that he’s going to have another session tomorrow morning and another session tomorrow night,” Jim said. “He still has a long way to go. And he’s just getting there slowly.”
Along the way, his family and friends have tried to help motivate him.
“We just have a responsibility to be strong for Kevin,” Jim said.
The first time he sat up, he didn’t have the balance or strength to keep himself upright, his father said.
He didn’t leave the rehabilitation hospital until early December, when he started home therapy.
At the start of the year, he moved to outpatient therapy.
“The first time he went, the therapist said ‘Kevin point to your nose,’” Jim said. “He had no idea where his nose was.”
‘Everybody else is not getting better as quick as me’
Samantha met Kevin in 2009, when he was deeply immersed in the game. He would play 12 to 20 hours a day, she said, and she stayed home to “nurture him.”
He wrote lengthy blog posts breaking down situational play and posted dozens of videos about the game he loved and how he handled the highs and lows.
“People always said I wish I could travel back in time and play poker,” he said in one of his last video blogs. “Well, I feel like I’m traveling ahead in time, getting better, and everybody else is not getting better as quick as me.”
In February, he attended a Denver Nuggets game. Less than a few weeks later, Samantha shared a video of his first steps.
In May, he still had about 10 therapy sessions a week, starting his day before 7 a.m. and ending around 9:30 p.m. Recently, he began to move his right leg.
He also started a nontraditional therapy called Arpwave that his family believes could have him walking again one day.
“He’s getting closer and closer all the time to being able to be self-sufficient,” Jim said. “Nobody has ever given us an expectation that any of the things that Kevin does now, he’d be able to do anyway. Our prayers have been answered, and Kevin has exceeded many people’s expectations, especially doctors.”
Kevin, Samantha and his parents have planned a trip to Las Vegas for June 12-15. They’ll be there on the anniversary of his injury. It will be the first time he’s left Colorado since returning home.
Kevin is eager to see his friends from the poker world at the Rio again, his father said.
“He’s going to be shaking a lot of hands, smiling a lot,” Jim said. “I think that’s going to be very inspiring for his recovery as well.”
Samantha has stayed with Kevin throughout his recovery, and attends most of his therapy sessions.
“What else was I going to do but be there for him?” she said. “That’s always the relationship we had. We’ve always been together.”
For a long time, Samantha thought she wanted to become a school teacher, but her plans changed and she started taking a biology class at night. She decided she wanted to become a physical therapist.
“I’ve seen such amazing things with Kevin’s physical therapist,” she said. “I just want to do something like that to help people.”
When he was unable to speak, Kevin would sometimes grab Samantha’s hand, touch her face or give her a kiss. Then he started to say small words that meant so much to her. “Yeah,” “good,” and “I love you, too.”
“You need to be able to communicate with your partner,” she said.
In recent months they’ve been able to do things couples do, having dinner and touring a nature and science museum that she liked a little more than he did.
She said she likes to joke with him that he better marry her after all they’ve endured.
“I know that we’re going to have a long, normal life together.”