PokerGO recently added 13 historic editions of World Series of Poker Main Event footage and everyone in the Las Vegas headquarters has been soaking these up. While watching the 1978 WSOP Main Event, Amanda spotted an interesting character by the name of Ken Smith, doling a top hat that perfectly matches his three-piece suit, leaving her wanting to know more.
As a new poker industry employee and novice player, I find myself curious about the stories behind the players I see at the tables. Watching poker, you only get to see their poker side, but what makes them special outside the game can easily be missed.
Watching the WSOP 1978 Main Event, a man donning a top hat to go along with a three-piece suit caught my eye. The gentleman in question, I come to find out, was named Ken Smith, and his reaction after doubling up was priceless. Ken stood up, lifted his top hat with both hands and with an open mouth he put the hat back on as he sat down. “What’s the story behind this man?” I said to myself. What an interesting character to end up at the World Series of Poker. I had to know more!
Upon Googling ‘Ken Smith poker,’ I found many results about a successful chess player. Could it be one and the same person? Well, indeed it was, and this sent me down a rabbit hole that steered me clear from poker almost entirely.
Ken’s chess career started by accident in the 1940s. After a football injury landed him in the hospital, he decided to take up chess. The Texas native became so fascinated with the game that he started reading books, and after recovering he befriended some very strong players. Going forward, Ken played at the Dallas Chess Club every weekend, becoming a strong player himself within six months.
Across his chess career, Ken won over 200 chess tournaments and was titled a chess master by the FIDE (International Chess Federation). In 1962, Ken started Chess Digest which became an industry staple. As the years went on, and the Digest maintained popularity, Ken began writing books as a teacher of the game. Ken continued attending weekly tournaments, keeping his head high when losing to lower-rated players. Stressing the importance of the chess endgame, Ken wrote nine books including books centered around improving your game, which could be studied without a chessboard.
Ken Smith’s name was etched in chess history as he’s partly credited for inventing the “Smith-Morra Gambit,” an aggressive opening strategy in which a pawn is sacrificed to counter the famous Sicilian Defense. Smith has written nine books and 49 articles about this gambit that carries his name.
Ken was even employed by Bobby Fisher as an assistant for the World Champion poker match against Boris Spassky. Where Ken provided Bobby with all the preparation material from the Digest. Believing that gambit chess players made great poker players since both games deal with calculated risk, Ken kept his strategy simple, and if he thought he had the best hand he would put all his chips in the middle.
To his benefit, this school of thought worked as in the 1980s he placed third and fourth in a few World Series of Poker tournaments. Ken always played poker in his silk black top hat, which made him a spectacle to watch.
Up until his death. Ken worked five days a week at the digest despite battling kidney failure and undergoing dialysis three times a week.
After all this research on Ken Smith, I learned what a determined, brilliant, and knowledgeable man he was. When Ken set his mind to something, he would not stop until he was successful. He was an inspiration to many in the chess and poker community, and an inspiration to those who are battling sickness. Even though he was just a man with a top hat at the WSOP 1978 Main Event, he will now be known as so much more in my head.