05/12/2016 12:26PM

Fornatale: McMahan starting to rake in pots


Ken McMahan is making a run at the National Handicapping Championship Tour. McMahan, 49, has moved up into second place on the Tour, within spitting distance of current leader Kevin Engelhard. The NHC Tour is a yearlong interconnected series of contests. The winner receives $75,000, plus a chance at a $2 million bonus should that player go on to win the NHC itself. Players receive Tour points for finishing in the top 10 percent of NHC qualifying events.

McMahan has thrived on the last two Sundays on NHCQualify.com, racking up a pair of fourth-place finishers to complement the three online scores he’s already earned. Outright wins are crucial to Tour success – overall winners receive a 25 percent points bonus – but McMahan isn’t frustrated by these recent close calls.

“In both of these contests I was in position to win going into the last race had my horse won,” he said. “As long as I’m in position to win playing a horse I like I feel good.”

McMahan doesn’t just judge his performances based on results – he also looks at the quality of the decisions he makes along the way. This trait served him well in the poker world. In the early 90s, he was a regular on the felt. He played with Chris Ferguson before he was “Jesus” and knew Mike “The Mouth” Matusow from back when the eventual four-time WSoP bracelet winner was a dealer, not a player.

His own poker resume includes a number of final table appearances and a few cashes at the World Series. His biggest score in poker came at a stud event at the Commerce where he chopped the $50,000 first prize with well-known pro Mel Judah. One observer was surprised that Judah would agree to chop against an unknown player rather than fight it out.

“That’s exactly why I’m chopping,” Judah said. “I know how everybody else here plays, I don’t know anything about this guy.”

McMahan recalls the last day he played poker seriously. He was sitting across the table from a young, blond kid.

“I knew poker was over for me [when] he made big bet, and I came back over the top, and he looked at me and said ‘I know you have ace-5 and are semi-bluffing, but I’m going to lay it down and let you have it this time.’ ”

That was indeed the exact hand McMahan was holding and he realized the world had changed – he had no interest in locking horns with Daniel Negreanu and his ilk, guys who “beat the crap out of me,” according to McMahan.

One day in 2012, he was talking to his cousin Chris Podratz and learned that he was on his way to Las Vegas to play in a horse racing handicapping tournament. “I couldn’t even fathom how that would work,” McMahan said, as his cousin explained to him about the National Handicapping Championship.

Adding to the appeal of tournaments is the fact that McMahan’s wife, Jeannie King, is a tournament player in her own right. “We both signed up for the Tour and managed to qualify that first year,” McMahan said. “Jeannie is usually the first one in our group to qualify, but she hasn’t yet this year so I’ve been teasing her.”

Now, less than five years later, McMahan is pursuing a Tour win full throttle. “It’s my major goal for the year,” he said.

He’ll need a high score – possibly even an outright live win – to cement his Tour chances. Those goals appear in reach because he and King already plan on attending all the major tournaments across the country over the next six months: Santa Anita, Monmouth, Belmont, Saratoga etc.

He credits last year’s Tour winner, Jonathon Kinchen, with inspiring his Tour goal. “I saw how he attacked it last year – with fun,” he said. “It wasn’t all work and no play, and that’s my style, too.”

McMahan is an aggressive player – a win-or-go-home type – who keeps the big picture in mind when it comes to his gambling. “I’m in it for the long haul,” he said. “Just like in poker, there are hands you win and hands you lose but it’s all about getting to the endgame. I know where the finish line is.”