In 1970, Benny Binion put together a publicity stunt to promote his casino in downtown Las Vegas. He sent out invitations to Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim Preston, and the rest of the world’s greatest card players and called it the World Series of Poker. Seven of them played cash games at Binion’s Horseshoe for three straight days, and when it was over, Moss was named “champion” in a vote of his peers. The next year, six entrants paid $5,000 apiece for the right to play in a no-limit Texas Hold ’em “freezeout” tournament, in which everyone started with the same number of chips and they played until one man had all the money. A year later, the buy-in doubled to $10,000. In the four decades since, the basic rules of the tournament and the amount of money required to enter have remained constant. But the number of participants has not. The World Series of Poker main event surpassed 100 players for the first time in 1982. It cracked 200 in ’91, the first year in which the winner claimed a seven-figure cash prize. In 2002, 631 players entered, and the payout was $2 million. Then came 2003. The 34th-annual World Series of Poker transformed the event into a pop-culture phenomenon. The numbers — by 2006, 8,773 players vied for a first-place prize of $12 million — illustrate how exponential the growth was. Poker went from a game understood by few and played in smoky backrooms to a television staple. In this 10th-anniversary oral history, more than 30 people who were part of the event explain what happened and what it meant for the poker business.
The Buildup to the Boom
Chris Moneymaker: In the late ’90s, I used to go to the casinos in Tunica [Mississippi]. There was a poker room, but I never went in because there were about 15 or 20 guys in there and the average age was about 70 years old, and they looked miserable. Me and my friends, we had a home game. We never played no-limit hold ’em. After we saw Rounders [which came out in 1998], we started playing almost exclusively no-limit hold ’em.
Brian Koppelman (Rounders cowriter, Grantland contributor): Within the poker world, Rounders had become important. It was the cultural touchstone for poker at the time. When David Levien and I were writing the movie, all we wanted was for it to be what Diner was for us: a movie that guys would quote to each other. You still can’t walk into a card room without hearing, “Pay that man his money.” I think Rounders gave people the vernacular and explained the game and what it meant to play Texas Hold ’em.1 And the World Series of Poker broadcasts were so important in writing Rounders. But we were always really frustrated there was no hole card view.
Henry Orenstein (poker player, inventor): It was 1981 or ’82. I saw a poker show on ESPN, and there were six hands in a row where the player didn’t call, so we couldn’t see what happened! Then the thought struck me that if we put a camera in there, and we were able to see the pros’ cards, that would make the thing much more interesting. I called my engineers in, and within about four weeks we had a working model.
Cory Zeidman (2003 main event 39th-place finisher): I think Henry’s invention was more important than anything else in taking poker to the next level. It gave viewers inside information — seeing who’s bluffing, who’s not. Those old World Series broadcasts of Gabe Kaplan doing commentary, those were torturous! You didn’t know who the hell had what.
Koppelman: In the last poker scene of Rounders, Matt Damon’s character — originally we had written it so that you didn’t see his cards, so that you didn’t know he had the straight that mirrored Johnny Chan’s straight. And the director said to us, “We should show the cards,” and I said, “No, if you know the cards it’s not going to be as interesting.” John [Dahl] said, “Let’s put them both up in front of an audience. The same exact movie. The only difference is in one version you can see Matt’s cards, and in the other version you can’t see Matt’s cards.” And we played our version, the one where you couldn’t see the hand, and it went great. The crowd was really surprised when the cards turned over — it was awesome. But when we played the one where you could see that Matt had flopped the straight, the crowd was on the edge of their seats hoping that [John] Malkovich would fall for it. They were completely engaged. It was exactly the hole-card phenomenon. They wanted to be inside Matt’s head.
John Vorhaus (poker journalist, novelist): With the invention of the hole cam, we have the omniscience as an audience that we never had before. Now we’re watching a threat unfold where each player in the hand can be thought of as the protagonist. Suddenly, we can look at poker as an exercise in storytelling.
Kenna James (38th-place finisher): When I started playing in ’96, ’97, poker was still in the smoky backrooms. People were ashamed to tell their families that they played poker. They would lie and not admit that they enjoyed going to play a game of poker after work. There was still a lot of cheating going on. But it was slowly growing out of that. And this was the tipping point. At Binion’s Horseshoe2 in 2003, there was a sense that something special was happening.
ESPN Antes Up
Matt Maranz (executive producer, 441 Productions): I had done a lot of documentaries for ESPN in the past, and I’d been pitching the World Series of Poker as a documentary probably beginning in like 2000. And they always turned it down, saying, “Who’s ever going to watch poker on TV?” Then in 2003, they finally wanted to do it. What I had been pitching was a documentary. They had a different idea. What I was pitching is not the World Series as you know it.
Annie Duke (47th-place finisher): I was very stiff in my assessment that nobody would ever want to watch poker on television. I just couldn’t imagine that watching a bunch of people play poker would grab anybody’s interest. So, I’m an idiot.
Dave Swartz (coordinating producer, 441 Productions): When we walked into Binion’s for the first time, you were immediately struck by what an interesting group of people this is. Poker had this stereotype of backroom games, cigar smoke, maybe some seediness to it. And that’s not what we found at all. When we sat down to interview people, we knew right away — wow, we have met our match. These are really interesting, intelligent people who think about a game on a level no one really realized at the time.
Nolan Dalla (director of public relations, Binion’s Horseshoe and the World Series of Poker): “Eccentric” is a good word to describe most poker players of that era and before. Just the fact that you would pay $10,000 to play in a poker tournament makes you a little different than the average person on the street.
Maranz: There’s a saying that the only thing more interesting than a poker player is the person sitting next to them. It was a unique breed of person who decided to become a professional poker player. Everyone had an interesting story how they got to that seat. And we were confident that was going to resonate.
Phil Hellmuth (27th-place finisher): I think Matt Maranz is a genius. He brought personality into poker. The World Poker Tour brought cards; Matt Maranz brought personality.
Maranz: We wanted to make as many shows as possible out of this. That’s a business model in TV: You set up once and shoot as much as possible while you can. And we realized that this wasn’t just about the final table, that they played for four days prior to that. And in some regards, the earlier part of the competition is more interesting. At the final table, that’s a crapshoot, who makes it there. But all the famous players and stars and personalities are there on Day 1, and you can actually showcase them and build arcs and story lines to get to the final table.
Bob Chesterman (senior coordinating producer, ESPN Original Entertainment): When Matt and Dave made the connections with the players, everybody understood that we were really putting our time and effort into this project and we really started to gain the trust of everybody. Because in the end, when you’re going to look at everybody’s cards, you need a lot of trust.
Dalla: The mechanics of the cameras were difficult. They used cameras that weren’t part of the table the way they are now. Players would show their cards, but wouldn’t be positioned in front of the camera properly. So they’d be asked to move over 2 inches. Or “Can you be sure and show your cards longer?” Staff would have to go up and remind players. If you’re at the featured table at the World Series of Poker, you don’t want to be tapped on the shoulder every five minutes, reminded to do these things. But I didn’t really hear complaints about it. Most people understood this was part of a greater good for the game.
Fred Christenson (senior director of programming, ESPN): The last major hurdle was that, whatever the gaming licensing governing body of Nevada, we had to get their approval on using the hole-card cameras. As a last-minute thing, they were telling us we couldn’t use them. I think Nolan Dalla and those guys at Binion’s signed off on it, but the gaming commission had to come in and make sure the security was right.
Mike Antinoro (senior coordinating producer, ESPN Original Entertainment): We let them know this wasn’t a live event, but we had to show them what kind of security measures we would have on the hole cams. I got their concern. Look, there’s an incredible amount of money at stake. Obviously, there’s a lot of ways that people we hired could take advantage of the hole cameras.
Chesterman: You had everybody very uneasy, and we were like, “What do we need to do to gain your trust?” I actually positioned a guard there with a shotgun, right outside the curtained-off area where the video monitors were, and we said there’s only two people allowed to go in this area, and nobody else was allowed in.
Maranz: Phil Hellmuth, actually, was a huge help in this. Phil took it upon himself to convince them to allow hole cameras. Without that, I don’t think there would have been hole cameras. He went to them and said, “There will never be a poker tournament on earth that does not have hole cameras. So you can either be ahead or behind.”
Antinoro: The people in Nevada, they knew the good things that would come from having this on ESPN, so ultimately that’s really what won out. I’m not sure there’s anything that we did or showed them that alleviated their fears. It was more a matter of making it clear that we were only going to do it with the hole cam, so they didn’t have any choice.
Chesterman: I think we got it resolved just one day before the main event started. It was too close for comfort.
The Chris Moneymaker Story
Moneymaker: Before I really started playing poker, I was down, overall, as a gambler. I’d say I was down about $30,000, lifetime. I might have been a losing gambler, but I was a profitable poker player. I started playing some in the casino down in Tunica, and down there, an old guy told me about online poker and I ended up getting on PokerStars.
Vorhaus: Internet poker dates back to about 1999, 2000, but it didn’t really take off at first because the functionality wasn’t quite there and the market wasn’t there.
Dalla: 2003 was the first year we had satellite3 qualifiers to the World Series from online poker sites. George Fisher, who was the director of poker operations at the Horseshoe, developed a relationship with three or four sites, including PokerStars, and PokerStars agreed to run some qualifying satellites online.
Moneymaker: I would normally keep a couple thousand dollars in my PokerStars account. I started with $200, I believe it was, and then I would get up to $2,000, $2,500, cash out. In April ’03, I had 60 bucks in my PokerStars account. I remember I’d cashed out more than I wanted to pay some bills, and then I started a pretty terrible poker run. I sat down to play an 18-player sit-and-go,4 and back then, PokerStars didn’t have it broken down all nice and neat like they do now. The satellites and the cash tournaments were all grouped together. I saw that there was a $39 sit-and-go with 17 of 18 seats filled, and I just clicked on it really fast to try and get the last seat. I just jumped in and started playing. It turned out it was a satellite where the winner earned entry into another satellite where the top three finishers would get a seat in the World Series of Poker main event. To be honest, I didn’t know it was a satellite. If I knew I never would have played it.
David Gamble (Moneymaker’s friend): I knew he was playing an online tournament. I did not know the significance — that it was for a seat in the World Series main event. I don’t even know that I fully understood what that was at that time.
Moneymaker: I won the first satellite, then I made it down to the final table in the final satellite, and I was one of the chip leaders. The top three got seats in the World Series plus $1,000 spending money. Fourth place paid $8,000 cash. My friend Bruce [Peery] was watching me play from another computer, and he saw me starting to lose chips. He called me up and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m trying to get fourth place.” And he’s like, “Dude, don’t do that. Take the dang seat! You’ll never get to play in that tournament ever again.” But I said, “Why do I want to play against the best in the world? I play as a hobby. I’m playing for my house.” But Bruce convinced me to go after the seat after promising me $5,0005 in exchange for half my action. So I went ahead and won the seat.
“It turned out it was a satellite where the winner earned entry into another satellite where the top three finishers would get a seat in the World Series of Poker main event. To be honest, I didn’t know it was a satellite. If I knew I never would have played it.” — Chris Moneymaker
Mike Moneymaker (Chris’s father): He called me and told me he’d won a seat. I said, “A seat to what?” He said, “The World Series of Poker.” I said, “World Series of Poker? What the hell is that?” I’d never heard of it. I said, “I’ve heard of the World Series, but that’s baseball.”
Moneymaker: The week before I left, Bruce told me he didn’t have the $5,000 and couldn’t do it.
Gamble: Chris called me, so we went to a sports bar down in Franklin [Tennessee], and he said, “Listen, here’s the deal: I got this seat and I’ve got X amount, but I’m short.” I wrote him a check for $2,000. It was like buying a lotto ticket.6
Mike Moneymaker: Chris told me he wanted to sell a percentage. I said, “OK, I’ll take 20 percent.” People ask if I thought I was making a good investment or just trying to help my kid out. It was a little bit of both.
Moneymaker: My backer was named “Gamble.” I think the story was so surreal, it almost seemed like it was made up already. That detail sort of got lost in the shuffle.
Mike Moneymaker: You know how you get one of those weird feelings? As soon as he called me and told me he’d won the seat, I had this feeling that he’s gonna win the darn thing. I told my wife about it, but I wish I’d written it down and sealed it and put it in a safe-deposit box.
Dalla: The day before the main event, I’m walking through the hallway at Binion’s, and outside the poker office, there were 37 players standing there, all wearing shirts with the logo of PokerStars. PokerStars had them signing up for the tournament en masse. I thought, Oh, neat, there’s thirty-some people coming from this website. But I didn’t think anything of it beyond that. And I had no idea, of course, but in that line was a certain fella named Chris Moneymaker, who ultimately changed poker history.
Dan Goldman (vice-president of marketing, PokerStars): We had 37 qualifiers entered. That was the most of any site. We knew that it was going to be on ESPN. We wanted to try to get some brand exposure on national television for less than it cost to buy advertising. Although, there were a lot of discussions over whether it made sense to send a measurable chunk of our liquidity to a brick-and-mortar casino. We were pretty small at the time, and we’re talking about sending $370,000 to Binion’s. And back in 2003, online sites were viewed by casinos and poker rooms as competition. The card rooms that we wanted to do business with saw us as a threat, as an alternative to playing live poker.
Norman Chad (ESPN color analyst): We had a Las Vegas local who helped us a lot with the production, called Lou Diamond. Lou’s one of my favorite people of all time. Lou’s such a character. If you need anything done, he knows a guy who knows a guy. Two phone calls and he can get it done.
Lou Diamond (sports handicapper, ESPN production assistant): Matt [Maranz] gets the job from ESPN and contacts me, and he’s just gonna be like a sponge. In the beginning, he just wanted to get some information over drinks and dinner. Deep in the back of my mind, I’m trying to score a job, and I do know more about gambling than Matt will ever know, but I didn’t know squat about poker. So he goes, “Well, here’s my dilemma, I need to get the cameras on the winner on Day 1 — not Day 5 when they hit the final table.” I go, “Matt, you’re asking me to pick the winner?” And jokingly he goes, “Lou, I’ll give you 25 picks and I’ll give you three days and you’re still not gonna pick the winner.” So I took it as a challenge. “Really, Matt? OK, just for that, I’m gonna give you the winner.” So Matt hires me, now I’m working for ESPN — dream, right? I don’t care if I’m the pizza boy, I’m working for ESPN, my check comes from Mickey Mouse.7 So I’m like, OK, I gotta find this winner, I gotta do everything I can to impress these guys and lock in a job at ESPN. So first thing I gotta do is get on a satellite and play a game, so I understand what the hell I’m doing. So I get into a $175 buy-in and sure enough, first time I’ve ever played poker in my life in Las Vegas, I’m sitting next to Chris Moneymaker. First showdown I ever get in is with Chris Moneymaker. All of a sudden, he stares at me with them sunglasses. I got intimidated. I don’t get intimidated by anybody. When I tell you intimidated, the goose bumps, hair raising on your arms, everything. Boom. This whole vibe came over me. So I was like, Who the hell is this guy and why is he looking at me like this? So he beats me, he wins the table. Afterward he comes up to me and goes, “Do you know anybody who wants to buy a seat? I won this thing for $40, I’m broke, I’ll sell it for $8,000 right now.” We sat down, we had a drink, we were just bullshitting, and I was like, “Dude, you gotta play it. You got an opportunity, you know?”
Moneymaker: I don’t remember that happening. I know I played satellites beforehand. And I had beers with several different people. So it’s obviously a possibility. But I know I wasn’t trying to sell my seat. I wasn’t allowed to sell my seat. I was trying to sell pieces of it. I wanted to sell as much as I could, but no one was buying a piece of some random guy that they didn’t know anything about.
Diamond: Monday rolls around, first day of the tournament, I get into my first meeting with ESPN. All the producers were there. And Matt says, “This is Lou, he’s going to try to help us here.” So Matt’s first order of business: “OK, guys, let’s get a list of all the people that we want to get the cameras on right away.” They’re talking Howard Lederer, Johnny Chan, T.J. Cloutier, they’re just throwing all the big names out there. I raised my hand, I go, “Guys, I gotta tell you something. I played poker with this guy on Saturday, I get this amazing vibe with this guy, and the kid’s name is Moneymaker.” And the laughter afterward was just like, “Matt, this is the guy?” Trust me, I was the laughingstock when I said that.
Moneymaker: I don’t remember meeting Lou before the tournament, but I do remember him coming up to me on Day 2. He came up to me on Day 2 and said, “You’re my dark horse to win this thing. I like the way you play, you look focused. And I think you’re going to win.”
Maranz: Midway through the tournament, he said, “I got my pick to win. It’s that guy over there, Chris Moneymaker.” That’s a true story.
Days 1 & 2
Barry Greenstein (49th-place finisher): Each year, the main event was getting to be bigger and bigger. It reached 839 players in 2003; the year before was in the 600s. So we’re getting 30 percent growth. In 2003, $2.5 million for first place, that was a lot of money. One of the real milestones was the first time the main event hit a million dollars for first place. Now you didn’t even have to win it to get a million.
Peter Alson (poker journalist): That was the beginning of feeling like the Internet was having an influence. It jumped about 200 people from the year before, and we knew that was largely due to the Internet.
Dalla: There was a definite lack of space for tables. We had to yank out all the seats in the sportsbook and the deli next to it. We literally threw down poker tables that were of the variety that you’d see in a Thursday-night poker home game, where you had to pull the legs out and pull up some steel chairs. These were horribly uncomfortable metal chairs that the players paid $10,000 to sit in!
Howard Lederer (19th-place finisher): It was kind of a checkpoint each year — what’s the health of the poker community, what’s the growth of the game? Everyone was always sweating that number. How many people are going to play? You were sitting down at the most important tournament of the year, and it really does mean everything to you. No matter how many times you’ve played in it, you get the butterflies and goose bumps when you walk in there.
Chad: When I walked into the Horseshoe, when the thing was beginning, I called up my closest friend back in Washington, and I said to him, “Where has this been all our lives?” I said, “I wish you could come out here and look at what I’m looking at.” This was a great culture that I was just so glad to be around. It was gritty. This was the pre-Internet crowd, so this is Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson and Howard Lederer and Johnny Chan. It was a great, odd cross section of old-time gambling America.
Jeff Shulman (31st-place finisher, Card Player magazine editor): The first thing I remember thinking is, Wow, every single player in this room is wearing sunglasses. That’s weird.
Greg Raymer (2004 WSOP champion): Back then, you tended to know people. You knew most of the names and the faces. If you didn’t know someone, they probably weren’t good. Nowadays, I see someone I don’t recognize, especially if they’re young, I assume they’re probably a good online player. But that old stereotype, “If I don’t know who this guy is, he’s probably not any good” — that was a good stereotype.
Lederer: You looked across the table and you saw one or two guys with a PokerStars T-shirt. It was awfully nice of the Internet players to point themselves out to us.
Dan Harrington (third-place finisher): You had a bunch of people like Moneymaker who won their satellites, and they were just cannon fodder, that’s how we looked at them.
Moneymaker: Honestly, there was no thought in my head of winning this thing. If I would have somehow cashed,8 I’d have been ecstatic. Literally, this was my whole strategy: Breathe five seconds before I made any decisions; if it was checked to me, I was going to bet; if someone bet in front of me, if I didn’t have something I would fold, and if I had something I would call.
Goldman: I remember having a conversation with Chris in which he was comparing the structure of the World Series to the structure of the tournaments he had played online, and that was the point at which I learned this was his first live tournament.
Moneymaker: The PokerStars guys must have thought I was just a yahoo that had zero chance to win. I would go to them and say, “Dude, I got 10,000 in chips, the blinds9 are 25/50, I don’t even have to play a hand! I can fold my way to Day 2!” Every night, I went to talk to Dan and I was like, “I can fold my way to this, I can fold my way to that, I can fold my way into the money!” He would say, “You don’t understand, you can’t just keep folding, you’re going to have to play hands.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m going to play aces and kings and I’ll play sets.10 That’s all I’ll play.” And he said, “You’re going to have to open up your range. You can’t be nervous and play like that.”
Goldman: I remember getting the sense from him that this structure was so favorable to players that it seemed like he could get his $10,000 back without taking any chances — which was not the goal we wanted him to have.
Moneymaker: Dan Harrington was at my starting table, but I didn’t know who Dan Harrington was.11 Dan was sitting over there being as quiet as can be. He was playing super-tight. So he wasn’t even on my radar until a couple hours in, when someone said, “Nice hand, champ,” after he won a pot. I had to look at the pictures on the wall of the past champions and see who he was.
Harrington: I absolutely remember playing with Chris that first day, because he was giving me trouble. I asked around with some other pros, “Who is this guy?” And they said, “I don’t know. Just some kid off the Internet.” That’s all they knew. And that’s what he was, just some kid off the Internet.
Moneymaker: I overslept on Day 2 and I literally thought I was going to be eliminated. I figured you don’t show up, you don’t get to play. It’s pretty common knowledge now that your chips just get blinded off until you show up. But back then, I thought I was done.
Shulman: Moneymaker was at my table on Day 2, and I remember there was something about his sunglasses where you could see the reflection of his chips and the table. His sunglasses were so shielding of his eyes — that was a little different than what I was used to seeing at the poker table. His were just pure mirrors. So it was like, I don’t know who this kid is but he looks pretty cool. I also remember he was drinking a lot of Red Bulls.
Moneymaker: My Day 2 table included Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey. I didn’t know who Phil Ivey was. He was a young black kid with a lot of chips. He was just Phil Ivey — he wasn’t Phil Fuckin’ Ivey at that point. But I struggled on Day 2, and my struggle was with Johnny Chan. Chan was just abusing me. Every time I raised, he’d come back over the top. Some guy told me at dinner, “You have monsters-under-the-bed syndrome. You always think that your opponent has the best hand. But they hardly ever do.”
Sam Farha (second-place finisher): I didn’t play the main event a lot, especially before 2003. The only way I play it is if there’s no other cash game going on. In 2003, I was at Binion’s. There was no big cash game, so I decided to play the main event at the last minute.
Greenstein: Sammy and I were together at the end of Day 2, and I had a straight draw and I semibluffed all-in with one card to go against Sammy. He called and I hit my straight on the river. Sammy got up from the table and started leaving. I said, “Sammy, you have me covered.”12 And he said, “What’s the difference? It’s close.” I said, “I think you have 5,000 left.” He said, “Well, what can I do with 5,000?” I said, “Come on, you can’t just quit.” So he sits down and he goes all-in dark13 for his last 5,000. And somebody calls him, and he doubles up. And the very next hand, he goes all-in dark again. And someone calls him, and he doubles up to 20,000. There were seven hands left in the night, and he proceeds to play all seven.
Farha: I went from 5,400 to 54,000 in the span of just a few hands.
Greenstein: If I hadn’t said anything to him after the big pot we played, he’d have just left the room.
The Perfect Name
Dalla: At the end of Day 1, I’ve got the chip-count slips, and there are people all over the world waiting for this information. There’s this huge pile of slips, and I’ve got to type up the chip counts, one by one. You’d write, “Doyle Brunson, Las Vegas, Nevada, 23,300.” I had to do that for all 385 players that survived the day. And I come across this slip — for his name, it said, “Chris Moneymaker.” So I’m thinking Chris is his first name and Moneymaker is his nickname. Chris “Moneymaker” Jones. My first reaction was, “Who is this joker?” If you go back and look at the official end–of–Day 1 chip counts, I put “Chris Unknown” or something. I would not even honor the man by writing “Moneymaker.” So the next day comes and I find Chris Moneymaker. And I said, “Are you Chris? What’s your real last name?” He said, “Moneymaker.” And I’m like, “No, no, what’s your real last name?” And of course, this man has heard this his entire life. So he handed me his driver’s license. And I look at it and all I could do was say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that.”
Zeidman: I remember seeing Chris Moneymaker’s name on this whiteboard where all 839 players were listed. And I thought to myself, Is this for real? A guy’s name is Moneymaker?
Shulman: The first time I was at his table, I asked him what his name was, and he said, “Moneymaker,” and I thought he was kidding. I said, “Yeah, I’m a moneymaker, too.”
Goldman: I think it might have been at the end of Day 3 or on Day 4. The CBS affiliate in Los Angeles wanted to interview Chris. And the producer said, “OK, before we put him on the air, I have to ask you a question: Is Chris Moneymaker his real name?” I said, “I’ll be very honest with you — I have no idea. But I’ll find out.” So I found Chris and I said, “Look, I really hate to ask you this … ” And he said, “Yeah, I know.” And he pulled out his wallet, and he said, “Yes, Chris Moneymaker is my real name.” And as he’s showing me his wallet, I hear this voice behind me saying, “Yeah, and my real name is Mike Moneymaker, you want to see my ID?” And I turned around, and it was the first time I met Chris’s father, who also had his wallet out to show me that his name was Mike Moneymaker.
Moneymaker: When I looked at the Day 3 table draw and I saw Chan two seats to my left, that brought a lot of heartache. Dan Goldman told me I was at “the table from hell.”
Goldman: He was at a very scary table. Not just Chan, but Howard Lederer was there as well, and a couple of other good pros. I remember not wanting to scare him, but wanting him to be alert to what he was dealing with. The best advice I could give was, “When you’re not in a hand, you need to be paying attention, and specifically, you need to be looking to your left and seeing if you have any opportunity to pick up anything on the players that are acting behind you.” I didn’t want to horrify him. But I was horrified.
Moneymaker: It was Table 77. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I’m looking around and they said, “Well, that’s the TV table.” And I was like, You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me. I just told myself, Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t look like an idiot, please.
Goldman: The table was scary, but at least it was the TV table, so our brand was going to get on TV. Just in monetary terms, we sent $370,000 to the World Series. If we had been given the opportunity to write a check for $370,000 to have one of our players wear our logo for an entire broadcast on ESPN, we would have done it in a heartbeat.
Moneymaker: On my first televised hand, I forgot I had a hand. I was in the big blind, Howard and Johnny were deep into a hand, Johnny had raised pre-flop, and Howard had three-bet14 him. I had no information on either of them, so I was trying to pick up any kind of tell I could. I went into crunch-time study mode, trying to figure out what they might be holding. I wasn’t even paying attention to the fact that it’s my big blind, I still have two cards in front of me, and I’m looking like an idiot.
Lederer: I think we were probably waiting for two or three minutes. He just had no idea. I mean, he was an Internet player. In his mind, he’d clicked “fold to any bet.” Moneymaker was deliberate. He was not a fast player, so the first 30 seconds was no big deal. But then it got a little out of hand. I don’t know when I would have said something. But Chan only had K-J — he was probably anxious to muck his hand. So finally he said something.
Moneymaker: I remember after I folded, I’m embarrassed. I can’t believe I just did that on TV. So Johnny turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, kid. That’ll never make it on TV — unless you win.” So I’m like, OK, good, that’ll never show up on TV.
Koppelman: Johnny Chan was poker’s Joe Frazier or Muhammad Ali. That guy won two years in a row, back-to-back. If you wanted to say that Moneymaker’s run tapped into the home poker player’s fantasy, certainly the home player who watched Rounders and now sees some accountant knock Johnny Chan out of the tournament is getting to live vicariously through this guy.
Moneymaker: It was the last hand before a break. It was an ace-high flop with two hearts, and I had A-8 of hearts. I bet, he raised, I put him all-in, and Johnny called. He had K-5 of hearts. I was 100 percent shocked that he made that call with that hand, because I was still thinking that the pros always have monster hands. When he called, I thought I needed to catch a heart. I thought I was behind, I thought he had A-K or better. When he flipped his hand up, I was shocked. He just ran into the one hand he did not want to see.
Matt Savage (WSOP tournament director): As a member of the staff, you’re thinking, Boy, this would be really great if Johnny Chan could get to the final table, and win the tournament, and make history by winning his third main event bracelet. Moneymaker was a nobody — this kid that won his way in online — so we didn’t know how that would be perceived. I mean, if an amateur wins, is that bad for poker because it suggests the game is all luck? I remember thinking, It’s not good for the World Series that Chan is out. But as it turns out, it was the best thing that could have happened.
Maranz: Our coverage, we started with like 40 players we were tracking from the beginning. It didn’t dawn on us that none of these players are going to be around at the end. Then as guys got knocked out, we’d pick up other players to follow. At that point, of course, you have no idea who Moneymaker is, and Johnny Chan is Johnny Chan. So you start going to Plan B.
Lon McEachern (ESPN play-by-play announcer): You go find a hero that people want to see, and if he gets knocked out, then the person that knocks him out becomes the hero and you can follow him. It’s a great, brilliant progression that Matt made. Every step was perfectly placed like a jigsaw puzzle to the end.
Moneymaker: That was the hand that won me the tournament, because of the confidence factor. Chan was literally one of three poker players I knew, so for me to knock him out, my confidence level went through the roof and I started playing with more freedom, realizing that if the best player puts his money in that bad, maybe the skill gap isn’t that big. When I busted Chan, that was like beating Mike Tyson.
Gamble: I had a business trip that conflicted with the start of the tournament. When I got there on Wednesday, he had just knocked out Johnny Chan. It was Chris, Bruce, and I. We stayed together in the same room the rest of the week. The room didn’t have air conditioning! It was a dump, and then as Chris was winning they were going to upgrade us, but he was superstitious: “We’re not changing anything.” He didn’t want anybody coming in the room, didn’t want them making the beds. We took the same path to the poker room every day, we wore the same shirts and hats.
Mike Moneymaker: I went out there with Chris for the weekend leading up to the tournament, then I came home on Day 1. He’d been playing a couple hours when I left. I said, “Hang in there, boy, if you do good I’ll be back.” Bruce called me right after he knocked Johnny Chan out. And about a half-hour later, Chris called and said, “I knocked Chan out. Can you get back?” I said, “I already booked a flight.”
Farha: The first time they showed me on TV, they described me as an investor from Houston. I was a full-time poker player. I was never an investor. But I gave that image to a lot of players. I pretend like I’m an investor from out of town just to get the game going. Back then, before poker was on TV, they didn’t know who I was, they want to play against me. And I’m breaking them one by one.
Daniel Negreanu (poker pro): I played with Sammy on Day 3, and it was clear that he had control of the table. He had a big stack of chips and he was talking his way through a lot of hands and he was really confusing a lot of people.
Shulman: Sammy was such a thrill. I played with Sammy a lot before then, and I just couldn’t figure him out. He would put pressure on, and boy, the way he was able to get to 200,000 in chips before the next guy even had 30,000 or 40,000, it just happened over and over. And then he would lose them somehow.
Farha: I am a crazy player, but within reason. It’s marketing. I’m marketing myself as crazy. Which, I am crazy, but I know when to lay it down. I remember one hand, I laid down top two pair. And if I called, I would have lost. The guy showed me bottom set.
Lederer: We’re getting ready for Day 4, and I see Humberto Brenes in the bathroom. Humberto is a really tight player. I said, “Well, I sure hope that the best hand holds up for you today, Humberto,” because I knew that if he got all his money in, he’d probably have the best hand. And then I heard later that he got busted by Moneymaker, where he got all-in with the best hand and Moneymaker hit the two-outer. He had aces against Moneymaker’s eights, and the flop was like K-9-2, and Moneymaker put him all-in with eights and spiked his eight.
Moneymaker: I can’t remember what hand I put Humberto Brenes on. My read was that he was beat, so I went with it. And obviously it was incorrect, so I had to go to Plan B and suck out.15
Chris Moneymaker vs Humberto Brenes WSOP 2003 by jonececilia37
Goldman: That’s when I called my bosses at PokerStars and said, “This guy’s actually got a shot.” Obviously, I can’t say that’s a genius play that he made. But what it told me was that he was beyond the point where he was afraid to take risks. That hand told me that the guy had big balls. And that’s a very important trait.
Lederer: Look, he got lucky. He moved in with eights against Humberto and hit his two-outer. But that also scares the shit out of you when you hear about that hand, because he’s capable of anything. And another thing I have to say about Moneymaker is that he was mentally tough. Dan Harrington once told me that one of the most important things you do in a poker tournament is you try and identify the guy at the table at that moment who wants to leave. For some people, that’s right at the beginning of the tournament. Just the pressure of being in the main event is making them so uncomfortable that they want to get out of there. Whatever stage you’re at in the tournament, usually there’s someone who’s at the point where if he goes broke, it’s not so bad because he’s out of the pressure cooker. I was always waiting for that to happen to Moneymaker, and it never did. He wasn’t the greatest player, but he was tough as nails and he was unpredictable.
Moneymaker: The most important hand I played that you didn’t see on TV was against a guy named Chuc Hoang. I can’t remember the blinds exactly, but he raised and I called. Then we went check-check on the flop. And the turn came around, and I had A-3, which was complete air. He made a tiny bet, 15,000. So I decided I was going to raise 15,000. And then he came back over the top of me another 15,000. And at this point, I’m thinking, OK, he’s got a decently strong hand, but I’m a stubborn son of a bitch and I think I can get him off of it, so I make it 100,000 more. And he calls. At this point, I’m like, Oh, this is not really the spot I want to be in. I’ve just gotta hope for a good card on the river that doesn’t change the board too much, because I was trying to represent a made straight and I was pretty sure he had a set or two pair, something along those lines. On the river, he checked and I shoved all-in, and he folded pretty quickly. I showed my bluff, and that’s when I felt like people were talking about me in a good way. Like I’m not such a fish anymore, I’m a lunatic and you might want to leave me the fuck alone.
Swartz: The first time I really started taking notice of Chris was through his confrontations with Dutch Boyd. Dutch was one of these interesting characters who caught our eye early on.
Dutch Boyd (12th-place finisher): The night before my interview with ESPN, I was really thinking about how it would appear on TV. I knew they were looking for little sound bites that were going to look good on TV. I thought about it, that I needed to make sure I had long pauses between little sound bites and try to make their job easy. I thought if I can just make their job easy, I’m going to get a lot more coverage than I deserve.
Farha: Dutch Boyd was aggravating me so much. Every hand, he says the word “raise” and looks at each player in the eyes, one by one, and takes about five minutes to say how much he’s going to raise. I like to play fast.
Boyd: I was playing with Moneymaker on Day 4. I got a pretty good tell on him. He was the kind of player who, if you checked to him, he was going to bet. All the time. And he had something, it was almost like out of a Hollywood movie, where he would flare his nostrils when he was weak. It was like a bunny, man. So I was like, This is going to be so easy. All I gotta do is check to him and let him bet, and I’ll just look at his nostrils, and if they start flaring, I’ll come over the top of him. And that’s what I did in our big famous hand.
Moneymaker: The flop was 9-5-2, and I had pocket threes. Dutch had me covered, and he raised me all-in. I was in the zone at that point. My instinct was that he had two overcards. I really couldn’t see him shoving in with a set there. Pre-flop, he bet and I called, and when I called, I remember he shot me a look like, Oh crap, what the hell are you doing in my pot? It was more of a concerned look than a confident look. I felt like he didn’t have a whole lot, and when he went all-in, I just couldn’t put him on a hand16 that he was going to risk basically his tournament life on. I figured he had complete air and it’s a move. So I went through my head trying to figure out what he could have, and my first instinct is he has A-K, A-Q. It turned out it was K-Q. I called and said, “Low cards, dealer!” because I wanted people to know before Dutch showed his cards that I knew where I was when I made this pretty sick call.
Swartz: I remember Dutch shaking his head and saying, “That’s a heck of a call, Moneymaker.”
Boyd: A lot of people are like, “Amazing call, Chris!” But I didn’t think it was amazing at all. Even if I was bluffing, I could easily be bluffing with better. And in the best-case scenario, which it turns out he was in, he’s still eliminated, what, 30 percent of the time? You don’t really want to put yourself in those positions. But that’s his fearlessness. He didn’t know what that 30 percent feels like. You hear all the time about people getting it in with aces in the main event and losing. Well, you only really need to be all-in with aces three times before you’re [an under]dog to win all three. If you keep getting all your chips in, it’s just a matter of time before you go broke. Chris was all-in against me. Seventy percent of the time he wins. Thirty percent of the time, the whole poker world is different.
“When you first start playing poker, that’s what you think about, knocking people out. Being able to tell your friends, “Wow, I knocked out Johnny Chan. I knocked out Phil Ivey.” — Jeff Shulman
Raymer: What Chris has never been given credit for, he’s one of the best hold ’em players I’ve ever seen when it comes to putting someone else on a hand. But in ’03, he didn’t have a great feeling for the math of poker and basic strategy. It was a great read, but you could still argue that, if you know all the mathematical possibilities, it was incorrect to call for your tournament life.
Swartz: Chris just played the game differently. He wasn’t a professional. He might not have known what was the “right” play at the time. He just went with his guts. And it worked for him. He was playing the game differently — in large part because he was different.
Farha: Chris Moneymaker calls all-in with pocket threes, and the funny part, he made a statement, “Come on, dealer, give me two low cards,” without looking at Dutch Boyd’s hand. He knew pocket threes was the best, and it was! And I’m watching this and I’m laughing to myself! Where do they come from, that they play like this? This is not poker.
Boyd: One thing I regret doing was going all-in. I feel like if I would have re-raised the minimum, or re-raised like two and a half times his bet, it would have looked a lot less like a bluff. Hey, he made a good read. But I could have been trying to push him around with fours. Or sevens. There’s a lot of hands there where I could actually be ahead and feel weak.
Goldman: That was a turning-point hand. The hand with Dutch gave Chris the confidence to go with his reads. I think up until that point, he wasn’t sure that he was a contender.
Boyd: I told him about his nostrils tell after I was eliminated. Why not? But I don’t think he believed me. He probably still doesn’t believe that he did that. That’s OK. He can think what he wants, I’ll think what I want.
Moneymaker: Dutch Boyd told me about that tell after he busted from the tournament. But I don’t know if it was an accurate tell. To be honest, for the first three or four days, I never really bluffed, so my nostrils were never really flaring.
Boyd: It still hurts, thinking about how close I came. When you’re deep in the main event, it’s almost like you’re living a dream. It feels like fate. It’s predetermined, and you’re going to win it, and nothing’s going to stand in your way. The universe wants you to win. It wasn’t until I was out the door that I realized the universe doesn’t care.
Lederer: I got eliminated on Day 4, in 19th place. I didn’t want to get out of bed for a week. That elimination was the most disappointing, devastating elimination of my poker career. There are cameras there, the game is changing, I’m playing the best poker I’ve ever played, and it just felt extremely winnable. And I may not have known it then, but I felt it, that that might be my last chance in the main event. I knew there were going to be even more people the next year. It’s no longer a tournament you can expect to win or that you really have on your list of career goals.
Savage: Once we got down to the final 10 players — one elimination from the final table — we moved everyone to one table. But we only had nine cameras on the table. So two people had to share. That was awkward.
Moneymaker: I was playing snug as a bug in a rug when we got down to 10. I wanted to make the final table. I didn’t want to play another hand, I didn’t care about being the one to bust somebody. The only hand I played 10-handed was the A-Q hand against Ivey. If I played another hand, I don’t remember it.
Lederer: Obviously, Chris Moneymaker is the big story to come out of that World Series of Poker. But the next biggest thing that happened was the birth of Ivey. He had come close in 200217 and I remember him saying, “I’m going to win this thing in 2003,” and I said, “Yeah, yeah,” and there he was, where really he should have won that tournament. He was becoming the most intimidating tournament player in the world that year.
Moneymaker: Everybody thinks that I got lucky against Ivey. I didn’t get lucky. I raised pre-flop with A-Q, Jason Lester had 10s, Phil Ivey had nines, they both flatted,18 the flop was Q-Q-6. And it came around to me and I bet 75,000, and Ivey only had about 475,000 left. Everybody says I bet too small to get him out of there — my bet size kept him around — but that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to run people off when I have A-Q. Jason folded his 10s, Ivey called with his nines. And I didn’t get lucky, I got very unlucky that he hit a two-outer. He hit a nine on the turn. He checked to me, I bet 200,000, he raised 200,000 more all-in, and obviously I’m never folding there. It’s a cooler. I just got the better end of it when I hit an ace on the river.
Negreanu: It definitely bothered Phil. But at the same time, he had so much determination and focus and confidence that he just assumed he was going to do it again next year and he was going to do it again every year. Still, it took him a little while to get over that one.19
Shulman: Moneymaker busted Ivey and Chan. When you first start playing poker, that’s what you think about, knocking people out. Being able to tell your friends, “Wow, I knocked out Johnny Chan. I knocked out Phil Ivey.”
The Final Table
Diamond: I wish I could have bet on Chris back on Day 1 or Day 2. But that year, it wasn’t available until the final table, so I only got 3-to-1 on him because he had all the chips.
Savage: Even though Moneymaker was the chip leader, people were not thinking he had a chance. It was a tough table, nobody expected that lead to hold up.
Farha: The table was tough. You have Jason Lester, Dan Harrington, David Grey, Amir Vahedi. Chris Moneymaker was the only one who wasn’t tough. Nobody paid attention to him, because who cares? When you have one bad player, you don’t focus on him as much.
Hellmuth: I stopped by the final table just to see who was left. There was Sammy Farha, who put a bad beat on me earlier in the event. And I saw this kid, Moneymaker. And he was like, “Phil” — I mean, they’re actually playing, he threw his hand away, he came over, he was like, “Hey, can I get an autograph?”
Moneymaker: Once the final table started, I knew I’d be heads-up with either Amir or Sammy at the end. Amir was the craziest person at the table. Sammy was the second-craziest. So I told my dad that Amir and Sammy are going to play a big pot together, they’re gonna clash, and whoever wins, I’m going to play heads-up for the title.
Dalla: Amir took over the chip lead from Moneymaker early at the final table. Then he just imploded. He completely self-destructed in a ridiculous bluff, and unfortunately, that’s how Amir Vahedi is largely remembered now. To watch that, if you were a friend of Amir Vahedi, I still look at that and cringe.20
Harrington: It wasn’t as big a meltdown as people indicated. Vahedi got to where he was in the tournament because he took chances at key times. So he picked a flop where it didn’t rate that his opponent had a hand. He kept betting into Sam and Sam had a flopped set of nines, and Sam played the hand very well. He knew what Vahedi was about, that Vahedi was going to try to take him off the hand. A lot of the theorists, as far as what’s the proper strategy when you have ascending order of payouts and what chances you’re supposed to take, they would not agree with what Vahedi did. But, on the other hand, it’s high volatility and you get rewarded if you succeed. You have a good chance to win the tournament.
Farha: I flopped top set. I was surprised he was bluffing. But I guess he thought, It’s Sammy Farha — he’s aggressive, let me see if I can get him out. A lot of players think that way. I was fortunate to get paid off with a full house, that the guy decided to bluff there.
Moneymaker: That was what Amir Vahedi did the whole tournament. I mean, he moved all-in with a Q-8 against Olof Thorson’s A-K on Day 4, and said, “You gotta have balls, baby!” and stands up and starts cheering. That’s what he did the whole time. It’s how he got his chips, and ultimately how he lost them.
Savage: His collapse happened quickly. In real time — about two or three hours — he went from chip leader to busted.
Christenson: The charm of the World Series of Poker was you played until somebody won. You play overnight, you play until the sun comes up, you play until somebody caves and somebody wins.
Savage: We played longer days than we planned because we had more players than we expected. So exhaustion was definitely part of it.
Chad: As the final table wore on, we heard so many stories about how Sammy Farha had played all night — and he had. As these semidegenerate poker players do, they can’t get away from a good cash game. So he played the tournament the night before until 3 or 4 in the morning, then he played in a cash game all morning, and then he’s playing for the world championship the next day.
Farha: For five days, I had no sleep. None. I did not sleep. And the last day, the reason I lasted, I drank 20 Red Bulls, about 20 cups of coffee. I could not function.
Harrington: I’ve played a lot of different games, chess, backgammon, whatever, where you had to put in long, grueling hours. If you get down near the end, where victory depends on you being alert, I could dig down and get something out of myself to give that final push. Well, at that final table, I dug down, and there was nothing there. I hit the wall. Here’s how bad it was: When it got down to me, Sammy, and Chris, I wanted to bet 75,000, which was the right bet for that situation. I sat there and I couldn’t calculate how to make the bet. I had a whole bunch of 25,000 chips in front of me, and I could not figure out how to get to 75,000. It was an insurmountable problem.
Moneymaker: For the first part of the final table, my plan was to sit back and let other people eliminate each other until it gets short-handed. Then, honestly, I don’t know what happened when we got three-handed. I just started raising every single hand. I was destroying both of them with aggression, to the point where Sammy’s like, “Let’s just go home, I’m done, this is really not fun anymore.” I turned into mini Stu Ungar. I was just crushing them. I felt like I was on steroids.
Harrington: I couldn’t come up with a coherent strategy. When it was just the three of us left, Sam Farha was sleeping at the table, I was dead on my feet, and there’s Chris Moneymaker over there bouncing around like this was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Moneymaker: I was in the zone and in one of those special moments you don’t get in poker very often.
Koppelman: Isn’t that what’s magical about poker? That if you are somehow in the matrix, if you’re able to lock in, and you can see that clearly for a short period of time, you can have streaks of brilliance.
Harrington: After I busted in third place, ESPN asked me for a prediction, and I told them, “No one over 40 is ever going to win this tournament again.” It’s become an endurance contest. The next year, I was at the final table again. I was sitting next to a younger player. He nudged me and said: “I know you tell everyone how brutal it is on you to get down to this point in the tournament, you don’t have the energy. Well I’m 28, and it’s brutal on me, too.”
Moneymaker: I was really confident — and then they brought out two and a half million dollars and put it on the table in front of me. And it started to sink in, what we’re playing for. That is a lot of fuckin’ money.
Gamble: When they brought that money up the escalator and they walked over with shotguns and armed guards and they dumped that money on the table, Chris turned his hat around, and he came over to us, and he was breathing hard.
Moneymaker: The stress really kicked in when I saw the money. So I started thinking maybe Sam and I need to talk about a deal here. I said to Sammy, “Let’s leave the table and go to the bathroom.” So we walked into the bathroom and I said, “You want to split the money evenly and play for the bracelet?” Sammy’s response was, “Instead, we can put it all together — the $2.5 million and the $1.3 million — and play for the whole thing.” Like winner take all. At the time, I thought he was joking. But knowing Sammy now, he probably wasn’t. He said, “In all seriousness, I have more experience. I think I need a little bit more.” Like I should give him more than an even split. I’m like, “Dude, I got you 2-to-1 in chips! Are you crazy?” He’s like, “I think I need more.” So I’m like, “We’re playing it out then, straight up.” Him thinking he deserved more — that really pissed me off and made me want to crush him.
Farha: He said, “Let’s chop it.” I said, “No, chopping is not fair.” He said, “Give me an offer, I’ll do whatever.” I said, “Well, I don’t want to embarrass you with my offer.” That’s exactly what happened. Honestly, I knew I’m making a mistake, but it’s an ego thing. Even though I’m so tired, I figured this kid can’t beat me, even if I die on the table.
Erik Seidel (poker pro): I thought it was a crazy, super-nice offer for Sammy, and I was surprised he wasn’t taking it. Moneymaker may have been an amateur, but you couldn’t spot him that big a lead.
Swartz: Watching Chris Moneymaker and Sammy Farha go heads-up, it was out of a movie script. You had the established pro who had the look and feel of everything you ever thought poker was going up against this kid with the crazy name who by all historical data had no business being there.
Chad: All the way down to the finish, I never thought Chris had a chance to beat Sammy Farha. Plus I was rooting for Sammy Farha because I was a moron. I just had no idea that Chris Moneymaker winning was going to be the engine that drives the car in terms of the poker boom.
Moneymaker: I knew Sammy’s game plan going into heads-up. The conversation in the bathroom helped me figure out what he wanted to do. Sammy normally likes to play big pots. He likes to gamble it up, but I knew that if he thinks he’s that much better than me, he’s going to want to keep the pots smaller and use his experience to whittle me down and get close to even, and then he might start applying pressure. At the start of heads-up, he wasn’t going to want to do anything to risk his tournament life. And that’s where the bluff came in with the king-high vs. his pair of nines. I didn’t think he’d want to lose to an amateur and look like an idiot if I’m sitting there with the nut flush or something. That hand was totally derived from the conversation we had in the bathroom.
Maranz: The bluff. That was a great hand, and you knew it was a great hand as it was happening. Even now, 10 years after that, people are talking about that as the single best hand in televised poker history.
Moneymaker: I had K-7, Sammy had Q-9. The flop came 9-6-2 with two spades, and he checked the flop, and I think his plan was to check-call with top pair because he didn’t want to play a big pot against me. And when I checked back to him, I don’t know what he was thinking, but it was something out of the ordinary compared to what I had been doing.
Farha: A good player, when he raises on the button pre-flop, he continues, on the flop, to bet. So I checked, and he checked on the button. Even though he raised pre-flop, he does not do a continuation bet.
“I said to Sammy, “You want to split the money evenly and play for the bracelet?” Sammy’s response was, He said, “In all seriousness, I have more experience. I think I need a little bit more.” Like I should give him more than an even split. I’m like, “Dude, I got you 2-to-1 in chips! Are you crazy?” That made me want to crush him.” — Chris Moneymaker
Moneymaker: The turn was the eight of spades. That gave me the second nut flush draw and an open-ended straight draw. At this point, I’m ready to go. He bets, I raise, and if he wants to shove all-in, we’re going to get the money in the middle. Of course, I don’t really want him to shove. I want him to fold. And when he calls, I immediately think he has the ace of spades and like a six or seven in his hand. I knew he didn’t have a flush. But I thought there was a good chance he could have a similar draw to what I have, and I thought he had the ace of spades. So my plan on the river was actually to ship any river that was not a spade. I was almost positive he didn’t have a flush and almost positive he didn’t have a straight and pretty sure he didn’t have two pair. And I didn’t think he could call me with anything other than those hands. It would even be a stretch for him to call me with two pair.
Farha: When he raised, I knew he was on the draw. I don’t want to go all-in, because if he misses, I know he’s going to try to bluff me out and go all-in. And if he makes the hand, I’ll know it and I won’t lose another chip.
Moneymaker: At the end of the day, I bricked. The river was a blank, the three of hearts. I went from being relieved because I didn’t want a spade, to being pissed off because now I’ve got king-high and I’ve gotten myself in another one of these damned predicaments. But I went with Plan A. I said, “All-in.” There was no Plan B if he called.
Chad: It’s shot terrifically. It’s an unbelievable hand. Chris has those sunglasses on where he’s trying to be a statue, he doesn’t want to give anything away.
Moneymaker: I remember Amir talked with Sam in a hand earlier in the day, and the second that Amir said something, Sam called. So I just told myself to sit there, shut up, shut your eyes, don’t talk, imagine you’re on a beach, don’t give him any information. Just be a statue. If you lose, you’ve still got chips, you’re already a millionaire. And all the while I’m thinking, Just fold. Just fold. When I made the bet, I really felt like he was going to fold, and the longer it went, I felt like, Damn, he’s trying to talk himself into calling. He’s getting tired — he’s trying to talk himself into finding a hand to call with.
Farha: It took me 20 minutes — you don’t see it on TV — it took me about 20 minutes to muck my hand on the river. And the reason I mucked it is because I started talking to myself and I doubted myself. When you take a long time, you lose your instinct. And that’s what happened. My plan went perfect. I said he’s gonna go all-in, he went all-in, he missed his draw. But I changed my plan.
Savage: Sammy probably thought it over for two or three minutes, which is an eternity when you’re sitting there. I thought Chris had a hand. I didn’t think he was bold enough to make that move without a hand. I guess Sammy thought the same thing.
Moneymaker: I think they basically captured it on TV, how long he took to fold. Two minutes to think about a poker move — that’s an eternity.
Seidel: It was just a great play by Moneymaker. He had no fear. That was a great World Series moment. You have a guy putting his entire tournament life on the line against one of the most seasoned pros in the world, and he’s a rank amateur, and he gets away with it.
Goldman: I was sitting next to Chris Ferguson. At the point at which Chris [Moneymaker] moved in on the river and Sammy is struggling with this one-pair call, Ferguson leaned over and said, “When you see this on ESPN, you are going to see the best bluff in the history of the World Series of Poker.” Later on, after everything was done and I had a chance to talk to Chris [Moneymaker] very briefly, I said, “The hand with Sammy right before you won … ” He said, “I had stone nothing.”
Chad: I don’t remember exactly how I worded it on TV, but I was being half-serious when I called it “the bluff of the century,” and I think I mentioned that we’re only a couple years into the century, but what the heck. It’s just a great bluff.
Farha: It was the worst bluff of the year, but it worked for one reason: I bluffed myself out.
Chad: I know one person who doesn’t think it’s the bluff of the century is Sammy Farha. He thinks it was a mistake and he played it badly, and he gives no credit to Chris Moneymaker at all. I don’t want to say he’s a sore loser, but Sammy has a certain arrogance about his level of poker ability, and part of that arrogance is that Chris was not in his league, pokerwise.
Dalla: Only one person was allowed to watch the feeds from the hole-card cameras. Over in a corner of the Horseshoe, with a security officer standing guard, behind the black curtain is essentially Oz — the only person in the world who knows what both players have. I don’t remember his name, but he worked for 441 Productions, and he comes up after the whole thing and says, “You’re not going to believe this, I just saw the most amazing bluff in poker history!” I was like, “What? Are you kidding me?” Because everybody thought Chris had a big hand. Everybody assumed Sammy had made a great fold. That guy telling us — that wouldn’t happen today. Now you’ve got total isolation with the person or people who can see the hole cards. But this guy just had to tell somebody his secret, what he’d just seen.
Moneymaker: It ended the very next hand. After I pulled that bluff off, I could tell he was agitated. And it just so happens the very next hand, I flopped bottom two on a J-5-4 flop. I was thinking, Please, just give him a jack!
Farha: I had top pair, and boom, he had bottom two pair. And he broke me. So that tells you it was meant to be his.
Mike Moneymaker: After he won, immediately, I ran down and we hugged. It was just spontaneous. And if you listen on TV, when we hugged, you could hear a crack. And he looked at me and said, “What was that?” I said, “You owe me a pair of sunglasses, boy.”
Moneymaker: All I remember saying to my dad is “I did it.” There was so much emotion, and so much going on, from the time I won until the time I got home — I don’t really remember a lot. I forgot I did an interview. I think I was so high on adrenaline. It was surreal.
Goldman: In the interview after he won, one of the reporters asked him an incredibly stupid question, like, “Have you ever won this kind of money before?” And Chris held up one pack of hundred-dollar bills, and he said, “I’ve never made this much money in a year.”
Mike Moneymaker: Chris wanted me to go out partying, but I said, “I’m not 25 anymore. I’m going to the hotel to get some sleep.” So they took me back, and Sammy was in the same limo. He’s sitting there with his $1.3 million in cash, in a liquor box, basically. He made a comment, that “your son’s got a lot of class.” He said, “He came up to me and wished me good luck. Poker players don’t do that and mean it, but he meant it. You can be proud of him.” He said, “I made one mistake, I thought he had the flush.” I said, “I thought he had it, too. But could you take the chance that he didn’t?”
Poker Players as TV Stars
Dalla: After my work was done that night I turned off my cell phone and went to bed. When I woke up, my voice mail was full. So I start dialing these things back, and it’s area code 212 and 202 — it’s New York, Washington, Los Angeles. I call this 212 number and the voice on the other end answers, “David Letterman Show!” That’s when it hit me. I realized that poker had changed, the World Series had changed, my life had changed. And then Chris Moneymaker was on Letterman a couple weeks later.
Moneymaker: My biggest fear was public speaking. And for them to tell me I was going on David Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel, I just told them straight-up, “No, I’m not going to do it.” I had to do media junkets and interviews and all this stuff, and every time for the first six months, I felt like I had to throw up before I went on air. Obviously, over time, they got easier. But they had to push pretty damn hard to get me to do Letterman.
Goldman: Part of the PokerStars contract for the World Series was you agreed to represent PokerStars. He and I talked about it over that weekend. When I was driving back from Las Vegas to L.A. on Monday, Chris called me. He tells me he’s decided he doesn’t want the limelight, and he’s just going to take his money and go back to work. In fact, he was calling me from work. On Memorial Day.
Moneymaker: I went back to my job. I didn’t think of poker as a career option.
Goldman: I said, “Chris, all I can ask is that you think this over. You’ve got a onetime opportunity here to capitalize on winning the most prestigious poker tournament in the world. Take a couple days and consider how this is going to affect your future.” And he agreed to do that. We didn’t talk for almost a week. The following Saturday or Sunday, he called me and said, “OK, I see your point. I don’t want to sign up to go on the road for a year, but I’m in. Let’s see where this goes.”
Mike Moneymaker: Chris quit his job. He said, “I can be an accountant again when I’m 50.”
Moneymaker: One of the big changes in my life is that I got divorced that year. The main reason was me wanting to be a traveling poker pro. She didn’t sign up for that life. She was married to a stay-at-home accountant who was not traveling the world, gone all the time, and gambling a lot of money. And it was a choice I had to make. I tried to be good, stay at my job, and be that accountant, but in all honesty I didn’t want to.
Goldman: Chris had come out to Los Angeles and shot some TV commercials with us before the World Series started airing. I remember sitting with him on the rental car shuttle bus and asking, “Have things changed?” And he said, “You know, I’ve bought some stuff. I’m hearing from friends I haven’t heard from in a while. But other than that, nothing’s really changed.” And then two weeks later, the ESPN broadcast happened, and not long after that we asked him to come out and play in the WPT Legends of Poker at the Bicycle Club, and I picked him up at the airport. And he reminded me of that conversation we’d had the month before, he said, “Yeah, things are different now. I walked off the plane and I got mobbed.” I said, “Well, get used to it. You’re famous now.”
Maranz: When the first episode aired, the ratings were good. Initially, ESPN was like, that has to be one of those ratings statistical blips. So they put it on again and it did really well. So they tried moving it around in different programming spots, because I think in their mind it just did not compute to what a successful television show was supposed to be. They would try at two in morning, four in the morning, ten at night, and no matter where they re-aired it, it was getting big ratings.
Christenson: The ratings, they were a notch below the NFL and college football, but there wasn’t much else that it wasn’t beating. They were doing over a 1, which was unheard of.
Chad: I had no idea, even if we put a great product on TV, that anyone would watch it. At the end of the day, it’s a bunch of middle-aged men throwing chips into the middle of the table. But watching the ratings, I couldn’t believe that it was resonating this well with people. And I knew that the ratings were just going to grow each week in those seven broadcasts. Remember, this is before poker entered anything close to the mainstream, so most of the people watching this had no idea who was going to win. It was plausibly live to them. This was word of mouth going around: “You gotta watch these people, it’s unbelievable.”
McEachern: Anywhere I went, we looked up months and months afterward, and we saw close-ups of Sam Farha and Chris Moneymaker. They were running that show forever.
Harrington: I asked an ESPN producer the next year, “Look, I understand the first four or five times you put the thing on TV, but the 120th time you put it on TV? What’s that about?” He looked at me and said, “It beat hockey.”
Negreanu: That period of time was the most exciting period for poker in its history. Seeing poker on ESPN in prime time — not only that, the coverage was fantastic, everything was exciting about it, it was so new and fresh. Just feeling like, Oh my gosh, this is ready to explode!
The Moneymaker Effect
Lederer: Erik Seidel called me the day after Moneymaker won. He said, “Can you believe that Moneymaker won?” Erik got it right away, that it was going to change everything. He said, “This is the best thing that could happen to poker.”
Seidel: This is a well-known story: As the final table was being played, Mike Matusow was at the Horseshoe saying, “If this guy wins I’m gonna kill myself. It’s the worst thing ever for poker.” He was going through one of his Mikey rants. And I said, “Are you kidding? If he wins, we should give 5 percent of all our future earnings to him.” You knew his story, he got in for $40 and he was a rank amateur, and he had this incredible name, and it just looked like if this guy can do it, everyone’s going to think they can do it.
Koppelman: Chris Moneymaker — the name, the story, the way he won, it’s the exact fantasy. Suddenly everybody was able to justify playing poker. You’re telling your wife you’re going to the World Series of Poker, and it wasn’t a crazy thing, it was a good investment.
Hellmuth: I remember thinking that if Moneymaker wins, it’s just gonna be huge for poker. You can see him doing Letterman, you can see him doing Leno. But I was also the guy who told a couple of writers in ’97 that eventually poker would be played in a small stadium. I was the one who saw the wave coming and told everybody. Everybody used to laugh at me back then. But even I never thought it would get this big.
Lederer: I wrote a four-piece blog at the time about my four days in the main event and broke it down, and at the end I said, “Well, maybe we’ll get 1,100 entrants next year.” Like I’d made some outrageous prediction that we might jump from 839 to 1,100. Of course, it surpassed 2,500. It tripled in one year.
Vorhaus: In 2002, the poker book section of your local bookstore section was half a shelf. By 2004, it was a floor-to-ceiling rack.
Alson: If there’s anyone who says they could have predicted the extent to which poker exploded, they’re lying. It was the perfect storm of the Internet and Moneymaker and television combined. And I don’t think you can say that one of those things had more of an impact than another.
Greenstein: You had all these online sites advertising on all of these shows. That’s what fueled it. People like to say Chris Moneymaker winning, it was the perfect storm, but realistically, his winning was less relevant than the hole-card camera and online poker. 2003 was the right time. Poker was primed to take off. Poker was already taking off.
Farha: Poker was going to boom in 2003 no matter who won. Moneymaker helped it, but it didn’t matter if he came first, second, or third. It didn’t make any difference if he won $2.5 million or $1.3 million — that’s a lot of money either way. Actually, poker would have been more booming if Sammy would have won it, because Sammy would have had more money in his pocket, and gambling would be better.
Maranz: The right guy won. The amateur who was poker’s aspirational programming. You watch it, then you go, “Hey, that accountant from Tennessee, he’s not that different from me. I could do that, too.” If a pro wins, you might not get that same boom effect.
Negreanu: If it had been someone other than Moneymaker, I don’t think it would have been three times as big the next year. Maybe it would have doubled, but not tripled.
Savage: At the 2004 World Series, we definitely were not anticipating 2,576 players. We ran out of chips! One night we had to open the bags up and replace some of the chips with smaller denominations.
Raymer: I was extremely surprised by the turnout the year I won. It turns out they had a handful of tables in one of the aisles at the front of the casino, and the fire marshal came by and said, “You have 10 minutes to clear this aisle or I’m going to shut down the whole building.” The numbers were just so much more than anyone expected.
Moneymaker: I didn’t realize the full impact on poker until the next year, when I went out there and I saw all the crazies.
Shulman: One of my jokes was I’d tell all the pros, “Someday there are going to be little hotties following poker.” And everyone’s like, “Yeah, right.” If you were in poker pre-2003, you understood that it was just a bunch of old dudes and their wives. And then it all came true. The poker demographic became much younger, which you can’t deny has something to do with Moneymaker.
Vorhaus: Moneymaker was the cherry on the sundae. And the “Moneymaker Effect” is such a great shorthand for what was happening. It wouldn’t have worked as well if it was called the “Farha Effect.”
Moneymaker: A lot of people came up to me the next few years and said, “You’re responsible for this.” Or, “Thanks a lot, I can’t get on a table now.” I obviously had an idea that I was a big catalyst for everything, but can I really say I caused this? I don’t think in those terms. I never thought in those terms. I’m just a guy who got a little lucky and played really good poker for one week. And I picked the best week in history to do that.
For more about the 2003 WSOP Championship, listen to The Poker Edge, where Andrew Feldman talks to Chris Moneymaker and Eric Raskin.