10 years ago, he ignited poker’s big bang. Now Chris Moneymaker tells us how it almost didn’t happen
The flop is [Js] [5s] [4c]. Chris Moneymaker checks. Sam Farha bets 175,000. Moneymaker looks skyward and contemplates his next move.
“I’m gonna raise,” said Moneymaker, putting out a bet of 475,000.
Farha takes some time with his decision.
“OK, I go all in. Let’s go,” says Farha, holding [jh] [td].
Moneymaker calls, tabling [5d] [4s], and stands up to await his fate.
The turn is the [8d].
The river is the [5h].
Chris Moneymaker wins the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event and poker is never the same.
That fateful hand played out on May 23, 2003, — and this WSOP marks the 10th anniversary of the event that WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla labeled at the time as “the sonic boom of poker.”
In the 10 years that have passed since Moneymaker, then a 27-year-old accountant from Nashville, TN, won poker’s most prestigious title, the poker world has grown exponentially. But it almost didn’t happen — there were a number of times along the way that Moneymaker’s historic journey hit speed bumps.
The legend that grew out of Moneymaker’s win and the subsequent mainstream media attention that followed was that Moneymaker had won his way into the Main Event thanks to a $39 satellite on PokerStars.com. It’s true that Moneymaker qualified on the online site, but there were actually two tournaments Moneymaker needed to win to get a trip to Vegas and neither of them had a buy-in of $39.
The first was an $86 single table satellite — a sit-n-go — that allowed the winner to move on to a $650 mega satellite, which offered one WSOP seat for every $10,000 in the prize pool.
“I just remember logging on. PokerStars didn’t have the player base obviously that it has now, so sit-n-gos didn’t go off as often as they once did. That’s what I liked playing a lot more than anything else, because people played them so bad,” recalled Moneymaker. “So when I saw that they were almost full, I would always jump on. There were a couple times where I’d come to find out I’m playing satellites and not cash. I guess this was one of those times.”
That Wednesday night, Moneymaker came home from his nine-to-five job and promptly won that satellite — even though he was initially thinking he was playing for a cash prize.
Buy-in $80 + $6
Date: April 23, 2003
- lil jj
Chris “Money800” Moneymaker wins a seat into a $615 + $35 WSOP mega satellite. The runner-up, “Hormones,” wins $70 cash.
The following Saturday, Moneymaker registered for the 4 p.m. WSOP Cash Satellite. He was one of 67 players in the field, meaning the top three finishers would all be headed to Las Vegas to play in the WSOP. The remaining $8,205 in prize money would go to the eventual fourth-place finisher.
Over the next six hours, Moneymaker found himself playing well and he was still alive. Shortly before 10 p.m. “Bombardier” was eliminated in fifth place and Moneymaker, with bills to pay, was hoping to take home the cash prize rather than the WSOP seat.
“I saw that fourth place was $8,000, and I had $8,000 of credit card debt, so all I really
wanted was that fourth place,” said Moneymaker. “I didn’t want the seat and have to
play against the best players in the world.“
So the four players began discussing a deal that would have seen Moneymaker walk away with the $8,205 cash. Only, there was a problem; Moneymaker wasn’t the only one who was applying the one-in-the-hand, two-in-the-bush philosophy to the negotiations, another player wanted the cash.
“We were fighting basically over that $8,000, because he didn’t want the seat either. He just wanted the money as well,” said Moneymaker. A good friend of his was watching the action and saw the discussions in chat and called Moneymaker up.
“He was like ‘Dude, come on man, just take the seat, you’re good enough; you can do it.’ I said ‘Man, no, there’s no way.’ And he said ‘Listen, take the seat, I’ll give you $5,000, I’ll take half your action, and we’ll split it. And then you’ll have the $1,000 extra or that you get for travel expenses. So you’ll have like $6,000 in cash, you’ll have a Main Event seat, and you can take care of some of your bills and all that stuff from that other money.’ I was like ‘Cool. OK. That makes sense. I’ll do that,’” said Moneymaker. “We had a little bit more discussion, we couldn’t come to an agreement, so we all just said let’s play.”
It only took another 15 minutes for the tournament to finish. Moneymaker, along with “Hugefish2888” and “First Ward,” earned WSOP seats while “Gotmilk” got exactly what he wanted — the money. Moneymaker’s dream plan took a turn for the worse a few days later, though.
- Money800 – WSOP Seat
- Hugefish2888 – WSOP Seat
- First Ward – WSOP Seat
- Gotmilk – $8,205
- Big Orange
“The guy that I was on the phone with that was going to give me the $5,000, I guess had a bad week gambling and didn’t have the money anymore. So I was stuck with the Main Event seat, and $1,000 in cash, and that was it,” said Moneymaker. Knowing that PokerStars Terms and Services required satellite winners to take the seat, Moneymaker emailed customer service hoping for a miracle — and $10,000 cash.
“I wrote them and said ‘Hey, I don’t really want to play the Main Event, can I get $10,000 in cash,’ and the terms and services said that you win the seat, you have to play. I knew that going in, but I tried anyway, and they said no,” said Moneymaker. Hoping to pocket at least some cash, Moneymaker came up with another idea and he turned to his father, his brother and his best friend with what he openly told them was a “bad investment.”
His father Mike ended up taking 20 percent, his best friend David Gamble took another 20 percent and his brother Matt bought 10 percent. Even with $5,000 cash in his pocket Moneymaker wasn’t exactly full of confidence.
“My dad was always supportive, and I don’t know why my dad jumped at it. And Dave, I’d played poker with him before, and he knew that I was the best one at our games. He knew that I was good,” said Moneymaker. “My buddy said, you can go out, you can win that thing. They all had more confidence than I did.”
A few weeks later Moneymaker was on an airplane to Las Vegas. Before he left, Gamble gave him one last gift — the pair of Oakley sunglasses Moneymaker wore throughout the WSOP. He headed out a few days early so he could get comfortable at the tables and work on his live No Limit Hold’em game. His arrival at Binion’s Horseshoe left him a little underwhelmed.
“I’d been to Vegas many times, but I’d never been Downtown. And they took me to the Horseshoe and really it was, to put it nicely, a piece of shit. The ceilings were real low. It looked like you were playing poker in a pool hall or something. That’s the best way to describe it. There were poker tables jammed everywhere. They ripped out slot machines to put more poker tables in.”
Having never played a live tournament before Moneymaker jumped into the single table satellite action right away.
“I ended up doing pretty well in the sit-n-gos. I think I was doing a bunch of $300 or $500 sit-n-gos. Just a lot of those, and after a day or two I felt more confident going into the Main Event,” said Moneymaker, who then had his first encounter with poker fame. “That day, I remember I was playing in a sit-n-go and Phil Hellmuth had just won whatever bracelet number he had just won, and the bracelet ceremonies were basically, they’d come down to the cash game area or tournament area, and announce ‘Your winner of this event, Phil Hellmuth.’ Being able to walk up and say congratulations and talk to him for a second.”
“I just thought it was cool because at the time I really only knew three poker players by name; Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth. I didn’t know anybody else, so I thought it was cool that I got to talk to him, and he had just won another bracelet. So, I was star struck, and having fun with that.”
It didn’t take too long for the star struck accountant from Tennessee to disappear though. When the first day of the Main Event came around he was understandably nervous.
“They had these bleachers set up outside Benny’s Bullpen back then. I was just sitting there, obviously looking very nervous because a guy came up and sat down next to me and just said ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ I was like ‘I’m doing all right, you know, just a little bit nervous.’ He’s like,’Oh you watching today? You playing?’ I said ‘No, I’m playing for my first time.’ I said ‘Are you playing?’ He said ‘No, I just watch. I just come to be a spectator; I’m not good enough to play in this thing.’ That made me feel even more nervous. But he said ‘I want to give you something for luck since this is your first time,’ and he gives me this little crystal. And so I take the crystal, and I say ‘Thanks.’”
When tournament play got underway Moneymaker was anything but active. His plan was built around just staying alive, not accumulating a mountain of chips.
“Literally for the first, I want to say five hours, I didn’t do anything but hardly fold, except for once I made a three-bet. My plan was to play hands and make the nuts. I wanted to play pocket pairs and flop sets, because I thought sets were the nuts back then, and I wanted to play nut flush draws. I didn’t play any suited connectors. I played just ace high flush draws, everything else I folded. I just wanted to stay out of the way and not get involved.
Moneymaker finished the first day with 60,000 in chips — from the 10,000 chip starting stack — and it was all thanks to that simple strategy he’d decided on, play pairs and flop sets.
“I flopped a set of fives, against a big pair and he gave me all his chips. And then on a jack-high board, I had a set of sevens, and got it all in on the flop against a pair of aces. Then, I flopped another set later on where a guy paid me off with another overpair,” said Moneymaker. “So that’s pretty much where all my chips came from on day one, was just me flopping sets against overpairs and getting paid,” said Moneymaker. “People didn’t lay down overpairs back then at all, whatever the price was. But every time, the sad thing is, I didn’t have top set in any of the hands, so I thought I was beaten for sure. When we got to the river, they were calling me the whole way, and I shoved all in, and acted sort of disgusted when I got snap-called. So I really thought they had that top set to be calling me like that, but they just never did.“
Moneymaker looks back at the first few days and remembers them as fun, but as the money bubble approached everything changed.
“It was more fun on Day 1 and Day 2, and it became stressful on Day 3. We were getting close to the money,” said Moneymaker. “The money started becoming a reality. I was never in danger when the money wasn’t there.”
Day 3 was also where ESPN first took notice of him. It led to an awkward exchange with producers.
“Day 3 is the first day I joined the TV table and ESPN, I guess they didn’t want to report a fake name or whatever. I mean I literally had to show my ID to seven or eight different people that worked for ESPN at different points throughout the tournament. And that all started on Day 3.”
The tournament went by in a blur for Moneymaker but there is one hand in particular from the final table that he, and every poker fan, remembers with amazing clarity. The bluff.
Moneymaker held [Ks] [7h] and Farha had [qs] [9h]. The flop came [9s] [6s] [2d].
“We check, checked on the flop, and I really didn’t feel like he had a whole lot on the flop.
The turn was the [8s].
“I picked up a flush draw and open ended straight draw. He bet 300K on me. It was obviously a great spot to semi-bluff. And if I get there, I hope that I’m hitting my spade because it’s really bad if he were to call me, he would have the ace of spades, that’s the hand he would call me with,” recalled Moneymaker. “I felt maybe he had like middle pair or something like that, but I really just felt like he was on the spade draw when he called.“
“So my plan was to bluff any river, if it didn’t come a spade. If it came a spade, I may end up just checking the river with my king of spades. If he shoves, I don’t know what I do with the king of spades. I got a real tough decision at that point,” said Moneymaker. “I just remember telling myself I’ve got to reach down deep, and no matter what card comes, I’m hoping I hit my straight, but if I don’t, no matter what comes, I’m shoving.
The river was the [3h].
“I missed and I did the shove, and I shut my eyes and just imagined I was on a beach somewhere, and I wasn’t playing in the World Series of Poker heads up for all this money. I remembered early in the tournament where Sammy was talking to Amir (Vahedi) and asked Amir a question and Amir was quiet for a while, then finally Amir answered him, and Sammy snap-called him. So I just remembered that, so don’t say anything to him don’t give him any information. Just sit there, and be supremely quiet, and don’t say anything.”
Everybody knows what happened next. Farha folded. It was the very next hand where Moneymaker ended it all. And began everything.
Download BLUFF Mobile from iTunes or GooglePlay to read the complete oral history of Chris Moneymaker’s historic week with interviews from Chris Moneymaker, Mike Moneymaker, Matt Savage, Nolan Dalla and others.