The 2014 WSOP Main Event begins airing this weekend. Here's an account of the tournament that started the poker boom, from the people who were there. Excerpted from the full oral history, The Moneymaker Effect: The Inside Story Of The Tournament That Forever Changed Poker.
Table 8, Seat 4.
Poker is a game of both skill and luck and in a tournament, the latter speaks first. It is pure random chance that governs at which table you'll start on Day One and who else will be at that table with you—or, to paraphrase Mike McDermott in Rounders, whether you'll be surrounded by suckers or whether you'll be the sucker.
It was Monday, May 19, 2003, and everyone in the WSOP Main Event had been dealt one card already. Chris Moneymaker's said Table 8, Seat 4.
When he sat down in that seat at that table, he saw his $10,000 buy-in represented in the form of a stack of chips that added up to 10,000 betting units. You couldn't really call them dollars, because they had no monetary value outside the tournament setting. If you lost half your stack, you couldn't get up and head to the cage and cash out for $5,000. You played until you lost all your chips. Or, for one player in that field of 839 hopefuls spread across 90-plus starting tables at the Horseshoe, you played until you had all the chips. Eight million three hundred and ninety-thousand non-monetary-units worth of them.
For 63 players among those 839, there was actual money to be made. The minimum payout, for everyone who finished between 55th and 63rd place, was $15,000. The money gradually escalated from there. If you made the final table of nine, you were guaranteed six figures. Second place would make $1.3 million. And first place, the player with all 8,390,000 chips, would pocket $2.5 million in actual U.S. dollars.
If you've ever spent time in a crowded casino poker room, you know what Benny's Bullpen sounded like when the tournament began at noon on May 19. The most overdone comparison, but still the most accurate one, is that it sounds like hundreds of crickets chirping. There's some talking, sure, but most players are relatively quiet and serious when the cards get in the air. What you hear instead are their chips, riffling between fingers anxious for something to do.
Poker, of course, involves a whole lot of sitting around, waiting for something to happen, trying to stay centered until cards worth playing are slid your way. So poker players riffle their chips. They do it to announce to the other players, This isn't my "first time at the poker table; see, look at the chip tricks I can do! And they do it because, well, it beats biting your fingernails.
That 10,000-chip stack you started out riffling could go a long way if you were reasonably conservative. The blinds in the 2003 WSOP Main Event started out at 25/50, meaning the small blind on each hand was forced to pay 25, the big blind was forced to pay 50, and one revolution around the table cost you 75 if you folded every hand. You started with enough chips for 133 times around the table—about 1,200 hands.
Of course, those numbers changed as the tournament wore on. Not only because your chip stack grew or shrunk if you actually played some hands, but also because the blinds went up. After the first two-hour level, they jumped to 50/100. Before long, an ante was introduced. If your stack wasn't growing, it was, in effect, shrinking, because each chip was worth a little less every time the blinds increased.
The more you think about that, the easier it is to understand why so many players riffle their chips. The walls are constantly closing in. If you don't feel at least a little bit of nervous energy when you sit down to play in a major poker tournament, you aren't human.
That's especially true if it's your first major poker tournament, as it was for Chris Moneymaker.
It was also the first major tournament for one other character we'll hear from for the first time in this chapter, Dutch Boyd. The 23-year-old Boyd, probably more than any other voice in this book, represented what poker was poised to become. He was young. He was brash. He was tech savvy. He was a certifiable genius, having started college at age 12. And he was ready to channel all of that genius, not into putting his law-school degree to use, but into conquering the game of no-limit hold 'em.
Chapter 4 also introduces Peter Alson, a noted writer, editor, and amateur poker player from New York who'd been traveling to Vegas to write about the World Series since long before the idea of "poker media" existed in most people's minds.
Of course, that was just one of the many things that would change in the wake of Moneymaker and the 2003 WSOP.
Norman Chad: When I walked into the Horseshoe, when the thing was beginning, I called up my closest friend back in Washington, the guy who had helped convince me to take the WSOP gig, 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, because I cannot believe this backdrop. I cannot believe this group of characters."
My friend is a longtime horseracing writer. He covered the race track for years. And I said, "This makes the race track look like Sunday church! The characters here, the feel of this place, it's unbelievable. I've never been around an event like this."
It was just an incredible first impression. It reminded me of going to Europe for the first time as a teenager with my parents, looking at a whole different culture. This was a great culture that I was so glad to be around. It was gambling, it was gritty—this was the pre-Internet crowd, Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson and Howard Lederer and Johnny Chan. It was a great odd cross-section of old-time gambling America.
Barry Greenstein: Each year, the Main Event was getting to be a bigger and bigger thing. It reached 839 players in 2003; the year before was in the 600s. So we're getting 30% growth. That's pretty big growth. In 2003, $2.5 million for first, that was starting to be a lot of money. One of the real milestones was the first time the Main Event hit a million dollars for first place. Now we had a situation where you didn't even have to win it to get a million.
Howard Lederer: Certainly, people were expecting a nice bump in the number of players. But nobody was thinking 839. If history was a judge, I think our biggest jump from one year to the next was a little over 100, from '99 to 2000.
Nolan Dalla: We had just enough tables to accommodate all the players—Binion's had a warehouse of a pretty good amount of stuff, including extra poker tables. What we didn't have enough of was space. There was a definite lack of space for tables. The sports book was right next to a deli and we had to yank out all the seats there to make room—all the tables and chairs, everything was yanked out of there and we literally threw down poker tables that were of the variety that you'd see in a Thursday night 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!
But nobody complained. There were lines, there were crowds, there was cigarette smoke, and I didn't hear one complaint about any of it, because it was the biggest World Series ever and people understood that.
Dan Harrington: The tables were spread out upstairs and downstairs, and I was downstairs. I remember the fire marshals being around and there was a big delay in starting, because there was a concern about what happens if there's a fire. Would we be able to get out? I think the answer was, simply, no.
Lederer: It was kind of a checkpoint each year—what's the health of the poker community? What's the growth of the game? How many people are going to play? Everyone was always sweating that number.
You're 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 butterflies and goose bumps when you walk in there. No matter how experienced you are, you get nervous. You get really excited about it. And that doesn't really happen for any other tournament.
Annie Duke: For me, personally, the '03 World Series was the first time I was asked for an autograph. Someone came up and asked for an autograph and I laughed, because I didn't actually think they wanted it. I guess people were watching the World Poker Tour on television and starting to become aware of some of the players.
You were definitely feeling the changes in poker. Were you feeling the changes that were to come? Was it 6,000 people descending on Las Vegas? No. But it was the beginnings of what was to come, both in terms of the growing numbers of players and the way that people were considering poker players to be minor celebrities.
Peter Alson: That year was the beginning of feeling like the Internet was having an influence. The number of entrants jumped about 200 people from the year before and we knew that was largely due to the Internet.
Duke: This was the first time you had that huge presence of people who had qualified online and that was almost solely responsible for the jump to 839 players. It seems now like a small number of players that PokerStars sent, but at the time, nobody could believe there were that many of them playing.
Jeff Shulman: The first thing I remember thinking is, Wow. Every single player in this room is wearing sunglasses. That's weird.
Greg Raymer: 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 very good. Nowadays, I see someone I don't recognize, especially if they're young, I assume they're probably a good online player. He could be the next Internet wizard and I just don't recognize him yet. But that old stereotype, "If I don't know who this guy is, he's probably not any good"—that was a good stereotype. It was usually accurate.
Lederer: You looked across the table and you saw one or two guys with a PokerStars T-shirt on. It was awfully nice of the Internet players to just point themselves out to us.
Harrington: The Internet players were, on the whole, not the strongest players. At that time, the hole cameras were a new institution, so the information had not disseminated to the world yet. No one had time to absorb what good plays were from a strong player. The new wave of books had not come out yet. The teaching tools on the Internet had not yet been introduced. So you had a bunch of people like Moneymaker who won their satellites to get in and they were just cannon fodder. That's how we looked at them.
Chris Moneymaker: My nerves were so bad right before play started on Day One. I was sitting there in the bleachers around the room with my head in my hands. I wrestled in high school and I felt like I was going into a wrestling match—I was nervous, I had butterflies in my stomach. It was bad enough for a guy to come over to me and ask me if it was my first time playing in the event. And then he gave me a crystal for luck.
Dan Goldman: I remember having a conversation with Chris, and this may have actually been the first discussion that we had, in which he was comparing the structure of the World Series to the structure of the tournaments he had played online. That was the point at which I learned that this was his first live tournament.
Moneymaker: Honestly, there was no thought in my head of winning this thing. If I made it through Day One, I'd be happy. If I somehow cashed, I'd be ecstatic. I was in a mind frame of taking baby steps. I couldn't cash until I made it through Day One, so I had to make it through Day One.
The PokerStars guys must have thought I was just a yahoo that had zero chance to win, that I was just burning money. I would go to them and say, "Dude, I got 10,000 in chips, the blinds are 25/50, I don't even have to play a hand! I can fold my way to Day Two!"
Every night, I went to talk to Dan to see who was on my table, and every time I was just like, "I can fold my way to this, I can fold my way to that, I can fold my way into the money!"
That was my strategy for a while: fold my way home. "I can win the tournament. I'll just fold!"
He would say things like, "You don't understand. You can't just keep folding. You're going to have to play hands."
I said, "Yeah, I'm going to play aces and kings and I'll play sets. That's all I'll play."
He said, "You're going to have to open up your range a bit. You can't just sit there. You can't be nervous and play like that."
I'd be like, "Nah, I've got plenty of chips. I'll do what I want to do."
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 certainly not the goal we wanted him to have.
Moneymaker: I played a pretty snug game throughout the first day. I mean, almost everyone played poker pretty tight in 2003 and I was probably one of the tightest people there. Literally, my whole strategy was to 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'd fold and if I had something I'd call. If I bet and I got called, I'd only continue if I had something. That was my strategy.
There was no player-specific strategy. I didn't try to steal blinds and antes. I didn't try to accumulate chips without cards. I was the guy that had to have cards to get chips, other than c-betting 100% of the time when I raised pre-flop and they checked to me on the flop. That was the only way I was stealing chips.
And it wasn't because of my nerves. By the time we started playing, or at least after the first 10 minutes, the butterflies moved on and I was pumped and ready to play. I actually felt jacked up and ready to play poker. That quickly waned off, of course, because of how boring poker is.
It was a much more simplistic game back then, and your chips went a much longer way, and I could control my variance. People didn't three-bet very much back then. People didn't four-bet at all, unless they had aces or kings. So I just folded my life away for the first several hours.
I remember having A-K in the small blind in a hand, and a guy raised, and another guy three-bet, and I just folded my A-K. Didn't even play it. I didn't even want to get involved. Stay out of the way.
Lederer: There was a lot of pre-flop limping in 2003. Really, '03 is a year unto itself, in terms of the limping people saw on TV in the Main Event.
The style of no-limit hold 'em, prior to 2003, was certainly not limpy. You had a much tougher field, chock full of pros. A small raise in 1995 or 2001 or whenever was three times the big blind. I was one of the young guns that was only raising three times. You'd see the older pros, the Texas pros, raising four or five times the big blind. It was a tight-aggressive style.
What you saw in 2003 was just the beginning of the Internet boom, where all of a sudden you had hundreds and hundreds of these greenhorn Internet players who didn't really know about tight-aggressive. They were just beginners. And beginners limp. So there was probably more limping in that event than in any Main Event before or after. It was just kind of a year unto itself.
By 2004, 2005, a lot of the people winning their seats online had actually logged hundreds of thousands of hands and were real players. Standard raises now are more like 2½times the blind. Some people just double the big blind. They don't limp, but they bring it in for much smaller raises. That limping thing was mostly unique to 2003.
Moneymaker: When I sat down and scoped out my starting table, I was looking for online patches like what I was wearing. Those were the rookies. Those were the fish. So I talked to them, figured out who they were.
One guy I talked to said he played one-cent/two-cent cash games and won like the 100,000th hand dealt at an online site and then he got a seat, so I was like, Okay, I want to pick on this guy, because he's probably worse than me.
As it turned out, there were two noteworthy players at my first table, and one of them was one of these online players, but he definitely wasn't a fish. It was Jim Worth, who was known online as "KrazyKanuck." KrazyKanuck was a name that I actually knew, because he was one of the most successful online MTT players. So immediately, I'm like, Okay, well, I'll avoid this guy.
I was sitting in the three- or four-seat, and he was sitting in the eight- or nine-seat. And he raised my blind relentlessly, every single time, for the first two hours. I knew what he was doing—I just had no defense for it. And I didn't really care to have a defense for it, to be honest. I re-raised him one time with kings, and he just folded. But that's the only time I ever gave him any resistance. He knew what I had every time; my hands were playing face-up against him. And he knew how to pick on me.
In between us was the other noteworthy player at the table, Dan Harrington. But Dan Harrington wasn't doing anything. I didn't know who Dan Harrington was. He wasn't wearing one of his bracelets. He just looked like any other older player who was playing the Main Event. I wouldn't have ever thought that he was a Main Event champion.
Dan was sitting over there being as quiet as can be, talking-wise and playing-wise. He was being as snug as I was. He was playing super-tight. So he wasn't even on my radar until a couple hours in, when after he won a pretty decent-sized pot, someone said, "Nice hand, champ."
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. So I asked around with some of the other pros, "Who is this guy?" And they said, "I don't know. Just some kid offthe Internet." That's all they knew. And that's what he was, just some kid offthe Internet.
Moneymaker: Late in the first day, I won two real big pots. The first one I had pocket aces against A-Q and the flop came queen-high, so we got it all-in and the guy went broke against me.
Then a little while later, I flopped a set of sevens and got it all-in on the turn against pocket aces.
That was all it took, two big hands toward the end of the day that went my way and I was the big stack at my table.
Dutch Boyd: I got into the Main Event on the very last satellite that they did at Benny's Bullpen. I wasn't going to be playing it if I didn't satellite in.
I came out to Vegas early, trying to make enough money to buy into the Main Event. I played for about three weeks in Vegas and it just wasn't going anywhere. Kinda stalled out.
So I played a couple of the satellites and it was the very last satellite. They gave away, I think, 11 seats. And I was one of them.
What I remember from the first day of the tournament is something the player to my right said to me. His name was Hua Zhang; everyone just calls him "H.Z." He was one of the better players from San José, where I got my start in poker. At the end of the first day of play, he said something that rang pretty true then and still does.
He said, "You might win this, Dutch, but remember this: If you win, you'll have a thousand new friends, but if you lose, you cry alone." That is so true in poker.
Shulman: Here's a funny story.
My starting table had Mike Matusow and John Spadavecchia and I didn't play a hand for the first hour and a half. I just folded everything. Back then, I pretty much only played pairs and big aces anyway, absolutely nothing else.
All of a sudden, I decided to raise with a 7-5 under the gun and I ended up getting one caller, a kid to my left. I bluffed the flop, then turned a gutshot, and by the river I had the nuts, but the poor kid had the 3-5 for the dummy end of the straight.
I made some little bet and he waited at least two minutes, staring me down, looking like the toughest guy in the world. Then he raised me a couple thousand and he's like, "The action's on you!"
And I was like, What the hell? I re-looked at my hand, and I was like, There's no chance this guy has a 7-5 also. So I assumed I was up against a set and I did the exact same thing he did. I waited two minutes. I crossed my arms. Then I raised him 2,000, and I was like, "The action's on you!"
Then he moved in on me, so of course I called him and I busted him with my seven-high straight when he had a five-high straight, and I went from like 10,000 chips to 20,000.
And Mike Matusow yelled across the table, "You waited an hour and a half to play the 7-5!"
Greenstein: There were tables both upstairs and downstairs on Day One, and I was downstairs. You started the tournament with 10,000 chips and I remember that as I got to 20, 30, 40, I would hear reports that people were ahead of me upstairs. It's not like now, where you have PokerNews reporting chip counts; those "reports" were all word of mouth. And I specifically got reports that Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth had like 70,000 when I had 60,000.
Being a naturally competitive person, I wanted to be the Day One chip leader for no reason other than my competitiveness. So I was playing a lot of hands, and bluffing a lot of pots, and just trying to get ahead of them. And when the day ended, I actually made a bad laydown on the very last hand just to play it safe and be the Day One chip leader, based on hearing that second place was just a few thousand chips behind me. I had A-Q and the board was queen-high, and on the turn, a jack came and I gave it up rather than risk losing a big pot.
As it turned out, the chip-count reports were false and I ended the day with 95,000, while second place only had like 71,000.
But here's what's crazy about my stack size. The table next to mine was Mike Sexton's and he had a pretty tight table. There were nine players at the table and not a single one of them busted on Day One. So their entire table had 90,000 in chips, total, at the end of the day, and I remember Mike saying, "I can't believe it! You have more chips than our entire table."
Eric Raskin is the editor-in-chief of ALL IN magazine and its website allinmag.com and is a freelance contributor to Grantland.com, Playboy, ESPN.com, and HBO.com. He is also the host of the HBO Boxing Podcast and the subscription-based Ring Theory podcast. The Moneymaker Effect is on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes.