Thursday, January 31, 2013

2003 WSOP: The last lap to the final table

May 22, 2003
The 2003 World Series of Poker odyssey of PokerStars and Chris Moneymaker (and, indirectly, me) was far from a direct path. Among many other hands, I sweated Chris getting all of his chips in way behind Humberto Brenes, and then getting all in again vs. Russ Boyd (who I won't dignify by using his nickname - as I said in my last post, nicknames are for people who earn them) in a hand that makes me shake my head to this day.

Before I describe that hand, there's something that should be said about Chris Moneymaker that very few people know. Chris has taken a lot of heat over the years as a flash-in-the-pan, a luckbox for whom everything came together in a magical week at the 2003 WSOP. But I'm here to tell you something after following the guy around for a week that year and quite a bit since - the guy can play. ESPN painted him as 'dead money' - using that exact term - and showed a lot of hands in which he got it in bad or made marginal plays. But there were a lot of plays in between that got little or no airtime that had a big impact. 

One example: I saw Chris play a hand against Tomer Benvenisti, an Israeli player who ended up making the final table, that I thought was brilliantly played. (If you know the details of this hand, please excuse any minor errors - this is 10 years old and I took no notes on this one.) Chris called a raise from Tomer in the big blind with KQ. The flop came KJ and some small card. Chris checked, Tomer bet and Chris called. The turn was a T, and if my memory serves correctly it put two suited cards on the board. Chris checked again, Tomer bet and Chris once again called.

Many players would have made a move at this point, but Chris chose to just call. I asked him about it afterwards, and he told me that he didn't think Tomer had anything at all, certainly not anything that beat top pair. He believed that any action on his part would make Tomer fold, but he had seen him bluff on all streets before, and didn't want to get in the way of such a bluff. He also knew that he didn't have to worry about Tomer hitting an Ace, since it would make Chris a straight.

The river didn't change anything, Chris checked again, Tomer bet again and Chris called. I think Tomer just mucked the hand at that point, although he might have shown. The key here is that Chris correctly analyzed a situation based on observations of this particular player, and extracted the absolute maximum by just calling. I later saw the hand on ESPN and it turned out that Tomer had pocket threes, which is particularly amusing considering the following hand.

I saw this hand from the rail, but have since seen it on ESPN also, so I know the hole cards. Chris had been sitting to the left of Russ Boyd for a few hours, and according to Chris (afterwards), Boyd had been stealing his action most of the time, raising before Chris had the chance (sort of a reverse position play), raising in small vs. big blind situations and generally torturing Chris.

I obviously have some bias in telling this story, but I'll add to the bias by telling you a little something about Russ Boyd. Back in the very early days of online poker (2000), Boyd and a few of his buddies started a site called PokerSpot. Without belaboring this story (Google it for more details), Boyd stiffed the PokerSpot community for about $400,000, while lying about it in forums that I followed. He later tried to sell the PokerSpot customer list to me, describing it as "one of the purest lists of quality online players." I didn't like him when it happened, liked him less seeing him sitting next to Chris, and don't care much for him today.

This key hand developed when the 2003 WSOP was down to about 18 players - I've tried in vain to figure out exactly how many remained at this point. The average stack was about 460,000, and when this hand started Chris was above average at about 575,000; Boyd was slightly ahead of him at 650,000. Boyd was in the small blind, Chris in the big blind, and it was folded around to Boyd, who raised. Chris called and both players saw the flop of 952, three suits. Boyd uncharacteristically checked, and Chris bet 100,000, which I recall to be a little bigger than the size of the pot. Boyd started talking Chris up, asking about his sunglasses, trying to pick up something on him. Finally Boyd leaned back from the table, put his hands in his lap and said "I'm all in."

I was watching this hand from the opposite side of the table and could see both players clearly. Chris let out a huge sigh, and did something I had never seen him do in the previous four days - he took his glasses off. I decided that Boyd had raised with some random two cards, Chris had called with either two big cards or a decent Ace, Boyd had hit a pair and now Chris had been caught with his hand in the jar. 

In only a few seconds, Chris said, "I call," and the look on Boyd's face told me that I probably had the hands backward. They turned the hands over but I  couldn't see; however, I could see Boyd shaking his head, and when I heard Chris say "low cards," I knew he was ahead. I squeezed forward far enough to see that Chris was ahead with 33 but still very much at risk against Boyd's KQ. The turn was indeed a small card - I could see that much, and no 'paint' (picture cards). And the river was a beautiful card with almost no spots.

And just like that, Chris Moneymaker was a contender, one of the chip leaders (perhaps in first place) and had crippled a real threat. I asked Chris about the hand a few months later at dinner (the dinner at Yolie's, which you may have read about here) and his answer was a straightforward analysis: "His bet was so out of line with the size of the pot that it felt like AK or AQ. Looking at that flop, what kind of hand could he be on? If he had an overpair, he should have bet it out. If he flopped a set, there was no way he wanted to push me off the pot. There was a small chance he had something like 66 or 44, and those were the types of hands I was afraid of. Of course, he could have AA or KK, and if he did that would have been brilliant play on his part. But if I was right, I was pretty far ahead and would be in a commanding spot. So I called."

Other than the Olof Thorson hand, I don't recall a lot of what happened from this point until we reached the pseudo-final table of 10 players. Chris continued to dominate, picking his spots and generally staying out of trouble until this hand came up. I'm relating known history here, but since many people have only seen the final table and not its run-up, I'll tell you what I remember.

This hand developed just after the last two tables were consolidated to one table of ten players. The WSOP final table is typically played nine-handed; however, if play continued with five players at each table, they would have to play hand-for-hand to make sure that players couldn't stall. So they consolidated to ten, intending to play down to nine and then break until the following day. Chris was the chip leader at this point.

In one of the first hands at the final table, maybe the first hand, Chris suddenly appeared to wake up, and raised in early position. Phil Ivey called on the button, as did Jason Lester in the big blind. The flop came down QQ6, Lester checked, Chris made a very small bet (about 1/3 of the pot), Ivey called and Lester got out of the way.

The turn was a 9. Chris bet bigger this time, just over half of the pot. In one of my rare instances of correctly analyzing play, I decided that Chris had flopped a Q, didn't want to check because it would look strange, so made a "please call me" bet on the flop. He was now making a "real" bet, but Ivey surprised all of us by moving all in. Chris snap-called and turned over his hand - AQ for flopped trips. However, Ivey turned over 99 for a full house, putting Chris in horrible shape. The miracle river A crushed Ivey with a bigger full house, and the historic final table was set.

Just so you can really get a sense of what a roller coaster this hand was, I ran it on the excellent odds calculator at Here's how the matchup looked up to now:

Preflop: Ivey 55.4% Chris 44.6%
Flop:  Ivey 11.0% Chris 89.0%
Turn: Ivey 84.1% Chris 15.9%

There's nothing wrong with the way Chris played this hand at any point, in my opinion. He raised with a decent hand preflop, hit a huge flop and bet, got extremely unlucky on the turn and extremely lucky on the river. He was particularly lucky in retrospect, since any other turn card would have made it unlikely that Ivey would commit all of his chips. But remember that poker is cumulative - all of the earlier plays, some good, some bad, but on balance a well above average showing, put him in position to have good things happen.

Regardless of what the rest of the poker world may have said, Chris played some class poker in his run to the 2003 final table. I'll post more hands as and if I remember them. Next up: the biggest final table in the history of poker.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Armadillo Tim and the Threat of Death

Over my twelve years in the gaming business, I've had a lot of unexpected things happen. I've gotten to travel all over the world, lived in Europe, worked with some of the best and most talented people in the world and met a lot of amazing folks.

The one thing I never expected, though, was a death threat. I've actually had two, and I consider at least one of them to be somewhat credible. 

The person who made this threat died last year, so the chances of my being sued aren't great. In fact, this guy is enough of a slug that I doubt anyone, including his family, would dispute anything I have to say, or even question it. However, I'm the cautious type, so I'm not going to use his name. But I need something to call him, so let's refer to him as Armadillo Tim.

To set the stage: I started with PokerStars as a beta tester in September 2001, and then was offered a job as VP of Marketing in February of 2002. I worked part-time, then started full-time in April. Back then, the World Series of Poker started in April and ended the Friday before Memorial Day. 

So the WSOP was just getting going when I got a call from Steve Badger, a professional poker player (1999 Omaha/8 bracelet winner) that I had gotten to know when I was playing a lot of tournament poker. Steve had been a consultant on a few PokerStars projects, and in fact was the guy who recommended me to PokerStars' CEO for the VP Marketing spot. Steve had developed a relationship with a poker player named Doc (which always made me laugh, harking back to the "never play poker with a guy named Doc" maxim), and Doc was a close friend of Armadillo Tim. Steve thought that Tim would be a great celebrity representative for PokerStars. And we needed something like this - we had something like 1,000 players back then and were a million miles from the top online site, Paradise Poker.

Tim was probably the first poker celebrity, owing entirely to an amazing knack for self-promotion. He won a major poker tournament before there really were major poker tournaments, and managed to parlay it into appearances on major talk shows starting back in the early 70s. Most of these appearances consisted of his telling stories about stealing, cheating, lying and scamming, and they were hugely popular. And apparently many of them were true.

Steve arranged a meeting for me with Tim and Doc at Binion's. I was just starting in gaming, and I was getting to fly to Vegas to meet with a famous poker player. How cool was this? I hopped on a plane and was in Vegas the next day.

The meeting was set for noon in the Binion's coffee shop (I don't remember the actual name, but it was downstairs, for those who remember the place before it fell to ruin). I walked in, gave my name and the hostess gushed, "Oh, yes, Mr. Goldman, Tim is expecting you." She walked me to a huge round table in the back that was surrounded by about 20 people asking for autographs. A voice said "Go away now, I have bidness to do." Bidness. Honestly, that's what he said.

I won't lie - I was dazzled right from the start. I knew who this guy was, had seen him on TV, had heard the stories, and thought for a moment about just how cool I had become. I was having lunch with Armadillo Tim. This was major.

Tim stood to shake my hand, and I realized that he was a lot taller than he looked on TV. He stood about 6'6", and since he was rail-thin he looked even taller. He was in full Texas regalia, with crocodile boots and a hat adorned with two rattlesnake heads. "Have a seat, young man," Tim said, and he endeared himself to me even more (but anyone who calls me "young man" gets extra points).

We chatted some small talk for a few minutes, until the waitress came over. "Do you like ham?" he asked. "The ham steak here is like nothing you've ever seen." He then ordered ham steak and eggs and coffee for both of us. I wasn't about to object. He was Armadillo Tim. 

In the ten minutes or so between ordering and the arrival of our lunch, Tim told me two stories about how he had scammed people in golf prop bets. The first was a bet he made that he could hit a golf ball a mile, using a regulation ball and club. The sucker took the bet, Tim took him out on a downslope highway, teed up and took it down. The second was beating Evel Knievel playing 18 holes with a carpenter's hammer (he had practiced for a year).

Now remember that I was there to negotiate an endorsement deal with Tim. Did huge alarm bells go off in my head as this guy told me two stories in our first few minutes together about how he had cheated people? Nooooooo, I was dazzled and wanted to hear more.

And did I. The stories went on for an hour or more, while I struggled through the famous one pound Binion's ham steak (no kidding, this thing didn't even fit on a plate). And every story was about how clever he was, how stupid and greedy everyone else was, and how he had snookered every last one of them.

We finally got down to bidness, now that I was sufficiently tenderized. I had a few things in mind here - obviously I wanted Tim to wear PokerStars gear everywhere he went, planned to put his picture on the site, use his name and image in advertising - all the things good marketing guys do. But I really needed him to play on the site. For some reason he was reluctant about doing this, which should have set off another alarm. But on we went.

I won't bore you with the details of the negotiation. It was contentious, but ended up as a pretty decent deal for both sides. We would give him a substantial sum up front, and then pay him a fixed amount every month for using his name and for his appearance once a week on the site. He would wear PokerStars gear and say nice things about us. Pretty straightforward.

I assumed he wasn't computer-savvy, which turned out to be a vast understatement. He put computers and space monsters in the same category. I bought a computer and had it shipped to him, and hired someone in his hometown to spend an hour a day with him teaching him how computers worked and how to play on the site.

My plan was to let players compete for "player of the week" honors, and have that player play Tim for $1,000. If the player won, he got the money. If Tim won, the money rolled over to the next week. I waited a few weeks before launching this - Sarah, the woman I had hired to work with Tim, gave me daily updates on his slow progress. Finally we decided that the only way this would work at the beginning was if Sarah sat next to him and told him what to do.

That worked all right for the first week, and Tim declared that he "didn't need no babysitter no more." So we set up the tournament for the following week without her next to him. This might have worked out OK - except that when 1:00pm on Sunday came around, Tim didn't show up. And didn't answer his phone. By 2:00 I knew we were cooked, so we awarded the money to the player and moved on.

It was Wednesday before I finally found Tim again. Turns out that one of his horses had gotten sick and he had to drive her to Montana to the only vet he would work with. And of course they don't have phones in Montana, so there was no way he could reach me to let me know he'd be a no-show.

Did the light come on over my head yet? Nooooooo. I was friends with Armadillo Tim.

I called him twice on Friday, and finally convinced him to play me heads-up so I could make sure he knew what he was doing. He played, and did OK, although he called me afterward complaining that our software was cold-decking him. Was I worried? Noooooo.

I called him two more times on Saturday to make sure that he would actually show up on Sunday. He assured me that he would. I called at 10am Sunday, spoke to someone at his house who told me he was at church (???) but that he knew he needed to be online at 1:00.

I'm sure you've worked out what happened next. No Tim. No answer at his house. I called Sarah and asked her to drive over there. She did - no one home.

At 7 that night he finally called. He had been riding and a horse fell on him, and he was in the hospital. I asked him which hospital, intending to send flowers or a grenade or something. He told me he was being released that night, so there was no need.

Even the lunkiest of lunkheads eventually catches on, and I was starting to. I called him the following day, told him that we had now been embarrassed twice in a row, and that I really needed his word that he would play during the week and would show up for the challenge match the following Sunday. He assured me that we (not he) had just had a run of bad luck, and everything would be fine.

Of course, by this time I was in fairly deep water with PokerStars management, or so I thought. I had a long conversation with my boss on Tuesday, and told him that it looked like we had made a deal with a flake. He believed that it was salvageable, so we pressed forward; however, we agreed that even one more infraction would be the end of the line.

Tim had agreed to be online for a few hours on Wednesday night to play and chat. Needless to say, he wasn't, and couldn't be reached. I talked to my boss again, told him I was firing Tim, and he agreed. From that point on, it took me another five days to get him on the phone.

Me: "Tim, I'm sorry to tell you this, but this relationship isn't working out for us. You have now made promises multiple times, have broken every one of them and we've disappointed our players. We're terminating your contract, effective immediately."

Tim: "Well, just who in the fuck do you think you are, you steaming pile of horseshit?" That is an actual quote. I scratched it on a notepad and pushed it across my desk to Sharon, who was listening to my side of the call.

Me: "You can keep the computer. If it were up to me, I'd sue you for the money we already paid you, but PokerStars management is willing to let it go."

Tim: "You listen to me, you and your cold-deck, cheating computer program can just suck the boils off my ass." (again, an actual quote. Nice image, no?) "We have a contract, but that's not the way we settle things in Texas."

I didn't know exactly what to make of that, but I told him to expect a formal notification by mail and hung up. I FedExed him a termination letter, and that seemed to be the end of it.

Spin forward two years. After the big poker boom in 2003, Binion's did audio webcasts of a lot of final tables in 2004, and Nolan Dalla asked Rich Korbin and me to host several of them. I was in the middle of final table play-by-play when someone came up to me and said "There's a very pissed off guy who wants to talk to you." I looked up and there was Tim and a few hangers-on. I passed the microphone to Nolan and went to talk to him.

"You remember our bidness," he led off with.

"I do," I said. "We hired you, you never showed up for work and we fired you."

"That's not the way I remember it," he said, edging way too far into my personal space for comfort. He was almost a foot taller than me, so at that proximity my head was back as far as my neck would allow. "What I remember is that we had a contract and you fucked me. Nobody fucks Armadillo Tim."

I just love when people refer to themselves in the third person. I didn't say anything.

"The way I see it, you owe me..." and then announced a number that represented the two year value of his contract.

"I have to get back to the final table. I sent you our lawyers' contact information in your termination letter. Feel free to work through them if you have a dispute," I said, backed away a step and turned around.

"NOBODY TURNS THEIR BACK ON ME, YOU LITTLE COCKSUCKER!" he said a little too loudly, loud enough to turn heads. I turned around, not sure exactly what to say, but happy that there was a crowd. And I have to admit I was pissed off. I've been called a cocksucker before, but never a little one.

"You're going to leave this building sometime soon, and you'd best keep an eye over your shoulder. There's a real good chance there'll be someone there to collect what you owe. And the people I send to collect don't take kindly to liars and cheats."

I really, really wanted to say "and they work for you?" but didn't. I wish I could tell you that I said something brave here, but I was honestly a little scared. I turned around again.

"You really want to die for a few thousand dollars?" he said to my back.

And there it was - my very first death threat.

I reported all of this back to PokerStars management, who strongly urged me to call the police. I had multiple witnesses who had heard him threaten me. But in the end, I let it go. I really didn't think he was serious, especially since he had said it in public, although I do admit that I jumped at loud noises for a few days after.

And thus ended my first relationship with someone famous. I got to meet and spend time with quite a few more famous people over the next few years, and I am happy and proud to report that only one more of them threatened to kill me. But that's another story.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How Olof Thorson broke my heart, and made history

May 22, 2003
The 2003 World Series of Poker was a tense time for me, starting well before the Main Event and extending through the final hand. I had bet a considerable amount of career equity on running WSOP satellites on PokerStars, and while I won the argument it was far from a sure thing.

But one thing was pretty consistent throughout - PokerStars started with about 5% of the field and rarely fell below that number. I finally started to relax a little when the starting field of 839 winnowed down to three tables (27 players) and we still had 3 players in - we were now at 11%, but more importantly we had one of the chip leaders in a solid Swedish player named Olof Thorson. With the blinds at 4,000-8,000 I checked on Olof and our other two players (Chris Moneymaker and a British player whose name I unfortunately don't recall) and Olof had an impressive stack of around 800,000. With an average stack size of about 310,000, Olof looked to be in fine shape.

I continued to circulate around the three remaining tables, thanks once again to a press pass I probably shouldn't have had, peering over shoulders and taking the occasional photograph. And the three became two, and a few more players were eliminated (including the unfortunate and anonymous British player) and suddenly we were at 16 players. And more importantly, Olof Thorson was now the chip leader with about 1,300,000 (with an average of 520,000). The blinds had now gone to 5,000-10,000, meaning that Olof had about 130 big blinds, a huge stack this late in a tournament. And the very slow structure of the WSOP, coupled with very long rounds (two hours) meant that he was in a commanding position to make the final table.

[Note for anyone reading this who isn't a poker player - the final table of a tournament is where the lion's share of the money is awarded (in 2003, 71% of the prize money went to the final table). And it's also a badge of honor for a poker player to make the WSOP Main Event Final table - it's an elite club with only about 400 members out of the tens of thousands that have played the event. While he would never have done this, had Thorson simply left the building and never returned, he would have made the final table, and would likely have finished 6th or 7th.]

Before I go on with this story, let me get back to the career equity issue for a minute. In 2003, the WSOP was a big deal, but nothing like it would become in the subsequent few years. ESPN dedicated quite a few hours to WSOP broadcasts - I recall that they did about 10 hours of Main Event coverage (feel free to correct me, fact checkers!) - but in later years that coverage would drastically expand, making the WSOP ubiquitous for at least three months following the event. I was betting this career equity on PokerStars getting enough exposure on the WSOP broadcast to justify the $370,000 we took out of its poker community to send 37 players to the Main Event. I considered the possibility of our having a champion only in passing - it wasn't exactly like winning the lottery, but it was a huge long shot.

Now, nothing is certain in no limit poker tournaments - unless you're the chip leader, you can be out on the next hand. But since our guy was the chip leader, I thought I was justified in doing what I did next: I went up the street to the Golden Gate Casino to grab a $0.99 shrimp cocktail. It was late afternoon at that point, and I had suddenly realized that, other than coffee, I hadn't eaten at all that day. It took me about three minutes to walk there, maybe two to get the shrimp cocktail (they were, and are, famous for these, although they're $2.99 now), five to eat and three to walk back. Thirteen minutes - OK, let's call it fifteen.

I walked back in through the side entrance of Binion's and was about to get on the escalator up to the WSOP venue when a reporter from the Baltimore Sun stopped me. 

"Hey, what happened with your guy Thorson?" he asked.

I stopped for a minute, not sure how to answer. "I went to get something to eat. When I left, he was the chip leader. Something changed?"

Silence for a few beats, then, "Yeah, something changed. He's out."

There was no fucking way this could have happened. Nonetheless, I bolted up the escalator just in time to see Olof walking out of Benny's Bullpen, running his hand over his face over and over. It didn't seem like a good time to stop and ask him what had happened.

I found Nolan Dalla, who gave me the short version - Olof got involved in back-to-back hands, one with Amir Vahedi (a guy I used to play $10 tournaments with at Hollywood Park) and one with Sammy Farha (who would go on to a heads up battle with Chris Moneymaker). And he was indeed out.

Since I didn't witness the hands, I'll only give a brief recap - the hands in question are available on YouTube. In the first hand, Vahedi raised with Qd 8d and Olof reraised with Ad Ks. Vahedi called. The flop came all small cards with two diamonds. Olof bet and Vahedi moved all in. Olof had started the hand with just over a million in chips, Vahedi with about 600,000. Olof had absolutely nothing, but believed that Vahedi had a worse nothing. After a lot of thought, he finally called. Given the hands, the two were mathematically almost exactly tied, with Olof a tiny 50.8% favorite. The turn card was harmless, but the river card was an 8, giving Vahedi a pair and the chip lead.

The very next hand, Olof picked up Ks Kd and raised, getting only one caller, Sammy Farha, with Ac Jh. The flop came with an ace, but Olof, obviously still steaming from the prior hand, made an absurd overbet of almost 400,000 into a pot containing about 100,000. Farha instantly called, and in two hands Olof went from an almost-guaranteed final table appearance to the rail.

I couldn't believe how unlucky I had been. Here was an otherwise great player, who had shorted out within sight of the big prize (for all of us) and killed our one real chance. I didn't take time then to feel bad for him - I felt bad for myself and for PokerStars. Selfish? Yup. Hey, that was my career equity he had just flushed. He could go find someone else to feel sorry for him.

There's no way to tell what would have happened had Thorson won either of those hands, or had folded the hand against Vahedi (which, of course, would have changed everything that followed, thanks to the butterfly effect). But it's pretty likely that the subsequent events (which I'll get to in my next post) would have played out very differently.

Olof, in a way you never wanted, you made history, and affected poker in a way no one could have anticipated. Chris: you really should send him a thank you note.

Friday, January 11, 2013

"I love crushing champions"

July 9, 2003
[NOTE: I'm jumping ahead a little in time here. Get over it. That's the way my brain works.]

The aftermath of Chris Moneymaker's win at the World Series of Poker 2003 was slow to play out. He won on May 23, 2003, but back then ESPN took their time in post-production, and the final table wasn't broadcast until late July. Anyone who followed poker already knew the outcome, but it wasn't until the broadcast that Chris truly became famous.

I invited Chris and his then-wife to Las Vegas to do some press interviews and a photo shoot in early July. The four of us (Sharon being the fourth) and someone who I can't recall - if you're out there, please speak up - went to dinner the night we arrived at one of my favorite places in Las Vegas, Yolie's. 

Yolie's is a churrascaria, a type of Brazilian feast that consists of waiters marching around the restaurant with giant spears of meat. If it sounds like a grotesque pagan ritual, you're on the right track. To prime us for this meatfest, I suggested starting with Sharon's and my very favorite drink, caipirinhas. 

A caipirinha is made with a very strong Brazilian alcohol called cachaça  a sugar cane distillation that tastes more like tequila than rum. (Trivia note: in Brazil it's known by a few different names, including pinga and aguardente. This last word means "burning water," which should tell you everything you need to know.) The bartender cuts up a few limes in a glass, sprinkles a teaspoon of bartender's sugar on top and muddles with a muddling tool, then adds a shot of cachaça and some ice. They're sweet and deceptively strong. I'm not sure exactly how many we had, which is not unusual when drinking caipirinhas. It was no less than three before dinner, plus a few during, plus a Brazilian beer that the owner, who recognized Chris, sent over for all. 

Suffice to say that we were pretty toasted when my phone rang. It was Nolan Dalla, who you may recall is the WSOP Media Director, as well as a friend, and by this time he was also working for me at PokerStars as Media Director. He was at Binion's, and was calling to tell us that there was a pretty interesting game getting started that we might want to come check out. I told him that we would be about an hour, hung up and informed the rest of the group.

Chris, of course, was all over the idea. We slowed the alcohol down and finished dinner. Kelly, Chris' wife (from whom he is now divorced), had no interest in poker, so we packed her off to the hotel and took a taxi to Binion's. 

Back in the heydays of poker, Binion's was the epicenter of the poker world, not just during the WSOP but year-round. Many casinos in Las Vegas either had no poker room or had just a token few tables - poker, after all, isn't a huge profit center - but Binion's had a big and vibrant room from its inception. By 2003, though, it was a rundown, seedy, musty-smelling shadow of its former self. We came in through the valet entrance, which almost opened onto the poker room, and found Nolan, who directed us to a game with five players and a lot of cash on the table.

Of the five, I recognized two. Sam Grizzle was one of the last of the old-time Las Vegas rounders, one of the guys you always hear stories about. I won't try to capture Sam's history here; it's easily available elsewhere. However, Sam is one of those players who definitely plays worse drunk (there are many who play much better), and Sam had clearly had quite a few. To his right is Benny Behnen, the grandson of Binion's founder Benny Binion and wannabe gangster. The gap between Benny's poker skills and his perception of his poker skills is substantial. So far this was looking good.

Sharon, Chris and I all sat down in the game, which quickly became a loose and raucous affair. Many of the other players in the room recognized Chris - if they didn't already know who he was, his picture was on the wall right above the table - and a crowd developed. Within an hour, Sharon busted Sam twice, Chris once, and I won a nice pot from him that also involved Benny. After each of these, Sam borrowed money from Benny, who eventually ran out of cash and had to get markers for both of them (a clear perk of owning a casino). Sam had now gone from his usual snarky and overbearing self to a mumbling and angry drunk.

I saw Benny look up from across the table and hold up a hand at someone behind us. A voice said, "Anyone want to play some heads up? I love crushing champions." I turned around and saw Nick Behnen, who I had met briefly at Chris' final table a few months before. I was surprised to see him there - he had been barred from Binion's by the Gaming Control Board. He was holding a glass half-full of some alcohol, no ice, and it clearly wasn't his first. Chris turned around, nodded to him and went back to the game. 

"Nobody? I love crushing champions. I eat champions for breakfast. Anyone want to play a $10,000 freezeout?"

Still no reaction.

"Isn't this that Monkeymaker guy? Come on, I'll get us a dealer." Nick walked unsteadily away, heading for the poker podium. At this point, Chris leaned over to me and said "How much cash do you have?"

This is another of those stories that I'll tell more of another time, but - Sharon and I had become accustomed to carrying a lot of cash with us back in those days. A lot of PokerStars players had trouble getting large amounts of cash onto the site, so we frequently had players come up to us, hand us $5,000 and say "Put this in my account." I had enough to cover Chris. I slipped the cash to him, and when Nick came back to the table Chris was ready. "Set us up," he said.

A dealer materialized at the next table, and within a few minutes Chris and Nick each had $10,000 in front of them. I tried not to watch, but sneaked a glance every now and then. Both Chris and Nick were drinking, but Nick was clearly far ahead. Unfortunately, this wasn't enough to stop Nick from busting Chris in about 45 minutes.

Chris came back to me for money, but I had given him all Sharon and I had between us. Nick called to Chris, telling him that he'd arrange for a credit line for him. This didn't look like it was going to end well - I had visions of Chris pulling a Sam Grizzle and dumping his entire WSOP winnings to Nick playing heads-up. I told Chris this, and he said "I've got this." Some papers appeared, after which Chris signed a $10,000 marker and they played again. 

This time Chris dispatched Nick in less than fifteen minutes. They played one more, which Chris also won. Benny then stepped in with a rack of black chips to take his shot. Unfortunately, at this point I was exhausted, as was Sharon, and we just couldn't stay up and watch any further. I pulled Chris aside to make sure he was OK. He was drinking Chivas straight, and had stacked up the empty glasses on a side table. The tower was perilously high, but he was lucid and was able to describe several hands in detail. We wished him luck and stumbled to the entrance to catch a cab back to the hotel.

The next morning, we met Chris and Kelly for a very late breakfast (around noon, as I recall). I asked him how it went.

"I won $90,000," he said, smiling. "And I now have a $100,000 credit line at Binion's."

I don't recall all of the details he recounted, unfortunately. He played Nick, Benny and Sam several times, Sam playing on Benny's money. The last time, Sam suggested they play single-draw lowball, a highly skillful game. Chris agreed, and crushed him. Afterwards, Chris thanked Sam for the lesson, and told him that this was the first time Chris had played the game.

Nick may love crushing champions, but on this day, the reigning WSOP champion took three well-known players down in spectacular fashion. In the years to follow, I heard and read many stories about Chris, how he was a luckbox, a pretender, a one-shot wonder who had no lifetime chance in poker. I ached to tell this story then, but didn't. 

Chris Moneymaker was no pretender.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Dancing with Moneymaker

May 21, 2003
PokerStars had an interesting journey to the World Series of Poker. In 2002, we bought two $10,000 entries and gave them away in a series of qualifying tournaments. In 2003, we struggled with whether to run online satellites, which is a story in itself. The short version is that we were a very small company at the time, and diverting $10,000 times however many players qualified was a potentially big dent in our liquidity (the total amount of deposits on the site). But we did finally decide to do it, and it's not a stretch to say that it changed history.

The WSOP started at Binion's back in 1970, and was traditionally held in Benny's Bullpen, a large, nondescript room on the second floor of the casino. Above the entrance to Benny's Bullpen there was a huge marker board where players' names were written as they either qualified or bought in. 

Once we finished our qualifying tournaments in 2003, PokerStars wired $370,000 to Binion's to cover our 37 players. George Fisher, Binion's Director of Poker Operations at the time, wrote all of the PokerStars qualifiers' names together in a block. I took a picture of the list to send to the rest of the PokerStars team, and noticed a unique name: Chris Moneymaker. I distinctly remember thinking at the time, "Right. Well, Mr. Moneymaker, I hope you need to tell everyone your real name pretty soon."

There are many more stories that weave in and out of this one, but we'll spin ahead to Wednesday, May 21, 2003. Back then, the WSOP lasted five days, starting on a Monday and ending the Friday before Memorial Day. By Wednesday afternoon, the starting field of 631 839 [thanks, Patti] had been substantially winnowed; I don't recall the exact numbers, but my guess is that there were around 120 players remaining. 

PokerStars had started with just under 6% of the field, but if memory serves correctly we only had 4 players left at this point. One of them, Olaf Thorsen, was a massive chip leader for much of this and the following day (more on that here). Since we were down to a small number of players, I was able to follow all of them, helped significantly by being spirited a press pass by my friend Nolan Dalla. I was fortunate enough to be standing on the rail when arguably the most significant hand in the history of poker played out before not just my eyes, but ESPN's TV cameras.

Setup: Chris Moneymaker, whose improbable name proved to be real, had been setting the tables on fire. Earlier in the day, after having drawn a murderous table that included Howard Lederer, Paul Darden and Kenna James, Chris busted Johnny Chan, who had been torturing him from the outset. He was still viewed as a novice, a fact that was reinforced by his wearing a PokerStars shirt and cap throughout (something we required of our qualifiers, by the way).

In this pivotal hand, Chris raised from early position with 8h 8d. Humberto Brenes, one of poker's early superstars, re-raised on the button with Ah Ad. The rest of the field cleared out and let these two, who had tangled a few times already, play heads-up.

The flop came Kc 9d 2d. Chris checked, Humberto bet and Chris asked for a count of Humberto's chips. Chris then check-raised, essentially putting Humberto all in. Humberto immediately signaled that he was all in. The ESPN film crew and the WSOP floor staff bolted over to cover the action.

Both players stood. I was immediately behind Chris and had been watching the hand play out, but this was my first glance at both hands. I couldn't do anything but shake my head - Chris was something like a 10-1 underdog (turns out that it was closer to 11-1). Losing this hand would cripple him; although he would still have chips he would be in desperate shape. 

Matt Savage, the tournament director, signaled the dealer to put out the turn card. Chris moved just enough to let me see the beautiful eight of clubs pop off the deck, shifting Brenes to the huge underdog position. Nothing changed on the river, and Chris won the pot and busted one of the most feared players in poker, his second of the day.

Chris turned to me on the rail and threw an arm around me. I was in shock. Chris danced me around, giving the camera a nice shot of the PokerStars logo on my jacket (certainly unintentional, but couldn't have been planned any better). Here's ESPN's look at the hand:

And just like that, a rank amateur with a lot of guts went from obscurity to a shot at the WSOP bracelet. I'll talk about the Moneymaker effect another time, but there's little question that, were it not for this one hand, there would have been no Moneymaker effect. Poker would still have boomed, but not the way it did. 

[side note: when this episode was broadcast in mid-July, we started to see a nice uptick in traffic on PokerStars as people started seeing our logo. And when Chris and I danced, and the PokerStars logo was prominently displayed just for a few seconds, we came as close to crashing as we ever had.]

As I have said often, I got my fifteen minutes of fame by standing behind the guy who was having his fifteen minutes. A few weeks after this was broadcast, someone stopped me in the airport in Los Angeles and said, "You're the guy who was dancing with Chris!"

Why, yes, that was me. Thanks for the dance, Chris. I'm leading next time.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Revenge of the girlfriend

I mentioned in yesterday's post that I'd rather have my pants set on fire than run another poker event on a cruise ship. If I thought hard enough (cut me a little slack; it's been 9 years) I could probably come up with fifty stories that explain this, but there are a few that really stand out. The following is my favorite. 

In the weeks leading up to the cruise, we had quite a few last-minute reservation changes. We had a lot of players decide to buy in at the last minute, presumably after trying to win seats in online satellites and failing. And we had a handful of players who had disasters of one sort or another, and we always tried, as was the PokerStars way, to accommodate them in any reasonable way possible.

Five days before the cruise, Royal Caribbean informed me that the cruise was sold out. We had a small number of cabins that we were holding in reserve, but at that point we had to start saying 'no' to players calling desperately looking to play.

That same day, I got an email from a player I'll call BadBoyfriend, for reasons you'll work out in a minute. BadBoyfriend, a player I happen to know personally, had been fortunate enough to win a satellite on PokerStars, which included the cruise (for two) and entry in the tournament. He informed me, with great regret, that he had a personal emergency and that he and his girlfriend would be unable to go on the cruise. Until this point, we hadn't allowed players to unregister or transfer their satellite wins. But we knew that we were going to be very tight on cabins, so after some discussion with Lee Jones, our Poker Room Manager, I agreed that we would defer this player's win to the 2005 event. I released the cabin.

A few days later, we released the small inventory of cabins we still had, including this one, to the waiting list. We made a lot of players very happy, and pressed forward knowing that we had done all we could to accommodate everyone.

The cruise was scheduled to depart at 5:00pm on January 18, 2004. We had all of the last-minute disasters that you might expect (including the Homeland Security debacle), but by around 3:00pm things were looking pretty good. My dad (who was 87 at the time) was joining us for this cruise, and I decided to take a few minutes out and visit him in his cabin. 

I had been there for no more than five minutes when my cell rang. It was Stephen, our RCCL primary contact, who was overseeing check-ins at the pier. 

"You better get down here - I have a situation I really have no idea how to handle."  I had a hard time imagining what such a situation could be - Stephen was a superhero. I apologized to my dad and bolted for the cruise ship pier.

I saw Stephen talking to a couple whose backs were to me. I walked over and asked Stephen what the issue was, at which time the couple turned around - and there was BadBoyfriend and a startlingly gorgeous blonde woman, who much to my dismay bore a striking resemblance to Charlize Theron.

"Thank God you're here," BB said. "They're telling me that I don't have a cabin."

I am rarely speechless, but this one struck me dumb for a few seconds. 

"BB, you don't have a cabin. You emailed me on Tuesday and told me to cancel, and I did. And we're sold out."

Now it was his turn to be at a loss for words. In the next few seconds, I saw on his face confusion, shock and then dawning awareness. Charlize filled the gap.

"Please tell me that Rachel didn't have your Hotmail password."

BadBoyfriend didn't have to explain, although he did. The previous Sunday, he had broken up with his girlfriend of five years. This meant, of course, that she would not be accompanying him on the cruise. He had apparently known this for some time, though, because it was Charlize whose name was listed as his companion in our system. It was Rachel who canceled the reservation using his email account.

The story might have ended there, but I knew at that point that we did have one cabin available from another (legitimate) cancellation. I pulled Stephen aside and asked him if we could give it to this couple. That's when I learned another lesson about Homeland Security.

Until 9/11, getting on a cruise last-minute was pretty easy. In fact, there were a lot of retirees who would pack a bag, go to the cruise ship port and wait to see if there were last-minute cabins, which were often available at deep discounts. But after 9/11, cruise ships were required to submit final cabin manifests to Homeland Security 48 hours before sailing.

It wasn't looking good for BadBoyfriend and Charlize. However, a few days earlier, Rich (a frequent hero in these stories) had introduced me to Lynette, an RCCL employee who he described as a miracle worker. I told the couple to stay where they were, and I tracked Lynette down and described the problem.

She took a device out of her pocket that looked like a cellphone on steroids, and unfolded its foot-long antenna. She punched some numbers. While waiting for the call to be connected, she told me that she was calling the captain who oversaw all of the RCCL captains - I guess that would make him an admiral. He was hunting somewhere. After a long wait, he apparently answered. She held up a finger to me, then walked away and chatted with him for a few minutes.

"He's calling Homeland Security," she told me. Apparently, the 48 hour rule has some considerable flexibility at the right levels. A few minutes later, the admiral called back. BadBoyfriend and Charlize were back on the manifest.

Epilog: BadBoyfriend busted during the first level of the tournament. Rachel, if you're out there somewhere, I can't say I approve of what you did, but I sure do understand it. And you gave me a great story to tell.

Friday, January 4, 2013

How I almost went to jail as a terrorist

January, 2004
After many months of wrangling, in early October of 2003 I finally managed to get the World Poker Tour to agree to film and broadcast a live PokerStars event. This is a story in itself - the final negotiations took place during my brother's wedding - but I'll save that for another story.

The only problem with this success was that the WPT was experiencing a huge boom - the poker explosion had just started, with Chris Moneymaker's WSOP win having been broadcast only months before - and they had exactly one week available: January 18-25, 2004. Some quick math tells you that we had 3.5 months to create a live event, attract hundreds of players, get them to the venue and run the tournament.

The next two weeks were nonstop panic. We knew we couldn't get a venue in the United States to run a live poker event for an online poker site, as there were many questions about the legality of online poker even back then. The WPT didn't want us to do an event in Europe, as they already had two European venues and it presented some massive logistical problems for them. So I focused my search on the Caribbean and Central America, and quickly discovered something really surprising - there is only one resort in either area that could handle 700+ people: the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, and they had no interest whatsoever in talking to us. (This changed the following year.)

After dozens of phone calls, I was left with two choices: the Maho Beach Resort in St. Martin (which could barely handle 700) or a cruise on Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas. We settled on the cruise, even though our biggest competitor at the time (PartyPoker) also ran a cruise as their WPT event. Had I been able to see just a little bit into the future, I would have run screaming from a cruise venue, but alas, hindsight and all that.

We started running satellite tournaments on the site in late October and they were an immediate hit. I contracted with a travel agency in Canada that specialized in cruises, which appeared to be a lifesaver - they would handle all of our players' travel arrangements, cruise reservations and details other than the tournament itself. This allowed my right-hand guy and overall miracle worker, Rich Korbin, and me to focus on getting the event details right. These details included building a poker room on a cruise ship, having tables built and shipped, designing and producing our own chip sets (for both tournaments and cash games), even buying and shipping safes that we could use to store chips and cash. I couldn't imagine the logistics involved in transporting 250 players, their guests, our staff, the WPT staff and 25,000 pounds of equipment. I soon learned that "couldn't imagine" hardly covered it.

One detail that seemed innocuous at the time would prove to nearly be our downfall. We knew that players were going to want to get cash from their PokerStars accounts while on board, and we also wanted to pay at least part of their tournament winnings (the rest would go into their PokerStars accounts). So we arranged to wire $500,000 to the cruise line a few weeks before the cruise. I asked the head of the casino to bring these funds on board in cash and deposit them in a cage account that we could draw from. Bookmark this; I'll get back to it in a minute.

I'll spare you some of the goriest details, but - 16 days before the event, I had to fire our travel agent for gross incompetence and fraud. We discovered that she had made less than 25% of the reservations, and most of those were wrong. For the next 16 days, I literally (and I don't use that word loosely) worked 20 hours a day, along with 5 other PokerStars staffers, to repair the damage. Someday I'll commit more of that debacle to writing, but for now it's sufficient that you know we were in a complete panic.

Fast forward to the night of January 17, 2004. The ship was sailing in less than 24 hours, and by miracle and sweat it was pretty clear that we were going to make it. Players were arriving in Florida, equipment was ready for loading when the ship arrived, chips and cards arrived. By 5:00am on the morning of January 18, I felt good enough about where we were to risk getting a few hours' sleep.

When my cellphone rang at 9:00am, I was pretty sure it wasn't good news. The display read "Mark Scheinberg." Mark was the COO of PokerStars and one of my two bosses (his father, Isai, was Chairman and the other boss). 

"Get in a cab and get down to the pier. Right now." Not much room for doubt about urgency there.

I threw on clothes and bolted. I arrived at the pier, about a mile away, less than 15 minutes after the call woke me. I met Mark in the cruise ship terminal. He pointed at a door and said "There are some people in there that need to talk to you. Just answer their questions."

I opened the door and found myself in a conference room with nine people. Well, not people, exactly. Agents. Armed agents from Homeland Security. A woman approached, offered her hand and said "Hi, I'm Stacy Hunt. We have a few questions for you." (Side note: by bizarre coincidence this happens to be my niece's name. No relation.)

Stacy Hunt: You're Dan Goldman, is that correct?

Me: Yes, that's right. 

SH: You work for PokerStars?

Me: Yes.

SH: Do you own the company?

Me: No.

SH: Who owns the company?

I was already pretty alarmed about this conversation when it started, but now it really started to look bad. One detail that I haven't mentioned yet - RCCL required that we indemnify them in case something bad happened regarding the cruise. This means that we agreed to make them whole for the entire cruise if something we did caused the cruise to be canceled. We're talking $6.5 million here, considerably more than I could afford to have taken out of my paycheck.

Me: Can you tell me what this is about, please?

SH: No. Who owns the company?

Me: A group of investors. It's a privately held company.

I really expected her to pursue this, but she didn't.

SH: What equipment are you bringing on board?

I flipped through some papers in my briefcase and produced the manifest, which ran about 20 pages.

SH: I see you have two safes listed here. What's in them?

Me: Nothing. They should be open - RCCL told us they might be inspected by Customs.

SH: They weren't open. We got the combinations and opened them. Care to explain the $500,000 we found in the second one?

This should have made me even more horrified, but oddly it didn't. I had already reached 100 on the "I'm fucked" scale. I explained that we had wired these funds to the cruise line, and that they were supposed to have included them in the casino bank. This caused a huddle. Ms. Hunt picked up a phone and made several calls. One of the other agents asked me if I wanted some coffee. I didn't think consuming any liquids would be wise.

SH (holding up an official-looking one page form): You see this?

Me: Yes.

SH: This is US Customs Form 4790. Any time you take more than $10,000 out of the US, you need to file one of these. If you had filed this form, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Right, and I wouldn't be desperately trying not to pee myself.

SH (smiling for the first time): We're not going to take any action at this time. Please note that you need to file when you return, declaring any cash you bring back over $10,000.

Some of the air seemed to return to the room. Most of the agents were smiling now. I suspected that they knew at the outset what had happened, but used this opportunity to scare the crap out of whoever they could find. It worked.

Me: Can I go now?

SH: There's one more thing.


SH: Can you get me Phil Hellmuth's autograph?

I kid you not.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Aunt Sonia and the Cigarette

July 1959 (age 4)
Aunt Sonia was an iconic figure of my childhood. Uncle Eddie, my mother's brother, was a local hero in my hometown of Hazleton, PA, having almost single-handedly saved the city from obscurity (more on that another time). He married Aunt Sonia somewhat late in life, when he was almost 40. Unlike almost all of my other relatives, who thought I was terminally adorable, Aunt Sonia suffered no adorable kids, adults or anyone else - you proved yourself to her, or you were a ninny. I was a ninny.

One bright summer day in 1959, my parents took the three of us to the Conyngham Valley to visit Uncle Eddie and Aunt Sonia's house, which was under construction at the edge of the Valley Country Club golf course. Somehow, while everyone else was wandering around in the nearly-complete frame of the house, I found myself sitting on a log in the front, tossing rocks at frogs and looking for new-construction treasures (caulking tubes were a favorite). I found a pack of matches, a serious find, and had just picked them up when I found Aunt Sonia glowering down at me, smoking a cigarette.

Now before I go any further, I should mention that cigarettes were different in 1959. Well, in fact, they were exactly the same, but attitudes about cigarettes were different. As fate would have it, I also had a cigarette - a candy one, made of some kind of chalky white stuff with a dab of red food coloring at the end. Everyone smoked back then, and candy cigarettes were just another sweet treat.

"What are you doing?" Aunt Sonia asked (one of the more civil things she said to me back in those days).

"Smoking a cigarette. Want one?" I proferred my pack of Lucky Streaks or Pale Molls or some other not-very-clever variant on a popular brand name. This earned me a terse "no."

"Can I have one of yours?" I recall getting a slightly less baleful look at this question. After a moment, Aunt Sonia untwisted the clasp at the top of a long fabric cigarette case (an accessory every woman smoker had), shook out a cigarette and tossed it to me. 

I chewed up the tiny stub of my candy version and replaced it with her Parliament. It had a hollow tip at the end of the filter, something I thought was quite cool. I put it in my mouth and mimicked her smoking. At this point, Aunt Sonia stubbed out her cigarette and left to rejoin the tour.

Back to the matches. My dad smoked, my mom sometimes smoked, all of their friends smoked. I knew what matches were. I knew what cigarettes were. I now had both. I did the obvious. I don't remember what it tasted like, but I do remember that blowing smoke out of my mouth was way cool.

And that's how my parents came out of the house and found their four year old, sitting on a log, smoking. My mother stormed over, snatched the cigarette from my fingers and stomped on it as though it had poisonous fangs. 

"WHERE DID YOU GET THAT?" she shouted.

I looked up at her, then at Aunt Sonia. I'd like to say that I heroically protected Aunt Sonia, lied and said I found it on the ground with the matches. But hey, she called me a ninny.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Blah blah blah.

So here's the truth - I love talking. I love telling stories. I love debating. I love words.

Once upon a time, when I was about 15, I wanted to be a journalist. I really didn't know what being a journalist meant, but I did know that it would let me wrap myself daily in the English language. I didn't grow up with a career passion, like many of my friends, that would lead me to a life as a doctor, or a physicist, or a politician. But there were always words

Words were my friends. I knew exactly what to do with them, how to whittle off a little over here and trowel on more over there, and end up with fully realized thoughts. I assumed everyone came equipped with this. I could never figure out how my elementary school pal Ricky could look at a face and capture it with a pencil, but I could do the same with ideas, never thinking for an instant that these skills were elementally the same. I shrugged it off. I shrugged it off for a very long time.

Then, a few years ago, my daughter pushed me to do something I'd always yapped about doing but never actually did - I wrote a novel. It's not a bad novel. I may even clean it up, give it the ending it deserves and publish it someday. But that's not important. What's important is that writing the book reminded me that this is the one thing I'm truly passionate about. I don't have to make a living doing it; I don't have to publish a novel. I feel good when I write. It's cathartic, cleansing, painful, frightening and altogether the one thing I know I'm good at.

So starting today, as Helen Popkin says, I'll be going blah blah blah about something in this space regularly. It may not be art, and you may not agree with it, but it won't be boring.