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.


  1. I presume from your description that Chris rivered a bigger boat (or quads), but you might want to explicitly state what happened. :)

  2. A few sentences were truncated there - have restored them.

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