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.


  1. Funniest thing about the clip is your shameless "about face" when television cameras are rolling, to reveal POKERSTARS.COM emblazoned on the back of the jacket. You can't buy that kind of publicity. Thanks for the memories.

    1. No, the funniest thing is that it was entirely unintentional. Had I been slightly less in shock, I might have thought to get the logo on camera. You give me way too much credit.

  2. This is your fact-checker. The 2003 WSOP had 839 entrants.

    1. Right you are, and I knew that - 631 was the prior year.