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.

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