Monday, February 4, 2013

Poker's tipping point: the 2003 WSOP final table

May 23, 2003
Before I get started on the final table, since this will likely be the last post about the 2003 WSOP I want to add a few odds and ends:

  • On Wednesday, when Chris was emerging as a real story, the media was clamoring for stories. The New York Times did a front-page story. The Las Vegas bureau chief for the Associated Press, who had declined my dinner invitation the night before the Main Event started, suddenly had time for me. And the ABC affiliate in Los Angeles flew a crew out to recap the WSOP with a focus on the unknown accountant named Moneymaker. The fact-checker for ABC pulled me aside right before the interview and asked, "Is Moneymaker really his last name?" I had no idea, so I found Chris and said "Look, I'm really sorry to have to ask this..." at which point he said "Yeah, I know," pulled out his wallet and showed me his driver's license. As I was looking at it, I heard a voice from behind me say, "I'm Chris' dad, Mike Moneymaker. Want to see my ID too?" I turned around to find a shorter, rounder version of Chris holding out his wallet.
  • On Thursday, when we still had three players in, I was wandering around the room (still looking official with my not-totally-legitimate press badge) watching our players and the various poker luminaries who were still in. Howard Lederer had been crippled in a hand, staged a nice comeback, and when I approached the table he was all in against Kenna James, an old friend from my Hollywood Park days. Howard survived, winning a nice pot and was out of the red zone temporarily. A few minutes later I was watching one of our players who was at Annie Duke's table. Annie and I were competitors, sort of - she was fronting UltimateBet at the time - but were friendly. I told her about Howard's comeback. She then asked me how our guys were doing, and I told her that we still had three players in, which I thought was pretty good considering there were only four tables left. I told her I thought we had a good shot at having a player at the final table, maybe even winning the whole thing (remember that, at this point, Olof Thorson had a commanding stack). I remember what she said next, almost word for word, as though it happened yesterday. "This tournament is all about experience. That's why you see the same people at the final table year after year. Your guys have no experience. They have no shot."
  • Right after the hand that eliminated Ivey, setting up the final table, Amir Vahedi approached me. Amir and I went back quite a few years - we had played in $10 rebuy tournaments at Hollywood Park almost daily starting in 1995. He took a half-smoked Cohiba out of his mouth and asked, "Don't you work for PartyPoker now?" "No, PokerStars," I told him. Silence for a few seconds, as he tried to remember if he knew who PokerStars was. "You guys want to pay me some money to wear a hat with your logo tomorrow?" I said thanks, but no - "We already have a guy at the final table." He asked who it was. I told him. He puffed air out of his nose, as close to saying "harrumph" as he could get without actually saying "harrumph." 

I had a lot of trouble sleeping the night before the 2003 WSOP final table. After the Olof Thorson debacle, the tense showdown between Chris Moneymaker and Dutch Boyd and Chris's elimination of Phil Ivey in a classic suck/re-suck/re-resuck, all of which happened on the same day, I was exhausted but emotionally keyed up about sweating Chris one more day. What had seemed like a pipe dream when we first talked about running WSOP satellites was now a reality - we had a horse at the final table, and our horse was the chip leader. The fact that our guy had no live tournament experience - and I mean no experience - was irrelevant. In Cinderella stories, Cinderella doesn't show up as a beauty queen. 

Final tables back then had a lot less pageantry. There was a table surrounded by velvet rope, a few rows of nice chairs on three sides (none behind the dealer) and some splintery, fold-away bleachers for the live audience, which consisted of less than 200 people. The prior year, I had developed a decent working relationship with Becky Behnen, Benny Binion's daughter and the nominal head of Binion's. Becky had invited me to sit with her at the 2002 final table, and invited me once again in 2003. I wasn't all that comfortable with this given her close relationship with the lowlife that had threatened to kill me not long ago, who was still hanging around that day, but without this invitation, I knew I'd be sitting far from the action. We settled into our seats as the action was about to start. On my other side was Chris Ferguson, who was the statskeeper for the WSOP back then (not sure if this role was formal). He had a huge notebook on his lap, with hundreds of pages of templates for recording final table action - spaces for bets, flops, turns, rivers, almost everything you would need to recap the action later on.

I saw some lights and a video camera set up off to the side and wandered over to see what was going on. A couple was swapping spots before and behind the camera, providing an introduction to a video they apparently expected to be seen later. The male half of the team had a distinctly Eastender British accent, and sounded suspiciously like the Geico gecko. (I got to know him in subsequent years, and I'm still not entirely sure, as I've never seen them both in the same place.) I got there just in time to hear him call Chris "the Internet underdog who got into the WSOP for $39."

Somewhere around 3:00pm, there were a few brief announcements, after which each of the final table players was introduced. The crowd seemed to know many of the players, applauding and cheering as they were announced. When Chris was announced last, as was traditional for the chip leader, there was a loud "GO CHRIS!" from a few people in the audience. I looked up and spotted Mike Moneymaker. I found out later that Mike had bought 20% of Chris, as had Chris' brother, and his best friend (whose name, I swear to God, was David Gamble) had 5%. I often joked afterwards that the 2003 WSOP money went to Moneymaker, Moneymaker, Moneymaker and Gamble, which I always thought would be a great name for an accounting firm.

I don't remember many of the hands I saw in detail. Frankly I wasn't all that interested in any hand that didn't involve Chris. The first hand of any consequence that I remember involved all the money going in between Chris and Dan Harrington. Even back then, my impression of Dan was that he wasn't putting it all in on a bluff, so I can't say I was thrilled when Dan jammed on a JJT flop and Chris snap-called him after having raised Dan's big blind preflop. But both players had AJ, so a moment of excitement for the rest of the table turned out to be just another boring no limit hold 'em hand.

The first hand that shook me up came about five hours into the final table. Chris had been raising and taking a lot of small pots, but hadn't been involved in any big confrontations. He had a little over $3 million in chips, roughly 40% of the chips in play, when the following hand happened (note that this is from memory, so don't bother correcting small details):

Blinds were 15,000-30,000. Chris raised to 100,000 in early position, and Sammy Farha reraised to 300,000, which Chris immediately called. Flop was AKx and both players checked. Turn was another irrelevant card, and both players checked again. The river made a flush possible. Chris bet 400,000 and was immediately called. I don't recall if Chris showed or not; from my angle I was only able to see Sammy's AQ, which took the pot. This brought Chris and Sammy almost level at $2.5 million and was the first chink I saw in Chris' armor.

Not very long after this hand, they were down to six players, including Amir Vahedi, who had been active but hadn't shown down many hands. He had gotten caught in a bluff earlier and was now down to about 500,000. After no raise preflop (it may have been blind vs. blind), Amir jammed his whole stack on an Ace high flop and Sammy instantly called. Amir turned over 64 for a stone bluff; Sammy had A5 and we were now down to five players. More importantly, from my side it looked like Sammy was now the chip leader (I was sitting directly behind Chris so couldn't see his stack).

I turned to Chris Ferguson, who had been attempting to estimate players' stacks. He confirmed that he thought Sammy was now just over $3 million with Chris second at about $2.5 million. I tried to convince myself that this was OK, but in truth I was very worried at this point. Chris had been chip leader when the day started, and hadn't relinquished the lead until now. As this was his first final table, I could only imagine what was going through his mind. Amir had always had a huge hole in his game - if he lost a big pot or two he desperately needed to win it back right away - and I was concerned that this same need would hit Chris.

Not long after I had this thought, Chris got involved in another huge pot, and when the cards were turned over I was convinced that my fear was justified. In this hand, Dan Harrington had raised to 90,000 preflop (I think the blinds were still 15,000-30,000), Chris had called and then Tomer, who had been very quiet, moved all in for 500,000. Dan folded, and Chris asked for a count. He stood up, took off his hat and wiped his forehead. I had seen something like this before - when he made the hero call against Russ Boyd - and when he called and the hands were exposed I was right. Chris had A2 suited, Tomer had TJ offsuit. I don't recall details from here, only that I saw an Ace and saw Tomer get up and put on his jacket. That was enough. The final table was now four handed. I thought about getting up and moving the sign that showed the payouts (a hand-written thing behind the table) - Chris was now good for $440,000, and the last thing I wanted was for him to decide that was enough and give up. Don't laugh - it happens.

There was another 30 minutes of no action - any raise took the pot, and we saw no flops. Then, Jason Lester and Chris got involved in a puzzling pot. Chris raised to about 100,000, and Jason, who started the hand with 500,000, raised to 300,000. This felt very bad to me - with a stack that size, I would expect Jason to get all the chips in, unless his hand was so big that he wanted a call. Chris thought for a bit, eyed Jason's chips and finally called. The flop came 89T, Jason instantly moved all in and Chris couldn't get his chips in fast enough. When I moved up a little so I could see the cards, I understood - Chris showed QJ for the nut straight, against Jason's AQ. Jason had only a J for a split pot (or a miracle running KJ to win), but it didn't happen, and then there were three - Chris, Sammy and Dan Harrington. Chris and Sammy looked to be about even at about $3.5 million each, with Dan at around a million.

Dan stole a lot of pots for a while, with neither of the other players wanting to double him up. Then an odd hand developed - I don't recall the exact action, but Dan ended up getting his stack in with KT, and Chris called with AQ. The T on the flop put Dan way ahead, and it stayed that way. Sammy was now the chip leader, with Dan and Chris roughly tied at $2 million.

Another dead zone happened at this point, with about an hour passing with almost no action. Chris and Sammy did get involved in one large pot that had Sammy folding on the turn with $1.2 million in the middle. 

The action seemed to change at this point - Chris was still raising quite a bit, but both Sammy and Dan had started calling rather than reraising or folding. This wasn't working out well for either of them, though, and Chris was now up to just over $5 million.

And then, after so long with almost nothing interesting happening, everything changed. Dan Harrington limped in the small blind, Chris checked and a flop of T6x, all diamonds, came down. Dan bet, and Chris plopped a huge stack down, enough to put Harrington all in. Dan thought about it only for a few seconds, and called. The hands: T9 for Chris (no diamonds), K6 with the K of diamonds for Dan. Chris was ahead by the tiniest of margins - I ran the hand later on the odds calculator and it showed it as 51-49. But, as we say in my family, NBH (Nothing Bad Happened), and just like that, Chris Moneymaker, 27 year old accountant from Tennessee, was heads up for the WSOP Main Event bracelet.

At this point the players decided to take a break. I went out in the hall for a cigarette (a habit I've since dropped) and Mike Moneymaker waved me over.

"Chris wants to know if he should make a deal," he said. He then asked me what this meant, and I explained.

"Let me go find him," he said. He came back with Chris a few minutes later.

"I'm thinking about offering him an even chop," Chris said. I am pretty sure that my mouth literally dropped open. 

"Chris, you have what, $6 million to his $2.5 million? If you want to make a deal, I'll go get a calculator and figure out a reasonable offer, but that's not it."

There was a long silence. Chris put his hand on his dad's shoulder and motioned him aside. They chatted for a few minutes and then came back.

Chris said, "Do you think I can win this? Should I make a deal?"

This is the last place I wanted to be at this moment. I needed Chris to be 100% engaged in winning this thing. I didn't want a deal to take the pressure off. But the truth was that a deal was in his best interest. He already had $1.3 million in real money locked up, but a sensible deal based on chip counts would get him at least $2 million. I hedged.

"Look, it's not up to me to tell you what to do here, but I'll tell you this: at this single moment in time, you are the best poker player in the world." And what that, I shook his hand and walked away.

I heard later that Chris offered Sammy a straight-up even chop, a horrifically bad deal by any measure. I never asked him, so I don't know if it's true, but the rest of the legend is that Sammy declined the deal. I also heard that Sammy asked Chris if he wanted to play winner-take-all for $3.8 million, but I can't confirm this either.

There was some jockeying for 20 minutes or so when a now-famous hand developed. I won't narrate the details; if you play poker, you've already seen it. The short version: Chris raised preflop with K7, Sammy called with Q9. The flop was 9 high; Sammy checked, clearly intending to check raise, but Chris checked behind. The turn put a third spade on the board; Chris had the K of spades, and the turn gave him both an open ended straight draw and a flush draw. Sammy bet, and Chris raised, but interestingly he raised a relatively small amount - a raise that seemed to indicate that he wanted a call. Sammy obliged and called. The river was a blank, Sammy checked and Chris moved all in.

At this point, Chris Ferguson leaned over to me and whispered, "When you see the TV broadcast, you're going to see the best bluff in the history of World Series final tables."

The rest is history. Sammy folded and just a hand or two later, on a flop of J45, Sammy bet his JT, Chris raised with his 45, Sammy moved in and Chris instantly called. Chris jumped up, took his baseball cap and glasses off, then turned the cap around and put it back on. I stood up at the rail behind him, squinting to try to see the next card.

The turn was a harmless card - I think it was an 8. Sammy shook his head. Chris paced. I tried not to pee myself.

The river was a beautiful 5, giving Chris an unnecessary full house. Chris' dad jumped out into the final table area and Chris threw his arms around him. Becky Behnen, standing beside me, said "congratulations." I looked at Chris Ferguson, who just shook his head.

After hugging his dad and shaking Sammy's hand, Chris came over to the rail and hugged me. I really couldn't say anything. Chris started to walk away, and I called him back. He turned around, and I took his hat off and turned it around with the PokerStars logo facing front again. He laughed and said, "You marketing guys."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for the ringside seat on poker history. I've certainly learned a bunch of stuff and it's been fascinating. I can almost smell the cigarette smoke at Binion's.

    Regards, Lee