Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How the Moneymaker Effect almost didn't happen

May 23, 2003 (continued)
As I've mentioned a few times, this blog is in pretty much random order, based on when I remember things. I've tried to start each post with a date (if it has time significance), and perhaps someday I'll actually organize it chronologically. Don't hold your breath.

At any rate, this picks up immediately after Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker in dramatic fashion at poker's most momentous final table. It was not, by far, the biggest final table money-wise - first place paid a very respectable $2.5 million, but that number pales in comparison with the WSOP's peak in 2006, the year Jamie Gold won $12 million. It wasn't the most star-studded table - while there were a few names that poker players knew back then (Dan Harrington, David Grey, David Singer), there were many years with more luminaries (my nominee: 2001, with Carlos Mortensen, Dewey Tomko, Phil Gordon, Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow, followed by 1996, with Huck Seed, John Bonetti and Men Nguyen, which featured a famous 3-handed flameout by Bonetti). But this was the final table that changed poker forever.

As I watched Chris hugging family and friends, I knew the implications for PokerStars were big, but I had no idea how big they might be. The WSOP was broadcast on ESPN back then, but hole-card cameras were pretty new, and ESPN frankly didn't do a very good job of promoting this new technology. As I mentioned in another post, the three things that fueled the poker boom were hole card cams, online poker and Chris Moneymaker, and here I was, watching from the sidelines as all three converged. I had no clue.

Security cleared the crowd out from the roped-off final table area, and Chris sat down for some publicity photos behind a giant pile of money and a bracelet. Becky Behnen, the nominal head of Binion's at the time, posed with Chris and various ESPN and other celebrities. I sat on the floor in front of the final table, still sporting my press badge as though I were really press, and took dozens of pictures. Then security pushed everyone back a little, someone brought out a few microphones and an impromptu press conference started.

Press conferences like this rarely produce any interesting results. Here we had a dazzled and dazed new champion, who really didn't grasp what had happened yet, answering one inane question after another. I watched with some fascination as Chris handled himself admirably; had it been me, fielding questions like "What are you going to buy?" and "Are you going to play again next year?", a reporter might have walked away with a pen in his eyeball.

Then came the one question that, along with the answer, stuck with me all these years. A reporter actually asked this question: "Have you ever won this kind of money before?" 

This question was so stunningly inane that there was, in fact, a long moment of silence. Chris looked at the reporter, and I thought it a good thing that there were no pens near at hand. But he in fact looked thoughtful, grasping for an answer that would somehow make the question appear less stupid than it actually was.

Finally, he picked up one of the five inch thick bundles of cash, representing $50,000, and said, "I've never made this much money (shaking the bundle) in a year before."

A shiver of dread went through me then, and I didn't know why. I'd find out a few days later.

May 25, 2003
Two days had passed since Chris won the 2003 WSOP. I'd talked to him only once on the phone, about 3 hours after his win, and had a lot of discussions with senior management at PokerStars since. I'd left him a few messages with no response. The one thing that was clear was that we needed to cement our relationship with this guy.

We did something that was controversial when we first started running WSOP satellites - we required players to agree to wear PokerStars gear during the Main Event, and further required that they sign a one-year endorsement deal if they made the final table. Like most online contracts, no one read ours. I was pretty sure that Chris would be OK with it, though - he obviously loved poker, and our intent was to put him out there in PokerStars regalia as much as we could.

On the Sunday after his win (two days later), Sharon and I had a busy day planned. We had been in Las Vegas for over a month, and were anxious to get home. It was Memorial Day weekend, and we thought it best to drive home on Sunday rather than fighting holiday traffic the next day. We packed up, checked out of the Golden Nugget and drove to a restaurant in Spring Valley, where a reception was being held for our friend Peter Costa and his new wife, Leah. We intended to just drop in and say hello and then get on the road.

Just a few minutes after we arrived, my phone rang. I hoped it was Chris, but it was my boss at PokerStars, wanting to work out some final details. I was forced to tell him that I hadn't been able to reach Chris, which didn't go over particularly well. I was confident, though, that he'd get back to me, and if needed I was willing to come back to Vegas to finalize things.

We wished Peter and Leah well and got on the road for the 300 mile, dead-boring drive to Los Angeles. The only bright spots for me on this drive are Baker, home of the World's Largest Thermometer and, more importantly, Alien Fresh Jerky, and Barstow, where there used to be some very good factory outlets (now they're mostly just plain old retail stores). We stocked up on Alien Fresh Jerky without having heard from Chris. I left another message.

We got to Barstow mid-afternoon on Sunday. It had been warm in Vegas and Baker, but when I opened the car door in Barstow a blast of 110 degree air singed my eyebrows. We bolted for the door of the Outlet Center. I tried Chris again; still no answer.

I stopped at my favorite bookstore, a Barstow mainstay that sells only remainder books (you know, the leftovers that Borders used to sell for $5). I moved on to a remainder CD store when my phone rang. I didn't recognize the number. I answered and heard Chris' voice, and let out a breath that I may have been holding for a few days.

"I saw you've been trying to reach me. I'm back in Nashville."

"OK, I guess things got crazy for you here," I said. "Must be nice to be home."

"Oh, I'm not home," he said. "I'm at work." Chris was an accountant for a small restaurant chain in Nashville. 

I thought about this for a minute. This guy had just won roughly 50 years of junior accountant salary, and he was back at work two days later, on a holiday weekend.

"OK, that's impressive. Listen, you're going to be getting a lot of calls from the press. The Today Show has already called me, along with a lot of other media. I want to talk a little about how to handle scheduling, and how to answer some of the questions you're going to hear."

There was a long silence. "You there?" I asked. 

More silence. Then, "I'm not sure I want to do this."

I had no idea, but I was about to say something incredibly stupid. "Chris, you're about to be a media sensation. Everyone wants to know about you."

Much longer silence. Then, "I know. I don't think I want to be famous."

As long as I was being stupid, I saw no reason to stop here. "I don't think you have a lot of choice here, Chris. The media is going to find you. It's really just a matter of how you handle it."

When he didn't respond to this, I said, "I'm not sure how important this is to you, but we'd really like to have you as a spokesman for PokerStars. It means getting to play a lot of poker, a lot of tournaments. The money you won is great, but this could be a career."

This seemed to make a little dent in Chris' resolve. "I need to talk to my family about this." I was OK with this - from the little I had learned about Chris' father, I was pretty sure he'd be happy about having his son become a poker celebrity.

Chris made me sweat for five days. During that time, he had to change his home phone number, but the press largely left him alone other than phone calls. On Friday, a week after his win, Chris called me to tell me two things: (1) he wanted to keep his day job, and (2) he was willing to be our spokesman, provided we could keep his family in low profile. I was fine with both of these requirements, neither of which I had much influence over. 

There's no way any of us could have anticipated what would happen over the following few months. Chris believed he could be our spokesperson and still retain some anonymity, and I believed that as well, at least to some degree. None of us believed that Chris would be swamped in airports days after the ESPN broadcast of his final table - it had never happened before. But Chris was a singular sensation - the right guy, at the right time, with the right name.

The Moneymaker Effect had started.

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