Chris Moneymaker went from an anonymous Tennessee accountant to the most recognizable name in poker almost overnight.
It’s taken 20 years, but he’s finally inching back toward anonymous status at the poker table.
For the better part of two decades, opponents wanted to take a shot at him. They wanted to be the person who eliminated Moneymaker from the World Series of Poker Main Event. Or they wanted to at least beat him in a big pot or run one bluff on him and come home with a story to tell.
Finally, enough time has passed for that to mostly wear off, thanks to sufficient turnover among the poker-playing crowd.
“People don’t take near as many shots as they used to,” Moneymaker, now 47, said in early May when he appeared on the US Bets podcast, Gamble On. Then he offered an exaggeration to make a point: “Players playing now weren’t even born when I won.”
That can’t quite be true. The final table of the WSOP main event that Moneymaker won started on May 23, 2003, exactly 20 years ago. So anyone born after his historic victory cannot yet legally play poker in a casino in Las Vegas.
But, point taken: Today’s younger players didn’t discover the game in 2003 by virtue of seeing this ballsy amateur win $2.5 million on ESPN. That generation of viewers is now middle-aged and has dwindled in number after living through UIGEA and Black Friday.
The players now in their 20s? For a lot of them, “Chris Moneymaker” is just a name they’ve heard, similar to how “Puggy Pearson” or “Amarillo Slim” faintly resonated with the handful of 20-somethings on the scene at Binion’s Horseshoe in 2003.
Times change, people come and go, and the “Moneymaker Effect” waxes and wanes. But on the eve of the 54th annual World Series of Poker, which begins next Tuesday, the 34th edition still stands apart as the perfect confluence of events at the perfect time — with the perfect winner.
Beyond fairy tale
There are worse ways to spend 27 minutes on a random spring afternoon than reliving the highlights of Moneymaker’s run to the championship. From not realizing the action was on him when he first sat down at the TV table, to eliminating Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey, to pulling off “the bluff of the century” heads-up against Sammy Farha, the memories all come flooding back as you watch the compilation from the new home of WSOP streaming, PokerGO:
The fuse of the poker boom was lit from multiple directions at once. Online poker was beginning to take hold. The World Poker Tour incorporated the hole-card camera and began airing on the Travel Channel in 2002. ESPN decided to broadcast the ’03 WSOP Main Event with hole-card cams and reality-TV-style editing of the entire competition — not just the final table — for the first time.
And then a 27-year-old accountant who, as far as much of the viewing audience was concerned, was no more skilled at poker than they were, qualified via an $86 PokerStars satellite and lived up to a surname that seemed too good to be true.
That May, 839 players entered, up from 631 the year before. That’s 33% growth. That felt enormous at the time to the veteran poker players in the room.
The next year, 2,576 hopefuls played in the Main Event. The year after that, 5,619. And in 2006, the number was 8,773. In three years, the tournament grew by a factor of 10.
“I had no idea,” Moneymaker said on Gamble On when asked if he realized the impact his winning the tournament would have. “I went back to work. … I was back at work eight o’clock Monday morning. And I worked for eight months until February of ‘04 when I got second in a WPT, the next tournament I played. I got second, and my boss came into my office and basically told me, ‘If you don’t quit, I’m gonna fire you.’”
‘It’s never just another tournament’
What memories stand out for Moneymaker after 20 years?
“Really, it’s hugging my dad at the end and high-fiving my friend Bruce [Peery],” he said. “You know, just having my friends out there with me, experiencing it with me.”
As for the poker hands, which Moneymaker could still recall in detail on the 10th anniversary, many of them have receded.
“Obviously pulling the big bluff, the final card hitting, you know, those are the moments that kind of stay with you,” he said. “But as I’ve gotten older … I started to forget some of the less important hands. I remember the key ones. But, I definitely remember more of the, you know, going to breakfast with my dad and friend every morning, or getting the piece of paper that listed the chip counts at the end of the night at 4 a.m.”
Moneymaker will try to make new memories this summer at Caesars properties Paris Las Vegas and Horseshoe Las Vegas on the Strip, and he’ll try to win his second bracelet. But he doesn’t expect to have many shots. The WSOP conflicts with summer vacation activities with his kids, so he plans to play just two or three tournaments this year.
One of those will of course be the Main Event, which begins July 3. Even when you’ve played in it 20 times, “it’s never just another tournament,” Moneymaker said.
“I mean, I don’t think any professional poker player looks at that tournament and says, ‘Oh, it’s just another $10K,’” he continued. “I feel blessed to be able to play it every year. It’s something that, when you sit down to play it, you still get goose bumps.”
Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images