In 1970, Benny Binion put together a publicity stunt to promote his casino in downtown Las Vegas. He sent out invitations to Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim Preston, and the rest of the world's greatest card players and called it the World Series of Poker. Seven of them played cash games at Binion's Horseshoe for three straight days, and when it was over, Moss was named "champion" in a vote of his peers. The next year, six entrants paid $5,000 apiece for the right to play in a no-limit Texas Hold 'em "freezeout" tournament, in which everyone started with the same number of chips and they played until one man had all the money. A year later, the buy-in doubled to $10,000. In the four decades since, the basic rules of the tournament and the amount of money required to enter have remained constant.
But the number of participants has not. The World Series of Poker main event surpassed 100 players for the first time in 1982. It cracked 200 in '91, the first year in which the winner claimed a seven-figure cash prize. In 2002, 631 players entered, and the payout was $2 million.
Then came 2003. The 34th-annual World Series of Poker transformed the event into a pop-culture phenomenon. The numbers — by 2006, 8,773 players vied for a first-place prize of $12 million — illustrate how exponential the growth was. Poker went from a game understood by few and played in smoky backrooms to a television staple. In this 10th-anniversary oral history, more than 30 people who were part of the event explain what happened and what it meant for the poker business.
The Buildup to the Boom
Chris Moneymaker: In the late '90s, I used to go to the casinos in Tunica [Mississippi]. There was a poker room, but I never went in because there were about 15 or 20 guys in there and the average age was about 70 years old, and they looked miserable. Me and my friends, we had a home game. We never played no-limit hold 'em. After we saw Rounders [which came out in 1998], we started playing almost exclusively no-limit hold 'em.
Brian Koppelman (Rounders cowriter, Grantland contributor): Within the poker world, Rounders had become important. It was the cultural touchstone for poker at the time. When David Levien and I were writing the movie, all we wanted was for it to be what Diner was for us: a movie that guys would quote to each other. You still can't walk into a card room without hearing, "Pay that man his money." I think Rounders gave people the vernacular and explained the game and what it meant to play Texas Hold 'em.1 And the World Series of Poker broadcasts were so important in writing Rounders. But we were always really frustrated there was no hole card view.
Henry Orenstein (poker player, inventor): It was 1981 or '82. I saw a poker show on ESPN, and there were six hands in a row where the player didn't call, so we couldn't see what happened! Then the thought struck me that if we put a camera in there, and we were able to see the pros' cards, that would make the thing much more interesting. I called my engineers in, and within about four weeks we had a working model.
Cory Zeidman (2003 main event 39th-place finisher): I think Henry's invention was more important than anything else in taking poker to the next level. It gave viewers inside information — seeing who's bluffing, who's not. Those old World Series broadcasts of Gabe Kaplan doing commentary, those were torturous! You didn't know who the hell had what.
Koppelman: In the last poker scene of Rounders, Matt Damon's character — originally we had written it so that you didn't see his cards, so that you didn't know he had the straight that mirrored Johnny Chan's straight. And the director said to us, "We should show the cards," and I said, "No, if you know the cards it's not going to be as interesting." John [Dahl] said, "Let's put them both up in front of an audience. The same exact movie. The only difference is in one version you can see Matt's cards, and in the other version you can't see Matt's cards." And we played our version, the one where you couldn't see the hand, and it went great. The crowd was really surprised when the cards turned over — it was awesome. But when we played the one where you could see that Matt had flopped the straight, the crowd was on the edge of their seats hoping that [John] Malkovich would fall for it. They were completely engaged. It was exactly the hole-card phenomenon. They wanted to be inside Matt's head.
John Vorhaus (poker journalist, novelist): With the invention of the hole cam, we have the omniscience as an audience that we never had before. Now we're watching a threat unfold where each player in the hand can be thought of as the protagonist. Suddenly, we can look at poker as an exercise in storytelling.
Kenna James (38th-place finisher): When I started playing in '96, '97, poker was still in the smoky backrooms. People were ashamed to tell their families that they played poker. They would lie and not admit that they enjoyed going to play a game of poker after work. There was still a lot of cheating going on. But it was slowly growing out of that. And this was the tipping point. At Binion's Horseshoe2 in 2003, there was a sense that something special was happening.
ESPN Antes Up
Matt Maranz (executive producer, 441 Productions): I had done a lot of documentaries for ESPN in the past, and I'd been pitching the World Series of Poker as a documentary probably beginning in like 2000. And they always turned it down, saying, "Who's ever going to watch poker on TV?" Then in 2003, they finally wanted to do it. What I had been pitching was a documentary. They had a different idea. What I was pitching is not the World Series as you know it.
Annie Duke (47th-place finisher): I was very stiff in my assessment that nobody would ever want to watch poker on television. I just couldn't imagine that watching a bunch of people play poker would grab anybody's interest. So, I'm an idiot.
Dave Swartz (coordinating producer, 441 Productions): When we walked into Binion's for the first time, you were immediately struck by what an interesting group of people this is. Poker had this stereotype of backroom games, cigar smoke, maybe some seediness to it. And that's not what we found at all. When we sat down to interview people, we knew right away — wow, we have met our match. These are really interesting, intelligent people who think about a game on a level no one really realized at the time.
Nolan Dalla (director of public relations, Binion's Horseshoe and the World Series of Poker): "Eccentric" is a good word to describe most poker players of that era and before. Just the fact that you would pay $10,000 to play in a poker tournament makes you a little different than the average person on the street.
Maranz: There's a saying that the only thing more interesting than a poker player is the person sitting next to them. It was a unique breed of person who decided to become a professional poker player. Everyone had an interesting story how they got to that seat. And we were confident that was going to resonate.
Phil Hellmuth (27th-place finisher): I think Matt Maranz is a genius. He brought personality into poker. The World Poker Tour brought cards; Matt Maranz brought personality.
Maranz: We wanted to make as many shows as possible out of this. That's a business model in TV: You set up once and shoot as much as possible while you can. And we realized that this wasn't just about the final table, that they played for four days prior to that. And in some regards, the earlier part of the competition is more interesting. At the final table, that's a crapshoot, who makes it there. But all the famous players and stars and personalities are there on Day 1, and you can actually showcase them and build arcs and story lines to get to the final table.
Bob Chesterman (senior coordinating producer, ESPN Original Entertainment): When Matt and Dave made the connections with the players, everybody understood that we were really putting our time and effort into this project and we really started to gain the trust of everybody. Because in the end, when you're going to look at everybody's cards, you need a lot of trust.
Dalla: The mechanics of the cameras were difficult. They used cameras that weren't part of the table the way they are now. Players would show their cards, but wouldn't be positioned in front of the camera properly. So they'd be asked to move over 2 inches. Or "Can you be sure and show your cards longer?" Staff would have to go up and remind players. If you're at the featured table at the World Series of Poker, you don't want to be tapped on the shoulder every five minutes, reminded to do these things. But I didn't really hear complaints about it. Most people understood this was part of a greater good for the game.
Fred Christenson (senior director of programming, ESPN): The last major hurdle was that, whatever the gaming licensing governing body of Nevada, we had to get their approval on using the hole-card cameras. As a last-minute thing, they were telling us we couldn't use them. I think Nolan Dalla and those guys at Binion's signed off on it, but the gaming commission had to come in and make sure the security was right.
Mike Antinoro (senior coordinating producer, ESPN Original Entertainment): We let them know this wasn't a live event, but we had to show them what kind of security measures we would have on the hole cams. I got their concern. Look, there's an incredible amount of money at stake. Obviously, there's a lot of ways that people we hired could take advantage of the hole cameras.
Chesterman: You had everybody very uneasy, and we were like, "What do we need to do to gain your trust?" I actually positioned a guard there with a shotgun, right outside the curtained-off area where the video monitors were, and we said there's only two people allowed to go in this area, and nobody else was allowed in.
Maranz: Phil Hellmuth, actually, was a huge help in this. Phil took it upon himself to convince them to allow hole cameras. Without that, I don't think there would have been hole cameras. He went to them and said, "There will never be a poker tournament on earth that does not have hole cameras. So you can either be ahead or behind."
Antinoro: The people in Nevada, they knew the good things that would come from having this on ESPN, so ultimately that's really what won out. I'm not sure there's anything that we did or showed them that alleviated their fears. It was more a matter of making it clear that we were only going to do it with the hole cam, so they didn't have any choice.
Chesterman: I think we got it resolved just one day before the main event started. It was too close for comfort.
The Chris Moneymaker Story
Moneymaker: Before I really started playing poker, I was down, overall, as a gambler. I'd say I was down about $30,000, lifetime. I might have been a losing gambler, but I was a profitable poker player. I started playing some in the casino down in Tunica, and down there, an old guy told me about online poker and I ended up getting on PokerStars.
Vorhaus: Internet poker dates back to about 1999, 2000, but it didn't really take off at first because the functionality wasn't quite there and the market wasn't there.
Dalla: 2003 was the first year we had satellite3 qualifiers to the World Series from online poker sites. George Fisher, who was the director of poker operations at the Horseshoe, developed a relationship with three or four sites, including PokerStars, and PokerStars agreed to run some qualifying satellites online.
Moneymaker: I would normally keep a couple thousand dollars in my PokerStars account. I started with $200, I believe it was, and then I would get up to $2,000, $2,500, cash out. In April '03, I had 60 bucks in my PokerStars account. I remember I'd cashed out more than I wanted to pay some bills, and then I started a pretty terrible poker run. I sat down to play an 18-player sit-and-go,4 and back then, PokerStars didn't have it broken down all nice and neat like they do now. The satellites and the cash tournaments were all grouped together. I saw that there was a $39 sit-and-go with 17 of 18 seats filled, and I just clicked on it really fast to try and get the last seat. I just jumped in and started playing. It turned out it was a satellite where the winner earned entry into another satellite where the top three finishers would get a seat in the World Series of Poker main event. To be honest, I didn't know it was a satellite. If I knew I never would have played it.
David Gamble (Moneymaker's friend): I knew he was playing an online tournament. I did not know the significance — that it was for a seat in the World Series main event. I don't even know that I fully understood what that was at that time.
Moneymaker: I won the first satellite, then I made it down to the final table in the final satellite, and I was one of the chip leaders. The top three got seats in the World Series plus $1,000 spending money. Fourth place paid $8,000 cash. My friend Bruce [Peery] was watching me play from another computer, and he saw me starting to lose chips. He called me up and said, "What are you doing?" And I said, "I'm trying to get fourth place." And he's like, "Dude, don't do that. Take the dang seat! You'll never get to play in that tournament ever again." But I said, "Why do I want to play against the best in the world? I play as a hobby. I'm playing for my house." But Bruce convinced me to go after the seat after promising me $5,0005 in exchange for half my action. So I went ahead and won the seat.
Mike Moneymaker (Chris's father): He called me and told me he'd won a seat. I said, "A seat to what?" He said, "The World Series of Poker." I said, "World Series of Poker? What the hell is that?" I'd never heard of it. I said, "I've heard of the World Series, but that's baseball."
Moneymaker: The week before I left, Bruce told me he didn't have the $5,000 and couldn't do it.
Gamble: Chris called me, so we went to a sports bar down in Franklin [Tennessee], and he said, "Listen, here's the deal: I got this seat and I've got X amount, but I'm short." I wrote him a check for $2,000. It was like buying a lotto ticket.6
Mike Moneymaker: Chris told me he wanted to sell a percentage. I said, "OK, I'll take 20 percent." People ask if I thought I was making a good investment or just trying to help my kid out. It was a little bit of both.
Moneymaker: My backer was named "Gamble." I think the story was so surreal, it almost seemed like it was made up already. That detail sort of got lost in the shuffle.
Mike Moneymaker: You know how you get one of those weird feelings? As soon as he called me and told me he'd won the seat, I had this feeling that he's gonna win the darn thing. I told my wife about it, but I wish I'd written it down and sealed it and put it in a safe-deposit box.
Dalla: The day before the main event, I'm walking through the hallway at Binion's, and outside the poker office, there were 37 players standing there, all wearing shirts with the logo of PokerStars. PokerStars had them signing up for the tournament en masse. I thought, Oh, neat, there's thirty-some people coming from this website. But I didn't think anything of it beyond that. And I had no idea, of course, but in that line was a certain fella named Chris Moneymaker, who ultimately changed poker history.
Dan Goldman (vice-president of marketing, PokerStars): We had 37 qualifiers entered. That was the most of any site. We knew that it was going to be on ESPN. We wanted to try to get some brand exposure on national television for less than it cost to buy advertising. Although, there were a lot of discussions over whether it made sense to send a measurable chunk of our liquidity to a brick-and-mortar casino. We were pretty small at the time, and we're talking about sending $370,000 to Binion's. And back in 2003, online sites were viewed by casinos and poker rooms as competition. The card rooms that we wanted to do business with saw us as a threat, as an alternative to playing live poker.
Norman Chad (ESPN color analyst): We had a Las Vegas local who helped us a lot with the production, called Lou Diamond. Lou's one of my favorite people of all time. Lou's such a character. If you need anything done, he knows a guy who knows a guy. Two phone calls and he can get it done.
Lou Diamond (sports handicapper, ESPN production assistant): Matt [Maranz] gets the job from ESPN and contacts me, and he's just gonna be like a sponge. In the beginning, he just wanted to get some information over drinks and dinner. Deep in the back of my mind, I'm trying to score a job, and I do know more about gambling than Matt will ever know, but I didn't know squat about poker. So he goes, "Well, here's my dilemma, I need to get the cameras on the winner on Day 1 — not Day 5 when they hit the final table." I go, "Matt, you're asking me to pick the winner?" And jokingly he goes, "Lou, I'll give you 25 picks and I'll give you three days and you're still not gonna pick the winner." So I took it as a challenge. "Really, Matt? OK, just for that, I'm gonna give you the winner." So Matt hires me, now I'm working for ESPN — dream, right? I don't care if I'm the pizza boy, I'm working for ESPN, my check comes from Mickey Mouse.7 So I'm like, OK, I gotta find this winner, I gotta do everything I can to impress these guys and lock in a job at ESPN. So first thing I gotta do is get on a satellite and play a game, so I understand what the hell I'm doing. So I get into a $175 buy-in and sure enough, first time I've ever played poker in my life in Las Vegas, I'm sitting next to Chris Moneymaker. First showdown I ever get in is with Chris Moneymaker. All of a sudden, he stares at me with them sunglasses. I got intimidated. I don't get intimidated by anybody. When I tell you intimidated, the goose bumps, hair raising on your arms, everything. Boom. This whole vibe came over me. So I was like, Who the hell is this guy and why is he looking at me like this? So he beats me, he wins the table. Afterward he comes up to me and goes, "Do you know anybody who wants to buy a seat? I won this thing for $40, I'm broke, I'll sell it for $8,000 right now." We sat down, we had a drink, we were just bullshitting, and I was like, "Dude, you gotta play it. You got an opportunity, you know?"
Moneymaker: I don't remember that happening. I know I played satellites beforehand. And I had beers with several different people. So it's obviously a possibility. But I know I wasn't trying to sell my seat. I wasn't allowed to sell my seat. I was trying to sell pieces of it. I wanted to sell as much as I could, but no one was buying a piece of some random guy that they didn't know anything about.
Diamond: Monday rolls around, first day of the tournament, I get into my first meeting with ESPN. All the producers were there. And Matt says, "This is Lou, he's going to try to help us here." So Matt's first order of business: "OK, guys, let's get a list of all the people that we want to get the cameras on right away." They're talking Howard Lederer, Johnny Chan, T.J. Cloutier, they're just throwing all the big names out there. I raised my hand, I go, "Guys, I gotta tell you something. I played poker with this guy on Saturday, I get this amazing vibe with this guy, and the kid's name is Moneymaker." And the laughter afterward was just like, "Matt, this is the guy?" Trust me, I was the laughingstock when I said that.
Moneymaker: I don't remember meeting Lou before the tournament, but I do remember him coming up to me on Day 2. He came up to me on Day 2 and said, "You're my dark horse to win this thing. I like the way you play, you look focused. And I think you're going to win."
Maranz: Midway through the tournament, he said, "I got my pick to win. It's that guy over there, Chris Moneymaker." That's a true story.
Days 1 & 2
Barry Greenstein (49th-place finisher): Each year, the main event was getting to be bigger and bigger. It reached 839 players in 2003; the year before was in the 600s. So we're getting 30 percent growth. In 2003, $2.5 million for first place, that was a lot of money. One of the real milestones was the first time the main event hit a million dollars for first place. Now you didn't even have to win it to get a million.
Peter Alson (poker journalist): That was the beginning of feeling like the Internet was having an influence. It jumped about 200 people from the year before, and we knew that was largely due to the Internet.
Dalla: There was a definite lack of space for tables. We had to yank out all the seats in the sportsbook and the deli next to it. We literally threw down poker tables that were of the variety that you'd see in a Thursday-night poker home game, where you had to pull the legs out and pull up some steel chairs. These were horribly uncomfortable metal chairs that the players paid $10,000 to sit in!
Howard Lederer (19th-place finisher): It was kind of a checkpoint each year — what's the health of the poker community, what's the growth of the game? Everyone was always sweating that number. How many people are going to play? You were sitting down at the most important tournament of the year, and it really does mean everything to you. No matter how many times you've played in it, you get the butterflies and goose bumps when you walk in there.
Chad: When I walked into the Horseshoe, when the thing was beginning, I called up my closest friend back in Washington, and I said to him, "Where has this been all our lives?" I said, "I wish you could come out here and look at what I'm looking at." This was a great culture that I was just so glad to be around. It was gritty. This was the pre-Internet crowd, so this is Amarillo Slim and Doyle Brunson and Howard Lederer and Johnny Chan. It was a great, odd cross section of old-time gambling America.
Jeff Shulman (31st-place finisher, Card Player magazine editor): The first thing I remember thinking is, Wow, every single player in this room is wearing sunglasses. That's weird.
Greg Raymer (2004 WSOP champion): Back then, you tended to know people. You knew most of the names and the faces. If you didn't know someone, they probably weren't good. Nowadays, I see someone I don't recognize, especially if they're young, I assume they're probably a good online player. But that old stereotype, "If I don't know who this guy is, he's probably not any good" — that was a good stereotype.
Lederer: You looked across the table and you saw one or two guys with a PokerStars T-shirt. It was awfully nice of the Internet players to point themselves out to us.
Dan Harrington (third-place finisher): You had a bunch of people like Moneymaker who won their satellites, and they were just cannon fodder, that's how we looked at them.
Moneymaker: Honestly, there was no thought in my head of winning this thing. If I would have somehow cashed,8 I'd have been ecstatic. Literally, this was my whole strategy: Breathe five seconds before I made any decisions; if it was checked to me, I was going to bet; if someone bet in front of me, if I didn't have something I would fold, and if I had something I would call.
Goldman: I remember having a conversation with Chris in which he was comparing the structure of the World Series to the structure of the tournaments he had played online, and that was the point at which I learned this was his first live tournament.
Moneymaker: The PokerStars guys must have thought I was just a yahoo that had zero chance to win. I would go to them and say, "Dude, I got 10,000 in chips, the blinds9 are 25/50, I don't even have to play a hand! I can fold my way to Day 2!" Every night, I went to talk to Dan and I was like, "I can fold my way to this, I can fold my way to that, I can fold my way into the money!" He would say, "You don't understand, you can't just keep folding, you're going to have to play hands." And I said, "Yeah, I'm going to play aces and kings and I'll play sets.10 That's all I'll play." And he said, "You're going to have to open up your range. You can't be nervous and play like that."
Goldman: I remember getting the sense from him that this structure was so favorable to players that it seemed like he could get his $10,000 back without taking any chances — which was not the goal we wanted him to have.
Moneymaker: Dan Harrington was at my starting table, but I didn't know who Dan Harrington was.11 Dan was sitting over there being as quiet as can be. He was playing super-tight. So he wasn't even on my radar until a couple hours in, when someone said, "Nice hand, champ," after he won a pot. I had to look at the pictures on the wall of the past champions and see who he was.
Harrington: I absolutely remember playing with Chris that first day, because he was giving me trouble. I asked around with some other pros, "Who is this guy?" And they said, "I don't know. Just some kid off the Internet." That's all they knew. And that's what he was, just some kid off the Internet.
Moneymaker: I overslept on Day 2 and I literally thought I was going to be eliminated. I figured you don't show up, you don't get to play. It's pretty common knowledge now that your chips just get blinded off until you show up. But back then, I thought I was done.
Shulman: Moneymaker was at my table on Day 2, and I remember there was something about his sunglasses where you could see the reflection of his chips and the table. His sunglasses were so shielding of his eyes — that was a little different than what I was used to seeing at the poker table. His were just pure mirrors. So it was like, I don't know who this kid is but he looks pretty cool. I also remember he was drinking a lot of Red Bulls.
Moneymaker: My Day 2 table included Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey. I didn't know who Phil Ivey was. He was a young black kid with a lot of chips. He was just Phil Ivey — he wasn't Phil Fuckin' Ivey at that point. But I struggled on Day 2, and my struggle was with Johnny Chan. Chan was just abusing me. Every time I raised, he'd come back over the top. Some guy told me at dinner, "You have monsters-under-the-bed syndrome. You always think that your opponent has the best hand. But they hardly ever do."
Sam Farha (second-place finisher): I didn't play the main event a lot, especially before 2003. The only way I play it is if there's no other cash game going on. In 2003, I was at Binion's. There was no big cash game, so I decided to play the main event at the last minute.
Greenstein: Sammy and I were together at the end of Day 2, and I had a straight draw and I semibluffed all-in with one card to go against Sammy. He called and I hit my straight on the river. Sammy got up from the table and started leaving. I said, "Sammy, you have me covered."12 And he said, "What's the difference? It's close." I said, "I think you have 5,000 left." He said, "Well, what can I do with 5,000?" I said, "Come on, you can't just quit." So he sits down and he goes all-in dark13 for his last 5,000. And somebody calls him, and he doubles up. And the very next hand, he goes all-in dark again. And someone calls him, and he doubles up to 20,000. There were seven hands left in the night, and he proceeds to play all seven.
Farha: I went from 5,400 to 54,000 in the span of just a few hands.
Greenstein: If I hadn't said anything to him after the big pot we played, he'd have just left the room.