Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 11, 2014

The Moneymaker Revolution

It's been more than ten years since an amateur player took the 2003 WSOP by storm, and the poker world has never been the same.

Elliot Magruder

When Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes and set a course record of -18, a star was born, and modern golf changed forever. Woods was telegenic, marketable, and perhaps most important in a sport that is historically played by white people, an African-American. Golf suddenly became popular among young people and minorities. Sponsors seeking customers ages 18 to 34 clamored to sign the 21-year-old superstar. Woods's impact on golf cannot really be overstated.

Eric Raskin
"I don't think there's another poker tournament story that resonates anywhere nearly as much as Moneymaker's win that effectively launched televised poker."

Eric Raskin

Now imagine if Woods hadn't already been a star before his breakthrough tournament, but was instead a club pro with infinitesimal pre-tournament odds. That's roughly what Chris Moneymaker accomplished when he won the 2003 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event. Moneymaker (yes, his real name), a pudgy 27-year-old accountant who qualified via an Internet tournament that cost $40 to enter, deftly weaved his way through a field of 800, many of them seasoned poker pros. En route to a $2.5-million payday, Moneymaker eliminated giants of the game such as Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey.

Poker has never been the same since, and Moneymaker's win is largely responsible for the subsequent explosion in popularity. Whenever ESPN ran an episode from the 2003 Main Event, including late at night on one of their secondary channels, it rated well. Online poker sites sprung up to satisfy the millions of new players. Poker players Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu became household names.

This seminal event deserved a comprehensive chronicle, and Eric Raskin has brought it to us with his new oral history, The Moneymaker Effect: The Inside Story of the Tournament That Forever Changed Poker. The book is an expansion of Raskin's award-winning piece published last year by Grantland. In an interview edited for length and clarity, Raskin, the editor-in-chief of All In magazine, discusses whether poker would have boomed without Moneymaker, how the Main Event changed after 2003, and whom he considers the best poker player in the world.

Gelf Magazine: You could have written about lots of poker tournaments. Why the 2003 WSOP?

Eric Raskin: I'd written my first oral history for Grantland—on the Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler fight—and I'd been mulling over ideas for another one. The 2003 WSOP came to me very quickly. I sat on it for a year, until we were within range of the 10th anniversary, and then I made the pitch and it was greeted with pretty much unanimous enthusiasm from the Grantland editorial staff. The key is that it's the tournament that pushed poker into the mainstream and ignited the poker boom, and it's the one that transcends that audience and has deep appeal to the sort of mainstream sports and pop-culture reader who spends time on Grantland. When I started working on it in 2012, it was clear to me that just the right amount of time had passed—there was nostalgia built up for that moment where poker came into everyone's living rooms, and enough distance for the interview subjects to reflect on 2003 with real perspective. There were other great poker tournaments before the '03 Main Event and there have been more since, but none that made sense for an oral history the way 2003 did. I don't think there's another poker tournament story that resonates anywhere nearly as much as Moneymaker's win that effectively launched televised poker.

Gelf Magazine: Was there anyone you wanted to talk to for the Grantland piece or the book but didn't get to?

Eric Raskin: There was only one person I desperately wanted to interview for the original oral history article and was unable to, and that's Phil Ivey, who is—or at least was until about a year ago—infamously unenthused about talking to the media. I asked Barry Greenstein, who is close with Ivey, if he could help me out, and Barry said he couldn't. I asked Daniel Negreanu, who has also been friends with Ivey for a long time, if he could hook it up, and he told me, "You're drawing pretty dead on that one." So the article ran without quotes from Ivey. But in between the article running and the book published, I finally got him. It worked out well, in that Ivey's quotes help distinguish the book from the original article.

Gelf Magazine: Besides the winning hand, what was the most important hand for Moneymaker?

Eric Raskin: I wouldn't say the winning hand is even in the conversation for most important hand, actually. The most important hand has to be the one that came immediately before it, when Moneymaker bluffed Farha off top pair by moving all-in on the river with just king-high. That's still, 11 years later, the most famous hand ever televised. Maybe there were earlier hands that were more important in paving the way for Moneymaker's victory, but that's the one that changed poker more than any other. It illustrated to millions of people that poker is a game of skill, but also a game that anyone can win if they get into the zone and start making the right moves at the right times.

Gelf Magazine: What is the perception of Chris Moneymaker in the poker world?

Eric Raskin: Chris is universally respected as an ambassador of the game. But as a poker player, the level of respect for him varies. Nobody considers him one of the absolute elite pros. Most view him as a solid, credible player.

Gelf Magazine: Whose side are you in the still-lingering debate: Did Moneymaker create the poker boom, or was the boom happening either way?

Eric Raskin: It was going to happen, no doubt. The early episodes of the '03 World Series scored staggering ratings for ESPN several weeks before viewers knew Moneymaker had won. But the boom wouldn't have been as big and would've developed more slowly if not for Moneymaker. The "Moneymaker Effect" is generally used to refer to the start of the poker boom, but really it refers to amateur players giving the game a shot and believing they can hit it big because of Moneymaker's everyman quality. So I subscribe to the theory that the Main Event numbers were going to grow after 2003 no matter what. But instead of tripling, from 839 to 2,576, in a single year, they probably would have doubled in an alternate universe in which Moneymaker never plays that online satellite and earns the Main Event seat.

Gelf Magazine: Who do you think is the best player? Is it "Phil Fucken Ivey," as he is referred to in the book?

Eric Raskin: It's been Ivey, probably since 2004 or 2005. I remember in my first year as editor-in-chief of All In, in '05, we put Daniel Negreanu on the cover with the headline "The World's Best Poker Player?", and then the next month we had Ivey on the cover. And Erik Seidel said to me, "Last month you had the 'best poker player' headline. This month you actually have the best poker player on the cover."
Ivey still has to be considered the best, because he can play every game, he's equally successful in the biggest tournaments and cash games, and he does it in live and online play. But if there's someone else worth inserting into the discussion, it's Vanessa Selbst. I think I would rank her above Ivey in terms of people I would hate to see seated at my table in any given tournament.

Gelf Magazine: Why Selbst?

Eric Raskin: Vanessa is relentlessly aggressive. Any time you bet into her, there's a chance she'll raise you, regardless of whether she has rags or the nuts. She just won her third bracelet at the WSOP last week and seems to have more momentum than anyone else on the tournament scene, including Ivey.

Gelf Magazine: Another "star" to emerge from the 2003 WSOP was Dutch Boyd. He was quotable, telegenic, and could do some great chip tricks. Where is he now? What is the perception of Boyd in the poker world?

Eric Raskin: Dutch is still a poker pro, and he's won two bracelets in the intervening 10 years. He's also suffered from bipolar disorder and depression and has gone in and out of the public poker spotlight. Dutch, like Moneymaker, he's never been viewed as one of the very best poker players in the world, but he's widely respected, as anyone with two bracelets ought to be.

Gelf Magazine: Do you prefer the main event as it was before 2003, or what it has become after?

Eric Raskin: I still love the TV coverage of it. Year after year, every episode ropes me in. But there's no denying that some of the personalities we've seen on TV in recent years are a drag. So many of the young online players have no social skills and are hard to root for. They just hide in their sunglasses and hoodies, turn on their noise-cancelling headphones, and don't say a word. So in terms of personalities and characters, it's fair to suggest the Main Event started to go downhill around 2006 or 2007. Somewhat like Survivor, strategy continues to evolve, and some years the characters are more colorful than others, but the game itself, in combination with the editing and production values, ensures that every hour broadcast every year is entertaining on some level.

Gelf Magazine: Many prominent poker players have a "persona," or if one is being less charitable, a gimmick. Phil Hellmuth is the "Poker Brat," Phil Laak is the "Unabomber," Antonio Esfandiari is the "Magician"; I could go on with many more. Do you think these personas help the game? Do you have a favorite?

Eric Raskin: I do think they help the game, up to a point. There are some that go too far—like Humberto Brenes's painfully annoying "shark" gimmick, for example. But in general, personality is good for the game. As for a "favorite" gimmick, that's tough to say. I guess I prefer the players who talk a lot and are willing to gamble and who show personality without it necessarily being a gimmick: table-talkers like Daniel Negreanu or Sammy Farha. Those are the sort of players who drove ESPN to expand their WSOP coverage in 2003 in the first place, players who could turn such theoretically boring activities as sitting around a table and throwing chips into the pot into engaging television.

Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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Article by Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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