If you were to pitch a story about poker and name the protagonist Chris Moneymaker, nobody would greenlight the project. Gamblers often have incredible nicknames as a result of associations, most of which they probably won't want to discuss, but Chris Moneymaker? You've gotta be kidding me.
That's certainly what I thought. I was a "Rounders" kid -- someone who fell in love with poker after watching the movie hundreds of times. Captivated by the strategy, excitement and potential fame and glory, I just needed to know all I could about that world.
I remember reading in a newspaper that someone named Chris Moneymaker had won the World Series of Poker. I thought for sure there was a typo somewhere or perhaps the editor just took a few liberties involving a nickname to talk about the result of a game that wasn't yet mainstream. But no -- that guy, Chris Moneymaker, had actually won. My life, along with millions of others, had changed, but none of us knew it just yet.
That summer, Moneymaker became a most intriguing figure on ESPN, as the combination of his unlikely story and the ability to see player hole cards combined to set the world on fire. The accountant from Tennessee won his buy-in into the $10,000 World Series of Poker main event on PokerStars and turned fantasy into reality as he earned $2.5 million and the most coveted prize in poker. He was a recreational poker player and gambler who simply wanted to take fourth place in the satellite and bring home the $8,000 in cash in order to pay some debts off. During that satellite tournament, where three players would earn WSOP seats, one of his friends called him and offered him $5,000 cash for half of his action. Moneymaker was off to Las Vegas to change the world.
In the latest 30 for 30 podcast, "All In: Sparking the Poker Boom," Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan and other pivotal voices involved in the 2003 World Series of Poker take you on a tremendous ride through the event that brought poker into the mainstream.
It created a boom filled with an influx of dead money, celebrity involvement, sponsors and tremendous characters who captured the imagination of those at home week after week. It also created jobs (like mine), poker sites (like the ESPN Poker Club), instructional camps and shows (like ESPN Inside Deal) and so much more. The 2003 World Series of Poker launched a highly volatile industry that relied on new players taking their shots with hopes of living the "Rounders'" dream.
To those who think that poker is dead, this year's main event, won by John Cynn, was the second-largest main event in history, with 7,874 players. It certainly doesn't get the exposure it once did, and the games certainly aren't filled with tons of dead money any more, but the circuits continue to run, and the rings, bracelets and trophies still get hoisted by those that excel most.
Hindsight being 20-20, this all seems like a simple opportunity that screamed excitement and full buy-in and collaboration from all involved. But the truth is that 441 Productions, the company hired to produce the WSOP for ESPN, didn't have any experience in the space. They began shooting with a few ideas and a book filled with information on players to focus on. Very early in the tournament, those faces began to disappear from the tables. They began to do what poker reporters do after each day of every tournament -- find a new story to tell.
Nolan Dalla, the media director for the WSOP, made that discovery as he was typing up a list of those that made it through Day 1 of the event.
"So I thought, here's a poker player whose name is probably Chris Smith and maybe Moneymaker is his nickname. Chris 'Moneymaker' Smith. Chris 'Moneymaker' Jones. ... [The next day] I said, 'Excuse me, could you tell me your real name please?'"
Christopher Bryan Moneymaker pulled out his wallet and showed his Tennessee license. Game on.
"If I go out there and play in the World Series main event and I bust, and I don't pay off any of my credit card debt, all of this is for naught," Moneymaker said. "I'm not joking when I said I was probably number 800 out of 839 in terms of skill level in the tournament."
After a strong Day 1, Moneymaker just wanted to fold into the money. That didn't happen. He had his "Johnny Chan" moment when he bested the legend of the game. He miraculously rivered Phil Ivey on the final table bubble and found his way through the final table to become poker's world champion. During that time and, more importantly, after the event had ended, Matt Maranz of 441 Productions tried to figure out how to tell this story on TV, contemplating what to do as time after time the "main character got killed off."
Maranz and the crew succeeded. Broadcasts captivated audiences around the world and turned Moneymaker into a star.
"I thought I would play a poker tournament here and play a poker tournament there and go back to work," Moneymaker said. "That nothing much would change."
That was one read that Moneymaker couldn't have missed more.
He has spent the past 15 years traveling around the world, playing hundreds of poker tournaments as an ambassador for both the game of poker and PokerStars, the poker site that completely changed his life.
So put on your headphones and listen to how the 2003 WSOP main event came to be. Just as Norman Chad said as Moneymaker claimed victory, "This is beyond fairy tale. It's inconceivable."