Exactly five years ago, an accountant from Tennessee changed the face of poker forever. Chris Moneymaker, playing in his first live poker tournament, arrived in Las Vegas as an unknown and left Binion's Horseshoe Casino a poker icon. Qualifying online for only $39, Moneymaker entered the 2003 World Series of Poker main event, outlasted 838 other players and knocked out poker pros Johnny Chan, Phil Ivey and Dan Harrington. After besting Sammy Farha heads-up, ESPN's Norman Chad immortalized the moment forever, uttering his famous words: "This is beyond a fairy tale. It's inconceivable."
With this historic victory, Moneymaker inspired generations of poker enthusiasts by fulfilling the dream of every aspiring player. Ever since, thousands of amateur poker players make the pilgrimage every summer to Las Vegas to compete in the WSOP, which begins May 30.
I recently interviewed Moneymaker to take a look back over the past half-decade.
Bernard Lee: Well, can you believe it's been five years since you won the main event?
Chris Moneymaker: No, I really can't. It seems like 10 years actually. It's been a long, long time for me.
Lee: Really? I'm surprised. I would have thought you'd say the complete opposite, that it had gone by so quickly.
Moneymaker: So much in my life has happened since then. It seems like I'm always doing something. When I had a full-time job, I really wasn't that busy, but now I'm really busy. I guess that's a good thing. I thought the time would fly by, but it's pretty much crawled by. But I've enjoyed it.
Lee: Let's remind everyone how you qualified for the 2003 WSOP main event. It all began with a $39 satellite on PokerStars, right?
Moneymaker: Yup. It was a two-table sit-and-go. I really thought it was a cash sit-and-go. I didn't pay attention to the labeling. However, it was a satellite and was winner take all. That got me into a $615 satellite.
Lee: You obviously win your seat and the rest is history. When you went to the World Series in 2003, what were your expectations?
Moneymaker: My expectation was to play a few hours. My hopes were to make it through the first day. With the blinds going up every two hours and getting $10,000 in starting chips with the blinds starting off at $25/$50, I started doing the math in my head. I realized that I didn't even have to play a hand and I could get through the first day. So unless I had pocket aces or the nuts, I wasn't playing a hand. That was my strategy for Day 1 in the end, I made it through with $60,000 -- six times my initial buy-in. I felt it was quite good.
Lee: Later in the tournament, you took out Phil Ivey before the final table with a huge hand when you hit an ace on the river.
Moneymaker: At the time, he wasn't Phil Ivey. He was just Phil Ivey. He wasn't the Phil Ivey he is now. At the time, I didn't know who he was. Back in 2003, I just saw some guy like anybody else.
Lee: Were there any players who you were really intimated by while you were playing in 2003?
Moneymaker: Johnny Chan was the only person I played against that I knew. I didn't know anybody else in the poker world back then. Remember, the poker world back then was one hour on ESPN. The poker I knew was from the movie "Rounders," and Johnny Chan was in that movie. Of course, I had heard of Phil Hellmuth winning the main event, Stu Ungar and Doyle Brunson. Those were the four names I knew in the poker world. Dan Harrington was on my first table. I had to look on the wall (at Binion's) and see he was a world champion.
Lee: Now when you sit at the poker table, how do you think people feel about you? Do you think they are intimidated or in awe that Chris Moneymaker is sitting at the table? How has the reaction been over the past five years?
Moneymaker: It differs greatly. You'll see some people that are intimidated. Some people that want to take a shot and put a move on me. Some people will think I'm not any good and want to prove they are better. You see a wide spectrum, and that's part of the problem of being me.
Lee: So you have to determine not only what type of player they are, but also how they will react to you, since this reaction may change their game accordingly.
Moneymaker: Right. This rock that hasn't played a hand in two hours all of a sudden might change his style to take a stab at playing with me. Depends on how the conversation is going and how he perceives me.
Lee: The 2003 main event was your first live tournament. Obviously since then, you've played in dozens of events. How do you think your game has changed over the past five years?
Moneymaker: I've just learned a whole lot. I didn't know a whole lot back then. If someone reraised me and I had a pocket pair, I felt pretty good I didn't pay much attention to position. If I had A-10 under the gun, I was raising with it. I also bluffed a lot more than I do now because I can't bluff now being who I am. I still get away with it sometimes, but if I'm in a big pot I try to have the best hand now. Overall, I've learned a lot like position, odds and about the game in general. It's a totally different game to me now and it's a lot more fun to play, but it's a lot of work too. You have to be sharp on the table.
Lee: I'm sure you're under a microscope at all times.
Moneymaker: Yeah. If you lose focus, you can go home quickly. People are always watching me.
Lee: So over the past five years, are there any specific player or players that you've had conversations with who have helped improve your game?
Moneymaker: I've talked a lot with Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem. Being on Team PokerStars with them has helped me out quite a bit. I've traveled around Europe playing with them. I've also talked with Robert Williamson here and there and Jim Worth. So I've had some good people to talk to and bounce ideas off of.
Lee: So as a "poker icon," what are some of the pros and cons of being Chris Moneymaker?
Moneymaker: Well, the pro is obviously on the financial side. I don't have the bills or the worries I had back then. The economy isn't doing exactly well right now, but it doesn't really affect me a whole lot. So that's obviously a big pro. I also get to spend a lot of time with my family. I travel when I want to travel. I get to own my own company (Moneymaker Gaming). For the most part, I get to do what I want to do. If I want to play poker, I can. If I don't want to play poker, I don't have to. It's like winning the lottery I guess. It's a nice feeling. Also, I like talking to people and they are always nice to me. I travel around the world basically meeting new people, so that's always fun.
Lee: And the cons?
Moneymaker: The cons. I travel around the world meeting new people. I used to travel 80 percent of the time with my old job. Once you've done it for a long time, it gets old. It wears on you. Also, the expectations sort of sucks. I don't play a lot of tournaments, but if I don't win a tournament in a year, people are like, "What in the world is going on?" People don't realize how hard it is to win tournaments. You're not going to go out and play 10 tournaments and win one of them. Your odds aren't that good. The pressure of trying to win sucks sometimes. You get over that pretty quickly because you realize it doesn't really matter because you have money to support your family. The pressure is there and everything you do is under a little microscope. I'm not like a huge celebrity where I am followed by paparazzi, thank God. But if I do something where poker players are around, it's going to get reported on and people are going to see it.
Lee: Looking back over the past five years, would you have done anything differently?
Moneymaker: To be honest, I don't really know what I would have done different. I tried to handle it the best way I could. I didn't jump into the big cash games. I didn't take any deals. I tried to build a brand and make wise decisions. The most common mistakes I see after someone wins a big tournament is they all of a sudden go play the $100/200 no-limit game. Or they jump into the big game or play something that is way over their head. Just because you've won a tournament doesn't mean you're up there with those boys [in the big game]. I'm pretty happy with all the decisions I've made so far, even though some of them turned out poorly. I still think at the time they were the correct decisions. Overall, I'm happy with what's happened and how fortunate I've been. I caught the run of my life in 2003. But that luck has come back to bite me in tournaments since then. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I'd rather get lucky once for one week and then be unlucky for the next five years.
Next week, in Part II of my interview with Chris Moneymaker, we discuss some misconceptions that people have of him, what his plans are for the 2008 WSOP and how he feels about the change in this year's WSOP final table.
Bernard Lee is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and hosts a weekly poker radio show on Rounders Radio and in Boston. "The Bernard Lee Poker Show," can be heard from 6-7 p.m. Tuesday, from 9-10 p.m. Thursday and from 10-11 p.m. Saturday on 1510 AM "The Zone." For questions or comments, e-mail him at BernardLeePoker@hotmail.com.