Life and legacy of Chris Moneymaker, 15 years after his WSOP main event win changed poker forever

The popularity of poker exploded in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker main event. The combination of the expanding popularity of online poker and the first time poker aired on ESPN with hole cards made Moneymaker an instant star. Joe Cavaretta/AP Photo

"This is beyond fairy tale. It's inconceivable!"

Fifteen years ago this week, that iconic phrase exclaimed by ESPN's Norman Chad that still rings in the ears of poker fans worldwide punctuated the unimaginable 2003 World Series of Poker main event victory of Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker -- and in that moment and the months that followed, that win changed the poker landscape forever.

Moneymaker not only beat grizzled poker veteran Sam Farha heads up, but also outlasted such recognizable poker players as his hero Johnny Chan, Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth, Humberto Brenes and Howard Lederer.

While the media painted a glamorous picture of his improbable victory, and poker set the world on fire and became truly mainstream, the long-term aftermath was slightly less glamorous for Moneymaker.

Less than two years later, it was no longer all roses for the impossibly named poker champion; by the start of the 2005 World Series of Poker (WSOP), Moneymaker had nothing left to show of the $2.5 million that he won in May 2003.

It was the culmination of an impossible story that by all measures never should have happened. Moneymaker's fortuitous road to the 2003 WSOP main event title nearly got derailed at several junctures. First, he thought he was playing a sit-n-go on PokerStars that offered a cash prize, only to discover after he'd won that he'd instead earned a $650 WSOP main event satellite seat.

It was reported for years, even by Moneymaker himself, that that tournament was a $39 satellite. The 43-year-old even titled a book, "Moneymaker: How an Amateur Poker Player Turned $40 into $2.5 Million at the World Series of Poker" about this journey. In recent years, however, a little research proved he had been mistaken all these years.

"I found out a few years ago that I qualified into the $650 main event satellite through a $86 one-table satellite," Moneymaker said. "I typically played the $39 two-table satellites, so I thought this was the one that I qualified through. But PokerStars did some research and found out it was actually a single-table $86 satellite."

Then, when he played that second satellite, Moneymaker got down to the final four players and then tried to give up that seat to the tournament in lieu of some much-needed cash.

"With four players left, three players would win main event seats, but the fourth would take home about $8,000, which was coincidentally about my credit card bill at the time," recalled Moneymaker in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "So, I was actually trying to 'lose' and be responsible, so I could win the money. But a friend called me, talked me out of it and said that he would give me $5,000 for half of my action. So I decided to win my seat."

It took only about a week for those plans to go off the rails. Moneymaker found out that his friend had blown all the money promised to him at a casino in Tunica. As he panicked about the decision he had made to take the seat over the guaranteed cash, Moneymaker's father and another friend both decided to invest $2,000 apiece -- and with that, Moneymaker was off to Las Vegas to make history.

After his epic victory, Moneymaker was offered a sponsorship deal with PokerStars, which included traveling and playing live tournaments around the world. While the decision seemed obvious and lucrative for Moneymaker, his soon-to-be former wife was much more reluctant and didn't like the travel schedule, which ultimately led to a divorce.

"Quite frankly, it didn't go well. She didn't like the travel and it was just not working out for her and me."

After his divorce Moneymaker was essentially broke, though he still had his business interests and future earnings to count on. As one of the most recognizable faces in poker, he gradually built back his net worth with endorsement deals and public appearances. For the next few years, he constantly traveled the world. Overall, he felt he was living a great life, playing poker and partying every night.

"I loved the lifestyle as we would play poker all day and party almost every night on the road. We would drink and party until all hours, and do it all over again the next day and night."

A couple of years after his victory, Moneymaker met his current wife, with whom he has since had two daughters, ages 13 and 10, and one son, age 6. From the beginning, his current wife better understood what he did for a living, but it was still not easy for her to comprehend the poker life.

"Even though my current wife knew I was a poker player from the beginning of our relationship, it was difficult for her to get her head around the fact that I would come home often losing money," Moneymaker said. "Everyone sees the glamour side of poker, but it is very hard to come home to your wife after being away for a couple of weeks and then tell her you lost thousands of dollars. It is very tough to share the ups and downs with your spouse."

After the birth of his first two children, Moneymaker realized that he needed to stop the partying lifestyle, for the good of him and his family. Today, his after-poker-playing hours no longer involve drinking and partying, but rather quiet nights in his hotel rooms.

"For years, I used to always go out after I finished playing. But for the last decade or so, I just go back to my hotel room. I quit smoking and now rarely drink, maybe a little sometimes socially. I basically go back to my hotel room to either watch Netflix, watch a poker video or play Fortnite with my son and then go to bed."

Although Moneymaker has had a solid career, it's easy for some to feel as though he was just lucky enough to win the 2003 WSOP main event. Since the 2003 WSOP main event, Moneymaker has won over $1.2 million, but even if his lasting legacy is that of a one-hit wonder, he is fine with that public sentiment.

"Overall, I think many people will always relate to me and they will think of me as a luck box that won the WSOP main event," said Moneymaker. "They feel that if I can do it, they can do it. Even to this day, people still perceive me in that way. To be honest, it is not a bad thing because people don't think I'm that good and think I bluff all the time. Overall, it definitely helps me when I play."

Even his former PokerStars teammate, Joe Hachem, the 2005 WSOP main event champion, feels that Moneymaker's poker ability is underappreciated by the general public.

"Chris is one of the most underrated poker players I know. Many people think that he was just lucky to win back in 2003, but he understands poker well, has worked hard at his game and he is a very good player."

Even though he is still one of the most recognizable players in the history of poker, Moneymaker is one of the few champions who still loves to play in lower-stakes tournaments, even during the WSOP. You can often find him playing in one of the WSOP Daily Deep Stack tournaments, which feature buy-ins well below most of the bracelet events on the schedule. He is comfortable leaving his ego behind and playing with the masses.

"I enjoy playing the lower buy-in events. The players are generally happier, the fields are often easier and you can still win sizable amounts of money. These tournaments fit who I am. Some players are surprised to see me playing in these events, but I really enjoy playing in them. I don't have an ego in poker where I have to play the highest buy-in tournaments."

Even though he is not regularly playing in the high buy-in events, Moneymaker still works hard on his game. Recently, he began to work with Chip Leader Coaching to continue improving his game to compete with the younger generation.

"I used to watch poker videos, but the information was stuff I already knew or not specific to my needs," he said. "Today, the game is changing so quickly and it is sometimes hard to identify my specific leaks. Recently, I began working with Chip Leader Coaching and I'm able to talk with very successful poker players who have won millions of dollars. You are able to get many different opinions from really accomplished players and understand how these young minds work."

As we mark the 15th anniversary of his landmark victory, Moneymaker is once again thrilled to return to Las Vegas and play the WSOP main event.

"I'm always excited to go back and play the main event," he said. "The tournament is a once-a-year event and I really enjoy going back out to Las Vegas and trying to repeat history. The fans are always so great and there are so many wonderful memories."

There's little doubting the overall impact Moneymaker has had on poker, and it came as little surprise that, in 2016, he was a nominee for the Poker Hall of Fame. While some were surprised when he wasn't inducted, others felt he doesn't deserve it for a single win, no matter how big the aftermath was for the industry.

Either way, Moneymaker is fine with it, because as he reflects upon the past decade and a half, he is thoroughly content with the current stage in his life.

"Whether I make the Poker Hall of Fame or not has no bearing on my life. It would be a great honor, but I don't need validation from other people to make me happy," Moneymaker said. "I'm still recognized today and will go down in poker history either way.

"Right now, I'm so happy with my life. I have a great family, wife and kids. And I love what I do. I'm so fortunate to play poker for a living, and I'm thankful every day."