Saturday, June 29, 2013

Chris Moneymaker & Me

Some time back there was a great read on the internet about Chris Moneymaker and the 2003 WSOP— the start of the poker boom.  You can find it here on the website, Grantland.  Coincidentally, I mentioned Bill Simmons, the editor-in-chief of Grantland, in my recent basketball post (here). 

I wanted to link to it even though many other tweeters and bloggers have already done so.  I think it’s a great story told extremely well, and if you’re a poker player and missed it, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

But I know that non-poker players read my blog and I urge them to check it out too.  It’s a great bit of history and should be enjoyable for anyone to read.  Also, although there is a fair amount of poker jargon in it, the article is footnoted so that the novice will be able to find explanations for the confusing terms.
It got me thinking about how got into poker, which of course is now a huge part of my life, seeing as how I work for All Vegas Poker and Ante-Up Magazine and spend most of my “free” time writing what is arguably a poker blog.  At the time I got started, I never realized that Chris Moneymaker and his success at the 2003 WSOP were responsible for my new-found interest in poker.  I’m not sure I had even heard of him at the time, several years after his historic victory.
But I do recall how my interest in poker started back a few years ago, around 2005, I guess.
I had played some poker in high school and in family games a few years after that.  I always liked it but when the family game ended I didn’t play again for many years.  The crowd I was in didn’t play, except for one unusual form of poker, which was called “Bullshit poker” or just “Bullshit” for short.
You could play this game with any number of players, the more the merrier, and you didn’t even need a poker table.  We used to play it while we were on line to see a popular movie.  The player who started took 5 cards off the top of the deck and declared a poker hand.  It could be a full five cards or just a single card.  So you could declare the hand a spade Royal Flush or a deuce.  Or anything in between.
You then handed the cards to the next player, who could either accept the hand or call “Bullshit.”  If he/she accepted the handed he/she was required to declare a better hand than what the previousl player had declared.  The player could draw up to five cards if desired.  So if someone called it a deuce, you could of course declare a better hand.  If someone called two pair, say Kings & 7’s, with a 5 kicker, you could change the kicker to a 6 or better and improve the hand.  If you declared Kings & 7’s with an Ace kicker, things got trickier.
Of course, after awhile, everyone had seen the hand but didn’t know what the players after them had done—had they broken up the hand to trap someone or to make a better hand?
Now, if you called “Bullshit” the hand was exposed, and if the declarer had the hand that was declared, or better, the other player got a letter, starting with “B” (like the basketball game, “HORSE”).  If the declarer was indeed full of it and didn’t have a hand as good as he declared, he/she was the one who got the “B” or the next letter.  When you got 8 letters to spell out “Bullshit”, you were out of the game.  Last person standing won.
And that was pretty much the extent of my poker playing for many, many years.  When I went to Vegas, as I did regularly, I’d play blackjack and craps.  Once in a blue moon I’d play video poker, but that was rare.  When they introduced Pai Gow Poker to the casinos, I started playing that because it was relaxing, you lost money a lot more slowly than other games, and it was very social.  I guess that did indeed somewhat whet my appetite for poker.
And then one day I was watching some sports event on ESPN.  I’m going to guess it was a tennis match.  I fell asleep before the coverage was over.  I don’t recall the match; I assume it was not the match of the year.  When I finally awoke, there was poker on the TV, I assume WSOP coverage (very likely a rerun and old news).  For awhile, I was too tired and sleepy to even reach for the remote to change the channel, and before I knew it I was awake enough to be paying attention and I started finding it surprisingly interesting.
I had no clue how to play Texas Hold-em (a statement that will cause some that have played with me in Vegas to say, “And still don’t”) but I started getting the hang of it from watching.  I couldn’t believe I found watching poker on TV even remotely interesting, but it did keep me watching.
I would have almost forgot about it but virtually the same thing happened not long after, as it turned out that on the sports network the Lakers were on, they frequently had poker shows (not the WSOP) coming on right after the games.  I found myself watching them.
For the entirety of my next trip to Vegas, I was toying with the idea of trying the game.  But I hadn’t taken the step of studying the game at all, so I told myself no, I wasn’t going to do that.  I wasn’t going to risk real money on a game I hadn’t learned.  I had read books about blackjack and craps long before I’d ever set foot in Vegas, that was the model I thought I’d use.
But I did notice that one poker room—I suddenly found myself wondering near the poker rooms and just sort of idly checking them out—offered free poker lessons, so I sat in on one.  There was virtually no strategy conveyed, it was just the mechanics of Texas Hold’em, when to bet, what you could bet, when the cards were dealt, etc.  I had something to do right after or might have broken my rule of not putting real money in play for a game I hadn’t studied.
But then on my last night in town, with my bankroll doing ok (either I was ahead or hadn’t come close to losing my allotted “gambling fund”—I can’t recall which), I stood and studied the poker room at Green Valley Ranch for a long, long time.  They offered 2/4 limit, which I knew to be the smallest, lowest level game offered in Vegas.  Maybe I should see if I liked it before I invest in poker books and research back home, which had been my intention?
So I figured, I’d take out a $100 and see what it was like.  I had no clue about strategy or even what a good hand was (though I did know “what beats what”).  I wasn’t playing to win, my main goals were to see if the game might be for me, and then, perhaps more importantly, try not to look like a total idiot at the table.  I meant that more from the perspective of not violating poker etiquette (betting out of turn, folding when I’m the big blind and no raise was made, etc.) than from showing down a terrible hand when someone had a royal flush.
I played a few hours and eventually lost my nervousness.  I remember the thrill I had when I won my first pot—don’t recall how much it was but it wasn’t much, I’m sure—and also when I stopped making silly, newbie goofs.  I left the table a loser but with more than half my $100 buy-in intact.  It was a friendly table too, that helped.  The dealers were nice, the players were nice.
I knew, driving home the next day, I was going to give that game a try on my next trip.  I hit the bookstores and the internet and starting reading up on strategy.  I spent a lot of time studying.  That’s the thing about poker: this was a long time ago and I don’t think I’ve studied anywhere near enough to play this silly game.  That doesn’t stop me from doing it, though. 

Somewhere along the way, in one of those books, I read the story of Chris Moneymaker and the 2003 WSOP, and realized, even though I didn’t know it at the time, that was reason I got into poker when I did.  Well that, and the fact that I couldn’t stay awake during a tennis match.


  1. Havent seen him around this year, has he played any events at the 2013 WSOP yet?

    1. He played in a $200 Binions Classic Event the day after I did, that's all I know.

  2. Moneymaker was definitely how the PQ and I got into playing poker ourselves. First I started watching the 2003 WSOP coverage then she started watching with me. After that she was the driving force first into playing locally then into playing tourneys.

    1. In 2003 if I had seen poker on TV, I would have said I couldn't believe they would televise poker!