Writer’s Note: This is the fifth in an extended series of articles about Chris Moneymaker’s victory at the 2003 World Series of Poker and what went on behind the scenes at Binion’s Horseshoe — before, during, and after.
Part 7: “839″
On the eve of the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event, the preliminary numbers weren’t just down. They were abysmal. We dropped about 25 percent overall in attendance from the previous year, which had also been a disaster.
But after four weeks, no one was bringing up the ugly numbers. Instead, everyone was talking about big names.
The very biggest names in poker won gold bracelets — and lots of them. Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Huck Seed, Layne Flack, Mickey Appleman, John Juanda, Daniel Negreanu, Men “the Master” Nguyen, Chris Ferguson, Erik Seidel, and Carlos Mortensen were among the illustrious winners. Imagine a single series with Brunson, Chan, and Hellmuth all winning titles. In fact, Chan and Hellmuth both won two each!
Those were the headlines and became the talk of poker. Not declining numbers.
And so, heading into the 36th gold bracelet competition known as the Main Event Championship, we’d pretty much weathered the worst of the storm. This old relic called Binion’s Horseshoe was still afloat. Best of all, prospects for the $10,000 buy-in Main Event looked promising because George Fisher had the great vision to establish partnerships with other casinos and cardrooms, including online poker sites. That would surely boost attendance. But could it make up for a 25 percent gap?
The previous year’s championship drew 631 entrants. Given our significant drop in preliminary events, we would have been thrilled to reach the same figure as in 2002. As things turned out, we would do much better.
It bears noting that these were not merely “numbers” to us. The success of the WSOP was a matter of tremendous personal pride. I’d also be lying if I didn’t add there was some bitter resentment towards the big changes that were happening on The Strip — particularly at the Bellagio with their marques attraction called the World Poker Tour. We felt disrespected by the new kids on the block. Some of the people down there were quoted in the media as saying they were now the real deal and seemed to be dancing on the grave of poker’s grandest tradition.
Moreover, we were fundamentally different from our rival in every way imaginable. We had a long tradition dating back nearly four decades. They had zilch. The style and design of their tournaments were also vastly different, and frankly repulsive to poker purists like myself. For instance, the glistening WPT final table set looked more like the television studio for an episode of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” rather than a gritty poker event. Their big championship was held inside a first-class billion-dollar palace owned by Steve Wynn. Our championship took place in a crumbling dump that was half a century old owned by a dysfunctional family coming off a murder trial.
So, reaching the magical number number of 631 was paramount to the overall success of failure of the 2003 WSOP.
When I walked into Binion’s Horseshoe on the morning of May 19th, there was an electricity hanging in the air like nothing I’d ever felt before in poker. I’ve never experienced what some call a “sixth sense” about things. But that’s as close as I’ve come, as I rode the escalator up to where the tournament was about to take place.
It was a beautiful sight. Ecstasy. Players lined up down the second-floor hallway, waiting to register. An hour before the tournament was scheduled to begin, we crossed the 631 mark. And so we were free-rolling, possibly an even bigger number.
That didn’t necessarily mean all was good. With success comes expectation and obligation. The problem with the growing number was twofold — lack of tables and not enough poker dealers. We’d prepared for around 600 entrants, which meant 60 tables would be used. With tables already set up inside Benny’s Bullpen upstairs, plus the tables used for cash games downstairs, we could accommodate as many as 600 players. But players kept on streaming in.
At one point, the two tournament directors Matt Savage and Jim Miller realized there was no other option but to go to 11-handed tables — at least early in the tournament until players started busting out. This was an unprecedented move. But it became clear that even 11-handed play wasn’t going to solve the problem. This was an “all hands on deck” moment for the staff. Frantic phone calls were made to neighboring casinos to try and borrow additional poker tables and chairs. Some casinos agreed to helped us. Others — still pissed at the Horseshoe for a multitude of very good reasons — slammed down the phone and refused.
As cards were in the air and chip stacks rose, dwindled, rose again and moved around the room in whirlwinds of flops, turns, rivers, lucky breaks and bad beats, maintenance staff were seem hauling poker tables through the room, dragging chairs, and setting up for another 11 fresh bodies. Some of these tables landed haphazardly in the middle of hallways, oblivious to fire codes and regulations. Four tables were shoddily thrown together inside the casino sportsbook, where small wooden school-type desks were tossed against the wall in a giant pile in order to make room for what would turn out to be the biggest $10,000 buy-in poker tournament in history.
Some of the tables and chairs were so badly worn out, they wobbled. Folding metal chairs, the type you might see at a VFW hall, rickety and bent hopelessly out of shape, held the bulging bodies and fanciful dreams of poker players who’d mostly flown to Las Vegas for the premier annual event in the game.
And during all the madness — the wobbly tables with worn-out felts, the mismatched metal chairs teetering on unbalanced legs, furniture dragged down the aisles, errant furniture piled up in corners, shouts and demands for new set ups and chips, dealers plucked from the casino floor and thrown into the fire of dealing Hold’em for the first time, ceaseless announcements over the public address system that couldn’t be understood — miraculously somehow and some way, it all worked. No one complained. Everyone seemed to understand. They got it. It was like a thousand strangers coming together in some unspoken bond during a national crisis or disaster.
Once 839 players were registered and seated, with each passing minute things got a little bit easier. The number of bodies dropped to 800, then 750, and then to 700. By late afternoon, the field size was down to 500 and falling fast. The WSOP ship was now sailing full steam ahead. It was a victory. A surprising one at that. It didn’t seem to really matter to any of us what happened after that. Debatable or not, that year’s WSOP was destined to go down as the most successful in history.
That night, I enjoyed a steak dinner at Hugo’s Cellar at the Four Queens like I had not tasted in a month. We toasted our success and the long life of the World Series of Poker.
Hours later, surviving players bagged up and tagged after a long 13-hour day. The poker player’s day was over. But for some of the staff like me, my job was really just beginning.
Part 8: But What’s His Real Name?
The poker world thinks the day is over when the dealing’s done. Bullshit.
For a select few, the most critical part of the day and night gets underway just as players are streaming out of the tournament room.
One of the least enjoyable tasks in tournament poker and reporting as such involves all the data entry on overnight chip counts. Hundreds of names and numbers and figures. Players who bag up at the end of the night sign a small piece of paper listing their names and chip counts. It sounds like a very simple process. Alas, it would be simple if only players would do as they are asked. But they don’t.
And so, the final few hours of every day are usually a maddening mind fuck.
That’s right, a mind fuck of illegible handwriting, completely blank forms, missing names, and gibberish that makes it all but impossible to create an accurate scorecard of where everyone stands. Imagine a golf scorecard where you can’t read the numbers or decipher names. Then, you have to post that scorecard for the entire world to see. Blanks, misspellings, and errors make us look incompetent, not to mention harming the decent players who complied and are are eager for reliable information.
Indeed, some overnight reporting slips would be hysterical to inspect if it weren’t already at the tail end of a busy 14-hour day. So, each slip that’s illegible might require spending five or ten extra minutes comparing it against the original registration list. Forced to become pseudo-handwriting analysts, it comes down to working the crime lab for CIS.
By the time the overnight chip counts come around, I’m usually exhausted. Totally spent. And so at 3:15 am, knowing that I must return to work at 11 am and do it all again — in between then somehow trying to wind down and sleep perhaps 3 to 4 hours — coming across an unreadable reporting slip ignites a moment of angst.
“Fuck!” is a word heard many times at Binion’s Horsehose, and probably ten thousand times since then. Forget mercy. I have none. It shouldn’t be so goddamned difficult for people to write their names. I mean, how tough a task it that?
But the real ballbusting moment always comes the following morning, when some sniveling poker player from the night before comes up to me and announces, “You got my name wrong.” It’s just about always a case where the jackass can’t write or was too lazy to fill out the form properly, which takes all of about 40 seconds. I don’t believe in acts of violence. But these moments have actually triggered deep feelings of wanting to commit an assault.
As you can tell, this is an ass-frosting royal pet-peeve of mine. I’ve never psychoanalyzed it, but many jobs that require dealing with the public trigger outlandish over-reactions that seem way out of proportion. It’s important to realize these tiniest of incidents all add up and can crush even the strong.
Late that night, the reporting slips were stacked high. Perhaps 350 or so in a giant pile. Doing some quick math, at 20 seconds per slip on an Excel Sheet (name, hometown, chip count, table, and seat), that represented about two hours if typing non-stop. Some of the players and their friends actually hung around, hoping to get the first early print-out of those that survived Day One. Players were eager to find out who they were sitting and playing with on the following day. An hour or so into data entry, after being badgered for perhaps the dozenth time, you had to abandon all sense of common courtesy and simply yell, “Go away!” — in language that increasingly became more rude as the night went long.
Midway through the process, I came upon one of those annoyingly confusing slips:
CHRISTOPHER B. MONEYMAKER
HOMETOWN: NASHVILLE, TN
CHIP COUNT: 60,475
I recognized most of the player names on in the top 20. They were easy. I didn’t recognize this one. This player ranked 11th overall. For that reason, there would likely be considerable interest in him on Day Two, especially by ESPN which had cameras filming the WSOP that year for the first time.
Who was this joker?
Chris B. MONEYMAKER?
What derailed me was the letter “B,” his middle initial. It appeared this unknown player had written out CHRIS B. MONEYMAKER, which was obviously a goof. Either that, or the player used “Moneymaker” as his nickname and had simply forgotten to write out his last name. Indeed, many players used names like Men “the Master” or Marcel “the Flying Dutchman.” This rube seemed to be using “Moneymaker” as his moniker.
I’m not sure why we couldn’t cross-check the name. Perhaps our computers were down again, which happened a lot at the Horseshoe. But we went ahead and reported the 11th-ranked player to the world as CHRIS B. “MONEYMAKER” ??? with the last name identified with a question mark.
The following day, tournament action resumed at noon.
One of my first tasks was to find the jackass who wrote out “MONEYMAKER” on his slip. I found him easily. Chris was a quiet, unassuming young man, about what one might expect when you heard his job was working as an accountant for a restaurant chain. When I introduced myself to Chris, he seemed to immediately know why I was there.
“Want to see my ID?” he asked.
“Yes, I need to know how to spell your last name,” I replied. “I think we have it wrong in our database.”
“It’s just like it sounds,” Chris said.
Imagine my shock when confronted with a Tennessee Driver’s License with the last name MONEYMAKER clearly inscribed with a photo of a smiling 27-year-old Southerner.
“I’m sorry, but…..”
Chris cut me off in mid-sentence.
“Don’t worry. It happens all the time,” he said.
I can only imagine. And here I was yet another hard ass disbelieving the man simply because he had an unusual last name.
At least in my defense I can justify some skepticism. Never in my life had I ever heard of anyone named “Moneymaker.” Not a single person. The name had to be fake. But it wasn’t. What a name for a player who was competing for the biggest cash prize ever in the history of poker. Too good to be true.
As I walked away from Table 57, I remember having the smug attitude that was so prevalent, even instinctive for those of us who had been around the poker scene for some time.
“That poor kid doesn’t stand a chance,” I thought to myself.
COMING NEXT: CHAMPIONSHIP DAYRead More