Writer’s Note: This is the sixth 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 the legendary Binion’s Horseshoe — before, during, and after, where I worked as Director of Public Relations.
I’d also like to note that another great read was released this week at Grantland.com. Writer Eric Raskin penned an outstanding oral history of the final table, with interviews of many who witnessed poker’s most memorable moment. I urge readers to check out Raskin’s excellent article here: “When We Held Kings.”
“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”
— Oscar Wilde
Part 9: Championship Day (May 20, 2003)
The 2003 World Series of Poker finale included a bit of everything.
It had intrigue, suspense, surprise, triumph, tragedy, and even a bit of mystery.
Of all the championship final tables over the past quarter century, that year’s cast of characters was right off the pages of a Hollywood script. Everybody watching the show could pick one of the finalists to root for (or against) among those nine who took seats on Friday at noon inside Benny’s Bullpen.
That final table included an astounding seven players who had won (or would later win) WSOP gold bracelets — a collection of talent unheard of since the very earliest days of the championship during the 1970′s. Chris Moneymaker, Sammy Farha, Dan Harrington, Jason Lester, Amir Vahedi, David Grey, and David Singer all now have WSOP wins. But some captivating underdogs also captured our interest — potential stars that millions of viewers would come to know through a bombardment of broadcasts later shown on ESPN. “The nine” became as famous as any characters on a hit reality TV series.
The finale included the perfect mix of both amateurs and pros. It included high-stakes cash game players — including Farha, Lester, and Grey. It included seasoned tournament specialists including Harrington and Vahedi. It had competitors of different ethnic backgrounds — including North America, Asia, and the Middle East. It had Harrington, a former world champion aiming for his second win. It had a wonderfully colorful group of players sure to banter amongst themselves and make the supreme poker game of the year as entertaining as possible for the debut international telecast. Everyone literally brought something to the table as a personality.
Three players were obvious “good guys,” meaning they’d likely be fan favorites. These players included the obvious rising star with the magic name “Moneymaker” plus two others — one known, and the other less so.
A true champion of the human spirit, Amir Vahedi was one of the most beloved poker players of the last twenty years. Always cheerful, smiling, and often telling a funny story, everyone enjoyed being around Vahedi. He became the life of any poker party when he sat down. His caricature long associated with his trademark (unlit) cigar, Vahedi was the perfect mixture of player and entertainer. He was intimately watchable, without ever trying to be. But Vahedi’s lesser-known back story made him even more intriguing.
Born in Iran, Vahedi overcame obvious personal challenges, even severe hardships, to achieve his success as a bona fide professional poker player. He witnessed the fall of the Shah of Iran and experienced the Iranian revolution as a teenager. He later fought on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq War, one of the bloodiest and most obscene military conflicts of the late 20th Century, before eventually becoming a refugee seeking political asylum. He immigrated to America and eventually found his way to Los Angeles — and into everyone’s hearts. Vahedi, who died prematurely a few years ago, became an almost Shakespearean tragic hero by the manner in which he got to his first and what would be only Main Event final table, where he ultimately melted down in front of his peers and the entire world.
The other mini-Moneymaker bio belonged to Tomer Benvenisti, a carefree amateur player who worked as a tour guide operator and specialized in white water rafting. Like most of his rivals, Tomer’s “game” included incessant table chatter and an uncanny natural ability to fit in with the crowd and quickly adapt to the surreal surroundings, even though he’d never been on a stage like this before.
Finally, it was time. The big moment had arrived. When I took the microphone at 11:59 am, the first words out of my mouth were dead silence.
Promptly at noon, we were to begin making our final table introductions. The natural-born Tournament Director Matt Savage performed the task with script in hand. But I had the honor of introducing Matt and warming up the crowd before we went live. At least that was “the plan.”
But the plan disintegrated. It collapsed under the weight of stress, fatigue, and a voice shot to hell.
That 2003 WSOP was the first to a designated as a non-smoking event. In previous years, many players chain smoked right at the poker table, as did bystanders. Burnt ash soiled the felts and carpets. Spilled ashtrays littered the floors. There wasn’t a single poker table at the Horseshoe that didn’t have black marks on the cushions or cigarette burns on the felt. The casino smelled like a giant ashtray.
While “non-smoking” signs were clearly posted inside the tournament room, the rest of the casino’s interior resembled a house on fire. You couldn’t walk anywhere downstairs, including the poker room, without inhaling a stomach-turning whiff of cigarette smoke. It was enough to make you vomit. We once considered making the entire poker room a non-smoking facility, but decided against it. The poker manager Warren Schaeffer, himself a non-smoker, killed the idea. He insisted that we’d lose about 80 percent of our poker business.
Then, there were the preposterous imaginary battle lines drawn between smoking and non-smoking zones. Even though smoking wasn’t allowed inside Benny’s Bullpen, the hallway outside became the de facto smoking lounge. Smokers stepped out into the hallway and lit up immediately. And so a giant blue cloud of death hung in the air outside the door where poker players pumped themselves full of killer carcinogens. Given the hopelessly clogged air filters and malfunctioning ventilation system at Binion’s Horseshoe, none of these non-smoking restrictions seemed to do much good. It was like working in a coal mine.
Very late at night when I’d return home after working 15-hour days, Marieta was utterly repulsed by my smell. No matter what hour of the day or night, it became mandatory to take a long hot shower to wash away the foul stench. Even my hair smelled like smoke. Business suits were so nauseating that she’d hang them outside for days at a time in order to freshen the odor. It was like I’d been in a fire.
Everyone who worked on the WSOP got sick. I mean everybody. Not a single person who worked full time didn’t end up with the flu, or a severe cold, or some other respiratory ailment which sucked whatever energy you had left after the long work days, punctuated with shots of intoxicants over at Las Vegas Club casino bar. Bloodshot eyes, runny noses, and breathing problems became part of the job description.
Everyone developed what we called the “WSOP cough.” The human body couldn’t take the abuse anymore. It would simply break down. Sometimes, you’d cough so long and with such force that you’d bowl over and get hit with a splitting headache. There were occasions when I had to step outside, run towards the street, and spit out gooey flem filled with globs of black tar. Once outside, you’d then run over to the Las Vegas Club, pop a couple of Bendryls, and wash them down with a shot of Johnny Walker chased with Irish coffee. And then go right back to work. By the end of the series, I felt like “the Dude” out of The Big Lebowski.
A couple of days before the finale was to start, my throat was worn so raw, I sounded like 70-year-old man. I did a pretty convincing “Godfather” (post shooting) impression with that scratchy throat. Shortly thereafter, my voice gave out entirely. I’d mouth the words, vocalize them, and then nothing would come out. Or worse, the larynx would connect during part of a phrase and then fade out. I sounded like an underpowered radio station over a distant mountain range.
I figured there was enough energy and voice left to make one last appearance, what amounted to a simple 45-second intro. But when I spoke, the words didn’t come. Nothing happened.
Matt Savage stood there in a tuxedo like the Cheshire Cat, eagerly anticipating his glowing introduction. I stammered and somehow screeched his name out to the crowd and — completely unable to speak — pretty much abandoned the rest of the intro. Then, I quickly pushed the microphone over to Matt and scurried away behind some curtains. The show began.
Cards flew into the air and two New Yorkers were the first to fall as David Singer and David Grey hit the rail early. Then, Young Pak, probably the least-known of final nine, next went out in seventh place. That left a dream lineup for television consisting of Vahedi, Benvenisti, Lester, Harrington, Farha, and Moneymaker.
Vahedi had the chip lead for a short time early. But his aggressive style came back to haunt him with what amounted to train wreck on a global stage. Since then, Vahedi’s play has been analyzed in some detail with different opinions as to who things went down. I won’t presume to offer any assessment of his decisions other than to say — as cruel and sick as it sounds — this was yet another great moment for television.
Indeed, poker isn’t really about glory and moments of triumph, as those are rare. It’s more often about pain and crushing disappointment, which is far more common. And millions of viewers could plainly see that pain once on the face of a crushed cigar-chomping Vahedi, who bit off more than he could chew against one of the most feared players in the game. When it was shown a few months later, no one could possibly have scripted the better “swan song” for this popular favorite, blowing off his chips and falling from the lofty perch as chip leader to a painful escalator ride down to valet parking and an exit from the building fearing that was likely the only chance anyone in that spot would ever have to reach the pinnacle of the game.
Next, Tomer went out fifth, which was soon followed by Jason Lester. With all due respect to these players and those who busted earlier, the three finalists could not have provided a more perfect trio. David faced not just one, but two Goliaths. One was a former world champion known for his patience and discipline. The other was one of the biggest cash game players in the world, as dashing and debonaire as he was intimidating with a look that drew comparisons to Humphrey Bogart as Rick. But in deference to Farha, there would be no utterances of “Play it again, Sam.”
Chris Moneymaker could have busted right there and he would have still been a “winner.” Outlasting 836 players and winning $650,000 for third place would have been a mystifying debut for any poker player. But Moneymaker wasn’t quite finished yet.
His quality of competition could not possibly have been more of a challenge, something poker history seems to have forgotten. He had the unenviable disadvantage of not facing just one, but playing against two stellar players, who were vastly different in image and style. They were both independently wealthy, which also provided some advantages in not thinking about the money. Harrington was well off mostly from his practice of law and guidance as an investor, while Farha was a self-made high-stakes gambler and poker player. And they were playing against a novice 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee who made $40,000 a year playing in his first live poker tournament.
But at least Moneymaker did enjoy some advantages. One was, he had most of the chips. And perhaps the most important edge of all was this — no one expected him to win.
Part 10: “He Doesn’t Stand a Chance, It’s Over”
I previously alluded to a classic Janis Joplin song which goes, “Freedom’s just another word of nothing left to lose.”
In poker, this is called “freerolling.”
Moneymaker was freerolling the 2003 WSOP. He had nothing to lose. Moneymaker was freerolling the moment he boarded a plane and flew to Las Vegas.
A short time after the world’s biggest poker game became a trio, the 1995 world champion Dan Harrington busted out in third place. That left Farha to face Moneymaker alone. During a scripted break when television cameras were being calibrated for what would turn out to be an epic heads-up match, the two finalists walked off the floor and stepped into a public restroom, perhaps 40 steps away from the main stage. Amidst the echoes of flushing toilets the duo discussed a deal, which meant agreeing to some kind of split of the prize money. I wasn’t privy to that conversation nor to any of the details. But in retrospect, Farha might have made his worst strategic blunder — not at the poker table — but in that restroom. Moneymaker and Farha have both filled in the details of their discussion in other accounts of the incident (See: “When We Held Kings.”). The bottom line is, Farha proposed a financial arrangement which apparently insulted Moneymaker, which fueled the amateur’s desire in a much greater way than any preconceived ambition to become the new world poker champion. It was like kicking a pit bull.
Farha’s lack of respect for Moneymaker was hardly out of the ordinary. It was pretty much the universal consensus of opinion in that room filled with followers and poker fans. Even the poker insider whom I respected most, the man who hired me and who was responsible for me having a front row seat to poker history shared Farha’s outlook on the match.
George Fisher, the Horseshoe’s Director of Operations, came down from his hotel room once heads-up play began. He lived in the hotel penthouse suite and hadn’t been seen much during the series. Fisher passed away in 2005. Otherwise I would not be telling this story.
“He doesn’t stand a chance, it’s over,” Fisher whispered to me as the two finalists were taking seats to play heads-up for the 2003 world championship.
“What are you talking about, George — what do you mean it’s over?” I asked. “You think Moneymaker’s got this thing wrapped up?”
“Moneymaker doesn’t stand a chance. It’s ovvvvvvveeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrr.”
That was quite a bold statement coming from someone in the know, especially since Moneymaker had about two-thirds of the chips in play at the time. Instantly, I thought of the worst.
Binion’s Horseshoe was known for pulling some shenanigans. One of these days, I’ll add another chapter to this story. But I don’t fancy waking up tomorrow morning with a decapitated horse’s head in my bed. So, those “rumors” will have to be addressed another day.
“Oh fuck, George — don’t tell me he’s going to get cold decked.”
“No, no, no. Nothing like that,” Fisher replied. “There’s just noooo waaaay Sammy loses to this Moneymaker. It’s not happening.”
Yes, we were all dealt the joker. We were all fooled. Every one of us, except for about three people in that crowd.
If that unforgettably wonderful, and awful, and miraculous, and painful, sparkle in our history called the 2003 World Series of Poker could be eclipsed by a single moment, it would be “the hand.”
“The hand” has since gone down as the greatest bluff in poker history. I’m not sure about that, since many of the best bluffs are never shown. But certainly in terms of a key historic moment on a grand stage, it would be difficult to top Moneymaker’s extraordinary all-in move against Farha late in the duel, which probably sealed the final outcome. Instead, had Farha won that huge pot he’d have swung the chip lead in his favor for the first time. Moneymaker might have melted down from that moment forward, only to become a poker footnote. Instead, Moneymaker experienced every poker’s player’s dream come true fantasy. It was the equivalent of crossing the goal line and scoring the winning touchdown in a Super Bowl with seconds to play or belting a home run in the bottom of the ninth in the other kind of World Series. Moneymaker swung for the fences and brought it all home, in a suspended moment in time that poker players will likely be talking about a century from now. If aces and eights is still somehow remembered from the Deadwood days over 150 years ago, “Moneymaker’s bluff” is certain to be etched into the collective consciousness of every future poker player. Forever, as long as there are cards and chips.
An authority on the subject, Matt Lessinger, who wrote “The Book of Bluffs,” called it the greatest bluff in history, “at least that we know of.”
A few hands later, it all ended. There were probably 300 people or so who actually witnessed the epic moment of victory. Like Woodstock, today thousands insist they were there. But the stage area and tournament room actually held no more than a few hundred bodies. When an ecstatic Moneymaker raced across the glossy black stage into the arms of his proud father at the instant of victory, those 300 witnesses cheered for a future of 60 to 70 million, the number of poker players worldwide likely to have been created somewhat by that moment in time and in the decade since the game’s great moment of global ignition.
Since then, I’ve been asked many times at what point I realized this was the start of something really big. It wasn’t then. It wasn’t even that night. Worn out by the demands of the recent past, while basking in the celebration of the present, the future seemed all too distant to think about right then as I stood and watched and clapped and cheered and marveled at the moment of glory next to $2.5 million in crisp $100 bills stacked on a side table. I whisked two Las Vegas showgirls that we’d hired for the all-important winner’s shot into the photo frame as a few dozen photographers snapped away and the non-stop flashes gave Moneymaker the look of a shining new star taking center stage on a Broadway.
Moneymaker was suddenly the new star. He would instantly come to represent us all — those of us who had worked for years to put poker on the map as well as those who would soon flock to the game by the millions, inspired by his story and triumph.
The 2003 World Series of Poker was officially over.
But my real work was just beginning and I loved every minute of it.
NEXT CHAPTER: “Our job isn’t over. It’s just beginning.”Read More