Writer’s Note: This is the latest chapter on Chris Moneymaker’s victory at the 2003 World Series of Poker and (some of) what went on behind the scenes at Binion’s Horseshoe — before, during, and after.
Part 11: Poker’s Sonic Boom
A frequent question I get asked is — at what instant did I realize everything had changed?
I’d be lying were I to answer it was the moment when Chris Moneymaker won.
Instead, it was the morning after.
The 2003 World Series of Poker didn’t just conclude on a high note. It ended with a blast that would go so far as to transform popular culture, especially among young people. I later condensed this phenomenon into a simple catchphrase which became known as “poker’s sonic boom.”
Once those three words were picked up by the Associated Press, they subsequently appeared in hundreds of newspapers and media outlets all over the country and even abroad in the frenzy that followed. “Sonic boom” really came to define the swelling crest of a tidal wave that was about to rise and lift anyone associated with poker to new heights. But there’s also a downside. All waves ultimately crash to the shore and disappear into the sand.
My late night drive back home from Binion’s Horseshoe following Moneymaker’s victory was moment of quiet reflection. I had witnessed the most stunning week in poker history – a relatively short time frame during which Binion’s Horseshoe and the World Series of Poker had rocketed from near obscurity to the front pages of every sports and entertainment section in the country.
A casino widely considered an embarrassment around Las Vegas suddenly became the most exciting place imaginable for a new generation that probably wouldn’t have dreamed of stepping into a place as old-fashioned as the Shoe, except it’s where Moneymaker made history. As the public relations spinner for the casino, my pitch went from making sad excuses for the property to pointing directly at our battle scars and eccentricities with great pride. I started taking news media, camera crews, and VIPs around Binion’s Horseshoe, pointing right at our blemishes and saying, you sure won’t find something like that on the Las Vegas Strip. Everyone loved it. We were real.
Nick Behnen, my boss embodied this new attitude more than anyone. We didn’t give a flying fuck what anyone else said or thought about us. Binion’s Horsehoe became a rollicking frat house during the months immediately after the WSOP. The poker room exploded with cash games — including No-Limit Hold’em which spread regularly for the first time. It became busier than ever. We often had 20 games going, four times the numbers before the 2003 WSOP. Visitors started coming inside just to look at the casino. The WSOP Gallery of Champions — a collection of framed portraits of all the world poker champions — became an instant tourist attraction.
Indeed, we took our shining moment and gave ourselves a total makeover – using our obvious negatives (a decaying and dying casino) and making them into our most appealing charms. We remained one of the few family run casinos in Las Vegas, and began to flaunt it. The owners might walk through the casino at anytime. One might even sit down at the poker table — which is precisely what happened in what became one memorable night that’s still discussed to this day (read the next post for details).
Where else could you go in Las Vegas and walk the carpets and shoot dice at the same tables where Titanic Thompson, Benny Binion, Archie Karas, and all the greats had stood, and where gambling legends were still being made with a new phenomenon named Chris Moneymaker? That one indelible moment had transformed Binion’s Horseshoe from a sinking ship into one of the hottest and hippest places to cruise the Las Vegas gambling scene.
Moneymaker changed everything. If the 2003 WSOP was seemingly about to transform Binion Horsehoe, that was nothing compared to it impact around Las Vegas, across the country, and abroad. Television programming was altered. Culture on college campuses changed. Poker suddenly became a means of empowerment for millions of regular people who weren’t good at anything else, but fancied the notion of playing poker, potentially hitting it big and becoming rich and famous. Poker was no longer a dirty word in most of mainstream America. It was cool. It was the thing to do. Poker was the game to play.
But on May 24, 2003 none of this had quite happened yet.
Part 12: The Morning After
I remember the morning after as if it was yesterday.
Two cell phones were with me at all times. In fact, I was always “on call.” My phone might ring at 3 pm or 3 am. It might be Nick Behnen with an emergency. It might be a reporter from Australia calling, clueless as to the actual hour in Las Vegas.
One was my private line. The other was a company phone linked directly to the switchboard at Binion’s Horseshoe. Anything to do with media or television was transferred straight from the switchboard to my cell phones. The switchboard was open 24-7. Calls came in from all over the world, day and night.
Around noon that Friday, I woke up. I picked up the first phone and began listening to voice messages. That’s the moment when I knew things had changed. Forever.
“This is the New York Daily News….”
“I’m with the Chicago Tribune….”
“I’m calling from Bloomberg….”
“This is the largest newspaper in Nashville, The Tennessean….”
“I’m with ESPN”s Cold Pizza….”
Then, there was this one:
“I’m with the David Letterman Show. We’d like to get in touch with Chris Moneymaker.”
Yes, that’s when I new things had really changed. Big time.
By day’s end, I’d retrieved so many voice messages that I couldn’t return the calls fast enough.
That evening, I was invited to an engagement dinner for poker pro Peter Costa. It was held at Ferraro’s — back then a popular Italian restaurant on Flamingo Road. The entire poker universe was invited, and everyone who was anyone was there. We took over the entire place — the bar and restaurant jammed with poker royaly. There was a stage with a giant piano. David “Devilfish” Ulliott serenaded the guests.
There, I met with Dan Goldman. I knew Dan completely understood the significance of this unique moment in time. Dan wouldn’t need explanation or a pep talk. If anything, Dan was already ahead of the game.
While dozens of other guests stood at the bar and talked poker and Moneymaker, Dan and I took over a quiet booth off to the side. I remember looking across the table and staring straight at Dan and saying, “This isn’t the end. This is just the beginning. Our work — you and me — it’s just starting.”
He nodded. He knew. He understood.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that’s the attitude that often separates those who just get along from those who get ahead. This was one of the most pivotal moments in the game’s history. Sure, it was a time to drink and celebrate success — but with a greater purpose in mind.
Dan was already preparing his own marketing campaign to leverage Moneymaker’s victory into an earth-shaker for PokerStars.com. This wasn’t just the moment that would come to define the start of what became “the poker boom.” It also jump started PokerStars.com into the industry leader’s chief rival. Party Poker might have been number one. But now, it had some serious competition. The way was now paved for the up and coming online poker site to become one of the fastest-growing and most successful gaming companies in the world.
As preposterous as this now seems, when Dan and I were sitting there face to face that night, with drinks and cheers off in the distance muffled out by the “Devilfish” singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” while playing piano, the intersection of that moment remains a vivid memory.
Imagine all the people….
Imagine this. Little did I know that the offshore poker site represented by Dan with perhaps 150 employees at that time would not only outlast Binion’s Horseshoe, but eventually be valued at more than 200 times the price our casino would fetch in what amounted to a fire sale.
Imagine this. Less than a year later, I’d be out of a job and be working directly for Dan and PokerStars.com as its worldwide Director of Communications.
Imagine this. What might have happened if PokerStars had realized the precarious financial situation that Binion’s Horseshoe was in at that time, and offered $50 million or so, more than enough to buy the casino and with it — the WSOP?
This was a crossroad. Unfortunately, in the middle of an intersection, you don’t always see the oncoming traffic.
Coming Next: Chris Moneymaker on the David Letterman Show / The Great Late Night Poker Freezeout at Binion’s Horseshoe