The 2003 World Series of Poker (Moneymaker Series Continues — Part 4)
Writer’s Note: This is the fourth 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.
CLICK HERE — PART 1 (War of the Binions)
Part 6: Friends of the Family
Hidden within the shadows were the shadiest of characters.
Personalities seemingly fit for a Martin Scorcese movie dotted the landscape, seemingly without purpose. No one — not even full-time staff — knew who they were nor what they did. Flocked in cheap suits, they often appeared half-shaven and wore dark glasses. You’d see these creeps around the casino at any time, day or night. Just standing. Just watching.
Once the WSOP began, we began seeing these shadowy types around the tournament area and poker room with much greater frequency.
They hung out for hours at a time, then disappeared. Then, they came back again, or were replaced by someone else. They never spoke to anyone. Once, I managed to get a name. He curtly identified himself as “Slimer” providing no additional comment. That’s right, his name was Slimer — as in “slime-er.”
You couldn’t make up that name.
At some point, Nick informed me that he liked to use “spotters” inside the casino. They were supposedly hired to spot known cheaters. It was made rather obvious that I wasn’t to ask any more questions. We were given explicit instructions to simply leave them alone and let them conduct their business.
In retrospect, I think Nick really enjoyed the cat and mouse chase game between casino and cheats. He made it a mission to apply a full-court press on the cheaters (or card counters, which were viewed once and the same), and probably had good reason to remain perpetually suspicious. His view seemed to be that everyone was out to cheat the casino and would certainly do so if given the right opportunity. Nick spent enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources trying to catch those suspected of cheating. Extreme measures were taken to identify them. He also perceived the poker scene to be a rat’s nest filled with cheaters and cheating. In fairness, I suppose history proved him at least partially right.
Unfortunately, the spotters were never subtle about their ways. They sulked around, conspicuously making everyone in the room aware of their presence and implied power. Inevitably, this caused some problems.
For instance, late at the WSOP when ESPN’s television cameras were rolling full steam, an exasperated Matt Maranz, executive producer of the broadcast finally got so fed up with the same unidentified bystander blocking every shot, he rushed over to me and demanded, “Who’s that guy in the suit? He’s in every frame! He’s killing the show!”
Trouble was, no one could tell him to move. Those were our instructions.
“Friend of the family,” we would say. And then walk away.
Maranz rolled his eyes. But he certainly got the message.
Nobody fucked with friends of the family.
* * *
Of all the absurd ideas related to the WSOP, perhaps the most ridiculous of all was an episode that materialized around the final table area that year.
We were days and a few gold bracelet events into the new series when just prior to the start of another final table one of the Horseshoe’s maintenance workers carted an enormous lazy-boy recliner into the middle of the tournament room. He shoved it off the cart and plopped the chair down right next to the final table. The husky beast of a chair was covered in ugly brown vinyl. It might have came out of someone’s living room during the 1970’s. The hideous eyesore would have fetched perhaps $10 at a garage sale — if the seller was lucky.
“What the fuck is that?” I asked.
“We got an urgent phone call from the family today. They told us to bring a comfortable chair up here and set it next to the final table,” the worker replied.
“A Lazy-Boy? Seriously? A Lazy-Boy?”
“It’s the only comfortable chair we could find,” the worker said.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and seeing. This was the World Series of Poker — not someone’s den. After a serious investigation, I found out that Nick wanted a special VIP chair set up inside the roped-off area next to the final table. His reasonining was that “Doyle Brunson or somebody important might want to come by and watch the poker action.” [SEE FOOTNOTE BELOW]
I was speechless.
“So, you mean we’re stuck with that giant brown piece of shit the next three weeks?” I asked.
“Yep. That’s what the boss says.”
There was no way in hell Doyle or anyone with a conscious would dare cross the ropes and plop down in a recliner and watch poker. It wouldn’t happen in a million years. No self-respecting person would dare sit in that chair while just a few feet away the most important poker game in the world at the moment was going on. Nobody.
Well, except one person.
He was the worthless “sportsbook manager” who leeched a free paycheck and hung out at the Horseshoe. In his way, Jabber was a “friend of the family.”
One night, WSOP photographer Eric Harkins stormed over to me and could hardly contain himself. Apparently, the temptation of that cozy brown chair was way too strong for Jabber. During the middle of final table play, he ducked under the ropes, climbed up into the chair, and proceeded to doze off for several hours completely oblivious to the gold bracelet at stake just an arm’s reach away. Jabber snoozed there and dozed off peacefully, his mouth hanging wide open, drooling over himself while the Seven-Card Stud World Championship went on — totally without interruption.
And most remarkable of all — no one seemed to care. Such lunacy had become normal at the Horseshoe. From a pawnbroker stationed next to the hotel front desk to a senile old man dozing like a baby next to a final table, nothing — and I mean nothing at all — fazed the players.
* * *
Binion’s Horseshoe tried a new experiment that year. The idea caught on and has been a staple of coverage every year since then. But at the time, a genuinely good idea was doomed to fail from the start simply due to lack of planning.
Given the growing interest in final table action and quicker reporting of results, a pay-per-view simulcast of every gold bracelet event final table was set up. Remember, this was long before all the great live coverage provided by Poker News, Poker Listings, Card Player and the rest that we’re used to today. No one had ever heard of Twitter. Back in those days, unless you were physically at the final table watching the action, the only way to get updates was waiting for someone who had come from the tournament to later got to a computer and post results at a community forum — such as rec.gambling.poker. Most of the time, that person posting the results many would see for the first time was me. We’re talking stone age here.
And so the live coverage idea had some merit. Trouble was, the concept wasn’t marketed at all. No one knew about it. I walked in the first day of the tournament and was stunned to see tech people setting up microphones and wires. I figured some ESPN crew were testing equipment. I quickly came to find out the family has partnered with a local video company in order to set up coverage, stream it live over the Internet, and charge for the service.
Packages ranged from $15 for one final table to $30 for a package plan. And to my surprise I eventually came to learn that I’d be in charge of it.
The concept was burdened with problems that were insurmountable. First, the video cameras were in a fixed position. They didn’t move. One camera was suspended above the final table. Then, another camera to the side provided a panoramic view of the table and some of the players, provided they remained with the frame. The cameras were of such poor quality, viewers couldn’t identify cards or see any of the faces. Of course, hole card cams weren’t part of the broadcast.
Even worse, there were no commentary. Just the whispers of players barely audible over the muffled sounds of shuffling cards and chips.
It was like watching the 24-hour-a day camera affixed to the NASA space station. Or, a television test pattern. Mind-blowing dull. You wouldn;t watch it for free, let alone pay $15.
The subscribers consisted of family members and perhaps a few friends. One week into our coverage, the subscription numbers rolled in and Nick went through the roof. The simulcast was becoming a total disaster. And so Nick instructed me to go into the booth and do final table broadcasts myself. At the very least, if I couldn’t call the action (which was the case most of the time), I was instructed to have someone — anyone — commentating at all times. Perhaps that might keep the audience awake.
Over the next three weeks I pulled anyone who could speak English onto the broadcast — and even some who could not.
The caliber of commentators ranged from hysterically funny to so awfully bad, they were actually pretty damn good. It was like watching and listening to train wreck theater. The commentary you heard was often far more entertaining than the actual final table. Sometimes we had people on the air who had no reservations about sharing their opinions and openly ridiculing players when they saw questionable plays.
The awkwardness of the experience was made considerably worse by the close quarters and there being no sound barrier. Commentators were stationed on a wooden platform behind a carpeted wall, perhaps 15-20 feet from the final table. But they couldn’t see much because of the wall. So, they relied on the shitty monitors. Worse, many of the voices and commentary carried to the table and could be heard by the players.
T.J. Cloutier was commentating once, and he openly hollered into the microphone — “There’s no way he can make this call….he’d be a complete idiot to call here.” Everybody at the final table plus the audience heard T.J. in his unmistakable voice. The player facing an all-in decision mucked his hand prompting Eli Balas to shout back, “Shut up, T.J.!” A few commentators were yanked off the air nearly in mid-sentence because at least one of the final table participants raised objections.
However, some of those who sat in as guests were wildly entertaining. One of the very best was the late John Bonetti, a no-nonsense barrel of opinion who resembled a comedy act. The most entertaining of all was Irishman Padraig Parkinson, who was wildly funny even though hardly anyone could understand him much of the time We stuck Padraig on the air late one night when we were desperate for anyone to take over the duty, which I recall was some dreadful event to cover like Seven-Card Stud High-Low Split. Padraig warned me that he’d had about ten pints of Guinness beforehand, plus one in his hand and another on the way. We didn’t care. He was better than way. Even though no one could make out what a sober Padraig often said, a boozy Parkinson was a firecracker. Someone posted something in a chat room over in Ireland about Padraig being on the air, subscriptions went through the roof. The show was a riot.
But our cavalcade of uncompensated talent hit a few snags along the way. One guest commentator went0 on air. He should have caused no problem. But a few minutes into the live coverage I received a frantic call from Nick. In the interest of protecting this well-known player’s identity, I’ll simply call him “John Smith.”
“Get that fucking deadbeat off the air right now!” Nick shouted.
“What? What are you talking about, Nick?”
“You’ve got John Smith on the broadcast right now. Get him off the fucking stage! In fact, I want to it down face to face with him in the coffee shop in 15 minutes. Get him down here! Now!”
“But what should I do? I can’t just yank him out of the broadcast booth and leave dead air.”
“I don’t fucking care what you do. He’s not going to stand there and do an official broadcast from the Horseshoe when that deadbeat owes me $100,000. Take him off the air, now!”
“But Nick, we”re not paying him anything. He’s working for free.”
“Coffee shop. Fifteen minutes.”
The next few moments were uncomfortable to say the least. I had the unenviable task of not only telling John Smith he was about to be plucked off the air. His willingness to help us out with the broadcast had actually triggered a sit down meeting with Nick Behnen. Of course, I added my appreciation for helping us out.
Partially to act as a buffer and also to provide some assurances that he’d come back alive in one piece, I escorted John Smith to the same type of sit down encounter I’d once been through. Let’s just say there was some shouting. Some argument about the actual figure owed. It wasn’t pretty.
We burned though anyone and everyone we could find. A few times, we were so desperate for any voice, I’d announce to subscribers: “And now as a special treat to all of our loyal listeners in Estonia, for the first time in history we’re going to do the next hour of the broadcast in the Estonian language (Note: There were no Estonian players at the final table). Some poor schmuck who spoken broken English who’d never attended the WSOP before was asked to do an hour of poker commentary in his native language — which a few foreign visitors were absolutely thrilled to do. We did it in Estonian, Portuguese, Vietnamese, and a few other languages.
This didn’t sit well with the actual listeners, who were paying $15-30 to follow to a WSOP final table. Some of these customers were relatives of the players. Imagine the shock of getting down to the last few players of a WSOP gold bracelet event, only to have the coverage interrupted by a change of commentators, and the language suddenly shifting from English to Estonian.
* * *
The term is “a perfect storm.”
It’s come to mean more than a weather reference. A perfect storm has to with everything lining up just right and creating ideal conditions for a colossal event.
That’s precisely what happened at the 2003 World Series of Poker.
We ended up with the perfect winner, with the perfect personality, with the perfect back story, with the perfect last name — all in front of the watchful eye of ESPN cameras recording the moment for tens of millions of viewers in prime time television during the slowest sports time of the year.
How perfect is that?
But no one could possibly have sensed this approaching storm of perfection on the night before the Main Event Championship was to begin.
We were scurrying around doing our prep work for the series when I ran into the poker office for something. Problem was, I couldn’t get inside the door. The office was jammed with people signing up. There were poker players lined up out the door. Many were wearing black shirts and hats with the same logo. There were about 40 of them.
They were from an online site called PokerStars.com.
It’s almost inconceivable to contemplate this today, in the modern poker era when many of the most skilled players in the world are 23-years-old. But ten years ago, online poker players were openly ridiculed. They weren’t even thought of as “real” poker players. They were pretenders. Crusty live action poker players who had grown up at real poker tables with real dealers and cards and chips and money — players who had mastered their craft on the green felt over decades — had little regard for this new generation of players starting to come into the game. They were pretty much held in contempt. A common line was, spoken openly, “he’s an Internet player,” which had the taint of calling out the target as an idiot.
That was the prevailing attitude back in 2003. The real poker players — mostly players in the 50’s and 60’s — were presumed to enjoy enormous advantages over these untested newcomers. They didn’t stand a chance. And so, they were welcome. At least their entry fees were welcome.
The revolution that was about to come was even more pronounced since these new players were so easy to identify. PokerStars.com required all of their qualifiers to wear golf shirts and hats with the company logo. Some players protested and didn’t want to wear the gear, since showing up dressed that way pretty much identified the newbie as something less of a “real poker player.
They were mocked, disrespected, and ridiculed. Sometimes right at the tables.
Perhaps all the angst was really self-doubt, a collective undercurrent of fear that the game was about to change in a very big way. And some people were about to get left behind. There might have been only 40 or so of them in 2003. But a year later, there were would ten times as many. A few years later, there would be 30 times as many. And the day would eventually come when poker websites had 100,000 players linked together at poker tables at once, while the very largest land-based cardroom in the world had perhaps 3 percent of that total number.
The storm that was coming was more of a typhoon. And the early raindrops were a three dozen or so, mostly young, completely anonymous, amateur poker players who were lined up early that night on the second floor at Binion’s Horseshoe preparing to buy-in to their first-ever WSOP Main Event.
One of those players dressed in the black golf shirt was a restaurant accountant from Nashville, Tennessee. He didn’t know anyone else. And no one knew him.
He was about to play the first live poker tournament of his life.
Of course, he didn’t stand a chance.
COMING NEXT: I Know It Says ‘Moneymaker,’ but What’s His Real Name?
[FOOTNOTE: Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Billy Baxter, and others finally decided to end their boycott of Binion’s Horseshoe. This was largely thanks to Linda Johnson, who persuaded Nick Behnen to lift the ban on Paul Phillips, Richard Tatalovich, and others who had been barred during 2002.]