Author: Brad Willis
Even after the springtime sun had gone down that night, it was still warm in Tennessee. It was just before 10pm, and the thermometer was hanging around 65° F.
It was April 23, 2003, and if the recent news was any indication, the world had reason to be optimistic. Private Jessica Lynch had just been rescued from captivity in Iraq. Troops had captured Baghdad and ended the Saddam Hussein regime. Scientists had just announced the mapping of the human genome. 50 Cent's "In Da Club" was in the middle of nine weeks as the number one song in the United States. After nearly three years of worldwide turmoil, anyone could've been forgiven for feeling like better days were ahead.
On that warm Wednesday night, Chris Moneymaker was not yet one of those optimistic people. He had $8,000 in credit card debt and an already rocky relationship with gambling. Through some keen maneuvering and a little bit of luck, the as-yet anonymous amateur poker player had found a way to pay off his credit cards and go in to his accounting job on Thursday debt-free.
And that's when everything happened.
Almost everything you know about Chris Moneymaker begins with a story told so many times that it's almost impossible to convince people it's not entirely true.
As the story was told and re-told over the years, Moneymaker parlayed $39 into a World Series of Poker seat, one that he used to beat the leather-assed pros of Las Vegas out of the $2.5 million first prize.
Today, no one can tell us who first uttered "Thirty-nine dollars," but whoever it was turned out to be wrong. In fact, Moneymaker's first step toward Las Vegas started with an $86 feeder satellite into a $650 mega-qualifier. By the time registration closed, the satellite would award three packages to the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event.
See, the buy-in of the now-historic story was forever reported incorrectly, but that's not the most interesting thing about how that final satellite played out.
The most startling thing in a series of exceptionally startling things was that poker came very close to never hearing the name Chris Moneymaker in 2003.
Why? It was all about fourth place. That was a cool $8,200, enough to pay off the credit cards and start over with $200 in his pocket.
PokerStars is still running satellites to live events 13 years later. Get an account and win your seat here.
Getting to those top four spots would not be a simple task. Here are just a few of the people playing in the $650 mega that would eventually change the poker world.
MultiMarine, the winner of the first WCOOP Main Event
Julian Thew, eventual Team Pro and longtime UK grinder
Anders "Donald" Berg, eventual Team Online member
Harley Hall, 2002 WSOP Main Event (5th place)
Josh Arieh, 2004 WSOP Main Event (3rd place)
With the exception of MultiMarine who would turn into one of poker's ghosts, the rest would go on to be well-known names in the game. None of, them, however, made the final table or came close to a WSOP seat that night.
Moneymaker, sitting in a dark home office, had seen them all fall as he worked his way toward those top four places. He wasn't thinking about Vegas. He wasn't thinking about Doyle Brunson, Binion's, or any of the things that might have fascinated Rounders' Mike McDermott.
Moneymaker was only thinking about money. He saw the three seats at the top, and for a time, he decided he didn't want them. He wanted the cash to pay off his credit card debt.
"I was attempting to do the responsible thing," he said.
He had his reasons. There was the credit card debt, and there was a clear lack of confidence in his ability.
"To be honest, the [WSOP] seat back then was non-transferrable. I was a recreational player. I literally played around the kitchen table with my friends," he said. "Back then, when you saw anybody from online, you targeted them. It was a different time, obviously. I just didn't think I had a real shot to go out to play in Vegas against the quote-unquote pros. I thought they would read me like a book and it would just be really bad."
There might have been some truth to Moneymaker's assumption, because the bubble of that historic satellite was almost laughably unprofessional.
The Bubble That Wasn't
Moneymaker had all but decided to take the cash and be on his way. That's when a friend, Bruce Peery, convinced him via speakerphone to go for the seat. In a story that's been told a few times before, Peery offered Moneymaker $5,000 for half his action, and that was enough for Moneymaker to make the calculated decision to play for the seat and get some cash for his debt problems.
"Back then, I would've been fine taking five grand from my buddy," he said. "If I could get the full $8,000 for fourth, I would've been happy with that as well."
So, after some protracted discussion, with three seats on the line for first through third and $8,200 going to fourth, the remaining players cut through a raucous and rowdy rail to make a deal. It was a save for fifth place with each of the remaining players giving up $500 apiece.
Everyone seemed to understand what was going on, except maybe for a well-known player who went by the name gotmilk. Reading the chat transcript today is still painful 13 years later.
gotmilk said, "wait is the deal on or off"
gotmilk said, "is the deal on or off"
HostDavid [observer] said, "yes gotmilk"
HostDavid [observer] said, "the deal is ON"
Money800 said, "it is on"
HostDavid [observer] said, "5th place gets $500 from each of 1 to 4"
It seemed so simple. So easy to understand. So incredibly fair and equitable. Everybody understood that when gotmilk knocked out Bombardier in fifth place that Bombardier got the $2,000 and the remaining four players would play to determine who got the seats and who got the fourth place money.
Well, not everybody understood.
It was 9:47pm when Bombardier's ace-king crashed and burned against gotmilk's queens, and the chat box blew up.
With the blinds at 600/1200, the chip counts looked like this:
Seat 2: gotmilk (34,177 in chips)
Seat 5: Hugefish2888 (18,370 in chips)
Seat 7: Money800 (62,952 in chips)
Seat 9: First Ward (52,001 in chips)
Here's just some of what scrolled past in the chat box over the next few seconds.
Hugefish2888 said, " STOP THE GAME"
Hugefish2888 said, "STOP THE GAME"
dpcusnavy [observer] said, "BLIG SLICK LOSES"
Hugefish2888 said, "WE'RE DONE"
TheHawk [observer] said, "I knew this was going to happen"
gotmilk said, "were dibe"
gotmilk said, "rught"
Hugefish2888 said, "STOP THE GAME!!!!!!"
Money800 said, "whew im happy"
Hugefish2888 said, "GET SUPPORT"
gotmilk said, "we are dibe right"
gotmilk said, "its over"
gotmilk said, "right"
Hugefish2888 said, "WARD, MILK, ME GETS SEATR, OK???"
Money800 said, "no"
Money800 said, "not over"
Hugefish2888 said, "GOD"
JOHNY G [observer] said, "lol"
If that wasn't confusing enough, the next hand blew up everything. Hugefish2888 got all his chips in against both gotmilk and Moneymaker pre-flop. Moneymaker held pocket sevens, and if they held, he would be in the WSOP Main Event.
But when the flop fell 8♠5♦Q♣, gotmilk did something confounding. He shoved into a dry side pot.
Moneymaker was nonplussed.
Money800 said, "why you do that milk?"
Money800 said, "stupid"
And why was Moneymaker so confused?
Well, gotmilk held 5♠T♠.
Hugefish2888, holding 2♦A♣ spiked his ace, and gotmilk was left with only 15,807.
This, folks, is what was determining who would go on to play the most important World Series of Poker in history.
To understand what happened next, you have to understand just how important the satellites of that day and age were.
"Poker was in its infancy. Those satellites were really the biggest thing going at the time. People flocked to watch it," Moneymaker said.
He's not exaggerating. The rail was swarming with fans, pros, and people who would someday be famous around the world. Just a quick scan of the chat box shows historic online names like Spiro "55lucky55" Mitrokostas, Keith "TheHawk" Hawkins, and Pete "TheBeat" Giordano.
"It was the future Who's Who of poker on the rail watching that thing," Moneymaker said.
How right is he?
Well, you might recognize the screen name Kevmath, at the time an anonymous but very knowledgeable railbird, and now a poker household name. Mathers, now with PocketFives, remembers watching this very satellite from the rail and just how ridiculous everything was.
Yet, there Mathers was on the rail 13 years ago watching with everyone else. He paid his bills by working in a customer call center and spent his free time doing what he still does today: explaining things to internet people who have a weak grasp on reading.
"Working in poker was the farthest thing from my mind back then," Mathers said. "That was over seven years before anyone in the poker community met me in person, which is mind-blowing to think about."
As Mathers and PokerStars support staff (including the also-now-famous Terrence Chan) tried to hold things together, the rail was off the chain.
"PokerStars was in its infancy back in the day, and anyone could attempt to talk to the players, criticize a player or players not at that particular table and flood the observer chat," Mathers said. "It wasn't surprising there were plenty of low-stakes or freeroll players offering their opinions at that final table. People acting rude in chat, begging for a dollar and a host of other reasons caused PokerStars to turn observer chat off to players who didn't have at least the amount in their account as the buy-in of the tournament they were watching."
In that kind of environment, the insanity of the non-bubble bubble was ripe for going rotten. As the players tried to figure out what was happening, the chatbox pundits laughed and laughed and laughed. Here's just a little bit of it.
gotmilk said, "we made a deal david"
gotmilk said, "its over"
Hugefish2888 said, "WHAT DEAL??"
HostDavid [observer] said, "support will transfer $500 to 5th place after the rourney i sover"
JOHNY G [observer] said, "lol"
Hugefish2888 said, "NOT YET"
brocklanders [observer] said, "its not over milk. lol"
gotmilk said, "DAVID"
gotmilk said, "do we need to keep playing"
Money800 said, "milk it aint over, should be"
TheHawk [observer] said, "I dont think there was a clear understanding on the deal"
Money800 said, "obviosly"
nealjl [observer] said, "sure there ws"
gotmilk said, "David please tell me what to do"
GOLDAR [observer] said, "your an idiot milk"
Hugefish2888 said, "NO OTHER DEAL"
tomnshell [observer] said, "rofl"
JOHNY G [observer] said, "lolGotmilk went in with that crap cause he thought he was guarenteed a seat"
Fixxe [observer] said, "an idiot"
nealjl [observer] said, "500 from 1-4"
HostDavid [observer] said, "not sure what you mean"
nealjl [observer] said, "to 5"
TheHawk [observer] said, "they thought money was settlling for 4rth"
First Ward said, "just cash to 5th milk - NO OTHER DEAL"
gotmilk said, "money takes 4th"
Drawmonster [observer] said, "MONEY HAS TO GIVE CHIPS TP SOME1"
Hugefish2888 said, "YOU CALLED MY ALL IN WITH 10,5"
HostDavid [observer] said, "you should play - there was no other deal"
CaseAce [observer] said, "somebody better call time...got milk confused"
Hugefish2888 said, "10,5"
gotmilk said, "money said he takes 4th"
55lucky55 [observer] said, "amazing"
Hugefish2888 said, "10,5 YOU CALLED MY ALL IN"
55lucky55 [observer] said, "milk you goofed"
JOHNY G [observer] said, "Milk was juked"
Perhaps the only thing that made sense in that moment was a couple sage comments from the rail.
Big Ben 33 [observer] said, " this is a sad hour for poker world-wide, lol"
55lucky55 [observer] said, "just amazing"
The Bubble That Actually Was
For the next fifteen minutes, gotmilk would try to mount a comeback. He doubled up once and then battled some more.
It would've been a better story if Moneymaker had done the final dirty work and sent the still-confused gotmilk on his way. Instead, that honor went to Hugefish2888. Ultimately, it was his A♦K♣ that beat gotmilk's A♣2♠ to send Chris Moneymaker to the WSOP and turn the poker world upside down.
Although the final three were guaranteed seats, the tournament didn't automatically stop. So, the three played it out over the next few minutes. As if portending what would happen in Las Vegas, Moneymaker won the final hand of that satellite, his A♥8♦ standing up to Hugefish2888's J♥6♦.
On the rail, one chatterbox said this:
SaminDetroit [observer] said, "I don't think I have ever seen a dumb tournament like this one before.......wonder what will happen in vegas....
He only had to wonder for a month.
That satellite finished at 10:14pm on April 23. Exactly a month later on May 23, Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker Main Event.
Kevin Mathers remembers what it was like trying to keep up with the action.
"I was kind of following along with the WSOP through RGP, but it wasn't very easy to follow," he said.
While he remembered some websites that were trying to follow it and a $25 live stream from Binion's on the internet, the full scope of what he'd seen on PokerStars wouldn't crystalize until later.
"When the WSOP coverage started on ESPN that summer, it provided a better picture of what the 'Moneymaker Effect' would become to poker and the boom that followed after," he said.
What (Horrifyingly) Could Have Been
There is an alternate universe where Moneymaker never made that final table. There is another one in which he made it but took that fourth place money, paid off his credit card bills, and never went to Vegas. In those worlds, gotmilk and the rest of the clan went to Vegas and did something we can't even begin to predict.
"I don't want to go down that road. That's a bad wormhole," Moneymaker said.
Truly, who knows what would've happened. Poker may still have exploded like it did. Any of those other three might have won the WSOP. It's just impossible to say. But Moneymaker, when forced to think about it, knows what that would've meant for him.
"I'd probably be an accountant still. Who knows where we would be?" he wondered aloud. "Everything personally in my life would change. I would never have met my current wife. I wouldn't have my current kids."
Beyond that, there is the very real possibility that amateur players around the world would not have paid any attention to who won the WSOP that year and flocked to online poker in droves. Everything we know about poker might have been different if not for that one ridiculous, confusing, confounding satellite on April 23, 2003.
"Things happen for a reason," Moneymaker said. "There's just no telling where I might be or where any of us who play poker might be today."
Other stories from this series:
PokerStars is still running satellites to live events 13 years later. Get an account and in your seat here.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging.