The Turning Point

2010 marks the seventh anniversary of Chris Moneymaker’s improbable WSOP Main Event triumph. Here, we look back at the hand that most contributed to his victory and the ensuing poker explosion.

Do you remember a time when you didn’t know who Doyle Brunson was? Do you remember a time when you’d never heard of Razz? Hold’em? Do you remember when you didn’t know anyone who made money playing poker online? For most people, that time turns seven this year.

In early 2003, poker was just poker and you played it with pennies after family dinner. Today, it’s as if poker has been a national game verging on international sport forever. Even most pastors know what Texas Hold’em is now.

Sure people have been playing poker (and even playing it on ESPN) for decades. And yes, Doyle Brunson was a poker millionaire by 1970. But it’s only been seven years since you could mention the river in the line at a grocery store and not be talking about rafting.

In honor of the May 27 start to the 2010 World Series of Poker, I’d like to revisit that most famous hand of the 2003 WSOP Main Event. It is perhaps, the single most important hand in the recent history of poker, as without it, Chris Moneymaker could very easily have lost his heads up battle with grizzled pro, Sammy Farha (he of the unlit cigarette.)

First of all, Moneymaker has no chance. It’s one thing to out-flop Johnny Chan and send him packing, it’s one thing to call the ultra-aggressive Dutch Boyd with nothing but a pair of threes – but it’s another thing to beat a pro heads up. And not just any pro, but high stakes superstar Sammy Farha. After all, this is an accountant who has never made more than $50,000 in a year in his life versus a man who has made twenty bets bigger than that in the previous week. This is a mouse versus an eagle.

To the hand:

So Sammy is both the small blind and the small stack. Moneymaker has him out-chipped, but only by a few hundred thousand, maybe a million.  There are a total of 8.4 million in chips in play just to set the scale.

Since they are heads up, Moneymaker bets first pre-flop even though he is on the button. He puts out $100,000 holding the 7 of Hearts and the King of Spades. Farha calls holding the 9 of Hearts and the Queen of Spades. So going into the flop it is Moneymaker with position and a KS 7H against Farha’s QS 9H. There is $200,000 in the pot.

The Flop comes with the 9 of Spades in the door followed by the deuce of Diamonds and the 6 of Spades. At this point, the board reads 9S 2D 6S giving Farha top pair and both players a backdoor Spade flush draw.

Sammy checks. My guess is that he was hoping to induce a continuation bet out of Moneymaker then go over the top with his top pair – a reasonable plan when you are heads up acting before a pre-flop raiser. But Moneymaker quickly checks behind him, negating any of Farha’s possible plans to re-raise.

So here is the question: is Moneymaker checking on the flop to set up a play later in the hand or is he just trying to see another card? Most pros would make a continuation bet there, but Moneymaker is famously not a pro. Of course, when a crafty aggressive player like Sammy Farha checks on the flop heads up, something might seem fishy to a very astute player. But was Moneymaker actually making that read or was he just freaked out and hoping for a card? I guess it doesn’t really matter. Still, something seems poetic about the biggest hand in perhaps the entire history of poker being perfectly misplayed by the man named Moneymaker.

The turn comes the 8 of Spades leaving the board at 9S 2D 6S 8S. Farha still has top pair but now both players have four to the flush with Moneymaker having the King of Spades for a higher flush draw to go along with his up and down straight draw. Farha says nothing and counts out a $300,000 bet. Moneymaker takes 5 seconds, looks down at his chips, grabs a stack of about a million, looks up and almost whispers,

“I raise.”

Moneymaker counts out the $300,000 and the announcer, who did not hear Moneymaker say raise, falsely declares, “Moneymaker calls.” The soon-to-be-champion looks up from the bet that he’s already started counting out and says again, this time more confidently,

“No, I raise. 5 more.”

And he puts out $500,000 more, a re-raise of about 6% of all the chips in play. In 3 seconds, without so much as a word out of the notoriously chirpy Farha, Sammy calls.

$1.8 million in the pot going into the river.

Moneymaker is drawing on a 10 or a 5 for a straight and a Spade for a King-High Flush.

Sammy smiles and says, “We said it’s gonna be over soon.”

The river comes the 3 of Hearts. The board reads 9S 2D 6S 8S 3H. Farha still has top pair. Moneymaker still has nothing.

Sammy checks again, this time by sucking his lower lip into his mouth and tapping the table with his middle finger. Moneymaker glances at his chips, then with a slight wave of his right hand says,

“I’m all-in.” The crowd of 200 or so cheers.

This would put Sammy Farha all-in should he call. He sits back and continues to riffle his chips in his right hand. Farha thinks for a moment then says,

“You must have missed your flush, huh?” The accountant seems made of stone.

“Might make a crazy call on you. Could be the best hand.” Still, Moneymaker does not move.

Then, with a slight repositioning of his head, Farha throws his cards into the muck. Moneymaker exhales for the first time in 2 minutes – he now has more than a 2 to 1 chip lead.

Sammy Farha is a better poker player than Chris Moneymaker. Farha is a world-famous high stakes player (maybe the best in the world) and crushed Moneymaker in the rematch that Poker Stars set up 4 months after the 2003 WSOP. Farha is a poker superstar and while Moneymaker has found some success in other tournaments – he is a moment in time more than anything else.

But Chris Moneymaker, the man who won $2.5 million on a $40 Satellite qualifier was exactly the moment in time that the poker world needed. His oh-so-appropriate name and face were plastered everywhere, from TV ads to billboards. He was the newest incantation of the American Dream – the amateur accountant who climbed to the top of the game that anyone can play.

The growth was exponential. The following year saw an explosion in the number of buy-ins in the $10,000 Main Event from 631 players in 2003 to 2,576 in 2004. Online companies sprouted up like weeds and those that already existed spearheaded what quickly became a multi-billion dollar industry. Poker players became celebrities and even a few celebrities became poker players. Millions of people worldwide began to play poker online and in 2006, 8,773 people would buy into the WSOP Main Event bringing the first prize to an astounding $12,000,000. At any hour of the day, you can turn on the TV and find a poker show, most times more than one. More so than ever in history, “poker player” is a viable career path. Poker is huge!

And it all comes back to that hand.