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Give No Quarter, Ask No Quarter, and Win 10 Million Quarters

by Cover Story |  Published: Jun 06, 2003

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As I start this report, it's 2 a.m. on Saturday, May 24, 2003, and the longest World Series of Poker championship event in history ended just half an hour ago.

Publishing deadlines demand 3,000 words by 8 a.m. sharp. The effort I just watched is worthy of 30,000 words written over six months. Publishing demands come first, and I'll later compromise with a 6,000-word version for casino.com and my tournament poker book. It just killed me to cut so much analysis and interpersonal byplay.

My own two-day experience in this event taught me that while the eventual winner would probably need both skill and luck, he (pardon the male pronouns: a constant stream of he/shes is just too awkward) would even more, because of this event's five-day nature, be the player who could best conquer the most dangerous foe any of us ever has to face: himself.

Take five days of poor sleep, constant pressure, intimidating opponents, and difficult decisions, and then multiply that difficulty by the huge money and television pressure of the final day, and you start to see what the WSOP final is really about. It will always remain a card game, which means that both luck and skill are involved, and it will always remain a people game, which usually is interpreted as meaning a winner must be able to analyze other people.

Forging Championship Steel

A true WSOP champion must emerge from a different kind of people game, though, one in which he is tested by fire and ice, by good fortune and bad (don't make the mistake of thinking good fortune can't create risks), by fear and greed, by fatigue and exhilaration, by self-confidence and self-doubt.

If he can do that, he has a chance to defeat the tests placed in front of him by the cards and the opposition. Today's champion managed all of that in a way that no one who watched will ever forget.

When play began, the chip counts and seating positions were:

Seat Player Chip Total
1
Amir Vahedi
$1,407,000
2
Tomer Benvenisti
$922,000
3
Ihsan "Houston Sammy" Farha
$999,000
4
Yong Pak
$360,000
5
Jason Lester
$695,000
6
Dan Harrington
$574,000
7
David Grey
$338,000
8
Chris Moneymaker
$2,344,000
9
David E. Singer
$750,000

It was an eclectic group. Vahedi was the only full-time tournament pro. Benvenisti got in for only $125 via a two-tier satellite, and at that price he was hugely overinvested compared to chip leader Moneymaker.

Honest to goodness, that's his real name: Before we ever started, I checked his driver's license: Christopher Brian Moneymaker, Spring Hill, Tennessee, who got in for $40 via a supersatellite from pokerstars.com. Moneymaker was playing in his first ever live tournament, although he did play a couple of supersatellites once he got here to try to get the feel of playing a tournament with cards instead of keystrokes.

Farha, Grey, and Singer are all more renowned for their high-stakes money-play skills than for tournaments, although each has some successful tournament experience. Pak is a quiet man who has finished in the money in a few WSOP events, but has never made a noise like this.

From Backgammon to Poker

Chance placed the field's two former backgammon pros, 1995 WSOP Champion Harrington and Jason Lester, next to each other. Lester's backgammon accomplishments outshine his poker accomplishments, although his money-play results in poker are good.

Harrington still plays big tournaments, but doesn't play much aside from that: He's a very successful businessman.

After one hand, we switched to $3,000 antes with $10,000-$20,000 blinds. Ninehanded, that meant sitting out a round would cost $57,000.

David Singer raised hand No. 24 to 60K from the small blind (SB), and Amir Vahedi called it from the big blind (BB). The flop came Qclubs 6diamonds 2diamonds. Singer led out for 60K, with Vahedi again calling. Singer checked when the Ahearts hit the turn, Vahedi bet 90K, and Singer moved what was roughly 450K more all in.

The Trapper Becomes the Trappee

Vahedi called instantly, turning over A-6, two pair. Singer showed A-10, a pair of aces with a weak kicker, and when a 7 fell on the river, Singer was out ninth. Singer's move-in with a lone pair while ninehanded probably wasn't optimal.

After four long, pressure-filled days and four almost certainly restless nights, how anyone manages to play optimally all the time on Day Five is amazing. It's easy enough to criticize Singer's play, but I'd bet big money he'd never have made that play on Day One or Day Two. Playing on Day Five is hard, and almost any single mistake is easily understandable.

Hand No. 32 shook Vahedi, and I'm not sure he ever recovered. Lester opened for 65K, and Vahedi called. Vahedi check-called another 65K on the 9spades 8hearts 2diamonds flop, and each player checked when the 4clubs hit the turn. When the Kclubs hit the river, Vahedi led out for 150K, and after thinking long and hard, Lester called and showed A-Q, no pair.

Vahedi couldn't beat it, and while after the play he still had more than the $1.4 million he'd started with, it was pretty easy to mark Lester's brilliant call as the point when Vahedi's troubles began.

Grey Couldn't Climb Out of Poor Position

Grey, who'd started the day as the short stack and hadn't been able to climb, opened the next hand for 65K, with both Moneymaker (the button) and Vahedi coming along for the ride. The flop came Jclubs 5spades 3spades , Vahedi checked, and Grey moved his last 89K all in. Both opponents called and then checked as the board finished 4-A.

Grey had owned A-8, but Moneymaker had called with 5-4, flopped one pair, and turned a second. Grey was out eighth.

Harrington, who has long been known as "Action Dan" as a tongue-in-check reference to his very tight play, entered only his third pot of the day on No. 37. Farha opened for 60K, Lester called from the small blind, and Harrington raised it to 260K. Lester called, and when the flop came Jhearts 9clubs 2diamonds, he bet 400K.

Harrington called all in and turned over K-K, while Lester had only 7-7. Against the rocklike Harrington, it seemed a mistake, and Harrington doubled through.

Big Slick Comes Through

On hand No. 47, Lester faced Vahedi again, opening for 65K with Vahedi calling from the small blind. The flop came Aclubs Khearts Jspades, and Vahedi check-called Lester's 80K bet. The 6spades hit the turn. Vahedi checked, Lester bet 140K, Vahedi moved all in, and Lester, after hesitation worthy of the scary board, called, showing top two pair with A-K.

Vahedi showed K-J; his bottom two pair (on the flop) were in big trouble, and a 4 on the river let Lester double through.

On a later break, I asked Vahedi how he'd slept the night before, and he said not at all. He made what I thought was an interesting suggestion.

"Instead of making this a marathon, they should consider taking a day off before the final table," Vahedi said. "They give extra time off before the Super Bowl; it might be good for everyone here, too, so that the players can recover before playing for so much money." A one-day tournament for nonfinalists might do very well. We'll see.

When the level ended, we got a chip count, and the standings were:

Vahedi – $928,000
Benvenisti – $848,000
Farha – $859,000
Pak – $191,000
Lester – $1,373,000
Harrington – $1,081,000
Moneymaker – $3,110,000

The antes increased to 4K, and the blinds to $12,000-$24,000.

Vahedi found more trouble on hand No. 61, when four players saw the flop for 60K each. Farha bet out 80K when he saw the 9spades 6spades 4hearts flop, and both Moneymaker and Vahedi called. The 6hearts hit the turn, and Vahedi led out for 300K, with Farha calling. The 3clubs hit the river, and Vahedi checked.

Meet Lee Salem, the Prophet

Behind me, Lee Salem said, "He (Vahedi) can't win, he checked to the wrong guy." Nicely prophetic, Lee. Farha bet 300K and Vahedi folded.

Pak was the table's other tight player, and although he managed to stay alive via a few all-in moves, his chips just kept anteing off, and on hand No. 93, he moved all in from the button for 160K. Lester called with A-K. Pak had A-10, and exited seventh.

Six hands later we hit the dinner break with the chips as follows:

Vahedi – $555,000
Benvenisti – $495,000
Farha – $2,185,000
Lester – $915,000
Harrington – $980,000
Moneymaker – $3,260,000

When we returned, the antes moved to 5K, with the blinds now at $15,000-$30,000. Seven hands after the 75-minute break (often a time when players decide to switch gears), the two leaders faced off.

Don't You Love it When They Say, "I Missed"

Lester held the button, and Farha opened for 100K, with Moneymaker calling from the BB. Each checked the Aspades Kdiamonds 7clubs flop, but when the 5diamonds hit the turn, Moneymaker led out for 100K, and called when Farha raised him 200K. The Adiamonds hit the river, and Moneymaker led out for 400K. Farha called, and Moneymaker said he'd "missed."

Farha showed A-Q and took the pot. For the first time all day, the tournament rookie had abandoned the relatively cautious strategy that had allowed him to hold and expand his lead.

"Houston Sammy" Farha had been outplaying the field all along, and now he had the chip lead. Veterans expected Moneymaker to start falling apart.

Instead, it was tournament veteran Vahedi who fell. On hand No. 125, Farha opened for 80K, and Vahedi called from the SB. The flop came Aspades Qhearts 9clubs, and Vahedi immediately moved all in for his last $535,000. Farha thought only briefly and called, showing A-5. Vahedi dejectedly said, "You got it," and showed his bluff with the 6hearts 4hearts.

When the 9spades hit the turn, any hopes for a backdoor-flush miracle had evaporated. A rested Vahedi would have given a better showing. His idea about a day off before the final table deserves consideration.

I estimated the chips at:

Benvenisti – $635,000
Farha – $3,760,000
Lester – $855,000
Harrington – $1,000,000
Moneymaker – $2,140,000

Six hands later, Harrington opened for 90K, Moneymaker flat-called from the button, and Benvenisti moved all in for an additional 490K.

Harrington let it go, but Moneymaker called, and 300 jaws dropped simultaneously when he turned over A-2 offsuit, a hand that can never be a big favorite, can easily be a huge underdog, and is in trouble against lots of mediocre hands.

A Dinnertime Change of Plans

"I said at dinner that I was going to come out and play poker," Moneymaker told me during the "interview" break (ESPN halted play after each elimination to interview the busted-out player). "I was sick of getting run over; I just thought he had nothing."

While J-10 isn't nothing, it is a 6-5 underdog to A-2. An ace on the flop ended Benvenisti's day, and Moneymaker's brilliant read, surprising call (perhaps not so surprising: a relatively inexperienced player should look for coin-flip situations), and win had allowed him to draw close to Farha.

Hand No. 144 proved gross for Jason Lester. Moneymaker opened for 100K from the button, and liking both his hand and Moneymaker's apparent looser standards, Lester raised it to 450K; Moneymaker called with what we later learned was Q-J. Lester's bet left him with only 150K, which made him about as pot-committed as you can be when everyone around you has millions.

The flop came 10-9-8, a bit above average for someone holding Q-J, but Lester didn't yet possess this tidbit, and holding A-Q, he moved his last chips in. Oops! Lester had started the hand as nearly a 3-1 favorite, but a nightmarish flop ended his day in fourth place.

The chips now stood:

Farha – $3,705,000
Harrington – $990,000
Moneymaker – $3,695,000

Our final threesome came from three different corners of the universe. Farha is a rapid-action, frequent high-stakes money player. Harrington is a wealthy former world champ and a slow-action, infrequent tournament player and businessman. Moneymaker works two jobs to support his wife and baby.

Harrington surrendered about 100K to each foe before the level ended and the new one began with the antes still at 5K but the blinds at $20,000-$40,000.

Bad Luck for Moneymaker

Three hands into that next level, something did change. On No. 176, Harrington limped in from the SB, Moneymaker raised 100K, and Harrington moved all in. Moneymaker called almost immediately with A-Q, while Harrington had been caught with K-10.

A 10 came right off on the flop, though, and Harrington had doubled through Moneymaker.

Instead of letting this defeat bother him, Moneymaker seemed to grow more determined, and clearly became the game's most aggressive player. "He's turned into Godzilla," I thought.

On hand No. 185, Godzilla ripped 500K out of Harrington's stack when the two met in a blind vs. blind pot. The flop came Adiamonds Qdiamonds Qhearts; Harrington checked, Moneymaker bet 100K, and Harrington called. Neither player bet when the 2clubs hit the turn, but when the 7diamonds hit the river, Harrington checked, Moneymaker bet 400K, and Harrington called.

There's no shame in turning over Q-2 for a full house when you saw the flop for free in the big blind.

Moneymaker Starts to Pull Away

Harrington hung in with his short stack for a long while, and the longer Harrington hung in, the further Moneymaker's aggression allowed him to pull away from Farha. He took half a million from Farha on No. 188, and 20 hands later did it again. Moneymaker had opened for 125K from the button, and Farha had made it 475K from the SB.

Moneymaker called, looked at the Aspades Jclubs 3clubs flop, and after Farha checked, Moneymaker bet 200K at a $1 million pot. Farha folded to the underbet. Big bets here, small bets there, calling here, raising there, you just couldn't figure where Moneymaker was, except for "ahead." He seemed to have gained five years of experience in five hours. He'd gotten lucky early, but now he was just outright beating everyone.

Farha's fold left him with $2 million, Harrington had just under $1 million, and Moneymaker had the rest, more than $5 million.

When we reached hand No. 224, Harrington and Moneymaker clashed again from the blinds. The flop came 10diamonds 6diamonds 2diamonds. Harrington led out for 150K, but Moneymaker raised enough to put Harrington all in (about 500K), and Dan called. Harrington turned over 6-5 (the 5 was, I believe, a diamond).

With Harrington Gone, the Two-Man Game Began

Moneymaker turned over top pair with 10-9, and after the turn and river missed everyone, the 1995 world champion was out.

It was 12:30 a.m. Moneymaker had $5,490,000, and Farha $2,900,000. Remember, the blinds were still quite low compared to the stacks; if Farha had wanted to play small ball and Moneymaker let him, this match could conceivably have gone on for hours.

I started renumbering at 1. Heads up, the SB goes on the button (SBB) and acts first before the flop and second after it.

For 20 hands, the action was relatively calm. Nine times, the SBB simply folded to the BB, which is certainly playing small ball.

Hand No. 21 changed that. Moneymaker (doesn't that name just sound impossible?) made it 100K from the SBB, and Farha called. Each player checked the 9spades 6spades 2diamonds flop, but when the 8spades fell on the turn, Farha bet 300K and Moneymaker raised to 800K. Farha called.

Now That's What I Call a Bet and a Laydown!

When the 3hearts hit the river, Farha checked, and Moneymaker moved all in. Farha took quite a while to think about it, but finally folded. Can't wait for the broadcast to see if my theories are right.

This left Moneymaker leading $6.6 million to $1.8 million.

Farha made it 100K from his next SBB, and Moneymaker called. The flop came Jspades 5spades 4clubs. Moneymaker checked, Farha bet 175K, Moneymaker raised 275K, Farha moved in, and Moneymaker called – zoom-zoom-zoom.

Farha turned over top pair with J-10, but Moneymaker turned over 5-4, the same hand with which he had toppled Grey way back on No. 33, and he was holding it against the same J-10 he'd trounced with A-2 when he eliminated Benvenisti. There's déjà vu, and there's ridiculous. Moneymaker had two pair and the lead: He just needed to hold it to win $2,500,000 for a $40 investment in an online tournament.

The 8 hit the river. One card remained. Moneymaker would win if it wasn't a 10, a jack, or 8.

For the Second Year in a Row,
a Full House Crowns an Unlikely Champ

It was another 5, and we had a champion. Moneymaker rushed to his father, and the two embraced in the kind of long, loving, proud hug that makes other fathers and sons jealous.

Moneymaker hadn't even wanted to play his seat when he won it; he wanted to use the money to pay off credit card debt. By playing, though, he changed the face of poker.

Poker is a hot item. ESPN paid a rights fee for the WSOP. The World Poker Tour is attracting all kinds of new fans, and those new fans are now going to see Everyman winning $2,500,000.

Poker Wins, But Online Poker Wins Even Bigger

The win is probably even bigger for online poker. Pokerstars.com will certainly score the heaviest from this, but a rising tide floats all boats, and millions of people who didn't even know that online poker existed are now going to hear a lot about it. I have a feeling that for about six months after ESPN first airs this (June 8, I'm told), online games are going to be great everywhere.

If I had to guess, I'd say Moneymaker's win triples the value of every online poker room in existence.

Moneymaker's story is compelling, and he will be a good TV interview. Christopher Brian Moneymaker has an irresistible name and a lot of personality. You'll learn more about him soon, but for now, just know that a kid who faced every possible pressure except the burden of expectation used his heart, his will, and his luck to change his life, and quite probably the life of every other poker player on the planet.

Other than that, not much happened tonight. What did you do, catch a movie?

Final official results were as follows:

$10,000 no-limit hold'em
Entrants: 839 · Prize pool $7,802,700

1. Chris Moneymaker $2,500,000
2. Sam Farha $1,300,000
3. Dan Harrington $650,000
4. Jason Lester $440,00
5. Tomer Benvenisti $320,000
6. Amir Vahedi $250,000
7. Yong Pak $200,000
8. David Grey $160,000
9. David Singer $120,000
10. Phil Ivey $82,700

11th-12th, $80,000 each: Minh Nguyen, "Dutch" Boyd
13th-15th, $65,000 each: Freddie Deeb, Marcel Luske, Bruno Fitoussi
16th-18th, $55,000 each: Olaf Thorson, Bill Jones, Scotty Nguyen
19th-27th, $45,000 each: Howard Lederer, Bryan Watkins, Abraham Rosenkrantz, Chris Grigorian, Dennis Waterman, Mark Rose, Men Nguyen, Casey Kastle, Phil Hellmuth Jr.
28th-36th, $35,000 each: Chuc Hoang, Annjano Ramdin, David Plastik, Jeff Shulman, Jim Miller, Stuart Wheeler, Ken Lennard, Robert Geers, Harry Thomas
37th-45th, $25,000 each: Konstantin Anastasyadis, Kenna James, Cory Zeidman, Tam Duong (Tony D), Humberto Brenes, Kevin Song, George Hardie, Ooderland Jensen, Paul Darden, Jr.
46th-54th, $20,000 each: Jules Bui, Annie Duke, Timothy Johnson, Barry Greenstein, John Inashima, Matthew Allen, Daniel Dumont, Charles Doumitt, Julian Gardner
55th-63rd, $15,000 each: David Chiu, Julien Studley, Rory Liffey, Jonathan Kaplan, Tod Reichert, Brian Nadell, Bruce Atkinson, Charles Shoten, George Rechnitzer.diamonds