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History of Poker

Small Ball, the Bluff, and the Boom

by James McManus |  Published: Oct 17, 2008


The "Poker Boom" unofficially detonated on the evening of March 30, 2003, with the Travel Channel's first broadcast of the Five-Diamond World Poker Classic at Bellagio. Produced by Steven Lipscomb, the show's lavish production values blended tabletop holecard cameras, informative sidebars, and beginner-level explanations from Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten, and all of it was hosted by Playboy cover girl Shana Hiatt, who often wore just a bikini. (The commentary would become more sophisticated as casual viewers began to pick up on the tactics and lingo of tournament hold'em.) The World Poker Tour went on to average 1.1 million viewers during its first season, with reruns attracting an estimated 4 million per show. Forced to play catch-up, ESPN combined similar holecard technology with a Wild West ambience for its nearly round-the-clock broadcasts that fall of the World Series of Poker (taped at Binion's back in May), drawing even larger audiences. Capping that milestone year, NBC aired the WPT Battle of Champions on Super Bowl Sunday 2004. Twenty-five years earlier, there had been a single $10,000 event; now there was one every couple of weeks, and pros wanting to travel to and play them all had to budget close to $1 million a year.

By bluffing his way to that first WPT title, a handsome young Danish tennis and backgammon champ named Gus Hansen became an overnight heartthrob and, more important, the poster boy for an aggressive approach to no-limit hold'em often called "small ball." Variations on the style actually had been played for years – though seldom on television – by Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Stu Ungar, Phil Hellmuth, David Pham, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Ivey. Now, with the poker world seeing the holecards, Hansen and his fellow small-ball artists would make or call a modest preflop raise with just about any two cards, aiming to bust the rocks who patiently waited for big pocket pairs. Even when the flop missed his hand, the small-ball artist proceeded on the assumption that it missed the rock's, too, and attacked with a bet, though he usually tried to keep the pot small, just in case his opponent had flopped a big hand. Brunson had explained how it worked in the original Super/System, but pocket cams visually introduced it to millions of players and fans who never had opened that bible.

The Boom began to mushroom in May 2003, when Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker advanced from a $39 satellite on to a $10,000 seat in the WSOP main event, his first live tournament ever. More startling still, he outlasted 839 players and found himself heads up against Sammy Farha, a charismatic and intimidating Lebanese pro, for the $2.5 million first prize. Even though he had the chip lead, Moneymaker offered to split the $1.2 million difference between first and second prize and play for the bracelet only. As by far the more experienced of the two, Farha said thanks, but no thanks.

As the definitive hand of their heads-up endgame was dealt, Moneymaker had 4.62 million in chips and Farha 3.7 million, though most observers made Farha the favorite. The blinds were 20,000-40,000 with a 5,000 ante. With the K 7, Moneymaker gathered enough chips in his right hand to make a small raise to 100,000. "Don't do it!" joked Farha, like a tomcat poised above a mouse hole with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. (Farha didn't smoke, but seemed to feel his ever-present cigarette enhanced his Bogart-like presence.) Moneymaker did it anyway, Farha called with the Q♠ 9♥, and the flop came 9 6 2. With the top pair, Farha checked, hoping, he said later, to check-raise, but that plan was thwarted when Moneymaker checked behind him.

The turn was the 8. Farha still had the top pair, but now he was looking at some scary straight and flush possibilities. Since he couldn't afford to let Moneymaker see another card, he made an overbet of 300,000 into the 210,000 pot. But instead of folding, the well-named accountant surprised him by raising to 800,000. "We said it was going to be over soon," said Farha, calling the extra half-million. He was right. Whoever won this pot would have a lock on the money and bracelet.

When the 3 appeared on the river, Moneymaker had missed all of his draws. With a paltry king high, he could win this pot only with a bluff. Once again, Farha checked, planning to call when Moneymaker bluffed all in – which is exactly what the goateed Kentuckian did. Even so, Farha hesitated. "Must've missed your flush, eh?" he said. Another good guess. His brain and mouth were playing perfect poker, but the rest of him was having trouble following through. Afraid of a straight or a flush, faced with losing his chance at the title if he made the wrong decision, he tried again to get a read. "I could make a crazy call on you," he said, watching for a reaction. "It could be the best hand …" But Moneymaker gave him not a word or a twitch to interpret. (Moneymaker later said he was concentrating on his trip home and how dramatically his life would be improved by second-place money.) Farha finally picked up his cards – the winning hand by a mile, his ticket to poker immortality – and winged them into the muck.

Moneymaker exhaled, and said nothing, but ESPN commentator Norman Chad called it "the bluff of the century." And even with 97 years to go, the claim didn't seem that preposterous. Brimming with confidence and a 2-1 chip advantage, the mouse made short work of the cat, and the poker world would never be the same. Millions of online amateurs watched one of their own parlay 39 bucks into $2.5 million by getting lucky – but no more so than anyone who wins this event – as well as by outplaying Farha and other talented pros. Internet poker sites boomed, in part by offering cheap (occasionally free) satellites into the 2004 main event, for which the number of entrants tripled to 2,577. And presto – another PokerStars qualifier, attorney Greg Raymer, won the $5 million first prize, so the snowball kept rolling, to 5,619 in '05 and 8,774 in '06. But it was primarily the bluff against Farha that triggered what the poker industry calls the Moneymaker Effect.

How did he do it? Like any successful bluff, it was an artful blend of nerve, timing, math, scare cards, pattern recognition, and what might be called recumbent method acting. At the most basic Stanislavskian level, a tournament-deciding bluff works like this: If losing the pot and taking second-place money will make a bluffer happy, he also will look happy to be called.

A brilliant bluff requires a coherent storyline. It may mislead the opponent but shouldn't confuse him. Otherwise, he might call just to satisfy his puzzled curiosity. The most artful bluffs also require a smart, even ingenious bluffee, such as Farha. Facing a reckless donkey with no imagination, it's better to wait until you have a real hand. Your opponent must fear losing his chips and be able to imagine you having the hand that your body language and bets represent. So the story you tell him must be not only coherent, but credible. As you lie to his face, after all, you're counting on him to believe you. And the more often you're caught bluffing, of course, the harder it becomes to pull off the next one. (Lake Meads of ink have been spilled on the subject, but Matt Lessinger's Book of Bluffs, which discusses Moneymaker's classic at length, is especially useful.)

In late 2004, Becky Behnen, under a mountain of debt, sold the rights to the World Series to Harrah's Entertainment, the world's largest gaming company and, as many poker players were quick to complain, the one most obsessed with the bottom line, with a corporate ethos much more interested in mindless pit and slot players than in hosting the championship of a game based on skill. Harrah's responded by hiring Jeffrey Pollack as the first WSOP Commissioner. Pollack, the brother of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, formed a committee of blue-ribbon players to make sure their concerns were addressed. The biggest change made by Harrah's was moving the event to the Amazon Room of the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, its mid-market property on Flamingo Road about a mile west of the Strip. Tony Holden and others compared it to moving the British Open Tennis Championship from Wimbledon or the Masters from Augusta National. Yet, it was also true that the Horseshoe facility was simply too small and decrepit to accommodate the enormous WSOP fields of recent years. Benny, Jack, and Ted were out of the picture, the Horseshoe was falling apart, and the Binions' chapter in the history of poker was written.

At that time, the aptly named Amazon Room seated 2,300 players, with each table lit by a white Noguchi-esque lantern, and far above that by spotlights hung from black scaffolding, along with surveillance cameras, ad banners, and air ducts. A tented annex outside seated another 300 players or so. Instead of April and May, the '05 World Series was scheduled for July and August, the height of the Mojave Desert summer, when the breeze above the asphalt is like a hair dryer held an inch and a half from your nostrils. Inside, however, many players in the Amazon Room found it brisk enough to shiver in their heavyweight fleece. The 45 tournaments included a glut of interchangeable no-limit hold'em events with small buy-ins. For that year only, the final two days of the main event would be played back Downtown at Binion's – a nod to World Series tradition as well as a way to mark the centennial of the founding of Las Vegas.

While competing in the early rounds of the championship, Jack McClelland observed that there were "5,600 players – probably 300 professionals and maybe another 300 serious amateurs, and 5,000 guys named Joe. I put myself in the experienced amateur group, and if you're in that group, you feel like, 'Wow, I've really got a chance this year.' And that's what's really made poker boom. It's not watching the same 10 pros play every week; it's watching the unknown guy come out and win." Having awarded close to $1 billion in prize money, first at the Horseshoe and since 1998 at the upscale Bellagio, McClelland had invaluable perspective on defeating a field of that size. "The number one thing in winning tournaments is being aggressive. If you're aggressive, you're going to win a tournament once in a while, because gathering chips is the most important thing. Surviving is good, and getting into the money is fine, but it's better to win once and get $7.5 million than to be in the money for $5,000 a hundred times and end up with half a million."

The $7.5 million first prize that year was won by a professional who was also a Joe – Joe Hachem, a Lebanese-born Australian living in a suburb of Melbourne. The genial 38-year-old chiropractor had been forced to stop practicing in 2002 because of a rare blood disorder affecting his fingers. The decision to turn his poker hobby into a full-time job, especially risky because he had a wife and four children to support, led to him winning almost $11 million in less than three years, on top of a lucrative sponsorship deal with PokerStars. "Pass the sugar," his signature expression when taking down a pot, seemed to also describe his new career path fairly well.

At the 2006 World Series, Jon Friedberg, an MBA from Pepperdine who co-founded the interactive media company Reactrix, won his first gold bracelet and $526,185. He outlasted 2,890 opponents in event No. 17 by playing small ball – measured bets, dead-on reads, and perfectly executed bluffs.

With four players left, he pulled off a classic semibluff reraise with the 7 6. Two opponents had folded to him in the small blind, and he decided to just complete the half-bet to 30,000. The guy in the big blind was the hyperaggressive John Phan, who raised to 90,000. (Phan had 1 million in chips, Friedberg 1.8 million.) Friedberg called the raise and watched the flop come 9-8-4 with two hearts. With both a flush draw and an open-end straight draw, he bet 120,000. Phan raised to 300,000. After noting that Phan would have 600,000 left – enough to play on – if he folded, Friedberg reraised all in, and Phan mucked.

Friedberg seemed to have listened to the advice of Sun Tzu: "Do not press a desperate foe too hard." Why not? Because a wounded animal is often more dangerous than a healthy one, which can run for its life. Only if your opponent has enough chips to fight on if he folds should you try to set him up for a bluff. "I rarely bluff without some kind of draw to the best hand, in case I get called," Friedberg said afterward, "except when I'm 90 percent certain my opponent has absolutely nothing." Such was the case when, with three players left, Friedberg had 1.7 million, and Phan 700,000. With an unsuited 3-2, Friedberg raised to 60,000. Phan called. On a flop of A-A-5, Friedberg bet 80,000. Phan called. The turn was a 6, and Friedberg decided to go for a check-raise. When Phan obliged by betting 80,000, he raised 220,000, about half the size of the pot – "an amount that appears as if I want John to call." Buying this story, Phan folded. "I was confident John didn't have an ace, based on his betting patterns and body language," said Friedberg. "After I had raised preflop, made a standard continuation-bet on the flop, then check-raised the turn for a nominal amount, I was certain he would surrender, thinking I had an ace."

Like many young women in poker, Amarillo-born artist Shawnee Barton favors short tops that either go or clash with her pink-tinted ponytail. With 10 players left in the '06 women's championship, Barton's lime-green tank top helped determine where she would finish. The action had been folded to her on the button. Even though she had nothing but an unsuited 10-7, she tried to steal the antes and blinds by raising three times the big blind. Sitting in the big blind, Laurie Scott had the largest stack of chips at the table. As Scott called the raise, she asked, "You're not trying to steal the blinds, are you?"

"She had called me out, and both of us knew it," Barton said later. "My move was just too obvious. But when the flop came down K-5-2, I still bet about 60 percent of the pot because I wanted to stay in control of the hand and because I knew she'd either fold or go over the top of me. She was a really aggressive player who rarely just called. If she raised, I would fold. She stared me down for what felt like a couple of hours, but she finally mucked. I took a deep breath. 'You could probably beat my jack, couldn't you?' she asked me. I told her I probably could."

During the next break, the male dealer, breaking protocol, came up to Barton and said, "I like your game, girl. I saw you bluffin' and I thought, 'That girl's got balls,' but I was hoping the other woman didn't call 'cause I knew you were beat. Your heart was pumpin' and your stomach was goin' up and down. I knew you were bluffin'. You gotta put on a big sweatshirt, girl." Barton dug through her backpack, draping herself with what she called the "frumptastic outfit" that she wore for the rest of the tournament. Flesh duly covered, she bluffed her way to a substantial chip lead when only two players were left. She got mind-bendingly unlucky on the final three hands when her heads-up opponent, Mary Jones, called three huge bets from way behind before hitting miracle rivers, but "Amarillo Shawnee" still finished second and took home $123,178.

In the main event, with six players left of the 8,774 who had entered, Malibu producer Jamie Gold raised to 750,000. San Antonio's Richard Lee, who was playing his first poker tournament, called from the small blind. Paul Wasicka, a young pro from Dallas, called from the big blind. The flop came Q Q J. Check, check, check. The turn was the J. Lee checked; so did Wasicka. Gold bet 800,000 into the 2.3 million pot, representing a queen or a jack.

As an agent, Gold had represented James Gandolfini, Lucy Liu, Jimmy Fallon, and Felicity Huffman. With his dark hair and brash irreverence – some called him an obnoxious motormouth – he reminded many folks of Ari Gold, the agent played by Jeremy Piven on Entourage. But earlier that year, the real agent had switched careers and begun to make his way as a producer.

The question for Lee and Wasicka was, did Gold have a queen or jack in his hand, or at the very least an ace? Both scanned Gold's face long and hard for a tell, and both folded. Before hauling in the Sierra of chips, Gold showed them the 3 2 – a stark-naked bluff. With more than his share of good cards and a number of similar bluffs, Gold went on to win the $12 million first prize. But it turned out that when he allegedly promised a business partner before the tournament that they would evenly split whatever money he won, Gold may have been bluffing then, too. The partner filed suit in Las Vegas District Court, asking for $6 million, and the case was settled out of court the following February.

The final distribution of the $12 million remains undisclosed, but the financial upshot of pocket cams, cheap online satellites, and Moneymaker's parlay secured by his bluff against Farha could not be more clear. A decade-by-decade chart [see below] shows not only the steep upward curve of WSOP prize money, even as the buy-in remains $10,000, but the increasingly flat payout structure of almost every big tournament, which in turn allows hundreds more players to enter future events on the never-ending world poker circuit.


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