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The Most Important Person in Poker: Part Two

by Gavin Griffin |  Published: Sep 23, 2020


In my last column, I discussed my feelings on whether Steve Lipscomb, founder of the World Poker Tour, was worthy of being labeled, The Most Important Person in Poker. This was in reference to a tweet by Mike Sexton, former host of the WPT broadcast, in which he said that Lipscomb did more to grow poker than anyone besides the Binion family.

While Lipscomb is undoubtedly deserving of being in the discussion, I’m not sure the Binion family makes the top ten list of those who did the most to grow poker, especially when you take into account Becky Binion Behnen, who almost single-handedly torpedoed the World Series of Poker, but I digress.

In this column, I’ll tell you who I think really did the most to grow poker. In fact, I’ll give you three. First, let’s talk about the man with the best name in the history of poker, Chris Moneymaker. The WSOP was on a linear growth path before Chris won the main event in 2003. In the ten-year stretch from when Russ Hamilton (Booooooooo!) beat a field of 268 entrants to 2003 when Chris beat 839, the number of entrants roughly tripled. Just one year after Chris won, entrants tripled again to 2,576.

There are a lot of reasons as to why this was true, some of which I will cover in this article, but one of the main catalysts was people seeing, on TV, an accountant from Nashville, Tennessee turn a couple hundred dollars into $2.5 million. And that name. Let’s not forget about that ever-important name. I remember reading about Chris in Andy Glazer’s tournament reports and telling my parents about it, thinking it must have been a made-up moniker. He inspired me and many others to try tournaments and play more poker.

But, how did Chris even have the opportunity to qualify for a $10,000 buy-in poker tournament for such a little amount? Satellite tournaments had been around for years at the time (Thank you, Eric Drache) and Tom McEvoy had already established that a satellite winner could turn a smaller investment of $1,000 into a main event championship in 1983, but $80? (Or $200, depending on who tells the story.) How could someone qualify for the main event for so little?

The answer was PokerStars. Soon to be the biggest poker site in the world, PokerStars was just a fledgling operation that sent a few poker players to the main event in 2003, just a year and half after it offered its first real-money hand of poker. The site, which launched its beta on Sept. 11, 2001, was founded by a father and son duo from Toronto, Canada named Isai and Mark Scheinberg. The Scheinbergs, like Lipscomb, may not be household names to the broader poker community, but their contributions to the game cannot be overlooked.

In an oral history of the 2003 main event for Grantland, Dan Goldman, the Vice President for Marketing at PokerStars at the time, said that they had 37 satellite qualifiers and

“there were a lot of discussions over whether it made sense to send a measurable chunk of our liquidity to a brick-and-mortar casino. We were pretty small at the time, and we’re talking about sending $370,000 to Binion’s. And back in 2003, online sites were viewed by casinos and poker rooms as competition.”

Taking that risk really paid off for them since they got their name and logo on the ESPN broadcast for several hours. The next year, PokerStars sent 315 qualifiers, including the final two in the tournament, David Williams and Greg Raymer. In 2005, the number grew to over 1,100 qualifiers. Then, 2006 was the biggest year for PokerStars and the Scheinbergs. Not because of how many players they sent to the main event, but because the catalyst for their major growth happened, the UIGEA.

At the time of its passing, the largest poker site in the world was the publicly traded PartyPoker. Because they were beholden to stockholders and publicly traded, they pulled out of the US market, leaving the second biggest site in the world, PokerStars, to pick up the slack. By the end of 2007, according to The Way Back Machine’s Internet Archive of, PokerStars had more cash game players online than the next three biggest sites combined and more than every other US-facing site combined. The Scheinbergs’ gambles had paid off and they were dealing more hands and catering to more customers than all of their competition. Since its inception, PokerStars has dealt more than 200 billion hands of poker. An incredible feat and it’s hard to imagine anyone having a bigger impact on the past and future of poker than that family.

Together, Chris Moneymaker and the Scheinberg family grew poker exponentially from a fringe hobby or profession to something that I can say I’m proud of doing for a living and from a couple hours of programming on ESPN to entire streaming channels dedicated to it 24-7. They created the platform that the game has today and allowed me and thousands of others to tell people we play poker for a living without having to explain how that works or what that is. What a tremendous accomplishment for them, and that’s why they have been instrumental to making poker what it is today. ♠

Gavin GriffinGavin Griffin was the first poker player to capture a World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour and World Poker Tour title and has amassed nearly $5 million in lifetime tournament winnings. Griffin is sponsored by You can follow him on Twitter @NHGG