I had the opportunity this week to sit down with Chris Moneymaker, PokerStars Ambassador and winner of the $2.5m prize for the Main Event at the 2003 World Series of Poker. His win is widely recognised as a revolutionary moment in poker as he was the first person to become a world champion after qualifying at an online poker site. I caught up with him at the PokerStars European Poker Tour Barcelona 2019 asked him a few questions about his big win, as well trying to get a few insights into his poker strategy…
Ben Heath: So I have watched the replays of it on YouTube [the 2003 World Series of Poker winning hand] as I was only 13 years old back then…
Chris Moneymaker: What, you didn’t have TV back then? Didn’t have the internet, couldn’t watch it live?
Ben: I think it was only dial-up?
Ben: I can make these jokes as I have turned 30 now, so I am an old man…
Chris: You are an old man now…
Ben: First up, and an obvious question, describe the feeling of winning $2.5m from an $86 buy in…
Chris: An amazing feeling really; overnight your life changes. You see these people on gameshows and lottery winners who get this overnight success and it is incredible. The only difference is that I spent the 7 days leading up to that moment in a grueling poker tournament, so it was slightly different. It was the culmination of a lot of work and a lot of hours, so there was also an element of relief in there too. Back then we started at noon and we would play until 2 or 3am in the morning, so those days were really, really long and quite tiring. They weren’t as nice as they are now to the players!
Chris: It’s more structured now.
Ben: At what moment did you really commit and think you were going to win this tournament? Was it from day one or was there a specific moment?
Chris: No, I came into this tournament as an underdog and it was only when I busted Johnny Chan that I really started to gain confidence. He was one of the only three poker players on the planet that I actually knew of and recognised (from the movie Rounders). When that happened, I thought I could definitely go deep and make some money; not necessarily win the entire tournament but at least do something with that time.
Ben: What was the first thing that you did post-win?
Chris: I went to a club and spent $25,000. It was fun, I took all my friends and some of the [poker] dealers and pretty much anyone that wanted to come along. I then got home and we had a party that night at the restaurant/club that I worked at. Then on Monday I went back to work.
Ben: Oh, really?!
Chris: Yep. Saturday was the win. Sunday was the party. Back at work on Monday at 8am. I was an accountant/financial controller for a restaurant group that was owned by friends so I really just didn’t want to quit. I was also 27 years old and, while $2.5m is a lot of money, my Dad had 20% and another buddy had 20% so that left me with $1.5m. Then you pay Uncle Sam and that money goes by pretty fast. Especially when you’re 27 years old, you can’t exactly just retire then. Back then, poker wasn’t as popular as it is now and so I didn’t enter another tournament for 8 months. There weren’t all of these opportunities.
Ben: How was the feeling going into that second tournament after that win? Did you feel the pressure; like the other players wanting to take you out of top spot? You’re not the underdog anymore!
Chris: I came second in the WPT [World Poker Tour]. Going back into the World Series the next year, it did really hit me [the win]. You couldn’t get a table at some of these tournaments as so many people wanted to play and that is when it really hit me that poker had changed, even in that short timeframe. It was really taking off and there was a lot of pressure which is both good and bad I guess!
Ben: Going back to the game and some of the hands you played. The momentum changer was a bluff on a King high. How do you effectively bluff and convey that confidence?
Chris: You have to make your bluff make sense, you know. Although a bluff making sense back then and a bluff making sense now are two very different things. Back then we really didn’t have all of the breakdown and all of the statistics that you have now. You didn’t study the game or evaluate the game. I’ve gone back and watched the tape, and if I make that play now I am getting called all the time. But again, we weren’t as educated back then. One thing that was a contributing factor is that we [Sam Farha] had talked about splitting the pot, but he wanted more than even money because of his experience in poker, versus me being the amateur.
I knew at that point that he wanted to make this go for as long as possible. As the more experienced player you want to grind out the result and rely on that experience over that longer timeframe. I knew, though, that Sam Farha wasn’t that type of player and he wants to gamble only when he has the best hand. He doesn’t want to be the guy that goes out to the amateur with a poor decision so I knew that when I had him there I could bluff in that spot. With him there and the David vs Goliath scenario it was the perfect showdown…
Ben: I know, I’ve seen the tapes and you are very different players; different personas and very different characteristics.
Chris: He doesn’t get enough credit for being the villain of the whole boom story.
Ben: Every hero story needs a villain, right?
Chris: You know, I am playing Tomar Benvenisti, the tour guide guy. If that’s us in heads up it just isn’t the same story. With Sam, it looked like movie casting had pulled out the exact poker pro character for the showdown. It was pretty amazing,
Ben: Talk me through your winning hand. 5-4 isn’t a particularly strong hand so was it a favourite or was it just a move to finish off Sam Farha?
Chris: After I bluffed him I knew he was frustrated. You could physically see it and it was quite obvious.
Ben: So you knew you could reel him in and slow play it?
Chris: I knew if he flopped a hand and I flopped a bigger hand in the next five or six hands… he was on what we call “tilt” in poker. Well, we didn’t call it tilt back then, to me he was just pissed off. I knew he was pissed off. I knew the money would go in if we both had the hands. The next hand I flopped the 4-5 and then he had the Jack.
Ben: You almost smiled…
Chris: I mean, yeah, it felt pretty good. It was amazing, I saw the flop and when he then raised I knew he had the Jack at that point and I knew I had him and that this would be it. We only lasted 24 hands at heads up and when you compare that to what you see now…
Ben: It can go on for days, can’t it?
Chris: Yeah, it really can.
Ben: Do you have a favourite hand?
Chris: No, I’m not really superstitious like that.
Ben: So no pre-game rituals either? You just sit down and play?
Chris: At some point I may have done when I first started, but not now. I realised that if you study the game and play the game enough, you can get good at it. This game is unlike any other game in the casino in this aspect; you can, with time and effort, become a profitable player. I’ve been doing it for so long now that I know I am a profitable player. If I make the right decisions, I will have bad luck and good luck, but it will all just balance out in the end. That being said, when you do have the bad luck, you don’t want it and it still makes you upset, but you just get on with it.
Ben: How do you deal with a bad beat? Do you attribute it to bad luck or bad skill?
Chris: Depending on the level of bad beat, I just generally hope that the player sticks around long enough for me to balance that back out. The great thing about poker is that the best hand doesn’t always win – you can ask Phil Hellmuth about that – there has to be that bad beat element to give the amateurs a chance and give everyone the feeling that they can win.
Most people are very selective in their memories; they remember the bad beats and also remember the good sessions. I have a number of friends in the industry who, if they actually kept records of their hands, wouldn’t be as successful as they perceive themselves to be. They remember those tournament wins. It’s like when you play golf and you play that one shot that gets you back on the course but then just end up throwing your clubs away when it turns bad.
Ben: Which you selectively forget because you are a “good golf player”?
Chris: Exactly, yeah.
Ben: Back to strategy and perhaps takeaway points that you can try to apply to everyday life… How do you walk away from a strong hand like an over pair? When the other players are bullying you, but you are able to step back and accept defeat and cut your losses?
Chris: Really that is more about discipline than anything else. Back when I started, people really didn’t know how to fold an over pair and they would go broke with it every time. That comes about with knowledge and training
Ben: Is that a metric or a stat? Or just that gut feeling of knowing that it’s not a good place to be at the table with that hand?
Chris: I don’t think there is any real metric to say you should fold your Aces in that spot. It is about knowing who you are playing and reading the situation. For example, this player never bluffs in that spot or this player doesn’t have the capability to pull this move. Or maybe that this guy is crazy and we just roll with it? It is witchcraft I guess; does his story make sense and are his moves telling the right story? Is there a flush draw out there? You put together the story and again, if you work at your game, you know what to do.
The tougher the field is though, the more willing you are to gamble. If it’s tougher to make chips. If it’s a daily tournament with less experienced players, you can fold that hand because you can get those chips further down the line somewhere else. There will be easier spots. You make the decisions based on your opponents, but also on the situation. If you are in a cash game and on short money, do you really want to make a flip when you can pick up chips easily somewhere else? It all comes down to discipline and taking your time.
Ben: Great. Just going to wrap this up as we are running out of time…
Chris: I do talk a lot, sorry.
Ben: It’s fine! It’s good! How is it being on the PokerStars team? What’s your favourite part of it?
Chris: Well, I think I am the oldest living member on Team Pro now and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing seeing as I just got reminded of you being 13 when I won… Um, I’ve been with company since day one and there have been so many changes. It has been great. I get to meet so many people and go to so many places like Barcelona, Monte Carlo and The Bahamas and experience things there.
Then last year we did the Moneymaker Tour which was both cool because it had my name on it, but also cool to go and meet people who were trying to chase the dream again, which is what I did in 2003. To be able to offer something and give those players the opportunity to play in a big ticket tournament, which for some people is a real bucket list item, was amazing. I was really happy to be a part of that and really change some people’s lives. Ramon [Colillas], from Spain here, got one of those platinum passes and then won the entire tournament which really changed his life. He’s here this year in Barcelona doing interviews all day; that to me was really enriching and rewarding. I do charity work too, but it was so great to see these things on a more personal level; shake your hand and see you go to The Bahamas and play in that $25,000 buy-in event. That was a cool experience.
Ben: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Chris, and best of luck in your next tournament!
Chris: No worries, my pleasure!