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The Nation

Poker Amateur Woos Lady Luck in Vegas

With a hand from the internet, Chris Moneymaker enters game's world series.

August 24, 2003|Michael Luo | Associated Press Writer

LAS VEGAS — Chris Moneymaker had plenty on his mind -- a new mortgage, serious credit card debt and a newborn daughter. But at the moment, he was concentrating on the beefy Costa Rican across the poker table from him.

Humberto Brenes had just deposited four neat stacks of blue, $1,000-chips in the middle of the green felt.

Raise, $70,000.

Moneymaker studied him through his sunglasses. Brenes was one of the best no-limit Texas Hold 'em players in the world. Moneymaker was a rank amateur who'd never played in a live tournament. He was scared to death.

But after qualifying on the Internet for the World Series of Poker's championship, the 27-year-old Tennessee accountant had made it to Day Four, just one day from the final table, outlasting 794 of the world's best poker players. Now he sensed Brenes was bluffing.

He took a breath. "I raise you all your chips" -- about $120,000.

Breaking into a grin and wagging his finger at Moneymaker, Brenes said, "I call."

Moneymaker felt sick.

*

Professional poker players have a name for the hundreds of wannabes who plunk down the $10,000 buy-in at the Big One every year.

"Dead money," they call them.

Although about 50 million Americans play poker, the leap to the game's biggest stage -- the World Series at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas each May -- is like sandlot to the major leagues.

Moneymaker's unlikely journey began three months earlier at his modest home in Spring Hill, Tenn. With $40 from his online gaming account, he sat down at his computer to play in a tournament on Pokerstars.com.

Despite questions of its legality, online gaming is booming in this country, a $4-billion-a-year industry. More than 1 million Americans place bets daily on the Internet.

Moneymaker was a Pokerstars regular. As he struggled to learn the intricacies of no-limit Texas Hold 'em, he'd lost more than $15,000 in the last year.

In college, he'd been a sports-gambling addict, winning and losing more than $50,000. His wife, Kelly, who he was dating in college, had delivered an ultimatum: sports betting or me.

Poker seemed safer than wagering on sports scores. The house has no built-in advantage; players match up against each other. It's true that luck is involved, but the game is much more like chess, another game Moneymaker used to play. He assured Kelly he'd get it eventually.

Most poker novices start out in "limit" games -- $3-$6 or $10-$20. It's when betting goes "no limit" that Hold 'em moves into the realm of art -- and becomes expensive.

Knowing what cards to play is just the beginning. There's also understanding when to mix things up, reading other players and bluffing. For a good, no-limit player, it often doesn't even matter what cards he has.

Could Moneymaker ever be one of the best?

He labored to try. His daily routine: Come home from work, change, hole up in the study to play. If he caught a good run of cards, he might play all night.

Soon Kelly was demanding that he cut back -- and not just online.

In one particularly tough beat last spring, he lost $4,000 at a casino. With a baby on the way, $12,000 in credit card debt and mortgage payments, it was money they didn't have. Kelly was livid. She took over control of their finances. He slept on the couch for a week.

But Moneymaker had what most good poker players have, a short memory.

The Pokerstars tournament he sat down to play in February dangled a tantalizing prize: The winner out of 18 players got a free pass to enter a bigger, $615 buy-in tournament for a seat in the Big One. Somewhat to his surprise, he won.

The next weekend, it was the $615 buy-in. When he finally put out his last competitor at 10 p.m., Kelly was there to celebrate with him.

It wasn't until the next morning that Moneymaker realized what he'd done. Scraping together the airfare and hotel costs would be difficult, his chances of winning anything almost nil.

His father, Mike, agreed to "buy" a part of his seat for $2,000, in exchange for a portion of his winnings. Another friend gave him $2,000; another, $500.

In May, two weeks after sitting for his CPA exam, Moneymaker and an old fraternity buddy, Bruce Peery, flew to Vegas.

*

When the World Series of Poker began in 1970, it was a handful of high-stakes gamblers who made a living in smoky back rooms. They were friends of Vegas pioneer Benny Binion.

Over time, poker began to shed its outlaw image, and the World Series grew accordingly. The Internet and the Travel Channel's runaway hit, the World Poker Tour, have elevated interest.

Located in fading downtown Las Vegas, Binion's is five miles from the opulent Strip where most tourists go. Moneymaker was surprised by how rundown it was. His room didn't even have air conditioning.

His plan was to use the $4,500 he'd brought to play some satellite tournaments, smaller events that offer players without deep pockets a shot at winning seats at the Big One or earning cash. For Moneymaker, they were a chance to practice his shaky live game.

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