Poker champ marking decade since WSOP win
LAS VEGAS (AP) — It's been a decade since a 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee with the name Moneymaker ran the tables at the Main Event of the venerable World Series of Poker and helped launch a card room boom that echoes to this day.
"If I can win it, anyone can," Chris Moneymaker said after winning $2.5 million in a 2003 tournament he qualified for through an online gambling site.
Moneymaker doesn't think a novice has a chance anymore to take the top prize, which tournament official Seth Palansky said could amount this year to $9 million, depending on the number of players who ante up the $10,000 entry fee to play in the marquee event beginning this weekend.
"That was the truth back then," Moneymaker said in a telephone interview. "The game is a lot different now. In today's game there are a lot of different levels of poker, a lot of trickeration in bet-sizing."
Moneymaker said he made up the tricky word.
When Moneymaker won, the tournament was at the old Binion's Horseshoe Hotel & Casino in downtown Las Vegas. Now it's hosted by Caesars Entertainment Corp. at its Rio All Suites Hotel & Casino just off the Las Vegas Strip, and viewed by millions on cable TV.
Play will narrow to nine finalists on July 15, then stop until Nov. 4. The final table on that date will be televised by ESPN.
Now 37 and a father of three, Moneymaker has competed in every World Series of Poker since he won the coveted championship bracelet. Not once has he finished in the money. But he has ridden a wave of popularity in the game to make millions playing and appearing at other tournaments around the world, and with commercial sponsorships.
"I don't think the average Joe could come in off the street anymore and win," Moneymaker told The Associated Press. "The biggest difference is the playing styles and the creativity of the players."
And the number of poker pros, celebrities, sports stars and newcomers.
More than 65,000 signed up before Wednesday, Palansky said, including players from all 50 states and 77 other countries. The all-time record is 75,672 entries in 2011. The overall prize pool this year could approach $70 million.
Defending champion Greg Merson, previous winners Pius Heinz of Germany and Jonathan Duhamel of Canada, and poker personalities Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey are 44th annual Main Event entrants.
Actors Jason Alexander, Kevin Pollak, Ray Romano and Jennifer Tilly, Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, Norway Olympic ski champion Petter Northug and pro snowboarder Torstein Horgmo are also entered.
Merson, now 25, of Laurel, Md., topped a field of 6,600 players last year to win $8.5 million. There hasn't been a repeat winner since Johnny Chan won in 1987 and 1988. His tournaments attracted fewer than 170 players.
The poker frenzy that followed Moneymaker's win was fed by players who honed their skills on the Internet. It faded a bit following a U.S. government crackdown on Internet poker in 2011, but has gotten a boost in recent months as states including Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware established rules for online gambling.
"Internet poker is a net positive because it teaches players who want to try their skills here," Palansky said. The tournament spokesman noted that many players from countries like Italy, France and Spain learned to play online at home.
The World Series of Poker also plans to go live with its Internet poker site sometime later this summer, Palansky added.
The live tournament remains an ultimate challenge because of the head-to-head competition and diverse field. The game, No Limit Texas Hold'em, has made card-dealing terms like "flop," ''turn," and "river" widely known to TV viewers.
"What's so tough is you have so many degrees of skill level and you mash them all together," said Moneymaker, who topped 838 players to win in 2003.
"A table of nine pros, you know pretty much what's going on," he said. "The average player today may be better than the average player 10 years ago, but 10 times the amount of players doesn't mean 10 times as many good players."
Novice players "can be dangerous because they do unpredictable things," Moneymaker added. "The pros call them 'land mines.'"
The Main Event will be the last of 62 official events this year in a series of tournaments that began May 31.
This year, for the first time, a competition for women was played only by women, aided by an entry price structure that charged would-be male entrants $10,000, while women paid $1,000.
A 26-year-old Canadian poker pro, Kristen Bicknell, from St. Catherines, Ontario, topped 953 other women to win the champion's gold bracelet and a top prize of just under $174,000.