“Enjoyable is not a word I’d use” – Chris Moneymaker and the truth behind the poker boom, 20 years on

Michael Kaplan
Posted on: June 28, 2023 13:24 PDT

This is part of a series of content to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chris Moneymaker’s historic Main Event win – look out for regular columns from Chris and special features all the way through to the 54th Main Event, which is shaping up to be the biggest of all time.

Capping the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event, the final table housed a murderer’s row of Texas hold’em talent.

Among the remaining nine were Dan Harrington (he literally wrote the book on tournament poker with "Harrington on Hold’em"), Jason Lester (a sharp New York pro, Lester worked his way up via the city’s cut-throat games at the legendary Mayfair Club) and David Grey (a Vegas-based cash player who competed at the highest stakes). One of them seemed likely to win the prestige event, starting chip-counts be damned. 

Among those superstars, there rode one dark horse: an unknown accountant from Nashville, Tennessee, Chris Moneymaker. He won his Main Event seat via an $86 buy-in tournament on the burgeoning website PokerStars.

The source of entry made his talent suspect. Pros, back then, did not respect online poker. So much so that Steve “Z” Zolotow, then one of the game’s reigning greats, made public that he considered “online player” to be synonymous with “fish.” Nobody argued the point.

“I was perceived as easy money,” Moneymaker admitted. “The pros played into me as if I was afraid.”

But, as the hour passed midnight, Moneymaker had done the seemingly impossible and no longer looked scared. 

Moneymaker v Farha at the 2003 WSOP

After vanquishing the likes of Phil Ivey and Johnny Chan, Moneymaker found himself playing heads-up for the championship. He was going against a Lebanese cool cat by the name of Sammy Farha. Like Grey, Farha played the big cash games in Vegas.

To most on the poker scene, it seemed unlikely that Farha would finish second to a neophyte. Farha agreed. So much so that, soon after the action went to heads up, Moneymaker and Farha discussed a deal. Moneymaker was willing to split their winnings evenly, despite the fact that he had more chips. But Farha demanded in excess of 50 percent. 

Not having it, Moneymaker said, “Let’s play.”

And play they did – until the clock cleared 1:30 in the morning. That was when Moneymaker put Farha all in. Sucking on an unlit cigarette, Farha folded his pair of nines to Moneymaker’s nothing.

Coffee-housing with Moneymaker, Farha lied about his holdings and sensed that he had been bluffed. A little rattled on the next hand, Farha shoved with top pair of Jacks on the flop. Moneymaker called with two pair, which turned into an unneeded full house. With his cards holding up, Moneymaker won the Main Event, took down $2.5 million and would soon ignite a poker boom that the game had not seen before or since.

Chris Moneymaker won $2.5m when he toppled Sammy Farha in the 2003 Main Event Moneymaker won $2.5m when he toppled Sammy Farha in the 2003 Main Event

The newly crowned champion pumped two fists in front of him, hugged his father and did not envision the life that loomed. “I had zero clue as to what was coming,” Moneymaker told us about his watershed moment, which marks its 20th anniversary this year. “My plan was to go back to work. I didn’t know poker would blow up.”

Certainly, he could not have imagined that the blowup would be named in his honor: the Moneymaker Effect.

Asked what happened immediately after the big win, Moneymaker said, “I was super-tired and nervous about public speaking. Cameras and microphones were in front of me. Then they brought me onto Freemont Street and took pictures. After that we went to a strip club until the sun rose. By Monday morning I was back at work in Nashville. My friends at the office threw a party for me.”

Isai Scheinberg turns PokerStars into a Moneymaker

If Moneymaker didn’t know what to expect, PokerStars founder Isai Scheinberg had a clue. He knew he did not want to lose his golden goose to an online competitor. 

“At the time, PokerStars only had Tom McEvoy” – a low-voltage, low-personality poker player with minimal status – “as an ambassador,” said Moneymaker. “No one else wanted to be an ambassador for the company. Daniel Negreanu and Amarillo Slim both turned down the opportunity. Isai offered me $5,000 per month. I was only making $40,000 per year as an accountant. I was, like, ‘You will pay me $60,000 a year to do nothing? Let’s go!’”

While Moneymaker vowed to himself that he would not be the poker equivalent of a lottery winner who is broke six months later, there were plenty of opportunities for a suddenly flush WSOP champ to run through his prize money.

While in Las Vegas to play a simple $1,000 buy-in tournament at the Orleans casino, as a PokerStars sponsored player, prior to the WSOP airing on ESPN, Moneymaker made his way to the Horseshoe. That was where the rough and tumble Nick Behnen – husband to Benny Binion’s daughter Becky, who then owned the Horseshoe – announced a desire to play anyone heads-up.

“I played him for $10,000 and lost,” Moneymaker said. “I wanted to do it again for $10,000 and he said that we have to do it for 20K. I won and Nick fired the dealer. It happened again. Then he brought in Sam Grizzle [a trash talking local who played cash games]. I won. He fired another dealer. Then he had me play triple-draw against both Sam and [Nick’s] stepson Benny Binion. I won $110,000.

Later, I realized I was lucky to be alive. Nick started calling me ‘catfish’ and I called him a motherfucker a few times. A friend told me that if I keep talking to Nick that way I would wind up buried in the desert. I didn’t care. But I should have been more concerned.”

The smartest we've ever seen Chris Moneymaker look

By August, three months after Moneymaker’s win, the Main Event hit ESPN. “That was when things got really weird,” he said. “The guys at work said that if I don’t quit to focus on poker opportunities, they would fire me. I was getting calls to do appearances at golf tournaments and things like that. I would make $5,000 or $10,000 for an appearance.

My local card game went from $300 stacks to $10,000 stacks. Business guys came around to play the World Series of Poker champion. Some of my friends got busted by the stakes. Then a couple of sharks came in, marked cards and I got cheated out of $20,000. That was no good.”

But that was the exception. For the most part, poker lovers embraced Moneymaker. Guys like Tom Dwan and Andrew Robl saw Moneymaker in action and found themselves inspired to take up the game – and quickly played at levels that far exceeded anything Moneymaker would ever approach. 

A new life for Moneymaker

Everybody wanted a piece of Moneymaker. “When I went to the Horseshoe, they couldn’t hold the people back,” he remembered. “At a meet-and-greet, a lady had my face on her shirt. I walked up to her and she fainted. People wanted my autograph and it blew my mind. But all of this cost me my first marriage. My wife did not want me to play poker. She wanted to be with an accountant. We split up.”

By the start of the 2004 Main Event, the so-called Moneymaker Effect was in full swing. There were more people wanting to play in the World Series than the Horseshoe could accommodate. Moneymaker himself showed up late, besieged by journalists and well-wishers, and couldn’t get a proper seat. He began the tournament at an 11 person table, “on my knees” due to the lack of chairs.

Feeling the pressure of all eyes on him, Moneymaker tried too hard to play perfect poker, bombed out of the tournament and “took it pretty hard.”

PokerStars was unconcerned about his performance and chuffed by the mania around him: “They ripped up my 10 year contract and signed me into a new one for 10 times as much.”

Moneymaker was the golden goose at PokerStars

The next seven years were a blur for Chris Moneymaker. “I got to meet all kinds of athletes and celebrities who I never thought I would meet, but there was a circus going on around me,” he said. “It was insanity whenever I walked into a poker room. I went from being a wallflower to being the center of attention. I was nervous a lot. You don’t want to say or do stupid things or feel like a dork. People paid attention to what I said. It made me feel weird.”

Drinking and grinding

At the same time, Moneymaker found himself moving at a grueling pace. He competed on the PokerStars site, showed up to tournaments and played on behalf of Stars.

“All of that did not make me happy; it was a grind,” Moneymaker said. “I drank a lot back then. I’d get hammered and play. Then I’d wake up the next morning and have responsibilities. I did a deal with Canadian Club whiskey and would have to go to Krogers [supermarket] to advertise for them. Then we would go to bars and drink. Then I’d get up the next morning to do interviews on radio shows. On top of all that, I’d play poker until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. I said yes to everyone and wore myself out.”

Predictably, none of this was good for Moneymaker’s game. Between 2004 and 2011, he had some big wins such as $300,000 for finishing second at the NBC National Heads-Up Championship in 2011 and a 2004 WPT tournament at Bay 101 that yielded $200,000 for second place. But they were few and far between. “I didn’t study poker for five years,” Moneymaker said of the post WSOP period. “I just used my natural ability, which doesn’t work when everybody else is studying.”

He had the cushion of PokerStars financing tournament entries. Considering where his game was at by 2011 or so, Moneymaker admitted, “I didn’t want to be a poker player who was playing with his own money. I had to support kids and a wife. I could not play professional poker and risk my savings with no fallback plan.”

Isai Scheinberg and Chris Moneymaker were the perfect partnership at PokerStars

On April 15, 2011, though, it looked like he might have to finance himself or else get out of poker altogether. That was the date when the US government shut down online poker sites and blocked American players.

“I heard Full Tilt was defaulting and I did not know if PokerStars would keep me,” Moneymaker recalled of the panicky, uncertain time. “I was 27 when I won the World Series. I was 38 when [online poker became illegal in the US]. My accounting degree was trashed. I had a 10-year-long gap on my resume and no skill set. I might as well have been bagging groceries. I seriously contemplated becoming a medical-sales specialist.”

But Moneymaker, who was in the process of moving his family into a new house, still had the kind of name recognition that PokerStars needed, even in a financially diminished environment. “I talked about leaving the United States [and relocating to a place where he could legally play on PokerStars] but it wouldn’t look good for the every-man poker pro to leave the country,” he said. “My pay got cut by PokerStars. But I still got a bigger pay check than I would have gotten with anything else.”

Isai exit is writing on wall for Moneymaker

That worked for a while, until PokerStars was sold to Amaya, Inc. – for $4.9 billion – and Moneymaker once again found himself plagued by uncertainty. “PokerStars was the home of world champions with Isai,” said Moneymaker, pointing out that he, Joe Hachem and Greg Raymer were primary faces of the site.

“New marketing guys came with the new owners. They were more focused on Daniel Negreanu and he was more relevant than me. They paid me less. I had a wife and three kids to support [and he still does][having remarried six months after her divorce] but we lived in Memphis where it doesn’t cost a ton.”

Still, money isn’t everything – even for a guy named Moneymaker – and he found himself frustrated by the fact that the new PokerStars ownership “didn’t utilize me the way they could have.”

Chris Moneymaker finds a new path to take after a very successful PokerStars partnership

So he came up with a suggestion: “I asked them to send me out to play $600 tournaments. I was grassroots and I could spread the word of PokerStars. I felt that was a spot for me. I could go out and make some nice scores. They agreed to it. I played, kept busy and made money. I was a bankroll nit. I did it that way until Covid happened.”

Like everyone else who loves poker, Moneymaker suddenly saw live games evaporating in the face of the pandemic. Cooped up in his house, and “going a little stir crazy,” he wanted to return to online poker. But there were a couple of obstacles: PokerStars was not available in Mississippi, where he and his family lived at that point, and his sponsorship contract had it that he could not play on any other company’s sites. 

He came up with a workaround to play on America’s Cardroom, which was accessible in Mississippi. “I signed on with my own name and played under the name of tayhaywil, [which derives from] the first three letters of each of my kids’ names,” Moneymaker said. “I played totally under the radar for nine months and I enjoyed it. It took away the stress. I didn’t have to chat with people or have people taking shots or playing weird against me. I won a tournament every week.”

Then he ponied up for a $2,500 buy-in event known as the Venom. “I made the final table, which guarantees six- or seven-figures,” Moneymaker said. “The tradition of that tournament is that when you make the final table, Phil Nagy, who is the CEO, calls and asks how you would like to be paid. He called me and asked, ‘Is this who I think it is?’ I told him that it is. He asked if I mind him telling people. I said that he couldn’t and he agreed to that. I won $420,000 in the tournament. It was a significant lick that made things easier for me.”

Chris Moneymaker signs with Americas Cardroom

When Nagy next called Moneymaker, in August 2020, it was to ask what it would take for him to leave PokerStars and move to ACR. The timing was good, since Moneymaker’s contract with PokerStars was due to end in December. “I threw out a ridiculous number that I thought he would laugh at,” recalled Moneymaker. “His response was, ‘Okay. I’m not shying away from it.’ That was when things got real.”

Chris Moneymaker signed for Americas Cardroom Chris Moneymaker broke with PokerStars and signed for Americas Cardroom

After completing due diligence on the company, Moneymaker signed up with America’s Cardroom in February 2021 and became what he described as “one of their main pros.” 

That also happened to be the year that he had his deepest World Series run since the big one in 2003. “It felt completely different than it did 18 years earlier,” said the former champ who made it to 260th place and won $38,600 in 2021. “The game is tougher. It’s so much harder to get chips now. I know what I’m doing and I know how hard it is to do well.”

Though Moneymaker has had other recent Main Event cashes, he went through a dry spell from 2004 until 2018. Asked why, he professed ignorance: “I have no clue. People took shots at me. I wasn’t winning uncontested pots, which is what you want. I probably pushed too hard and felt pressured to make perfect plays. Now I just want to go out and play.”

This year, at the Main Event, he might be going up against an America’s Cardroom Winner. A key promotion on the site, known as Moneymaker 2.0, will send a player to the World Series of Poker. It ran for 13 weeks as a series of leaderboard tournaments with entry fees of $86 per week (the same amount that Moneymaker paid to enter on PokerStars in 2003). “The final 10 players submit videos and we’ll pick who fits our brand best,” said Moneymaker. “We’ll send him to the Main Event, he’ll let us film him and be part of the team. The winner [of Moneymaker 2.0] will get a couple hundred thousand.”

Chris Moneymaker launches the Moneymaker Poker Tour Look out for the Moneymaker Poker Tour at a poker room near you

Chris builds legacy with Moneymaker Poker Tour

Though the last year has not been perfect for Moneymaker – he opened an eponymous poker club in Mississippi, thought it was government approved and was forced to close it for issues of unexpected illegality – he is not slowing down.

While playing poker and being aligned with the ACR site, he is also putting on the Moneymaker Poker Tour. “We have five stops this year and there will be more next year,” he said. “The numbers have been good and we have a half-million-dollar guarantee on our Main Event. I love when the underdog comes from out of nowhere and hits a big score.”

Looking back on his own big score, were the boom years of poker enjoyable for him? "Enjoyable is not a word I would use," Moneymaker said in a somber tone. "Sometimes it was cool and satisfying. And it's nice to know that I'll be remembered in the history books as someone who had a movement named after him. But enjoyable? No, it was not that."

While acknowledging that a second Moneymaker Effect is unlikely – “We’ve had record-number turnouts for tournaments. It won’t go again from nobody playing to everybody playing; though, if the US government regulates poker, there will be a jump” – he has no complaints. “With the new gig, I am very happy right now,” Moneymaker said, sounding like someone who has successfully navigated the bumps of a poker career. “I’m enjoying the ride of a lifetime, and I am not getting off.”