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April 23, 2014

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Poker champion tells story of ‘dead money’

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 again 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. Truthfully, he was scared to death.

But after qualifying on the Internet for the World Series of Poker's championship event, the 27-year-old Tennessee accountant had somehow 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.

Some 50 million Americans play poker, whether in penny antes at family reunions or $10-$20 limit games at the local union hall. Many fancy themselves to be pretty good.

But the leap to poker'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 in front of 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 a million Americans place bets daily on the Internet.

Moneymaker was a Pokerstars regular, using the handle "Money800." As he struggled to learn the intricacies of no-limit Texas Hold 'em, he'd lost more than $15,000 in the past year.

In college, he'd been a sports gambling addict, winning and losing more than $50,000. His then-girlfriend, now wife, Kelly, finally delivered an ultimatum: sports betting or me.

Poker seemed safer than wagering on sports scores -- and even other casino games of chance like blackjack and baccarat. Poker is primarily a game of skill. The house has no built-in advantage; players match up against each other. True, 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 -- which can be mechanical. 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?

With his short brown hair, babyface and medium build, Moneymaker looks the part of the regular Joe. He works in a cramped office above a Nashville restaurant and learned to play mostly by watching others.

He labored to improve. 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. To his mild 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 hard; 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, finding legitimacy in elegant card rooms and casinos. The World Series grew accordingly. Recently, the Internet and The Travel Channel's runaway hit, "World Poker Tour," have elevated interest.

Located in fading downtown Las Vegas, Binion's is five miles from the opulent Strip where most of the tourists now go. The casino caters mostly to working class locals.

Moneymaker was surprised by how rundown the place looked and that his room had no air conditioning. He found Benny's Bullpen, the old bingo hall that houses the tournament, on the second floor.

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.

Playing live differs from playing in cyberspace mainly because of the importance of "tells," the physical tics and twitches that betray even the best players.

Over the next few days, Moneymaker managed to win a few satellites, but then squandered most of his cash betting on sports. Over the phone, Kelly warned him not to pull money from their bank account.

On Monday morning, Moneymaker joined the scrum of players waiting to register: 839 players from 27 countries, a record number. This year was the first in which Internet players were represented in large numbers -- several dozen.

The turnout meant the top 63 places would be paid. The runner-up would win $1.3 million. The champion would get a $2.5 million check.

The object of Hold 'em is to make the best five-card hand out of seven cards dealt. That sounds simpler than it is.

Here's how the game is played:

Each player is dealt two "hole cards" face down. One player puts up a bet, called the "small blind." The next player to the right is required to post double that, the "big blind," setting up an initial pot. Based on his hole cards, each subsequent player decides whether to "raise," "fold," or "call," meaning match the previous bet.

Next, three community cards, "the flop," are shown face up, followed by another round of betting.

Then, a fourth shared card, called "the turn," is flipped over.

Finally, a fifth shared card, "fifth street" or "the river." Both the turn and river have their own betting rounds.

In the World Series, players start with $10,000 in chips and play until they lose them all.

By the end of Day 1, just playing patiently, Moneymaker had accumulated $60,000 in chips, good enough for 11th place.

Elated, he called his wife, who'd been following his progress online. Maybe with some luck, he said, he could finish in the money.

Day 2 brought more of the same. Without catching great cards, Moneymaker chugged along, stealing pots with raises, folding respectfully when he needed to.

With two hours left in the day, two players joined the table.

Moneymaker recognized Johnny Chan, the legendary player featured in the poker movie "Rounders" and the last repeat champion of the Big One. The other new player was Phil Ivey, winner of four smaller World Series events at age 27.

The pair proceeded to stage a Hold 'em clinic, shrinking Moneymaker's stack from $187,000 to $109,000.

Staggering from the table, Moneymaker felt like he'd been in a prize fight.

In his hotel room, he took stock. He'd been playing scared, he realized. He vowed to play aggressively.

"I'm not going to be run over anymore," he said.

It didn't help when he learned the next morning that he was at the ESPN table, rigged with microphones and cameras for the network's later broadcast.

Still, Moneymaker came out aggressively, taking $75,000 early on from the table's biggest stack. Just before the dinner break, he found himself pitted against Chan. This time, Moneymaker was less nervous.

With a pair of aces and good a chance at a flush -- five cards of the same suit -- he coolly made a small bet so Chan would think his hand was weak. Chan responded by raising him back.

Yesterday, he would have folded, but this time, after waiting a few seconds, Moneymaker bet all his chips, pushing his stack toward the middle.

When Chan flipped up king of hearts-five of hearts, Moneymaker knew his chancers were good. With his pocket ace of hearts, any of the remaining seven hearts would give him the "nuts," the highest possible hand on the board.

The dealer turned over a nine of hearts. As Peery cheered from the rail, Moneymaker shook his hero's hand. He'd put out the legendary Chan.

Back home, Kelly Moneymaker knew what that meant to Chris. "You gotta be kidding me," she whooped over the phone.

Mike Moneymaker's reaction? He booked the next flight to Las Vegas.

Early the next day, Chris Moneymaker was up against the daunting Humberto Brenes.

Before the flop, Brenes had made a medium-sized raise. After the community cards came king, nine, two, Brenes made his $70,000 raise.

Holding just a pair of eights, Moneymaker assessed the possibilities. Brenes wouldn't have made that raise if he didn't have a decent hand, he reasoned, but it probably wasn't great.

When Brenes flipped over a pair of aces, he felt like he'd been punched. Now only two cards could save Moneymaker -- either of the two remaining eights.

Incredibly, the dealer flipped over an eight of clubs.

Moneymaker swung his fist through the air. When fifth street proved harmless, Brenes was out.

By mid-afternoon, with his father now in the gallery, Moneymaker had taken the chip lead with $1.5 million.

By 4 a.m., 10 players remained, of whom only nine would move on to the final day. Moneymaker caught an ace on fifth street, eliminating yet another heavyweight -- Ivey.

"Do you believe in destiny?" his tired father exulted.

For the first time, Moneymaker thought, "This is real." He could win it all.

With his $2,344,000 in chips, Moneymaker was the chip leader at the final table.

Play began around 2:45 p.m. Moneymaker played conservatively at first. Ihsan "Houston Sammy" Farha, a high-stakes Omaha specialist, began gaining momentum, and just before dinner, Farha took over the chip lead. Moneymaker looked vulnerable.

Still, he held on and by 12:30 a.m., he was back in command with just three players left. Finally, he put out Dan Harrington, the 1995 champion.

Now just two remained: Moneymaker and Farha.

Three security guards armed with shotguns delivered the prize money to the table in a cardboard box. Tournament officials laid out the $5,000 bundles in a three-foot pyramid on the table's edge.

Moneymaker called Kelly.

"Are you watching?" There was a live Web broadcast.

"Yeah, I'm watching!" she said. It was past 5 a.m. in Tennessee.

The two players fenced for a few minutes. Finally, Moneymaker poured $800,000 into a pot, chasing a flush or a straight, five consecutive cards. When a three of hearts came on the river, however, he missed. Moneymaker struggled to control himself.

Farha checked. Moneymaker thought for a moment. His only chance was to bully Farha into folding.

"I'm all in," he bluffed.

Slouched in his seat with his shirt collar open, Farha fidgeted with his chips. Moneymaker, his hand over his mouth, stared straight ahead. "Fold," he prayed.

"You missed your flush, huh?" said Farha, smirking.

But after more than three minutes, both his hands now fidgeting urgently with his chips, Farha tossed his cards into the muck.

The gallery exploded. It was not the end -- but Moneymaker had Farha on the ropes. The chip count now stood: $6.6 million to $1.8 million.

Two hands later, the dealer flicked out the hole cards, and Moneymaker peeked: four, five offsuit. He bet $100,000. Farha quickly called. The flop came jack, five, four.

Moneymaker's heart leaped. He'd flopped a monster: two pair. He decided to play it off, checking to Farha. Farha, who had flopped a pair of jacks himself, bet $175,000.

Rubbing his chin, Moneymaker said quietly, "I'm going to raise $100,000."

His relatively small bet was bait, in hopes that Farha would come back over the top big. Sure enough, Farha pushed his stack into the middle.

Moneymaker stood, hand over mouth, as the tournament director announced the next card.

"It's a five," he said.

Shouts went up. Moneymaker pumped his fists and wrapped his father in a bear hug.

The Internet amateur had a full house -- and the victory.

Back in Tennessee, it was almost dawn. Wrung out and speechless, Kelly Moneymaker thought, "I can't believe this is actually happening."

More than anything, she felt relief. She wouldn't have to worry anymore about hurrying back to work from maternity leave. Ever practical, she fretted about how he'd get the money home and how they'd pay their taxes.

But after the worrisome losses, Chris' biggest gamble had paid off.

"Do I get my SUV now?" was the first thing she asked when he called.

Yes, she did. He used the prize money to buy a Toyota Land Cruiser for Kelly and a BMW for himself and to pay off their mortgage and other bills. After giving his father and two friends their portion, totaling about $1 million, most of the rest went into a college fund for his daughter.

A small amount also went into his online gambling account. Kelly still wants him to stop.

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