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Ten years later: How Chris Moneymaker changed my life

On May 23, 2003, I was a television news reporter. I played online poker on the side. I'd already fallen in love with the movie Rounders. I played local home games regularly. I'd been to Vegas the year before and cut my teeth at the Bellagio. Two weeks earlier, a co-worker introduced me to Positively Fifth Street by Jim McManus. I spent nearly every rare moment of free time I had that spring playing poker, reading about poker, or thinking about poker. But on the morning of May 23, I had no idea how something that was happening in Las Vegas would change my life.

How much would everything change? I'd end up writing poker stories that were crazier than Rounders. I'd play in games in casinos all over the world. I'd sit around with Jim McManus and talk about Positively Fifth Street.

That's how much things changed because of May 23, 2003. That's how much changed because of this guy.

chris_moneymaker_444.jpg

Chris Moneymaker

In the days before Twitter, the fastest way reporters got their outside news was via the Associated Press wire. My newsroom's fancy new software had an AP feed that came directly to our computers. That was where I first saw that a man named Moneymaker had won the biggest Main Event in history. That was ten years ago today, an historic Friday in Vegas that changed the lives of an uncountable number of people.

Moneymaker's win struck me and my poker friends like it struck every other wannabe in the world. The restaurant accountant from Tennessee was just some guy. He wasn't a Brunson. He wasn't a Chan. He wasn't a star, but he was about to change our lives.

There will be many retrospectives and re-told stories today. They're all worthy tales, and they all deserve their due.

But today, I'm struck by a personal feeling of gratitude that I can't shake, and that's what this is about.

***

So, why would I thank Chris?

I stayed in TV news for another 18 months. My friends and I talked about Moneymaker. He was around our age, and he was the most unlikely of heroes in a game that we played. Our softball team was never going to walk into Fenway. Our disc golf games weren't going to land us in some disc golf version of The Masters. But our poker game...well, Chris Moneymaker gave us hope.

I played poker as much as I could. I managed to win my first $10,000 tournament seat just a few weeks before I got the opportunity to start doing work for PokerStars (a seat I gave up for the privilege of doing what do today).

PokerStars was exploding by that point in January 2005. It had put the last two World Champions into the WSOP. It was on its way to becoming the world's biggest online poker site. I gave up a career I'd been in for a decade to write about the people who were chasing...well, they were chasing my dream.

I wasn't on the job long before then card room manager Lee Jones pulled me aside and laid it out for me. I don't remember his exact words, but in my head it sounded like this: "We're all here because of what Chris Moneymaker did."

That may sound like dramatic hyperbole, and it probably discounts the role television and the hole card cameras played in the game's growth. Nevertheless, I feel comfortable that neither I nor most of the poker people I know would be where they are today if it weren't for Moneymaker making the choice to play that $39 satellite on PokerStars that put him in the WSOP Main Event.

As always, Lee Jones was right. Our lives and the lives of many other people changed in an immeasurable way when Moneymaker finally took off his sunglasses and smiled ten years ago.

***

I'll be honest. The first time I saw Chris was the morning of Day 1 of the 2005 PCA, and he didn't look especially good. He looked tired and a little worn out by the duties and obligations of being a world champion. I didn't ask him if I could write that--or even if it is true--but I don't think he would deny it.

I only mention it to highlight the fact that playing the role of a hero when you don't have experience in the field can be tough on anybody. Chris endured some struggles after his big win. Those are his business, but they are worth noting for this reason: he overcame them and turned himself into a man and poker ambassador worthy of every bit of praise he's received. And more, really.

I've seen Chris just about everywhere. All over Vegas. All over America. On several different continents. Everywhere he goes, he's a spectacle. Everywhere, he's a top-notch ambassador.

The last of those is the most important for our purposes here. Chris is an amazing ambassador. He speaks the language of poker without sounding like he's typing in an online poker chat box. He talks like a normal human being, because that's what he is.

I remember a time--and I hope you do, too--when Chris heard about a young man, Donald Hobbs, who was struggling in the hospital. His therapists were using poker to keep him driven in his recovery. Chris heard about it, went for a visit, and promised Hobbs--if he could get healthy enough to fly--a plane ticket to the WSOP. By the time it was all said and done, Hobbs was not only hanging out with Moneymaker in Vegas, but playing the Main Event.

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In an age where we're all looking for the best of our people to represent us to the straight world, Chris is still the perfect everyman. He is still the guy who can explain this game to normal people. Why? Because he is normal people. He's good people. And he's still good for the game.

***

Indulge me for a second.

There was a night back in 2008 when Chris was the biggest thing happening in the Palms' poker room. It was after the PokerStars party where Dita Von Teese splashed around in a giant champagne glass. Chris was ending the night playing a $2/$5 game in the back of the room.

The waiting list was long, but I greased the floor to put in me in the first open seat because, as much as I already knew Chris by then, there was still a part of me that enjoyed the idea of playing with one of the game's heroes. What's more, that game was The Story happening right then, and my entire life and career was about telling the story of whatever The Story was at the time.

Moneymaker was sitting there with Jim Worth (another early hero of the online game). Tourists were snapping pictures. That's when Chris looked up and asked me how I'd fared in another game a few nights earlier. It was idle chitchat, but the tourists suddenly wanted to know who I was. Why was he talking to me? People started to look at me and talk about me as if I wasn't there.

"Who is that?" someone asked.

"His name is Brad," someone else said. That was true.

"He's a pro player," someone else said. That was not true.

This conversation was repeated around me like a game of Telephone until it reached the two guys who stood immediately on my right.

The big one was a burly guy with a graying beard, a man everyone knew.

His name was Paul.

Paul Eskimo Clark.

Eskimo looked at me and then his friend and asked, "Who is that?"

"His name is Brad," the guy parroted. "He's a pro."

Six inches to my right, Eskimo grunted and muttered, "Never heard of him."

I still laugh about that moment today, but it speaks to the awe Moneymaker commanded five years after his win. It wasn't just Eskimo railing a $2/$5 game. It was tourists standing and snapping pictures. It was people so caught up in the idea of Moneymaker that they were even curious about the random blogger Moneymaker acknowledged.

***

I've been fortunate to know some of the game's greats. I've been fortunate to know some of the game's champions. Greg Raymer was once kind enough to grill me a steak. Joe Hachem once handed me a $100 bill he won in some crazy betting game I didn't even understand. These great men all became my friends, which was amazing in ways I'll never really be able to explain.

But looking back, it was what Chris Moneymaker did ten years ago today that's shaped how I've spent the last decade of my life. I've made dozens of lifelong friends. I've worked for and alongside PokerStars people, who--although I know I am biased--I believe are the best in the business.

Ten years ago today, I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life working in local TV news. It wouldn't have been a bad career, and I think I could've done it with pride. But because of that day in 2003, I've seen a big part of the world, been able to report some amazing stories, and met friends I will cherish forever. And, for what it's worth, I've been able to hang out with a poker hero named Moneymaker from time to time.

So, thank you, Chris, for being just some guy. Thanks for being a great ambassador for our game. Thank you for turning yourself into something even better than the hero you were. And thanks for being the guy you are today.

Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging (Eskimo has still never heard of him)

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