The Chris Moneymaker Story: a Breakthrough for Poker Popularity

Over the past 5-7 years, several factors have contributed to the rise in success and popularity of poker. Television and the emergence of the hole camera, celebrity involvement, the release of several poker films, and the increased number of online casinos and increased accessibility, have all had their part in this. But, one could make the argument that the real breakthrough perhaps came in 2003. It was at the World Series of Poker that year that a confluence of several of the previously mentioned factors combined with a Cinderella story to vault pokers popularity to the next level and ignite a surge in public attention and participation.

By now, most likely all professional and amateur poker players (and even many people completely detached from the game) know the story of Chris Moneymaker and his exploits at the 2003 WSOP. For those of you who dont, however, the following account serves to offer hope to every aspiring amateur online player and illustrates how Moneymakers success and resulting mainstream media attention are yet another reason for the sports rise in prominence.

Inspired like so many others by the 1998 film Rounders starring Matt Damon, Chris Moneymaker (yes, it is his real name) began playing Texas Holdem only 3 years before the 2003 WSOP. Initially Moneymaker played with friends. When it was time to look for more opportunities to enhance his skills however, he couldnt be bothered making the 4-hour trip to the nearest casino and so, he began playing online in virtual poker rooms.

Online poker provided Chris, like it has so many other amateur players, the ability to play multiple tables and quicker hands and hone his skills while in the comfort of his own home and according to his own schedule. Acknowledging himself that he practiced almost entirely through online games with small bets, Moneymaker, 27 years old at the time, had developed the skills and knowledge that would soon allow him to shock the whole poker world.

After initially putting in $40 to play in an online satellite tournament, Chris won that tournament, then another, and ultimately, entry and a $10,000 buy-in, to the 2003 WSOP in Vegas. Not being able to cover the travel expenses for the week in Sin City, Moneymakers father and a friend took care of the his flight and travel costs in exchange for a portion of his winnings. On the final day, Moneymaker, through a combination of good fortune and an aggressive style of play, found himself at the final table holding two pair – 4s and 5s. His opponent, Ihsan “Sam” Farha, went holding a pair of Jacks. When the dealer laid down the two remaining shared cards, an 8 and a 5, Moneymaker held a full house of 3 fives and 2 fours and had beaten his opponent to become the first player to win the tournament by qualifying on the internet. And oh yeah, he also had just won $2.5 million and beaten several former WSOP champs in the process.

An amateur with only 3 years of Holdem experience built exclusively on participation in online poker rooms had now become the poster-boy for aspiring champs everywhere. If someone like Moneymaker could turn a $40 investment into $2.5 million, why couldnt anyone else? Although many people have said that Moneymaker owed his win to an incredible amount of luck, he has continued to be successful since 2003 and now lectures and plays extensively. His victory not only propelled him to the upper-levels of the poker world, but it and his Cinderella story also propelled poker and its online variety to the upper-levels of popularity across the United States and elsewhere. The moneymaking experience certainly represents something to which any aspiring amateur can relate and everyday, more and more people are signing up to play the game online with the hope of one day duplicating Chris Moneymakers success.

Celebrities and Poker`s Rise in Popularity

What do Ben Affleck, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matt Damon, Tobey Maguire, Norm McDonald, Teddy Sheringham, Don Cheadle, Sir Clive Sinclair, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Coolio, Robbie Williams, Ricky Gervais, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Paul Ince, Harrison Ford, Johnny Vegas, Mena Suvari, Stephen Fry, David Schwimmer, Charles Saatchi, Jennifer Aniston, Carrie Fisher, James Woods, Dennis Rodman, Vinnie Jones, and Matthew Perry all have in common?

Well, theyre all celebrities who are either poker fans or players (or both, more often than not). Furthermore, this sample of famous faces represents only a small portion of the television and film actors, pro athletes, and other recognizable stars that are gravitating towards the game and perpetuating its popularity through their participation.

The game of poker and especially its online variety have become immensely popular in the United States and the craze is spreading to Europe as well. The image of the activity has evolved from a macho, back-room, saloon practice into a game which nearly everyone can play, watch, and appreciate. The increase in popularity is illustrated by the increasing numbers of celebrities who are participating and doing so publicly. This star participation, in turn, is also contributing to pokers rising appeal and public attachment.

Indeed, one only needs to turn on ESPN, the Travel Channel, or the Bravo network to see and hear celebrities contemplating the same moves, hands, and bets that professionals and amateurs encounter online or in live casinos. Shows like Celebrity Poker Showdown, Celebrity Poker Club, Ultimate Poker Showdown, and World Poker Tour are bringing the game into the home through television and increasing its awareness overall. Celebrities are not only seen on such shows, but are also made in the sense that professionals are now being watched and cheered for by people tuning in all over the country.

Celebrity participation in the sport though is not only limited to television and the recent rise in popularity of shows specifically designed for stars. Outside of his role in Oceans 11 & 12, which also dealt with the Vegas scene, George Clooney is said to host regular poker nights at his home in Los Angeles. And Clooney is not alone. Friends stars David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston also hold similar events in their homes much like thousands of Americans across the country. Ben Affleck is a regular participant in tournaments and actually won the California State Poker Championship in 2004 taking home $356,400 (although some people believe it was this attraction and love of the game that ultimately doomed his relationship with Jennifer Lopez! Who knows?).

As Poker increases in popularity and becomes more and more accepted and played by all types of people, celebrity participation, as well as the accessibility provided by online casinos, will increase and attract even more new players. The merging of these two relatively new aspects of the game is already seen in the rise of internet sites offering players the ability to play No Limit Holdem with celebrities online! Indeed, with greater celebrity participation raising the games profile and online pokers attractiveness as a non-threatening way of introducing oneself to the sport, poker will only continue its recent rise in popularity and acceptance and create greater interest and curiosity among the public.

Harrah’s to Team With AEG to Build New Vegas Arena

Casino giant Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. announced Wednesday that it will partner with AEG, the company that brought David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy, to build a 20,000-seat arena in Las Vegas capable of housing an NBA or NHL team.

The $500 million arena, behind the Bally’s and Paris hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, is projected to open in 2010. It’s a step toward attracting a pro sports franchise to a city that has tried to persuade reluctant league officials to look past its legalized sports betting.

The deal puts a dent in Mayor Oscar Goodman’s plans to have an arena built downtown with the help of tax breaks, but he said such plans would go forward. The site for the Harrah’s-AEG arena, a block east of the Strip, is in unincorporated Clark County, outside city limits.

Gary Loveman, the chief executive of Harrah’s, which is being bought by two private equity firms in a $17.1 billion deal, said the development was “very much a part of our master plan for Las Vegas.”

Harrah’s has yet to fully detail its long-awaited vision to link or redevelop its nine hotel-casino properties in Las Vegas, including Caesars Palace, Flamingo, Harrah’s and Bally’s, which are near the same intersection.

“It’s our ambition to create a place that transcends a series of hotels,” Loveman said. “The presence of a state-of-the-art events center of this size provides a reason for people all around us on the Strip to come into our neighborhood.”

AEG, a subsidiary of Denver billionaire and Qwest Communications founder Philip Anschutz’s Anschutz Co., owns the Galaxy and the Staples Center in Los Angeles and has booked such acts as Celine Dion and Bette Midler at Caesars Palace, said it was in talks with both professional leagues and potential team owners about bringing hockey or basketball to the city.

“It just so happens 2010 is an opportune time for an expansion team in Vegas for either or both (leagues),” said Timothy Leiweke, president and chief executive of AEG.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the arena announcement “positively impacts the prospects of Las Vegas attracting a major-league franchise” but said there was “nothing new to report” regarding league expansion or the NHL’s intentions about a team in Las Vegas.

“That is a matter our Board of Governors would have to consider at an appropriate time,” he said in a statement.

The NBA, which has appointed a committee to study a proposal by Goodman to locate a franchise in Las Vegas, postponed meetings after the league was rocked by a betting scandal involving one of its referees. The city hosted the NBA All-Star Game in February, but commissioner David Stern said the league was not likely to return without a modern arena. A key factor in the decision for AEG to build on the Harrah’s site was the “200,000 hotel rooms within walking distance,” Leiweke said. “I don’t know any place else like it on the face of the Earth.”

An annual preseason game between the Los Angeles Kings and the Colorado Avalanche in Las Vegas usually sells out, and there was good support for the Las Vegas Wranglers minor league hockey team, he said.

Even without a sports franchise, the arena will be financially viable by hosting concerts, boxing matches and other events, and the likely sale of naming rights, he said. In a recent deal, AEG sold such rights to what is now the O2 Arena in London to the U.K. cellular phone company for $12 million a year, he said.

Until now, events such as big boxing matches, mixed martial arts fights and concerts have largely been held at the aging Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus or at Strip properties owned by MGM Mirage Inc., at the MGM Grand Garden Arena or Mandalay Bay Events Center. MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said the company welcomed the competition.

“The people that come for concerts and conventions, we’re confident they’ll visit more than one place on the Strip and we’re confident they’ll visit at least one of ours,” he said. “Anytime anyone adds value to the Strip, that’s a good thing.”

Goodman said the deal does not slow down city plans for a proposed $9.5 billion sports arena with casino, retail and residential uses on 85 acres downtown, put forth by Michigan-based REI Group LLC. Any team that wants to locate in Las Vegas could now shop between two large venues for a home, he said.

“With the competition, they’re going to be able to get a better deal,” Goodman said. “So it’s a win-win.” Jon Weaver, the president of REI, criticized the Harrah’s-AEG plan because it would rely on Strip tourists for its fan base. He said the downtown site was geared more to residents.

“I think it would be very discouraging have an arena to be filled by folks from out of town wanting to see their home team play in Las Vegas,” he said. “I don’t think that would be a very successful model.”