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Moneymaker has lived up to his name

He contributed to the card craze by winning $2.5-million at the World Series of Poker. The accountant came from out of nowhere, and he does not plan on going back.

By JOHN SCHWARB
Published February 22, 2004

[AP file photo]
Chris Moneymaker celebrates his surprise victory at the 34th World Series of Poker at the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas.

You are reading these poker stories because of a guy named Chris Moneymaker.

If you started playing Texas Hold'em in the past year and dreamed of cashing in big, he probably is your hero.

If you have no interest in the game and are miffed that poker is filling hours upon hours of television, and will be even angrier later this year when ESPN fills even more hours of "sports broadcasting" with poker, blame him.

Chris Moneymaker.

Yes, that's his real name. And, yes, a good portion of the craze can be placed squarely on his 28-year-old shoulders.

Last May, the Tennessee amateur and mostly online poker player parlayed a $40 Internet tournament into a seat at the $10,000 No-Limit Texas Hold'em Championship, the flagship final at the World Series of Poker.

Though he first thought about selling his entry to pay off $8,000 in credit card debt, Moneymaker took a seat against 838 other players, a record field for the annual Las Vegas event that attracts poker's best from around the world. He lasted through five days of expert play, bluffs and flat-out luck to win $2.5-million, setting off what the event's media director called "the sonic boom of poker."

So much for the quiet accountant's life.

Overnight, Moneymaker became a celebrity rubbing elbows with Jay Leno and David Letterman and the star of true "reality TV" - ESPN's seven-part broadcast of the World Series. He became a folk hero in Spring Hill, Tenn., where he was called "Money" long before all those dollars.

In the poker world, Moneymaker became a household name alongside legends such as Doyle Brunson, "Amarillo Slim" Preston and Johnny Chan (one of several champions whom Moneymaker eliminated during his World Series run).

Those greats continue playing today even after winning millions. Moneymaker, after making his fortune on the felt, also said he has no plans to walk away.

"If someone wins the Super Bowl, do they quit? Has Tom Brady quit?" said Moneymaker, who expects to return to the Horseshoe Casino in late May to defend his title. "Poker doesn't get old. Right now I'm trying to develop my game. It's a lot different now than when I was playing as an unknown."

He'll never be an unknown again. Moneymaker is now perhaps the quintessential American celebrity, with an agent, endorsements, a book deal, piles of money and countless rumors and falsehoods about him that fly from his circle, in this case the often-catty poker world.

"It's pretty weird how things get started. . . . I've heard I'm divorced, I've lost all my money, I lost $2-million at Mohegan Sun (Casino) in Connecticut, I lost another $2-million at some point - meaning I must have had $4-million at some point - then won it all somewhere else, I lose $50,000 a week playing online," Moneymaker said.

"At first it bothered me, but then I talked to (Tennessee Titans running back) Eddie George. He asked me for some poker lessons. He said people are going to say what they say; you can't say anything about it."

Moneymaker is not divorced or anywhere near broke, even after giving 20 percent of his winnings to his father and another 20 to a friend who helped him along the way to fame. He's happily married (wife Kelly is learning to play poker) with a young daughter and another child on the way. He does not need to work but does anyway, as an accountant for three Nashville-area restaurants run by folks who knew him before the world did.

"Winning hasn't changed him. The biggest head he ever gets is when someone in the office wants him to show them how to play poker," said Byron Osgood, manager of the Bound'ry restaurant in Nashville.

Moneymaker plays most of his poker online for about 15 hours a week at pokerstars.com, the site where he won his World Series entry last year. If you find his handle (Money800) and bring $1,000, he might give you a one-on-one game.

On ESPN, his World Series conquest is frequently re-aired. This year the network is expanding coverage of the event, dividing it into 15 to 20 hours of programming, and can only hope for another story as unbelievable.

"A lot of people watch the NFL, but they can't do what NFL players can do," ESPN spokeswoman Keri Potts said. "Then they see someone like Chris Moneymaker, an average guy, taking something that is just a social game and bam, going in and winning against all odds against professional gamblers when he was not one of them.

"The appeal in that is largely what I would credit the success of the show with."

Moneymaker has watched himself on television twice, most recently last week to record details of his play for his book. He's beyond watching other players for entertainment. Instead he craves the action on the Internet, where 5-million other Americans play regularly.

Being the name and face of the phenomenon, he could occasionally live without.

"Sometimes it gets old. I just accept it most of the time," Moneymaker said. "A lot of times people just say how lucky I was. . . . How do you respond to that?

"I really don't care. Some think I'm pretty good, others think I'm really bad. I haven't gone around and asked. I won the tournament, I won the money, think what you want."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 22, 2004, 10:02:44]


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