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Sunday, May 25, 2003
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


Binion's poker win is Cinderella story for Tennessee man


Chris Moneymaker of Spring Hill, Tenn., celebrates his World Series of Poker victory Saturday over Sam Farha, seated right, at Binion's Horseshoe.
Photo by K.M. Cannon.

Sam Farha, right, of Houston tries to determine whether Chris Moneymaker of Spring Hill, Tenn., is bluffing Saturday after Moneymaker put in all of his chips during the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe. Farha did not call, giving Moneymaker the pot, and play continued. Between the players is $2.5 million that later went to Moneymaker after he defeated Farha.
Photo by K.M. Cannon.

Click on the image for an enlargement.

Forget Annika Sorenstam teeing it up with the boys. Forget Funny Cide's gallop toward the thoroughbred Triple Crown.

If you're searching for the sweetest Cinderella story, look no further than Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas.

The biggest and most improbable triumph in poker tourney history took place Saturday morning at Binion's Horseshoe, when a 27-year-old amateur from Tennessee captured poker's top event, parlaying a $40 investment in an online poker tournament into the $2.5 million top spot in the World Series of Poker's championship contest.

Hollywood producers would scoff at the implausibility of the story, but Spring Hill, Tenn., accountant Chris Moneymaker -- his real name -- wasn't following a script.

Moneymaker outlasted 838 other entrants in the World Series of Poker's $10,000-entry, no-limit Texas hold'em event to claim the title of world champion and win the biggest poker tourney prize ever, topping the $2 million collected by last year's champ, Robert Varkonyi.

Nine final table finishers began play at 2:30 p.m. Friday, but Moneymaker wasn't crowned until 1:30 a.m. Saturday, as the tournament structure allowed players plenty of time to maneuver.

"I had a little bit of luck, but I followed my game plan," said Moneymaker, playing in his first -- that's right, first -- non-Internet poker tournament, where he'd squared off against players in person, much less the world's best. "I bluffed a lot, and it worked. I shouldn't have been here in the first place, but here I am."

Moneymaker said the money would pay for college for his 3-month-old daughter, Ashley.

Wife Kelly and his daughter stayed at home in suburban Nashville, with Kelly watching the contest on an Internet Webcast.

In Texas hold'em, players each receive two face-down cards and share five face-up cards in the middle of the table. Players make their best five-card poker hand using any of the five community cards and their own two, making the value of their own cards critical.

Betting rounds precede and follow the "flop," the first three upcards to be revealed, and also follow the "turn" and "river," the fourth and fifth upcards, respectively.

In no-limit hold'em, players can bet as much as they choose, up to their entire stack of tournament chips.

After knocking 1995 world champ Dan Harrington out in third place when his pair of 10s stayed in front of Harrington's sixes, Moneymaker had $5.49 million in tournament chips.

Houston-based Sam Farha, a Lebanon native, had $2.9 million in chips. The final duo was playing, in effect, for $1.2 million, the difference between the top prize and the $1.3 million second-place check.

Moneymaker and Farha, a cash game player who specializes in Omaha poker, sparred for about 20 hands until two key battles determined the outcome.

With the $2.5 million top prize and Binion's signature gold bracelet next to the table, Moneymaker forced Farha to fold a pair of nines with an all-in bet after Farha already had committed $900,000 to the pot.

"That was my big mistake," Farha said of his fold after the tournament. "I had the best hand and I should have called him."

With a chip lead of about $6.5 million to Farha's $1.89 million, Moneymaker called Farha's $100,000 bet before the first three upcards were revealed on the next and final hand.

After a jack, five and four were turned over, Moneymaker checked. Farha bet $175,000, but Moneymaker check-raised another $275,000.

Farha pushed the rest of his chips in, and Moneymaker instantaneously called, as his own five and four gave him two pair, fives and fours, when combined with the three upcards.

Farha's jack and 10 gave him only a pair of jacks. He needed another jack or 10 to have a chance to win, but the fourth upcard was an eight.

The fifth upcard was another five, giving Moneymaker a championship-winning full house, fives over fours, and marking the second consecutive year an amateur won the event with a final-card full house.

The crowd roared its approval as Moneymaker removed his sunglasses and flashed a big smile.

"I saw the four-five come up and my heart did a double take," Moneymaker said. "When he pushed in, I knew this could be it."

The restaurant controller won his entry stake by capturing a $40 online poker tournament at PokerStars.com. He sold 20 percent stakes in his WSOP championship performance to his father and friend David Gamble -- again, his real name -- for $2,000 each, cash Moneymaker used to finance his Las Vegas trip.

His father, Mike Moneymaker, and Gamble each stand to collect a half-million on their investment. Moneymaker pledged 1 percent of his win, $25,000, to cancer research.

The tournament was a big success for Binion's. Championship event entries skyrocketed to 839 from 631 last year and 613 in 2001, and total entry fees for all events jumped by almost $2 million to just over $21 million.



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