Darvin Moon hasn't been a poker player for very long, but there has always been a part of him that understood the basic principles of risk.
The 45-year-old Oakland resident, who will sit down at the final table of the World Series of Poker today as the overall chip leader, has been a logger his entire life. And as any good logger can tell you, those who don't understand which risks to take, and which not to take, when cutting down trees don't get many second chances. Even the good ones get battered and banged up. Moon has had his arm crushed, his leg broken, his knee busted, and he has dodged death more times than he can really recall. But he wouldn't give it up even if he could afford to walk away.
"I love the freedom of it," Moon said. "You're out in the woods, away from everything and everyone, and there is nothing routine about it. Every tree you cut is different. It's unique."
Kind of the same way every hand in poker is unique?
"In a way, they're the same," Moon said. "If you're cutting trees and you mess up, you're gone. In poker, if you play the wrong hand, you're gone. The difference is, if you mess up in poker, you don't get hauled out of there in a body bag."
Moon's story of how he made it to the final table of poker's biggest event - he is one of nine players left vying for the $8.55 million first-place prize - is as refreshing as his candor. And the fact that he's the chip leader, with a $59 million stack in front of him, more than a third of the overall chips, becomes even more remarkable when you hear how it all began: at a tiny tournament with a $140 entry fee in West Virginia.
Unlike some of the recent surprises at the main event's final table, Moon didn't hone his poker skills online or catch the fever for Texas hold 'em because of a Hollywood movie. He simply played the game with his softball buddies on nights and weekends, especially after he got a little too heavy and a little too slow to field the ball as he once did. At most, the winner of his twice-weekly game would pocket a few hundred dollars. And, he'll be the first to tell you, it wasn't like he was cleaning up in those friendly gatherings.
"I'm probably the third-best player [in my regular game]," Moon said. "Actually, I might be the fourth. My brother is pretty good, but he can get a little rattled sometimes."
But when Moon won an event held at Wheeling Island Casino in Wheeling, W.Va., the top prize was the $10,000 entry fee into the World Series main event. From what Moon understood, he could have taken the money and given his seat to someone else, but he would have to travel to Las Vegas first to collect it. He had never been to Vegas so he decided to go, uncertain what he was going to do when he got there. In the current economic climate, blowing $10,000 wasn't something he could do lightly.
"But once I walked in that room, there wasn't any chance I was going to not play," Moon said.
Moon's run through the main event field has been both lucky and remarkable. As ESPN has repeatedly pointed out, there were more people in the field (6,494) than the entire population of Moon's hometown of Oakland in Garrett County. But he made all the right moves - even when, strategically, they were probably the wrong moves - and now here he is. He didn't hire a coach or try to relearn the game in the 140 days the players had off because he figured it would only hurt him. He says he'll continue to go with his instinct, which is what got him here. As one of the top nine finishers, he has already guaranteed himself a seven-figure payout.
"I've studied some of the things I did wrong, and most of them ended up helping me," Moon said. "I've done a lot of dumb stuff and just got real lucky."
Said Norman Chad, ESPN's poker analyst: "If Darvin can pull it off, I think it becomes the stuff of storybooks."
Moon is a self-described "hillbilly" who doesn't e-mail, doesn't text and doesn't use credit cards. To practically everyone's surprise, he hasn't signed a single endorsement deal during the long layoff, even though several have been offered, and he has likely turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. Moon says he values his independence too much.
"I haven't had a boss for 25 years, and I'll never have a boss," he said. "I do what I want to do every day. I didn't want to be in a situation where somebody would tell me, 'We need you to be in New York on this day and Atlantic City the next day.' Because I just wouldn't show. And then lawsuits would be flying left and right. It's just best for them if I don't. Yeah, I'm turning down a lot of money, but I don't really care. I've never really cared about money anyway. As long as I've got $20 for the bus ride home, I'm happy."
So instead of wearing a hat or a shirt with the name of a casino or a gambling Web site plastered on it, you'll recognize Moon by his New Orleans Saints hat, which he has worn throughout the tournament. Why the Saints? Just because, he says. He has been a fan for 20 years, mostly because he likes underdogs.
"I might have to start wearing a Redskins hat if they don't straighten things up," Moon joked. "I"ve just never liked bandwagon jumpers. If the Redskins were good, people around town would wear Redskins gear. And if the Steelers or Ravens were good, it was the same thing. Now that the Saints are good, I guess I don't feel too different. Maybe they've been carrying me through this a little bit, and I'll carry them the rest of the way. We'll be pulling for one another."
J. Freedom du Lac of The Washington Post contributed to this article.
WSOP at a glance
What: : The 40th annual World Series of Poker main event, featuring no-limit Texas hold 'em with a $10,000 buy-in.
When: Today-Tuesday (TV: Tuesday, 9 p.m.-11:30 p.m., ESPN)
Where: : Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas.
Prize money: : First place is $8.55 million from a total prize pool of $61 million. The top 10 percent of the field of 6,494 players won money, starting with $21,365 for 648th place.
Format: : The field was split into four sections, each starting on a different day July 3-6. Play each day ran about 10 hours, excluding breaks, though tournament officials adjusted play based on the number of entrants and the speed of the game. The fields remaining from the first two starting days were combined July 7, while those from the second two starting days played July 8. Those who survived July 7 and July 8 joined in one room July 10, playing each day until nine players remained.
Final table: : Nine players begin today and play until two players are left. A winner is determined after heads-up play begins Monday night.