Chris Moneymaker knows the type. The player whose eyes widen when the 2003 World Series of Poker champion brings his chips over to a table.
"There's always one guy that, right when I sit down, he perks up and says, "I'm going to bust his [rear end]," Moneymaker says.
If that sounds appealing, you have your chance to do just that this weekend in Charles Town, W.Va., where Moneymaker will be playing in a handful events, including Saturday’s $1,800-buy-in Hollywood Poker Open regional main event.
It’s the fifth of seven stops in a tour that concludes in Las Vegas in June. Moneymaker, an event ambassador, comes into Charles Town fresh off a victory at the St. Louis regional event earlier this month.
Now 38 with three kids, Moneymaker is almost 11 years removed from his memorable World Series victory, when he unknowingly set off a poker boom by winning $2.5 million as a previously unknown accountant.
He stopped by The Baltimore Sun newsroom on Thursday afternoon to chat about his current life, the state of poker and what it’s like to always play with a target on his back.
Baltimore Sun: I guess there’s no better way to start than to look back to 2003. Does it feel like it’s been almost 11 years since you won the World Series?
Chris Moneymaker: Well, yeah, some kid told me at the last tournament I was in playing that, "When you won, I was 11."
It doesn’t feel like it was 11 years until someone reminds you. … When I’m playing against a kid who’s 21 and he’s telling me he was 11 or 12 when I won, it's like, "Aghhhh."
And of course the body feels old. Back when I was 28, I could play 60-hour sessions. Now, if I try to play a 10-hour session I’ve got to try to find a bed, because I’m just too old.
You mentioned the young guys. What do you think is the biggest thing that’s changed with the game in the past 11 years.
By far just the amount of knowledge that’s out there in the game and the resources that people have to improve on their game. Back in 2003, there were a handful of [poker] books and most of them had bad information. Now there’s hundreds, probably thousands of books. There’s training sites. There’s coaches. Someone who picks up the game today – if they’re serious about it – they can learn the right way to play in a short period of time, where they just didn’t have those tools available back in 2003 or prior. …
[Growing up] I played chess. I’m a little bit of a dork. Mostly I played soccer and wrestling, so I was real competitive. As I got older, again the body doesn’t work like it’s supposed to, so I couldn’t be as competitive as I wanted in those endeavors. So, I turned on to poker. One of the main reasons I play is that I like to mess with people’s heads and be competitive and manipulate people. It sounds really great when you put it in the paper.
I know you’ve embraced being an ambassador for poker since you won the World Series. Does it ever get cumbersome or annoying when you go to a tournament and everyone wants to shake your hand or take a photo or get an autograph.
No, I mean, it’s actually really cool. Because it was a big accomplishment and I know that I am representing the game of poker, and it is cool to have fans. I know when I’m going in there that it’s my job and that’s what I’m doing, so I embrace it. It’s always enjoyable.
What was the biggest challenge in trying to follow up that high of winning the World Series?
Well, the biggest challenge for me personally was that I don’t do public speaking. If you put six people in this room, I couldn’t have a conversation in front of them. They wanted me to go on David Letterman and do all this stuff and I was like … there’s no way in cold hell that I’m going to do that. That literally was my biggest fear, so getting over that hump personally was the biggest challenge.
Poker had the big boom after you won in 2003 and then it’s sort of leveled off in terms of interest. What is the state of the game, from your vantage point.
I think it’s at a good leveling point. The biggest thing that’s hurt poker is the Internet [poker websites] being taken away and, when the Internet gets taken away, the TV side of it gets taken away a bit.
The TV side probably got a little bit saturated with probably too many shows going on. But now there’s just not enough. There’s probably only one or two shows out there on TV. So, that needs to get back on. That’s what drives the popularity. …
It hasn’t declined really that much. The numbers [of entrants] in tournaments are probably still pretty consistent with where they were in 2009. Obviously we’re not scaling up any more. We could never have maintained the growth that we had. Some people just thought we could keep growing infinitely, which makes zero sense, because obviously there’s a money cap and a people cap.
I think we did a really good job of growing the game from where it was, and now that we’ve hit a plateau, it’s remained pretty steady.
It seems like, especially around here, there are so many more places you can play poker. It use to be, people here in Baltimore might go to Atlantic City. Now you have poker at Charles Town and Arundel Mills and and they’re building a new casino downtown. How do you think that affects poker and gambling in general?
You get a lot of choices. There are so many different poker tours out there. Back in 2003, you had five or six tours that served for the whole year. In today’s world, there’s a poker tournament series in probably five to six cities in the U.S. at any given time, ranging in buy-ins from $200 up to $10,000. There’s just a whole lot of variety and a whole lot of options. … but it also dilutes numbers and spreads people out. …
There’s a lot of poker players from this area. A lot of the good guys that travel around the world are from this general vicinity. You’ve got a lot of big cities and a lot of money all in this area. And as poker is growing, you have rooms opening up. Charles Town has always had a lot of action, and you’ve got new casinos opening up, like you said, the one downtown. It’s just going to continue to grow.
What’s one thing that you’d say people who just watch on TV or who are casual fans don’t really know about professional poker?
That’s easy. When you’re watching on TV you see all the high-intensity, all-in drama. It’s a great, exciting, adrenaline-rush game. They don’t see that you sit there for three hours and don’t play a single hand, or you’re bored out of your mind because you’re folding all day.
Literally, you start at noon and you play till midnight, and you get those adrenaline rushes once every five hours.
I can imagine that people take a lot of pleasure when they bust you at a table.
Everywhere I go, people are trying to bust me. It’s just part of being who I am. There’s probably 10 players in the world I would say that people get a great joy out of busting. I happen to be one of those people.
People play really weird against me. They either go out of their way to try to bust me, or they go out of their way to stay out of my way. It’s pretty easy to figure out who’s going to do what, and what their motives are. Some people want a story. Some people just want to survive.
You’re coming off a win at the Hollywood Poker Open in St. Louis. Do you feel like your game is at a good place now?
I’ve been working hard on my game. After I won [the World Series] it’s no secret I got complacent. I thought I had the game figured out. … No point in studying anymore. And all these young geniuses are spending 24 hours a day analyzing the game and I’m off on vacation with my family and kids while they’re working.
I realized that a couple years had passed and results weren’t where they needed to be, so I got back to work and found some players who do work 24 hours a day on the game and picked their brain.
I feel really good about where I am – and not to be complacent again.
I know you’re a big sports fan outside of poker. Any big bets on the NCAA tournament?
I lost my billion, which sucks. I was alive [with a perfect bracket] until the night games on the first day. I actually picked Harvard and Dayton, so I was feeling all big and bad about myself. I actually live tweeted that I was going to win a billion dollars and then N.C. State decided they didn’t want to hit free throws. Most disastrous thing I’ve ever seen.