Chris Moneymaker and PokerStars have become so synonymous over the past decade it's hard to remember a time in poker without them together.
We've heard the story of the matching of their fortunes several times over but it never ceases to amaze how a random sequence of events in 2003 changed poker so much.
Pushing into his second decade as one of the primaryfaces of poker, Moneymaker and PokerStars are both now facing a new era -- PokerStars, under Amaya's new ownership, and Moneymaker trying to keep his game at the level of the next generation of poker superstars.
PokerListings caught up with Moneymaker at EPT Prague to find out more about the past and present of one of poker's most successful relationships, life as a poker "celebrity" and how you tell your kids an amazing poker life story.
PokerListings: Chris, PokerStars as we all know has been sold. Is this the end of an era for one of their major characters, too?
Chris Moneymaker: No. On the business-level this is a usual procedure.
There is a new owner and they're trying to find out where they want to go. And if both partners go in the same direction for a while, you go along.
The special thing is that I know the company from their very early days. And Amaya Gaming took over most of their employees.
So I’m hoping for a very prosperous relationship for a very long time.
PL: You were a very important chapter in the success story of PokerStars. Tell us about how the story went before your WSOP title and what PokerStars was like in the early days.
CM: A friend told me in 2002 that I should try to play online poker. I had some experiences with casino games online and nobody wins on those.
So, I was very skeptical but two weeks later I gave it a try on PokerStars. At the time Paradise Poker was the biggest player with Party in second place. Stars was only a small room.
I really loved it and played a lot of Limit Poker with limits from $5/$10 or $10/$20. Limit Poker was the game to play back then.
I played around 15 to 20 hours a week and once I ended up in a sit-and-go by mistake, because the lobby was not as easy to navigate as it is now. I was suddenly in this WSOP main event satellite and, as you know, I won it.
So I traveled to Las Vegas where two PokerStars people were waiting in a hotel. They gave me a bag and a shirt, said I have a pretty cool name and then kicked me out of the door saying "see ya."
That was pretty much the complete Pokerstars team: former head of marketing Dan Goldman and his assistant.
PL: And then you made it to Day 4 …
CM: Yeah, and the guys from PokerStars started to get more involved. From that day we went out every night and I got introduced to a lot of interesting people on the poker circuit.
Before my trip to Vegas I knew Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth and that was it.
I played, for example, with Dan Harrington and had no clue who he was. And a couple of days later everybody knew who I was …
PL: You were the big chance for PokerStars to run a huge marketing campaign. Did they show you how important you were?
CM: The first couple of years working with the Scheinberg family were definitely unique.
PL: You were part of a family business …
CM: Exactly. If I needed something I called either Mark or Isai.
If I wanted to go to the PCA, I made a telephone call to the big bosses and they personally made the decision.
There were no forms to fill out and no contract that said you can go to this or to that tournament. Mark Scheinberg, for example, was with us on the cruise ship for the first PCA and nobody from the staff knew what he was.
Isai was also accessible for the first two years, but then of course he became a very busy businessman. But back in the days you could really call him and he picked up the phone and said "Hey, what’s up?“
I mean, they put all their marketing budget into that WSOP 2003 and their business went up to 1,000% the day when the final table aired. That gave me kind of a lifetime credit (laughs).
PL: A lot of figures from the first PokerStars Team, like Greg Raymer or Joe Hachem, have stepped back from the major poker circuit. Do you feel a little bit lonely among all these new young faces?
CM: You are right to some degree. I used to travel to WSOPs or the European Poker Tour with Greg and Joe, because we were among the first team members and also good friends.
But I am friends now with a lot of the young online players. You either evolve or you get passed by.
I was passed by for a couple of years between 2004 and 2009. But then I changed.
PL: Passed by? We know you as a hard worker.
CM: I really thought that I had the game figured out. Of course, I didn’t.
Then the game changed, and players started to 3- and 4-bet with all sorts of hands. It took me years to figure out what that meant and why they were doing this.
Then I started to learn again. With the raises being so much smaller these days – 2x instead of 4x as it used to be – you get to see a lot more 3-, 4-, or 5-bets, but they don’t mean what they meant 10 years ago.
Also, there are huge differences between continents. I’ve just been to Brazil and they play a completely different game from what’s going on here in Europe.
It’s similar with small and high buy-in events. Players who regularly play $10k events have trouble playing $1,500 tournaments because the players don’t think on the same level.
An oversimplified example: In a $1,500 event if your opponent 4-bets, he has aces. But the high roller likes to 5-bet his kings or queens, so he gets crushed.
PL: Edward Norton said on David Letterman recently that you said you started playing poker because of Rounders and they should have negotiated a cut from every poker pot played after for their role in the poker boom. Do you feel like a celebrity in the States?
CM: I'm not chased by people anywhere. I can leave this hotel and only a few people will ask for an autograph.
In my hometown, Memphis, I often get approached by people who say 'I know you but I can’t figure out where from.'
I'm not really a celebrity. I was lucky enough to meet celebrities, like Leo DiCaprio or Ben Affleck. They're celebrities.
I’ve had a lot of benefits for my story, but I can lead a normal life.
PL: You have three kids. Are you going to tell them the story of your life one day, how you became the face of the global poker boom?
CM: It happens already that the older one gets asked by friends in school about their dad the famous poker guy.
They're beginning to realize what I do. And one day I'll take them with me and show them the world.
The rest of the story, all the videos on Youtube for example, will be a big surprise when they discover the Internet on their own.
PL: You said in an interview that poker players borrow $100.000 on a handshake on a daily basis. There's a lot of money-trading in poker. Have you ever been a victim of fraud or didn’t get back a bigger sum from loan?
CM: Yes, it happens quite a bit. Unfortunately I have been stiffed many, many times.
Most of the guys disappeared from the circuit or play lower buy-in tournaments now.
But some of them you’ll suddenly find next to you in a $10k High Roller. But what can I do, except tell them over and over again that they owe me money?
It's frustrating, but it’s also a challenge. You are responsible for your own loans.
If your estimate about the personality of a person or their financial situation is wring, it’s your fault, too.