Poker can change your life. Just ask Chris Moneymaker or Donald Hobbs. A $39-online qualifier who went all the way to the 2003 WSOP Main Event winner's circle, Moneymaker's image was synonymous with poker when the sport really broke into the mainstream public's consciousness.
But Donald Hobbs? Who is he?
Though you've likely never heard of him, Hobbs' life was, and still is, more impacted by poker than Moneymaker's. He didn't become an instant celebrity millionaire by winning the WSOP Main Event, but Hobbs may just be alive today because of the sport.
In February 2007, Hobbs, who suffers from hemophilia, a debilitating blood disorder that requires him to walk with crutches, was offered a ride by a stranger passing him on the road near his hometown of Pineville, Ky. Hobbs gratefully accepted.
Tragically, the driver lost control of his vehicle and violently crashed shortly after picking him up.
Left in the burning vehicle to die as the driver fled, with no use of his legs and multiple fractures and burns over 70% of his body, Hobbs miraculously crawled to safety. The odds of a healthy person surviving the injuries were low, but for someone with hemophilia they were lower still.
Hobbs was hospitalized in Tennessee, where his condition stabilized, and was eventually transferred to the Cardinal Hill Specialty Hospital outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. There he met occupational therapist Michelle Rose.
Hobbs suffered from tremendous pain and severe atrophy of his muscles because of the burns and fractures, not to mention the hemophilia. It was Rose's job was to convince him to move his body on his own again. The first goal: simply to sit up.
However, when Hobbs first met Rose he was very guarded. Rose needed to connect with Hobbs on a personal level, but it proved a very difficult task and as the weeks went by she feared she was losing him.
Desperate to make a connection, Rose discovered Hobbs liked to play poker, and decided to bring a deck of cards to one of their sessions. Finally interested, Hobbs started lifting his head slightly.
The card games continued and gradually the two started to develop a relationship. Soon their sessions were filled with laughter and storytelling and enhanced by Hobbs's tolerance for sitting up for longer periods of time.
Rose also soon discovered that Hobbs really liked to watch poker on TV whenever he could. His favorite player was Moneymaker. His face would light up when he talked about the 2003 WSOP champ and his down-to-earth attitude.
Soon he started playing like Moneymaker, often bluffing Rose out of big pots.
"I just really like the way Chris plays and the way he talks to people when he plays," said Hobbs. "That's how I like to play."
As chance would have it, Rose has a close friend who is the Head Floor Supervisor for the World Series of Poker. She told her friend, Charlie Ciresi, about Hobbs and what poker had done to help him recover. The story made its way to Moneymaker, who decided to pay a visit to Cardinal Hill after the 2007 WSOP.
"He really didn't want much, just an autograph, and it really reached out to me hearing about how bad his luck has been," said Moneymaker.
"Poker meant the world to him. It was really all he could do, plus he's from pretty much next to my hometown. After meeting him, you know he's really the nicest guy in the world. He's just had a really rough run of it."
Before he left the hospital, Moneymaker made Hobbs an offer.
"Get better," said Moneymaker, "and I'll fly you out to Las Vegas to watch me in the 2008 WSOP."
That was all the inspiration Hobbs needed. His rehabilitation went beyond anybody's expectations and against all odds. He's even walking again.
"As an occupational therapist, you struggle when you your patients struggle and you rejoice when they rejoice," said Rose. "Just seeing what a difference [his relationship with Chris] has made in Donald, how it contributed to his state of mind and progress, it's just been an amazing experience."
True to his word, Moneymaker is not only making good on his promise; his sponsor PokerStars has flown Hobbs, his brother and Rose to Vegas for the World Series of Poker Main Event.
However, it's not just to watch Moneymaker. Hobbs is actually going to play in the $10,000 Main Event.
"It feels fantastic to have Donald down here," said Moneymaker. "I am more nervous for him than I am for me going into the World Series. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him and he's as excited as can be. I want him to do better than me."
Hobbs and a number of online qualifiers are going to take a crash course in poker from Moneymaker before making the media rounds to raise awareness of and money for hemophilia. They even have a press conference booked at the Lounge in the Palms hotel at 4:30 p.m. today.
But even though his friends say he's a bit starstruck, the spotlight doesn't seem to matter much to Hobbs. He's just happy to be healthy enough to hang out with his new buddy.
"Words can't explain Chris," said Hobbs. "Chris is awesome. He's done way more than I could ever ask him to do. It was crazy when he showed up to see me last year but this is something else. I'm pretty happy."
And how about his shot at the Main Event money? Hobbs says Moneymaker is teaching him a few tricks, but he's going to keep those close to his chest for now and just try to stay in the tournament as long as he can.
"I'm gonna do as much as I can in the next three days to get him up to speed," Moneymaker vowed.
"To give him the opportunity to come out here and experience the World Series, it's awesome for me, too. I start on Saturday and he starts on Sunday. He's gonna watch me on Saturday and I'm going to watch him on Sunday. I am trying to cram 10 years of poker into him in three days. Hopefully when the day comes, he's going to forget everything and just have fun."