It’s late May, 2004. The WSOP has once again shattered records in the Main Event thanks to online qualifier Chris Moneymaker winning it all the previous year. The 2004 Main Event attracted 2,576 players, which is more than triple the previous year. It’s clear that something has changed and online poker sites and mainstream sponsors are starting to flood Binion’s Horseshoe. The long-running tournament is in the midst of a dramatic shift, thanks to the rise of the online poker phenomenon, that won’t peak until 2006. Twitter is years away and live coverage of the event is still being perfected.
The final table has just been set and patent attorney Greg “Fossilman” Raymer is the overwhelming chip leader with 8.2 million. Meanwhile 23-year-old David Williams, renowned for his play on the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour, sits closer to the bottom with 1.5m chips. The winner of the 2004 WSOP Main Event will walk away with $5m and a place in poker history. Over a decade later we talked to Raymer and Williams about how it all played out.
Heading into the final table of the 2004 WSOP Main Event it appeared that it was Raymer’s game to lose. Greg Raymer seemed unstoppable in the 2004 WSOP MAin Event. Raymer had been playing well and getting lucky leading up to the final table, which was a pretty formidable combination. Fellow amateur Matt Dean was second in chips with 4.9 million. Perhaps a bigger danger, however, was brash Atlantan Josh Arieh who was third with 3.2 million.
Of course the biggest story at the final table was likely Dan Harrington. Harrington was in the midst of back-to-back final tables after finishing third in the 2003 Main Event. He also won the whole thing way back in 1995. Harrington entered the final table in the middle of the back with 2.2 million chips. The rest of the final table was rounded out by Glen Hughes (2,275,000), Al Krux (1,305,000), Mike McClain (885,000) and Mattias Anderson (740,000 chips). As you might expect Raymer came out firing and ended up busting numerous players while building an enormous stack.
Meanwhile Williams, who seemed to be avoiding playing against Raymer, deftly navigated his short stack and managed a pivotal double up against Josh Arieh. Williams went on to bust Dean and Harrington and become a serious contender for the title. Raymer outraced Arieh to heads-up play. In the end it came down to Raymer vs. Williams for the $5m first-place prize.
Raymer had a 2-1 chip lead on Williams going into heads-up play. The exact counts were: David Williams and Greg Raymer had very little experience with each other.
- Greg Raymer — 17,125,000 (171 bb)
- David Williams — 8,240,000 (82 bb)
The blinds were 50,000/100,000. Interestingly, Raymer said he didn’t play a single hand against Williams prior to the final table and had very little knowledge of him.
“We were never at the same table before then,” explained Raymer. “He seemed to play mostly tight until heads-up, lots of folding preflop. No useful opinion was really possible, given what little I saw from him.”
Williams essentially felt the same way. “I was never at the same table as he was once leading up to the final table,” said Williams. “Kind of weird. I knew he was running the tournament over but didn’t know anything about his play.” Williams and Raymer clashed very little at the final table and Williams admitted there was certainly some strategy involved.
“I wasn’t looking to avoid anyone but I was just playing pretty tight and trying to ‘ladder up’ the payscale,” he said. Raymer went into heads-up on a high note after busting Josh Arieh in third place. “I knew Josh would have been a very tough opponent,” he said. “I had been at the same table as Josh for much of the last few days, and he was very tricky, sticky, loose, and aggressive, as well as good at reading his opponents.”
The heads-up match only ended up lasting just seven hands. “It all went very quickly,” said Williams.
“It wasn’t like today with a big presentation or gap in play. [Arieh] busted, they brought the money out and started dealing. I really didn’t have time to process it all or really think about the enormity of the situation. I knew I was severely out-chipped and would need some fortune to beat him. “ Williams picked up a few big blinds by betting K-7 on a dry flop and getting Raymer to lay down Q-J. Then it was time for this: Raymer takes down the whole thing for $5,000,000 while Williams settles for $3.5 million.
Hand Analysis - Raymer
Raymer gave us his thoughts on the final hand in retrospect including why he didn’t bet the eights pre-flop: Pocket eights is a very strong hand for heads-up. Any pair is often a hand that you will take to the river, whether you hold a pocket pair, or hit a pair using the board.
When David open-raises his button, 88 is often a hand to 3-bet. However, we were very deep, and I thought a lot of my edge would come from post-flop play. So, in a sense I mixed it up by just calling here. The flop was exceptionally good for my hand, 2-4-5 with two diamonds.
It’s quite rare for there to be no overcards to this pair, so this is about as good a flop as I can hope for other than flopping a set. However, my hand is very vulnerable, as any and every overcard that might come on the turn or river (any of 9-A) might hit David's hand and put him in the lead. Plus, there are the two diamonds for potential flush draws.
So, I checked the flop with the intention of raising, at which point David instantly called. At this point, it seems highly unlikely that he has a higher pocket pair, though it is a small possibility. More likely he has a one-pair hand with 2x, 4x, or 5x, or 33 or 66, or two diamonds, or just two big cards (AT, KQ, etc.) that he isn't willing to fold yet.
Again, without being an 8, the turn is about as good as I can hope for, another 2. While he might now have trips, it's rather unlikely, so I value-bet to make him either fold, or pay to catch whatever card he needs to beat me. He again instantly calls. I'm starting to worry that he flopped a straight and is trapping, but it's still much more likely he has 4x, 5x, 33, a flush draw, and maybe still two really big cards (AK, maybe AQ, probably most other such hands would fold now).
The river is the best card in the deck for me, another 2. If he has a straight, I just got lucky. If he has 2x, 44, or 55, I was already beat anyway.
Hand Analysis - Williams
Meanwhile Williams will readily admit that he was lacking experience going to heads-up play:
I didn’t really have time to formulate a game plan and had never played heads-up in my life before. I was totally inexperienced and didn’t know what to do.
I put him on a hand like QJ or KJ. I felt he would have 3-Bet me with his pairs, so I really assumed all he could have that beats me is a flopped straight or a five. I didn’t think he had A3 or 36 or a random 5 so I didn’t think i was beat. Once I had made up my mind on the flop, the turn and river didn’t change much except now allow me to beat a flopped straight also. I heard he was very aggressive so I assumed he bluffed a lot to amass the stack he had coming into the final table.
On the River
When Raymer was asked if there were any hands he regretted from the brief heads-up he said that his river shove definitely could have been a mistake.
Before I could even turn my head back towards David, he had already said ‘call’ and turned over his cards.
Given his rapid call, I thought I must be beat, by either 2x, 44, or 55. So, it took me a couple of seconds to realize that David had tabled A4, for 2s full of 4s, and that I had the winning hand with 2s full of 8s. At that point, I tabled my hand, threw my arms up in the air, and let out a primal victory scream.
I then dropped my glasses on the table, and realized how bad David must feel, and went to shake his hand and congratulate him on his good play all day. I then realized my wife, father, and other family and friends were in the audience, and went to hug my wife.
She was bawling, and apparently my delay in getting to her was a good thing. They had told my family that if I won, they should feel free to ignore the stanchion separating the audience from the players, and come up to me. When I won, my Dad lifted the rope for Cheryl so they could go through, but she was apparently close to fainting. It took those few seconds of me talking to David for her to be able to stand up and hug me anyway. To this day, I can't talk about this without tearing up myself, thinking of her crying, and us hugging.
My Dad passed away from cancer last year, so I also tear up now thinking of him. I am so glad he was able to be there and see his son win the World Championship. It meant a lot to us both.
From Williams’ point of view:
Obviously I was devastated to have come so close to something so huge, but I was fine with it. I got to heads-up using my instincts so just stuck with that.
Raymer and Williams haven’t had much interaction since meeting heads-up all those years ago but Raymer had one final thought about the final hand.
I don't see David often, and we've never spoken too much about that hand. Many other people have criticized his call on the end, but I don't think it was a mistake, or at least not a big one. With 2 diamonds on the flop, a lot of my range here includes hands that are two overcard diamonds. And while I wouldn't always triple-barrel bluff with those cards, I would every time if I thought it would get him to fold. So, this hand easily could have been his full house beating my trip 2s with a couple of overcards to the board.
I think his only mistake might have been calling so fast. It's such a big moment, such an important decision, why not take a little extra time to think it through and make sure you're happy with your choice, however it works out.
Greg Raymer parlayed his WSOP Main Event into a long-term sponsorship deal with PokerStars where he, along with Joe Hachem and Chris Moneymaker, completed a hat trick of Main Event champs for the site.
Raymer promoted poker around the globe and also pushed heavily for online poker legalization in the USA. A very accomplished player, Raymer added $2.5 million in live tournament earnings including an impressive title defense that saw him finish 25th in the 2005 WSOP Main Event. In more recent years Raymer has been running a number of training courses and has had a ton of success on the Heartland Poker Tour. Of all the changes to the WSOP over the last 10 years, Raymer says the biggest one is simply the strength of the field.
"The skill level today is so much higher than it was then," he said. "If we took a player in this year's Main Event whose skill level puts him at the top of the bottom quartile of all players (i.e., he's better than about 25% of the field, but not more), he would probably be in the top 10% of the field in 2004. Or at least pretty close to that. "The best players today are definitely better, but the real difference is how much better the worst players in the field have become."
Williams agreed: "The player skill is the biggest difference for sure," he said. "In 2004 the average player in the field rarely 3-Bet and NEVER 4-Bet. I just raised and bluffed people every day and they weren’t used to it. Now that would never work." David Williams has had a very successful poker career in his own right. He’s already gone on to win $5.1 million since his runner-up finish in 2004, which means he eclipsed what first place would have been anyways.
In 2006 Williams finally got his WSOP gold bracelet in a $1,500 Seven-Card Stud event. In 2010 he had his second biggest score ever when he won the WPT World Championship for $1.5m. Williams now has $8.6m in lifetime live-tournament earnings, which is actually more than Raymer. He also thinks that finishing second may have actually given him motivation to succeed in poker.
"I am happy with my poker career afterwards and think the desire to get that big win after losing to Greg kept me going for so many years," he said. Williams went on to represent PokerStars for several years. He also still makes appearances on the M:TG pro tour.
More recently Williams was revealed as a contestant on the seventh season of MasterChef. Hard-as-nails chef Gordon Ramsay even called Williams a “bloody good chef” in a promo for the season, which is saying a lot.
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