Chris Moneymaker: The Man Who Revolutionized Professional Poker

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and even after half a century, the series remains at the forefront of professional poker.

Author: Jonathan Turner

However, after rapid expansion throughout the 20th century - following the inaugural invitational event in 1969 called the Texas Gamblers Reunion - WSOP’s very existence was threatened in the early 2000s.

When Jack Binion - who took charge from his father, WSOP’s founder Benny Binion - was removed from operations, it caused a seismic effect that had the potential to sink WSOP. Between 1999 and 2002, top players shunned the tournament and the host casino, while a number of disputes from both dealers and players tarnished the series’ reputation. WSOP also had to contend with a fierce rival in the shape of the World Poker Tour.

However, just as it seemed WSOP was heading towards its demise, along came Chris Moneymaker.

The Moneymaker Effect

In 2003, Moneymaker - a 27-year-old accountant and amateur poker player - became the first player to win the WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas after qualifying at an online poker site, scooping the big prize of $2.5 million. Remarkably, the 2003 Main Event was Moneymaker’s first ever live poker tournament.

There are significant moments in the history of each major sport that has helped chart the course for its future. For soccer in England, it was the launch in 1992 of the Premier League; for tennis the year was 1968 when the sport went professional; for the NFL a key milestone came in 1935 when Bert Bell created the NFL Draft.

For professional poker - and for WSOP, in particular - that moment came in 2003 with the ‘Moneymaker Effect’.

Prior to Moneymaker’s historic achievement, WSOP had welcomed amateur players to qualify for their Main Event tournament, but the success and large pots of money were still swept up by the established pros.

Overnight stars

Moneymaker’s victory gave hope to millions of amateur poker players worldwide and created a new, relatable superstar. Such was the attention garnered by his accomplishment, poker players became overnight celebrities and the WSOP opened itself to a new and wider audience.

But more significantly than a boost in popularity for poker, the Moneymaker Effect ushered in a new era and took poker into the modern, digital age - without which the game may not be as influential and popular today.

Poker became more accessible through the increasing amount of online games and amateur players knew that, like Moneymaker, they too could chase the dream of fame and fortune provided at poker’s pinnacle. As such, the rise in popularity led to an explosion of prize money at WSOP’s Main Event, with the 2004 winner Greg Raymer earning a cool $5 million. Since then, the top prize has not dropped below $7.5 million, while the record pot was won in 2006 when Jamie Gold took home $12 million.

A solid subsequent career

What makes Moneymaker’s impact even more fascinating is that he didn’t go on to become a long-lasting star in the poker world, like a Lionel Messi in soccer, or a Tom Brady in the NFL. Yet, the Tennessee native had a similarly transcendent effect on his respective sport - even non-poker players and followers know of Chris Moneymaker.

Since that defining victory 16 years ago, Moneymaker has carved out a solid career, with total earnings of approximately $1.2 million, not including the lucrative sponsorship deals he earned in the aftermath of the 2003 win.

He was nominated for the Poker Hall of Fame in 2016 but is yet to be inducted - many feel that this isn’t the right decision based on his overall career, despite the impact of 2003.

However, his career was to pan out, nothing Moneymaker could go on to achieve would ever compare to the revolutionary impact of his WSOP Main Event victory - and it came just when poker needed it most.

For that, WSOP and professional poker will forever, in some small way, be indebted to Moneymaker. To think it all came from an accidental $86 online game, too: how fine the margins of history can sometimes prove to be.