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Sports May, 22 2013

When We Held Kings: The Oral History of the 2003 World Series of Poker

While poker broadcasts have become commonplace on networks like ESPN, 2003 was the year when no limit hold ‘em really took its stranglehold on popular culture – due in large part to Chris Moneymaker’s historic run at the World Series of Poker – thus paving the way for any “average joe” to ante up for a chance at millions. Recently, Grantland completed an expansive oral history of the event – chronicling how Moneymaker managed to secure a seat, interviews with other pros, and the exploration of how the film Rounders impacted the gambling community. While a choice excerpt appears below, head over to Grantland to read the piece in its entirety.

In 1970, Benny Binion put together a publicity stunt to promote his casino in downtown Las Vegas. He sent out invitations to Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim Preston, and the rest of the world’s greatest card players and called it the World Series of Poker. Seven of them played cash games at Binion’s Horseshoe for three straight days, and when it was over, Moss was named “champion” in a vote of his peers. The next year, six entrants paid $5,000 apiece for the right to play in a no-limit Texas Hold ‘em “freezeout” tournament, in which everyone started with the same number of chips and they played until one man had all the money. A year later, the buy-in doubled to $10,000. In the four decades since, the basic rules of the tournament and the amount of money required to enter have remained constant.

But the number of participants has not. The World Series of Poker main event surpassed 100 players for the first time in 1982. It cracked 200 in ’91, the first year in which the winner claimed a seven-figure cash prize. In 2002, 631 players entered, and the payout was $2 million.

Then came 2003. The 34th-annual World Series of Poker transformed the event into a pop-culture phenomenon. The numbers — by 2006, 8,773 players vied for a first-place prize of $12 million — illustrate how exponential the growth was. Poker went from a game understood by few and played in smoky backrooms to a television staple. In this 10th-anniversary oral history, more than 30 people who were part of the event explain what happened and what it meant for the poker business.

The Buildup to the Boom

Chris Moneymaker: In the late ’90s, I used to go to the casinos in Tunica [Mississippi]. There was a poker room, but I never went in because there were about 15 or 20 guys in there and the average age was about 70 years old, and they looked miserable. Me and my friends, we had a home game. We never played no-limit hold ‘em. After we saw Rounders [which came out in 1998], we started playing almost exclusively no-limit hold ‘em.

Brian Koppelman (Rounders cowriter, Grantland contributor): Within the poker world, Rounders had become important. It was the cultural touchstone for poker at the time. When David Levien and I were writing the movie, all we wanted was for it to be what Diner was for us: a movie that guys would quote to each other. You still can’t walk into a card room without hearing, “Pay that man his money.” I think Rounders gave people the vernacular and explained the game and what it meant to play Texas Hold ‘em.1 And the World Series of Poker broadcasts were so important in writing Rounders. But we were always really frustrated there was no hole card view.

Henry Orenstein (poker player, inventor): It was 1981 or ’82. I saw a poker show on ESPN, and there were six hands in a row where the player didn’t call, so we couldn’t see what happened! Then the thought struck me that if we put a camera in there, and we were able to see the pros’ cards, that would make the thing much more interesting. I called my engineers in, and within about four weeks we had a working model.

Cory Zeidman (2003 main event 39th-place finisher): I think Henry’s invention was more important than anything else in taking poker to the next level. It gave viewers inside information — seeing who’s bluffing, who’s not. Those old World Series broadcasts of Gabe Kaplan doing commentary, those were torturous! You didn’t know who the hell had what.

Koppelman: In the last poker scene of Rounders, Matt Damon’s character — originally we had written it so that you didn’t see his cards, so that you didn’t know he had the straight that mirrored Johnny Chan’s straight. And the director said to us, “We should show the cards,” and I said, “No, if you know the cards it’s not going to be as interesting.” John [Dahl] said, “Let’s put them both up in front of an audience. The same exact movie. The only difference is in one version you can see Matt’s cards, and in the other version you can’t see Matt’s cards.” And we played our version, the one where you couldn’t see the hand, and it went great. The crowd was really surprised when the cards turned over — it was awesome. But when we played the one where you could see that Matt had flopped the straight, the crowd was on the edge of their seats hoping that [John] Malkovich would fall for it. They were completely engaged. It was exactly the hole-card phenomenon. They wanted to be inside Matt’s head.

John Vorhaus (poker journalist, novelist): With the invention of the hole cam, we have the omniscience as an audience that we never had before. Now we’re watching a threat unfold where each player in the hand can be thought of as the protagonist. Suddenly, we can look at poker as an exercise in storytelling.

Kenna James (38th-place finisher): When I started playing in ’96, ’97, poker was still in the smoky backrooms. People were ashamed to tell their families that they played poker. They would lie and not admit that they enjoyed going to play a game of poker after work. There was still a lot of cheating going on. But it was slowly growing out of that. And this was the tipping point. At Binion’s Horseshoe2 in 2003, there was a sense that something special was happening.

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