Or how I won and lost four thousand euros in fifteen minutes
A Short Story by Andrew Laurie
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ The opening line from Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favourite books. A wonderful opening line, and I can’t find a better way to describe the evening I spent playing poker with Chris Moneymaker. The high point, and the low point, of my career to date.
It was the summer of 2012 and I was on a weekend poker break with friends in Eastern Europe. Pokerstars has a great tour called the Eureka Tour which gives you a chance to travel to parts of Europe you might not otherwise reach: Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic. The events are on the pricey side (up to a 1000 euros for starters) and the competition is fierce, but the hotels are five star, the beer is cheap, and I’d qualified for this one, so was free rolling.
The weekend started well for me. A successful afternoon of cash was followed by sight seeing, quality food and – even better – 90% proof spirits from a friendly local inn keeper. Hangover notwithstanding, I rose next day full of confidence. This was going to be my event. I knew it.
Ten hours in, and day one was progressing well. With slow, steady patient poker, I had built my stack up to three times its starting size. The field of 800 was now down to 150. My two friends were already long knocked out, and degenerates that they are, had wandered off to a local nightclub. As for me, the money beckoned in a few hours, but I wasn’t interested in that. I wasn’t interested in mere day two mini cashes. I was here to win, and to win big. The 50,000 euro first prize had my name on it. Of that I was sure.
Then came the hand which would change everything. A speculative but good call with a pair of threes in late position proved more than justified when the board came down 2, 3, K. With middle set I trapped by calling the flop, and then raising all in on a harmless looking 6 on the turn.
Money in the middle, my opponent – one of the few players on the table who wasn’t in a hoody and shades – triumphantly and excitedly turned over 4,5 for the nuts. There was no miracle card to save me on the river, and I was out. Gone, just like that.
Trudging wearily back to my room, I reflected on the life of the tournament poker player. In huge fields such as this one, successes are rare. Only one player can ever emerge victorious, and disappointment and defeat are the norm. To win big, you need the luck of a moneymaker. Chris Moneymaker, to be precise, the wonderfully named World Champion of 2003. The accountant and internet qualifier who won the whole shebang, and proved that in poker, ordinary mortals can win big. Win millions, in fact.
As chance would have it, Moneymaker was actually the ‘Sponsored Pro’ for this event. Although he makes no claims to be a world class player in the mould of Phil Ivey or Tom Dwan, Moneymaker is a genuine celebrity in the poker world. He also has a reputation as a friendly, affable and entertaining man, equally good company whether at the poker or the dinner table. My one consolation, when taking the weary walk back to my hotel room, was that I had outlasted Moneymaker. The Champ had been eliminated half an hour before me, to the excitement of assorted locals and press. I wondered if he felt as despondent as I did right now?
It was now past midnight. Still early for your average poker player, but I had had a long day, and had little energy left for further fight. Taking a cigarette from my pocket, I opened the window wide, leaned out, and surveyed the beautiful Croatian scenery behind me. As I savoured my last cigarette of the evening, I replayed that fateful last hand again in my head. Could I have played it differently? Should I have raised on the flop? Should I have read my opponents hand for the straight draw that it was and called, or even folded, on the turn? Regrets, regrets, I had a few.
As I reflected, I was woken from my reveries by footsteps and torchlight below. My room overlooked woodland and hills behind the hotel, and the last thing I had expected was a security guard. The scene was comic. I looked at the guard. He looked at me. Then he looked at the cigarette. Then I looked at the sign in my room: ‘No smoking: Penalty 200 euros.’ It was time to exit my room, and fast.
Heading downstairs and back to the Casino as quickly as I could, I decided the best form of cover was to grab a seat at a cash table. No self respecting security guard would dare question a cash game player, especially one who was engrossed in a pot.
There was one seat free in a 1 euro/ 2 euro no limit hold’em game. A little higher than I play normally, but as I had exactly 200 euros on me, it seemed the perfect seat. Within minutes, I was congratulating myself on my marvellous cigarette gambit. In the first twenty hands, I hit a set (this time a winner), a straight, a flush, and believe it or not, quads. Unbelievably my 200 euros had increased to a thousand. I knew I was a winner!
With luck like this, I would have been willing to play all night, but my opponents, clearly suspecting I had done a deal with the devil, exited the table one by one, and in less than an hour, I was on my own. Never mind. A final tally of 1,200 euros gave me a profit of exactly a grand. Time to cash out and head back to my room a happy man. How an hour can change things.
As I strolled over to the cashier, I saw the Champ, Moneymaker, playing in a loose and short handed Pot Limit Omaha game to my left. I’ve always fancied myself as a PLO player, and something told me that Moneymaker could be vulnerable at PLO (don’t ask me what this instinct was – call it winner’s delusion, I guess). I very nearly took a detour to the empty seat next to the Champ, but some ounce of common sense stopped me doing so, and I headed instead to the cashiers.
Job done for the evening, I proudly presented my 1,200 chips to the cashier, looking forward to the twelve crisp 100 euro notes that would replace them. The cashier’s next words of broken English were therefore something of a shock.
‘I am sorry, sir, but we have a problem with zee change machine. It is – how you say – broken. Pleeze to come back in a half an hour and we will be fixed.’
Well, I guess it was fate. I couldn’t go back to my room till I’d cashed my chips, and I couldn’t cash my chips till the machine was fixed. There were no hold’em games going, and I didn’t play fruit machines. Not Croatian ones in any event. So the only option was to take the seat to the right of the Champion.
Heart now beating fast, I strolled across to the PLO table, sat down next to Big Chris, and put my chips on the table. All 1,200 euros of them. For some odd reason, I thought that the Champ might be impressed. Of course he wasn’t.
‘Howdy partner,’ the Champ said in a Southern American brawl, extending his right arm in greeting. I shook the Champ’s hand, the words ‘Pleased to meet you Mr Moneymaker’ falling embarrassingly from my lips. What was I going to do next? Ask him for his autograph?
‘Oh, you can call me Chris’, replied my new friend, with a welcoming smile. From his accent, I guessed he was from the deep South, with a hint of Vegas in there too. His next move was his first gambit of the evening.
‘The game is currently 2/4 PLO. But I can see you’re a real good player’ the Champ said mischievously, eyeing up the chips currently in front of me. ‘So how about we make it 5 euro 10 euro? You’d be up for that, wouldn’t you boys?’ he said, looking at the players sitting opposite. ‘Plus I’ll even give you a little sweetener.’ As he said this, Moneymaker tossed a fifty euro chip in my direction. Now that was confidence for you.
I observed for the first time the other three players on the table. Middle aged businessmen, by the looks of things, they all appeared to be in thrall to the Champ. Moneymaker might be eyeing me up as easy prey, but I could take these guys, I knew it. Plus, like my hero Mike McDermott in Rounders, maybe this was the day I would take out the World Champion.
‘Sure, Mr Moneymaker, I mean Chris. I’d love to play 5/10,’ I replied far too quickly. 5/10. Approximately ten times as much as I played at home. Was this a blunder?
For part two see here.