Michael Kaplan chats to four World Series success stories from the past decade ?and finds out how the wins have affected them, for better or worse
If you make the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event the state of your personal circumstances will instantly skyrocket. After all, you’re guaranteed $1m and that, right there, has a major impact. Win the bracelet, or finish high enough to gain notoriety, and it’s a life-changing feat. Here is how four World Series neophytes were transformed by just one big game of Texas Hold’em.
Chris Moneymaker, 2003 world champion – won $2,500,000
The first thing that happened after I won was that I got a million phone calls from friends and relatives. Most of them wanted to borrow money. I pretty much ignored those people. But my dad had half of me, so I gave him his cut right away. Then, soon after, they thrust me on the American TV show The Late Show with David Letterman. That was a nightmare, since public speaking wasn’t something I had done a whole lot of at that point. Right after Letterman, everything pretty much returned to normal. I stayed at my accounting job, played at Foxwoods in December  and Bay 101 in February , and bought into games online when I felt like it.
Then I went to the 2004 World Series and realised everything had changed – for me personally and for the game of poker. I saw my face on posters and heard people blaming me for the large turnout that made it impossible to get on cash game tables. Soon after [financially aided by endorsement deals with PokerStars and Canadian Club whiskey], I turned pro. That marked a huge change in that I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands, which didn’t go so well with the fact that I also had a lot of issues in my life. I was in the middle of a divorce, dealing with emotional pressures, and drinking more than I should have been. I had to be carried off a poker cruise ship one time because I got so drunk that I couldn’t walk. The good news is that drinking never affected my ability to manage a bankroll or play poker. I’ve played tournaments completely hammered and still managed to win.
But that’s all behind me. You won’t see me drinking to get drunk any more. On most days I play about five hours on PokerStars – usually $5/$10 PLO – because I enjoy it and it’s profitable for me. I also participate in corporate-sponsored tournaments. I did one for a hedge fund where they gave me money to play with and I wound up making $75,000. So that was a good weekend. This is a great life, but there are times when I wish I could go to an office and have structure. It is something that I miss.
One big change that happened after I won the Main Event is that I stopped gambling in the pit and betting on sports. Before winning the World Series, I would drop $1,000 on a football game and play everything in sight. I lost a ton of money doing that. I did it because I needed to win. I wanted the money. When I didn’t need money any more, I stopped gambling in the pit. On the other hand, once I became a professional poker player, losses at poker became hard to handle. When playing poker is what you do every day, running bad can get you down. You don’t feel good about yourself. I don’t need the money any more, but I still need to win. That hasn’t changed.
Jerry Yang, 2007 world champion – won $8,250,000
I have six kids and had been working as a psychologist for a foster family agency. So my income, before winning the Main Event, was not too good. Eight million dollars in prize money changed our lives. My wife stopped working and is now able to spend a lot more time with our children. I contributed 10% to charity, and I’ve since opened a Japanese restaurant called Pocket 8’s Sushi and Grill in California, named after my winning hand.
Winning the World Series took me by storm. I come from a very poor background, from a hard-working family. I’ve always lived a very modest, quiet, private life. Then this happened and suddenly I was in the spotlight.
People saw me in that spotlight and now they think I haven’t played poker since winning the Main Event. The truth is that I have been playing, but I haven’t gotten a lot of TV time. Mostly, I have been playing charity events. Since winning the World Series I’ve raised another $800,000 for charities like Make-A-Wish Foundation and Ronald McDonald House. I’ve used the window of opportunity that comes from winning the WSOP to make a difference in the lives of sick kids. Without winning the World Series I would never have been able to do this work.
People think every champion has to go on TV and get noticed and play huge games. I was invited to play High Stakes Poker. Then the person told me that I had to put up $200,000. I said, ‘I don’t see the point of gambling for that kind of money.’ Then they called me again and said I can come on with a buy-in of $500,000. They don’t get it. I’d sooner donate that money to a charity. People don’t recognise that you can do so much with poker to help people and make their lives better. I do things in private, between me and God. That generates the most blessings.
I’ve met very sick kids in hospitals and played poker at their bedsides. I’ve played in charity tournaments with people like Ben Affleck, Tobey Maguire and Justin Timberlake, and I’ve had the chance to learn that all of them are very nice, very down-to-earth people. Any opportunity that I have to raise money for sick or underprivileged children, even if I have to get there with my own money, I do it. I believe that being a Christian is the right thing. Bringing it together with poker is also the right thing. I sense what is right in my heart, and I follow my heart.
Dennis Phillips, 2008 third-place finisher – won $4,517,773
How did the Main Event change my life? Where do I begin? I went from not having a passport to travelling 200,000 miles in a single year. I’ve been to all four corners of the earth as a poker player and ambassador. I’ve become financially secure, purchased the company I used to work for and have met a large number of celebrities. There have not been a whole lot of big splurges. I still live in the same house and I still drive the same car. But I did go to a charity auction and buy a shadow box shaped like a home plate. It contains 11 baseballs that have been autographed by great Hall of Fame players like Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. But I’ve done more in terms of investing money than spending it.
I’ll also say that my poker game has improved. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, I’ve been travelling around the world and playing poker at a higher level than I had been previously. Plus, I’ve gotten friendly with people like Barry Greenstein and Daniel Negreanu. I talk to them about various situations and they explain how they might have handled them. They help me to develop fresh ideas about poker hands and how the game can be played. Barry and Daniel are great guys who are very generous in terms of sharing their poker knowledge.
Sometimes, because people know who I am, I have to play differently than I ordinarily would. At the last World Series [during which Phillips finished a very respectable 45th, showing that his 2008 performance wasn’t a complete fluke] I had a camera crew following me for all of day one. People at my table played crazily, just for a chance to get on TV with me. So I tightened up and played like a complete nit. I couldn’t play my regular game that day. Obviously, that was completely different from day one in 2008.
Looking back, I can tell you that I never imagined becoming a professional poker player. I played the game because I loved it – and I still do. Poker is fun and enjoyable and now I can make good money from it too. I keep my feet on the ground and try to keep evolving as a poker player.
Greg Raymer, 2004 world champion – won $5,000,000
The first impact came when I knew I’d made the final table. Even if things went horribly wrong, I knew I was done at Pfizer [the pharmaceutical manufacturer where Raymer had been working as a patent attorney]. I recognised that even if I finished in ninth place the prize money would equal several years’ worth of salary and I could use that money as a cushion for opening my own legal practice. Then, after I won, it became clear that the whole job as an attorney was going away. I made a preliminary deal with PokerStars and I knew I would be able to leave law and play poker professionally.
We moved from Connecticut to North Carolina because my wife wanted to live somewhere warm. I liked the idea of buying a house on a golf course. She needed a new car and we purchased a top-of-the-line BMW. Suddenly there was a lot of travelling for PokerStars, and that represented a big change. I began spending a good deal of time away from my family. Playing tournaments became part of my job and they were a total freeroll for me, with PokerStars putting me into major events around the world. Needing to play poker online [part of Raymer’s deal with PokerStars] was no problem. I played mostly on PokerStars anyway, and I enjoyed playing poker a lot more than I enjoyed practising law.
The public scrutiny [that comes from being a poker celebrity] was never a big deal to me. I don’t drink or do drugs or act like a wild guy. So I don’t care about people watching me when I’m in a casino. But it can be annoying when people criticise my play online. Even if my reasoning is solid, people still second-guess me. Most of it comes from ignorance. Like when a guy shoves in his short stack and I call him light because he is supposed to shove any two. Railbirds see that play and type into the chatbox that I’m giving it away. They don’t understand what I’m doing and I don’t have time to explain, but I still want them to think of me as a good player because it enhances my brand. When you play only to win money at the table you want opponents to think you’re a donkey. But when you market yourself as a pro, you want to be thought of as a great player.
In terms of how people play against me in live tournaments, it’s changed a couple of times. Right after I won, I had to peddle the nuts because even tight players began bluffing at me. Everybody wanted to tell their friends they bluffed the world champion out of a hand. But that was part of having some notoriety and I accepted it. These days that has pretty much disappeared and I’ve been able to go back to playing a wider range of hands. People are less interested in bragging to their friends about bluffing me. Their friends, who probably play a lot online, are more likely to say, ‘Greg Raymer? Big deal. He’s just one of those old, live tournament donks.