Chris Moneymaker: The story behind the greatest bluff of all time

In this extract from Eric Raskin’s new book The Moneymaker Effect, we go behind the scenes and talk to those involved in the most important hand in poker history


You may think you know all about Chris Moneymaker’s historic 2003 WSOP Main Event win by now. You know he turned a $39 PokerStars satellite win into $2,500,000. You know he pulled off one of the greatest bluffs of all time in defeating Sammy Farha heads-up at Binion’s Horseshoe casino. And, most importantly, you know that Moneymaker’s win sparked the ‘poker boom’, which led to the game being the worldwide phenomenon it is today.

However, as Eric Raskin’s fantastic new book The Moneymaker Effect reveals, there is much, much more to the Moneymaker story than has ever been told before. Raskin interviewed 34 members of the poker community – from Moneymaker, Farha and Phil Ivey, to TV producers, commentators and even Howard Lederer – to fully document this pivotal moment in modern poker history.

It’s a thrilling read that climaxes when Chris Moneymaker is dealt a lowly K-7 and decides to run the bluff of a lifetime. Most observers considered Farha the favourite to beat Moneymaker when their heads-up match began. The amateur held nearly a 2-1 chip lead, with almost 5.5 million to Farha’s 2.9 million. But did the kid from Tennessee know how to play heads-up poker? And even if he did, could he hold up under the pressure that Farha was sure to put on him?

The Moneymaker Effect

NOLAN DALLA [Binion’s Horseshoe PR Director]: I’m standing right behind Moneymaker, maybe ten feet away, as they’re getting ready to start playing heads-up. And George Fisher comes up, taps me on the shoulder, and he whispers to me – I’ll never forget his words – he said, ‘It’s over.’ I turn to him. ‘What are you talking about?’ He says, ‘He’s got no chance. No shot. It’s over.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘Sammy is going to destroy him.’

And I’m right by the table, this conversation is being whispered, so I can’t start arguing. I just have to stand there and nod and say, ‘Okay.’

CHRIS MONEYMAKER: I knew Sammy’s game plan going into heads-up. I knew that if he thinks he’s that much better than me, he’s going to want to keep the pots smaller and use his experience to try to whittle me down. He wanted to play small-ball poker as best he could, to use his experience. I knew what he wanted to do to me and I just was not going to let that happen.

MATT MARANZ [411 Productions Executive Producer]: The bluff. That was a great hand and you knew it was a great hand as it was happening. Even now, ten years after that, people are still talking about it as the single best hand in televised poker history.

MONEYMAKER: I had K-7, Sammy had Q-9. The flop came 9-6-2 with two spades, and he checked the flop, and I think his plan was to check-call with top pair because he didn’t want to play a big pot with me. I think he was going to try to let me barrel at it; he was just going to check-call me all the way down.

And when I checked back to him, I don’t know what he was thinking but it was something out of the ordinary compared to what I’d been doing.

SAM FARHA: A good player, when he raises on the button preflop, he continues on the flop. So I checked, and he checked on the button. Even though he raised preflop he did not make a continuation bet.

MONEYMAKER: The turn was the Eight of spades. That gave me the second nut flush draw and an open-ended straight draw, and at this point I’m ready to go. He bets, I raise and if he wants to shove all-in we’re going to get the money in the middle. Of course I don’t really want him to shove. I want him to fold.

When he calls me, I immediately think he has the Ace of spades and like a Six or Seven in his hand. I really don’t think he has a big made hand. I know he doesn’t have a flush.

So my plan on the river was to ship any river that was not a spade. If I made my straight I was shipping. If I made my flush I might just end up checking because I did put him on the Ace of spades – which would have been a really bad play since he actually had the Queen of spades. I was almost positive he didn’t have a flush, straight or two pair, and I didn’t think he could call me with anything other than those hands.

MATT SAVAGE [WSOP Tournament Director]: During that hand, on the turn, I made a mistake. Moneymaker put in his bet and I said, ‘Call.’ Moneymaker immediately goes, ‘I said, “Raise.”’ I could have screwed something up there. I could have changed history. That could have told Sammy something – maybe it did tell Sammy something!

FARHA: On the turn I bet, he raised. When he raised I knew he was on the draw. I don’t want to go all-in because if he misses I know he’s going to try to bluff me out and go all-in. And if he makes the hand I’ll know it and I won’t lose another chip.

MONEYMAKER: At the end of the day, I bricked. The river was a blank, the Three of hearts. And when I bricked I went from being a little relieved because I didn’t want a spade to come, to being pissed off because now I’ve got King-high and I’ve gotten myself in another one of these damned predicaments. But I went with Plan A. I said, ‘All-in.’ There was no Plan B if he called.

MONEYMAKER: When Sam started talking I just told myself to sit there, shut up, shut your eyes, imagine you’re on a beach, don’t talk to him, don’t give him any information, just be a statue. Don’t move. If you don’t give up any information he can’t hurt you. So just sit there and be quiet. If you lose, you lose: you’ve still got chips. It’s obviously a huge hand, but you’re already a millionaire.

And all the while I’m thinking, just fold. Just fold. I really did think he was going to fold and the longer it went, I felt like, damn, he’s trying to talk himself into calling.

FARHA: It took me 20 minutes – you don’t see it on TV – it took me about 20 minutes to muck my hand on the river. And the reason I mucked it is because I started talking to myself and I started doubting myself.

You should follow your instinct. I did not follow my instinct. When you take a long time, you lose your instinct. And that’s what happened.

My plan went perfectly. I said he’s gonna go all-in, he went all-in on the river, he missed his draw. But I changed my plan.

SAVAGE: Sammy probably thought it over for about two or three minutes, which is an eternity when you’re sitting there. I thought Chris had a hand. I didn’t think he was bold enough to make that move without a hand. I guess Sammy thought the same thing.

DALLA: There was dead silence. While Sammy was deciding what to do there was great respect for the moment. This was before Joe Hachem and the ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy Oy Oy’ chants, so the crowds weren’t rowdy. There weren’t big cheering sections. Chris’ cheering section was his dad and one or two friends. Sammy Farha had no cheering section.

The spectators who were there were all poker aficionados who loved the game, loved being part of history. There were about 300 to 350 people in that room; that’s how many people witnessed the most important moment in poker history. And at the time, not knowing the hole cards, nobody knew what a pivotal hand it was. It wasn’t as though the crowd knew they were witnessing one of the top five poker hands in history. We didn’t even know it was a bluff. We thought Sammy had probably made a good fold.

ERIK SEIDEL: I remember thinking that he could have been bluffing, but I certainly wasn’t thinking, boy, Sammy should put his chips in. It was just a great play by Moneymaker. He had no fear.

DANIEL NEGREANU: I think Farha felt he’s the better player, so why take any big risks and play a big pot with the guy when you’re going to grind him down safely? If I had found myself in Sammy’s situation, it makes total sense to throw the hand away.

FARHA: Let me tell you, it was the worst bluff of the year, but it worked out for one reason: I bluffed myself out. The reason I lost is because I underestimated my opponent. I didn’t care at the end, I was so tired. I couldn’t focus.

DALLA: Only one person was allowed to watch the feeds from the hole-card cameras. Over in a corner of the Horseshoe, probably 60 or 70 feet away from the final table, is essentially Oz – the only person in the entire world who knows what both players have.

I don’t remember his name, but he comes up to me after the whole thing and says, ‘You’re not going to believe this. I just saw the most amazing bluff in poker history!’ That guy telling us – that wouldn’t happen today. Now you’ve got total isolation with the person or people who can see the hole cards. But this guy just had to tell somebody his secret, what he’d just seen.

MONEYMAKER: It ended the very next hand. All I remember saying to my dad is, ‘I did it.’

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