Poker's tipping point - Thursday 12th of May 2005
In his thought-provoking book The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell writes that "the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends ...or the phenomena of word of mouth ...is to think of them as epidemics.
Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do."The tipping point, then, Gladwell explains, is "the name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once."Surely Texas Hold 'em is one such epidemic.
Five years ago, when Gladwell's book was released, poker appeared on just one channel (ESPN) and it scored anemic ratings.
During a recent one-week span, one could have watched poker on nine different channels -- you can imagine that a Poker Channel is not far off.
At the Travel Channel, which introduced the "lipstick camera" that allows viewers to see a player's hole cards, the World Poker Tour draws 3 to 5 million viewers weekly, making it the network's highest-rated show.The numbers are staggering: Two years ago, according to pokerpulse.com, the industry watchdog for online poker, $11 million was bet daily on Internet poker sites.
Today, more than $190 million is bet each day.
The number of active online players in that same period has grown from 83,000 to 1.9 million.In 2000, again, the year of The Tipping Point's release, 512 people ponied up $10,000 apiece to enter the Worlds Series of Poker (WSOP), the game's most prestigious event.
By 2003, that number had risen slightly to 839.
But in '04, it more than tripled, to 2,576.
This year's tournament (held in June) may reach 5,000 entrants (contestants can buy in almost as late as they please -- all you need is 10 large and you're in).So what was the tipping point for poker?"The boom started in 2003," says Lou Krieger, author of Poker for Dummies.
"You can just about measure the date when it began."While 2003 was also the first year ESPN produced the World Series of Poker (previously, ESPN had aired a variety of poker events as one- and two-part shows), the Worldwide Leader's association was only part of the story.
The larger story was the the triumph of Chris Moneymaker in the '03 WSOP Main Event.Chris Moneymaker.
That's his real name.Two years ago, Moneymaker was an anonymous, slightly paunchy, goateed 27-year-old accountant from Nashville, Tenn.
At that time, he had been playing Texas Hold 'em online on pokerstars.com for three years.
He had never played in a live game before.Moneymaker, in a story that almost every premier player under the age of 30 also tells, was inspired by the 1998 film Rounders (see our story on the cult classic, in which a law student portrayed by Matt Damon takes down a top older Russian player, portrayed by John Malkovich, and then moves to Las Vegas).
He anted up $39 to play in a satellite tournament against 17 other players.A satellite tournament works on a pyramid-scheme level.If you cannot afford the WSOP's $10,000 entry fee, you play in a satellite.If you win that, you move on to another satellite.
In short, a number of players are combining to pay the 10 grand, but only one will go.Moneymaker won that satellite.
He advanced to a second satellite that had more than 60 players, winning that as well and earning the buy-in to play at the WSOP.
With some financial aid for airfare and hotel provided by a friend named David Gamble (Moneymaker & Gamble -- truly, this was in the cards), Moneymaker was off to Sin City.After one day, despite playing at the same table as former WSOP champions Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey, Moneymaker's chip stack had grown from $10,000 to $60,000.As the days passed at Binion's Horseshoe Casino (the site of every WSOP from its 1970 inception), Moneymaker kept winning -- and winning.
Until, at last, he was the last player remaining among the 839 and there was $2.5 million sitting on the green felt table in front of him. Just about every epidemic, be it virulent or social, might never have happened if just the tiniest detail had been reversed.
In Moneymaker's case, two such moments occurred.
First, on the third day of the '03 WSOP, a stranger told him he had noticed that whenever Moneymaker bluffed, he flared his nostrils."I didn't know I was doing it," Moneymaker recently told CBS' Dan Rather.
"I was doing [demonstrates the flare], you know, that, every time I was bluffing.""So if I'd been playing you during that period and picked up on that," Rather asked, "I might have been able to take you?""Yeah," agreed Moneymaker.
"I would have probably been out of the tournament."The second epochal moment occurred on the penultimate hand.
In Hold 'em, you get two hole cards that are yours alone.
Then three community cards -- a.k.a."the flop" -- are dealt at once.
Then a sixth community card, known as "the turn" or "fourth street." Finally, a seventh community card, "the river," or "fifth street," is dealt (betting takes place after each step).Each player makes the best five-card hand out of those seven cards.On the penultimate hand in '03, Moneymaker was dealt a King and a seven (in poker shorthand, K-7).The other remaining player, veteran pro Sam Farha, drew a Q-9.
The flop came 9-2-6.
Farha, with a pair of 9s, was ahead (something the home viewer knew, but not Moneymaker).
The turn was an 8, and Farha bet $300,000.
Moneymaker raised $500,000 and Farha matched the bet.
The river came a 3.Farha checked, meaning that he passed the onus of making a bet to Moneymaker, who had absolutely nothing.
Moneymaker went "all in," meaning he bet his entire stack of chips.
It was a monumental bluff, made by an amateur against a pro.Farha, with a pair of 9s, had the better hand -- but not the gumption.
He folded, losing $900,000 in a hand in which he had the better cards.
Had he matched Moneymaker's all in, Farha would have eliminated the goateed bean counter right there.And maybe Texas Hold 'em would still be a fringe sport.
But then, maybe if Paul Revere had decided to call it a night, we'd all still be drinking tea."Moneymaker was huge -- huge! -- for a variety of reasons," says Michael Antinoro, ESPN's executive producer of the WSOP.
"Number one, his name.
You can't write this stuff.
It's too good to be true.
Number two, he's an amateur who just won a $40 satellite."Moneymaker's Cinderella story has resulted in derision among the college crowd.
"I kind of think Chris Moneymaker is a joke," says a University of Arizona student, one of thousands who thinks Moneymaker won despite making several bad plays -- and, in short, just got lucky (as if every successful poker player has never needed luck).Yet Moneymaker's is the face that launched a thousand chips."Every retard who watched the World Series of Poker on TV and thought, 'That's really cool, I want to play poker,' is on partypoker.com," says Andy McClure, a former Alabama student who dropped out (despite being on academic scholarship in Tuscaloosa) and turned pro earlier this year.
"So you have a lot of people who don't know what they're doing."The convergence of ESPN's coverage and Moneymaker's triumph, thus, became the tipping point for perhaps the greatest recreational epidemic since in-line skating.
Antinoro respectfully disagrees."The hole cam [a.k.a.
the aforementioned lipstick cam] is the No.
1 reason why poker has taken off," he claims.
"Hold 'em is the only televised competition where you the viewer know more than the competitors do.
Can you imagine watching Monday Night Football and knowing what play is being called in the huddle while the defense does not?"Krieger, the Poker for Dummies author, agrees -- to an extent.
"Before that, even for poker fans like myself, poker was boring," he says.
"It was just a bunch of guys grimacing at one another.
Boring television."Antinoro makes an excellent point, and yet, they tried that in the XFL.
No, the tipping point was a man named Moneymaker.
When an amateur can invest $40 and win $2.5 million against the top players in the world, that inspires everyone who can tell you the proper ranking of straight, flush and full house (it's the reverse order, by the way) to become a moneymaker at the poker table themselves.
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