Moneymaker The Poker Player

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Associated Press/Wide World
The author on the jacket of "Moneymaker."

May 8, 2005
‘Moneymaker’: Not Bluffing
By A. J. JACOBS

MONEYMAKER
How an Amateur Poker Player Turned $40 Into $2.5 Million at the World Series of Poker.

By Chris Moneymaker with Daniel Paisner.
240 pp. HarperEntertainment. $23.95.

I have a feeling that the professional players threw the 2003 World Series of Poker. They held a meeting, took a vote and decided to let this accountant from Tennessee who’d never entered a live tournament walk away with the $2.5 million first prize. If so, it was a clever business move, a smart bet. Because now, every schlemiel with a pair of mirrored sunglasses and a rudimentary grasp of the rules of poker thinks he can play cards with the pros. And you can be sure 99.9 percent of them will leave with drained wallets and the sound of snickering in their ears.

Put it this way: after reading ”Moneymaker: How an Amateur Poker Player Turned $40 Into $2.5 Million at the World Series of Poker,” I was half convinced that I could wangle my way to the final table of the World Series at Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. And I play poker at a third-grade level. This book is 240 pages of false hope. It may cost $23.95, but I have a hunch it will cause more people to lose more money than any other book this year.

”Moneymaker” — a passably written, lively story — is about a 27-year-old fist-pumping former frat boy named Chris Moneymaker (requisite point: Moneymaker is, in fact, his real name). He entered an Internet poker tournament for $40, won it, got flown to Las Vegas for the World Series, bluffed and bumbled and outmaneuvered 838 other players, frustrating veterans like Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey, and ended up with a waist-high stack of cash. After which, he proudly relates, he got really really drunk.

Moneymaker’s book comes at what I have to assume is the end of a landslide of Texas Hold’em books. His is not on the highbrow end of the genre. If you want poker poetry, read ”Positively Fifth Street,” in which James McManus takes detours to talk about John von Neumann’s game theory, ”Finnegans Wake” and van Gogh. Or ”The Biggest Game in Town,” by A. Alvarez, which explores the Freudian theory of gambling as sublimation. Or even ”Big Deal,” by Anthony Holden, in which he describes the tournament’s ”riffle of chips, like the chatter of cicadas.”

No, the writing here is aggressively regular guyish. Moneymaker and his co-author, Daniel Paisner — who has also written books with Willard Scott, Montel Williams, Ed Koch and Governor Pataki — fill the book with phrases like ”the butt end of my college years” and references to ”Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” None of your fancy metaphors here.

However, there is plenty of swagger to go around. Moneymaker seems eager to show off his quasi-outlaw side. You read about his visit to a seedy strip club and his collapse on the carpet from too much booze. Self-deprecation isn’t his forte. When he writes, ”I don’t set this out to brag,” you can be pretty much guaranteed that bragging is about to take place, just as the phrase ”I’m not trying to be difficult” all but ensures the speaker is about to be a complete jerk.

The sections on Moneymaker’s childhood and early adulthood are fairly unremarkable. We learn he gambled on football, horses and pool. He bought a red Infiniti G20. He drank a bunch of beer. He gambled on blackjack. Although Moneymaker, now a professional poker player living in Tennessee, admits he was a compulsive gambler, this is perhaps the least introspective addiction memoir in history.

But the parts about the tournament itself are entertaining and vivid. Moneymaker (and Paisner) convey the weirdness of the tale: an Everyguy wreaking havoc on the entire poker establishment. As he points out, the World Series of Poker is the most startlingly democratic competition around: ”Imagine being able to buy your way into the Indy 500 or the U.S. Open.” You can’t help having some vicarious good fun, even if the happy ending is tipped in the book’s subtitle.

Moneymaker writes of his frantic preparations for the tournament, including his efforts to stamp out his ”tells,” those tics that give away the strength of your hand. In Moneymaker’s case, they included flaring his nostrils and holding his breath. (His strategy: randomly flare nostrils and hold breath to confuse opponents.)

We get to meet poker’s stars, if only briefly — notably Chan, who fondles a lucky (and slightly rancid) orange at the table, and Ivey, a young player with a penchant for basketball jerseys and sulky behavior (he wouldn’t shake Moneymaker’s hand). And then there are the bit players: the oddsmakers, the groupies, the pudgy guy who sells good-luck crystals to hopeful gamblers.

Moneymaker gives us a day-by-day, bet-by-bet look at his victory, with a peek at his strategy — or lack thereof. He admits he often shifted his tactics from aggressive to safe, partly to keep the other players off balance and partly because he was occasionally just a bit clueless.

In the end, ”Moneymaker” is the flip side of the Protestant work ethic. Why suffer through all that tedious heavy lifting and perseverance when you can get instant fame and fortune with minimal energy expenditure? It’s an alarmingly seductive narrative. And nowadays, Chris Moneymaker has plenty of company, from ”American Idol” winners to hotel heiresses. Too bad that for every Cinderella there have to be 838 ugly stepsisters.

A. J. Jacobs is an editor at Esquire magazine and the author of ”The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.”

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company Home Privacy Policy Search Corrections RSS Help Contact Us Back to Top

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: