Chris Moneymaker sparked the poker explosion when he won the 2003 WSOP Main Event. Take the bracelet away, and he's still a young son and father, trying to do the best he can.
CC: Thank you for making the time to talk to us. First, tell me where you grew up.
Chris:I lived in Atlanta until age two, then moved to Knoxville until I was twenty-one, lived in Nashville for eight or nine years, then moved to Memphis.
CC: My parents live in Cordova actually.
Chris:Really. We live in Lakeland.
CC: Did you live in Knoxville itself?
Chris: I lived in Farragut, thirty miles outside of Knoxville (pop 17,720). It is a small town, and we lived in the biggest neighborhood. I had a lot of friends in the neighborhood. We'd play hide and seek. I'd hustle people in pool and foosball growing up. We'd roll dice, play acie-deucy, play for quarters, dimes, nickels, whatever.
CC: Were you involved in sports?
Chris:Yeah, I played soccer, baseball, and wrestled.
CC: Soccer and wrestling must have been very rare in small town Tennessee.
Chris: I played on a traveling team in soccer, and I played in Europe. Wrestling was definitely very rare. I wrestled as a freshman. My first year I made varsity because there was no one in my weight class, the 119 pound weight class. I was 0-23 my first year. It was the most frustrating thing in the world. I went to wrestling camp, tried to improve. My sophomore year, I was 5-18 in my weight class. I went back to wrestling camp, and my junior year I bumped up to 125 weight class. I was a pretty good wrestler by then, and I had a winning record, something like 19-5 then. My senior year, I bumped up to 131, and I lost two matches that year, 21-2.
CC: Back then, was making weight as big a deal?
Chris: It was a nightmare. 119 wasn't bad. I weighed 116 naturally, so it was pretty easy my freshman and sophomore years. My junior year, I actually had to wrestle for the spot. I weighed 122, 123, and I couldn't get down to 119. It was pretty easy to maintain weight, but my senior year was terrible. I was good wrestler by that point at 131, but I weighed 133. The guy in the next weight class was basically a state champion, so my coach said, "Look, you're going to have to get down to 131 and wrestle there." My senior year was a constant struggle. Every meet I would get sweat suits and jog for two hours before my matches. One time I couldn't make weight, so I swallowed tobacco and puked. Shaved all my hair at different points. When the coach tells you to lose weight, you lose weight.
CC: This wasn't back in the day of friendly coaches; you had to do what you had to do.
Chris: We were a terrible wrestling program when he came in, and he built it into a state competitor. He was tough. We ran seven miles during practice, but in soccer I was used to running. It was one of the hardest things I've done in my life. I boxed some in college, but wrestling is probably the hardest thing I've ever done.
CC: Tell me about soccer.
Chris: I played center midfield, which was probably the most up and down position. I started when I was five, and started playing on travel squads. We played in the Holland Cup, we played English teams in England. I played until my sophomore year in college, when I blew my knee out. I basically quit all sports, and I went from 140 to drinking lots of beer and 225.
CC: I'm familiar with that.
Chris: Watching the World Series for the first time on TV, we had about fifty people in the room. I turned to one of my buddies and said, "Am I that fat?" And he said, "Yes you are." I started jogging again, working out. I think this morning I was at 187. I've got a weight loss bet with my father-in-law. I have to get down to 175 by August 17th. I know if I can lose twelve more pounds by then, especially drinking Mountain Dew.
CC: My wife is a big Mountain Dew fan.
Chris: I started drinking a lot of water to lose weight, but when I'm out here, the caffeine helps. I try to stay in shape, but I have to have my Mountain Dew.
CC: Did you follow English soccer when you were playing?
Chris: Yeah, I followed Manchester United and the top teams when I was in high school. I watch the World Cup now but not much else. When I was on the U-15 team, I would watch the U-19 games in Europe. The level of competition between the two is so different. It was sick. I refereed for five years. I was a very good referee, but the U-19 game, I don't know if I could referee that game over there. It was so physical, all the colliding. I'd be blowing my whistle every five minutes. They let them play pretty much. I refereed up to high school, but it couldn't compare to the U-19 over there. When I was in Europe, I saw a guy run after a referee with a knife because he made a bad call.
CC: I went to see Inter Milan at the San Siro once when Ronaldo was there. The fans started fires, grabbed fire hoses and sprayed fans. It was a bit scary.
Chris: You think American football is intense, fans in Philadelphia get riled up and everything. It doesn't compare to soccer. It's the biggest sport in the world, and the fans are freakin' nuts over there.
CC: Your parents had to have a lot of commitment to have you on a travel soccer team.
Chris: Yeah. My dad went to every game that I played. He coached me when I started then traveled with me wherever. He's out here at the World Series. He's always traveled with me my whole life. My mom stays home and works, and my dad travels with me.
CC: After you won the Main Event, it must have been gratifying to do so well at the Bay 101.
Chris: It definitely was. I get that question, "Oh, you haven't done much since. Why haven't you done much, does it bother you that you haven't done much?" If it bothered me, I'd play more. I've got a family, and I have businesses. I play six, seven tournaments a year. Compared to most people do, that's not a whole lot. I'm going to try and play eleven tournaments between now and April. It was definitely gratifying, the final ten of the 2004 $5k PLO event was gratifying. I've had some other good finishes. I'm proud of what I've done. I don't get much respect which is fine with me. I'm confident with myself. As long as you have that, I think it's fine. I'm here to make money; I'm not here to make people happy.
CC: Tell me about the travel. I used to travel 60-80% of the time, and I have three boys. That's a big part of your life now.
Chris: It is. I used to travel about 80% of the time with Deloitte and Touche when I was with them. It was a nightmare. My ex-wife asked me to quit traveling, so I got a CFO/Controller position. I was home the whole time, then I won the World Series and started traveling again. She didn't like it, and we ended up splitting up. A definite struggle, and my current wife now understands what I do. She supports it. She lets me travel when I need to, and then I give her respect and try not to travel as much as I could. It's why I only play seven or eight tournaments a year. My priorities are my family, then my businesses, the tournaments. Whatever PokerStars needs me to do comes right after my family. If I get around to it, I get to play some poker here and there.
CC: The public sees players doing well in tournaments, but it is very difficult to earn a living playing tournaments financially.
Chris: I wouldn't say it's impossible, there are some players who can make a living. Chris Ferguson is great, he doesn't play cash games. I make the majority of my money in cash games, that's where most pros make their money. Tournament poker is definitely tough. It's a $10,000 buy-in, you're facing 6,000 players. I've said for four years now this is the easiest tournament to win. You have so much dead money. Out of 6,000 people, you probably have 1,000 people that have a chance to win. You have to avoid land mines, but the skill level in these tournaments is getting so much better. You go to most of these tournaments with a $10,000 buy-in, you don't have all this dead money. You may have only 500 players who are dead money.
CC: You also have to get very deep. It's not about cashing to double you buy-in.
Chris: I made a mistake on Day 2 of my second event that I really regret. I wanted my fourth cash for some reason, because it is the World Series. Usually, I could give two rat's asses about making the money. I made a squeeze play with 10-3 on a raise and re-raise, and I didn't follow-through on it. I regret it. I would have gotten up to 90k instead of 27k, and it's because I pussed on the flop. The guy made a read that I pussed, and he made a play on me. Normally, I would have just pushed in and not cared if I cashed or not. It was right on the bubble, and my whole thing is that I never care about cashing, I just want to make it deep. One tournament in Aruba, there were 24 people left, and I laid down a big hand. A guy made an early position raise, I re-raised, the button called, and he was a terrible player. Layne Flack comes back over the top and puts me all-in. We're on the bubble, I've got pocket jacks, a very flat pay scale, you didn't get money really until you won. I thought I might have been good. If folded my jacks. The button showed A-J and Layne had pocket nines. An ace hit on the flop, a nine came on the turn. I would have busted 24th, and I ended up 18th. Looking back, I should have just gone for it. As a professional tournament player, you need to cash, but you really need to win one or two of these tournaments. That's what's going to pay for your buy-in's for the rest of the year.
CC: What are your interests now? My uncle actually emailed me and said you were in his karate class in Memphis.
Chris: I took some karate two or three years ago. It was in a phase when I was trying to lose weight. It wasn't that I was interested in karate. I'd done boxing and wrestling, I liked contact sports, and karate seemed good because I could get in shape and I could hit people. When you're a white belt, they don't let you do much contact. I did it more for the exercise, but it seemed pretty weak, so now I play basketball. I spend time with my family, I like to play golf although I only play two or three times a year. Outside of my family, my business, and poker, it's hard to have much time for anything. It seems like every time I get home, I try to relax, but then I have an appearance somewhere, I have to go back on the road. I get the called the day before to say I need to leave. By the time I do what I enjoy doing, it's time to leave again. We just found out that my wife is pregnant, so it's going to be that again. I hope it's a boy, because our house has a perfect girl's room and a perfect boy's room. The boy's room has a log cabin shower, it's a boy's room. The guest bedroom is nice, but it doesn't have a bathroom attached to it. If I have a girl, I have to go in and redo that room. My first girl's bedroom is bigger than our master bedroom. She has that big a room and the other girl has a small one, that won't work. If I have a boy, he'll get a cool room.
CC: Are girls hard?
Chris: Girls easy. I have two nephews, and they're off the wall. One is three and one is almost five. It's just nuts. My daughter is so laid back, so affectionate. She'll give you kisses. It's the greatest thing in the world. We have a big play room, every toy imaginable. She'll play in it, and she'll mess it up a bit. Those boys come over, and there are toys and balls everywhere. My girl is a tomboy now, she's actually good at soccer. She can kick the ball better than the four year old boys do. When she plays, she plays with her kitchen set or her books. She'll sit down, she reads her books. The boys come over, and I go up with my wife: it's just insane. It takes forever to clean up the mess. So I want to have a boy just to have a boy, but really girls are so much easier. You have three boys, so what do you think?
CC: I'd say boys are easier. Mine are eleven, nine, and three.
Chris: Once they get to eleven, I'm sure they're easier. Once my girls get to be thirteen. My sister was hell on wheels when she was thirteen until now, she's actually better now. Every girl revolts against their parents at some time. My father-in-law says, "You're wife, when she turned thirteen, it was like a light switch went off in her head. Now she's this new person who hates her dad, hates everything. I guess all girls go through that stage.
CC: A couple of days ago at the Charity event, Matt Damon was here. When you think of the explosion of poker, the causes I think are the WPT, Matt Damon, and you. Chris in some ways, I would think it's almost a burden. You were truly the catalyst of this.
Chris: In '04, I had to apologize to people. It was still at Binion's, and to get on a $1k sit and go, the wait was six or seven hours long. People would say, "You did this, man." And I'd have to say, ‘I'm sorry.' When you're waiting six hours to play a SNG? Over here, it's no big deal. I recognize I'm a part of it, part of history. I appreciate it. I actually saw Matt a couple days ago. He was playing in a cash game next to me. My intention was to come back and play in the event, but I needed to go back to my wife. I had planned on playing eight events this World Series, but once we found out my wife was pregnant, I only played three or four. I spent the rest of the time at home, and I got back here the night of the 5th.
CC: But is it a burden in some ways?
Chris: It's a burden and a blessing. It's nice to be well known, it pays well obviously. I get endorsements that a lot of people don't get, I get opportunities that a lot of people don't get. My life is very good, but at the same time. When I tried to come to our interview, it takes me thirty minutes to walk through the hall. I have to put a phone to my ear to act like I'm talking to someone to get through it. In a cash game, people call me down, it's great. There was a hand today, a guy just wanted to bluff Moneymaker. In tournaments, it sucks. You want to win uncontested pots without showing down their hand, but people want to play back at me. It takes a lot of skill to decipher who is making plays at you and who is not. In cash games over time, you're going to make the right decisions. In tournaments, you make the wrong decision and you're on the rail.
CC: Congratulations again on the new baby. I hope it's a boy.
Chris: As long as it's healthy, that's fine by me.
Chris Moneymaker plays exclusively on PokerStars.
His path to the 2003 WSOP Main Event is now part of poker legend, turning a $39 satellite on PokerStars into the Main Event bracelet.