If you were to ask even the most passive of poker fans which year is the most important in the history of the modern game, they might not know the year, but they’ll tell you the name.
In 2003, an accountant by the name of Chris Moneymaker played an online satellite on PokerStars for just $80 and went on to win a ticket to the World Series of Poker Main Event. With that ticket, the accountant and amateur player would go on to win the Main Event outright, turning his satellite entry into a $2.5 million first prize. History was made, but so was the future.
Heads-up, Moneymaker had beaten the elusive high stakes poker player Sammy Farha. But what would have happened if Farha had called Moneymaker’s king-high bluff? What if… Sammy Farha won the 2003 WSOP Main Event?
“You must have missed your flush, right?” said Farha, and he was right. A straight draw and a flush draw had been missed on that brick river by the man who would win millions of dollars just minutes later. But Farha couldn’t make the call.
“I know we’re early in the century, but that’s the bluff of the century,” said Norman Chad at the time. But what if Farha had made the call with top pair? What if he’d then gone on to get the better of his opponent? He would undoubtedly have won what feels like it was destined to be an infamous WSOP Main Event victory.
The poker boom that followed Chris Moneymaker’s history-making win arguably props up the poker industry as we know it today. Since 2003 when 839 players took part, entries for the WSOP Main Event have always remained in their thousands, with the average field in the last decade at an incredible 6,856 players. The ‘Moneymaker Effect’ propagated the tournament in ways no marketers could ever have dreamed up. America embraced the ‘Average Joe’ who turned just a few dollars into a life-changing sum of money. Husbands pointed to wives and told them ‘If you let me play, maybe that would happen to me’.
But was that because Moneymaker won it or simply excelled in getting so far despite a relative lack of experience? Would he coming runner-up have been so powerful? His efforts gave recreational poker players not just the hope that they could win at poker, but the hope that they could become World Champion. And much though Sammy Farha was happy with $1.3 million, he never went on to achieve stardom in the way Moneymaker did.
The ‘Farha Effect’ may not have quite the same ring to it, but if Sammy had left with the bracelet then much may well have been made of another game that he loved to play. Since 2003, Sammy Farha has won two WSOP bracelets playing Omaha Hi-Lo. He already had a Pot Limit Omaha victory from 1996 before he took on Moneymaker in No Limit. If Farha had won, there’s no doubt that Omaha, as a game variant, would have seen its profile raised. ‘What game is the World Champion playing?’ amateurs might ask. Farha’s passion for the four-card game may have seen it grow and grow.
Television coverage focused a huge amount of resources on Moneymaker. The name, the image and the victory ultimately made Moneymaker a bigger phenomenon than he or it was. Plenty of players now win from satellite entries, but they’d already done so by the time Moneymaker shipped the big one. Heck, as far back as 1983, Tom McEvoy took down the WSOP Main Event from a satellite tournament he entered for $100. Moneymaker was a perfect storm, the ordinary guy who became an overnight success.
Would the ‘Farha Effect’ have furthered poker? It’s unlikely that it could ever be as big as Moneymaker was. Farha was already a successful, professional-standard player. It would have been interesting to see if he’d developed Omaha as a commonly played variant of the game. But it’s unlikely he would have become the phenomenon poker was crying out for.
In reality, had Farha won the Main Event, we might just have had to wait an extra 12 months for the amateur hero we needed. Greg Raymer won the 2004 Main Event, also from an online satellite. Players who were thinking about taking on poker at more than their local home game might well have flocked to the World Series of Poker anyway, with The Raymer Effect in full flow the very next year.
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