Chris Moneymaker had plenty on his mind a new mortgage, serious credit card debt and a newborn daughter. But at the moment, he was concentrating on the beefy Costa Rican across the poker table from him.
Humberto Brenes had just deposited four neat stacks of blue thousand-dollar chips in the middle of the green felt.
Moneymaker studied him again through his sunglasses. Brenes was one of the best no-limit Texas Hold 'em players in the world. Moneymaker was a rank amateur who'd never played in a live tournament. Truthfully, he was scared to death.
But after qualifying on the Internet for the World Series of Poker's championship dvent, the 27-year-old Tennessee accountant had somehow made it to Day Four, just one day from the final table, outlasting 794 of the world's best poker players. Now he sensed Brenes was bluffing.
He took a breath. "I raise you all your chips" about $120,000.
Breaking into a grin and wagging his finger at Moneymaker, Brenes said, "I call."
Moneymaker felt sick.
Professional poker players have a name for the hundreds of wannabes who plunk down the $10,000 buy-in at the Big One every year.
"Dead money," they call them.
Some 50 million Americans play poker, whether in penny antes at family reunions or $10-$20 limit games at the local union hall. Many fancy themselves to be pretty good.
But the leap to poker's biggest stage the World Series at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas each May is like sandlot to the major leagues.
Moneymaker's unlikely journey began three months earlier at his modest home in Spring Hill, Tenn. With $40 from his online gaming account, he sat down in front of his computer to play in a tournament on Pokerstars.com.
Despite questions of its legality, online gaming is booming in this country, a $4 billion a year industry. More than a million Americans place bets daily on the Internet.
Moneymaker was a Pokerstars regular, using the handle "Money800." As he struggled to learn the intricacies of no-limit Texas Hold 'em, he'd lost more than $15,000 in the past year.
In college, he'd been a sports gambling addict, winning and losing more than $50,000. His then-girlfriend, now wife, Kelly, finally delivered an ultimatum: sports betting or me.
Poker seemed safer than wagering on sports scores and even other casino games of chance like blackjack and baccarat. Poker is primarily a game of skill. The house has no built-in advantage; players match up against each other. True, luck is involved, but the game is much more like chess, another game Moneymaker used to play. He assured Kelly he'd get it dventually.
Most poker novices start out in "limit" games $3-$6 or $10-$20 which can be mechanical. It's when betting goes "no limit" that Hold 'em moves into the realm of art and becomes expensive.
Knowing what cards to play is just the beginning. There's also understanding when to mix things up, reading other players and bluffing. For a good no-limit player, it often doesn't even matter what cards he has.
Could Moneymaker ever be one of the best?
With his short brown hair, babyface and medium build, Moneymaker looks the part of the regular joe. He works in a cramped office above a Nashville restaurant and learned to play mostly by watching others.
He labored to improve. His daily routine: Come home from work, change, hole up in the study to play. If he caught a good run of cards, he might play all night.
Soon Kelly was demanding that he cut back and not just online.
In one particularly tough beat last spring, he lost $4,000 at a casino. With a baby on the way, $12,000 in credit card debt and mortgage payments, it was money they didn't have. Kelly was livid. She took over control of their finances. He slept on the couch for a week.
But Moneymaker had what most good poker players have, a short memory.
The Pokerstars tournament he sat down to play in February dangled a tantalizing prize: The winner out of 18 players got a free pass to enter a bigger $615 buy-in tournament for a seat in the Big One. To his mild surprise, he won.
The next weekend, it was the $615 buy-in. When he finally put out his last competitor at 10 p.m., Kelly was there to celebrate with him.
It wasn't until the next morning that Moneymaker realized what he'd done. Scraping together the airfare and hotel costs would be hard; his chances of winning anything almost nil.
His father, Mike, agreed to "buy" a part of his seat for $2,000, in exchange for a portion of his winnings. Another friend gave him $2,000; another, $500.
In May, two weeks after sitting for his CPA exam, Moneymaker and an old fraternity buddy, Bruce Peery, flew to Vegas.
When the World Series of Poker began in 1970, it was a handful of high-stakes gamblers who made a living in smoky back rooms. They were friends of Vegas pioneer Benny Binion.
Over time, poker began to shed its outlaw image, finding legitimacy in elegant card rooms and casinos. The World Series grew accordingly. Recently, the Internet and The Travel Channel's runaway hit, the World Poker Tour, have elevated interest.
Located in fading downtown Las Vegas, Binion's is five miles from the opulent Strip where most of the tourists now go. The casino caters to locals and out-of-towners.
Moneymaker was surprised by how rundown the place looked and that his room had no air conditioning. He found Benny's Bullpen, the old bingo hall that houses the tournament, on the second floor.
His plan was to use the $4,500 he'd brought to play some satellite tournaments, smaller dvents that offer players without deep pockets a shot at winning seats at the Big One or earning cash. For Moneymaker, they were a chance to practice his shaky live game.
Playing live differs from playing in cyberspace mainly because of the importance of "tells," the physical tics and twitches that betray even the best players.
Over the next few days, Moneymaker managed to win a few satellites, but then squandered most of his cash betting on sports. Over the phone, Kelly warned him not to pull money from their bank account.
On Monday morning, Moneymaker joined the scrum of players waiting to register: 839 players from 27 countries, a record number. This year was the first in which Internet players were represented in large numbers several dozen.
The turnout meant the top 63 places would be paid. The runner-up would win $1.3 million. The champion would get a $2.5 million check.
The object of Hold 'em is to make the best five-card hand out of seven cards dealt. That sounds simpler than it is.