It may seem surprising but poker – and especially the World Series of Poker – hasn’t always been the cultural milestone that it is nowadays. Only a couple of decades ago, the world of poker and the people around it was still considered second-class citizens, at best. A new podcast from ESPN’s award winning “30 for 30” series looks back at this time and, in particular, the 2003 World Series of Poker and the WSOP Championship Event.
It Started with a Simple Idea…
Called “All In: Sparking the Poker Boom,” the podcast gathers some of the biggest names in the game – Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, then-WSOP tournament director Matt Savage and then-Media Director Nolan Dalla are just a few – as well as the person who became the unlikely catalyst for the early 2000s “poker boom,” Chris Moneymaker. But the podcast’s main focus is on Matt Marantz, who saw something in the world of poker and, in particular, the World Series of Poker that would be appealing to a viewing audience.
Marantz and his company, 441 Productions, had previously done documentaries about prisons and organized crime, but he was at a loss as to his next project. After picking up a book about professional poker, however, Marantz knew what his next project would be – the World Series of Poker. The problem was that he needed someone that was willing to back the production costs for the documentary. According to Marantz, he pitched the idea of a seven-episode show – by this point, Marantz realized he needed to tell a narrative in episodes rather than in one film – to ESPN, who weren’t initially excited about the idea. Faced with a lack of programming – and with relatively cheap rights fees – ESPN eventually came around and Marantz was off to Las Vegas.
There was a small problem for Marantz and the crew at 441 Productions – they had no idea what poker was, let alone who the players in the game were, and had little idea how to go about their task. Marantz wanted to tell the story of the stars of the game at that time, Chan in particular, and created a 40-member “playbook” of people that the cameras of 441 were supposed to follow. Within the first day of the tournament – back in the day, there weren’t multiple Day Ones as 839 players ponied up their $10,000 for the Championship Event – more than half those players were knocked out of the event, sending Marantz and his team into a frenzy of how to continue to tell the tale.
…And Ended in Unforgettable Fashion
The story of Moneymaker then becomes the focus of Marantz and the 441 crew. Interspersed with commentary from luminaries of the poker world, the unlikely rise of Moneymaker to the chip lead and, eventually, all the way to the World Championship becomes a riveting podcast. While it would have definitely been better if there were video along with the audio commentary, the podcast format works for this as the audio-only feed allows the listener to put themselves back in the confines of Binion’s Horseshoe that day in May (yes, another thing that has changed over the years) and imagine how it all played out.
While Marantz’s recollections of recording the 2003 WSOP are entirely necessary and drive the narrative, by far Moneymaker’s remembrances are the most interesting of the people featured on the podcast. Of particularly humorous note was his interactions with Dalla, who believed that someone was pulling his leg when he put “Chris Moneymaker” on his bag slip and actually sought out the Tennessee accountant to confirm that it was indeed his name. And there are plenty of callbacks in the podcast to what drove Moneymaker to history – the film Rounders and its unlikely story of an unknown taking down the biggest players in the game.
It is hard to believe that it was only 15 years ago that these events took place. But it also seems like it was a lifetime ago that they occurred. And the podcast presents the story of the 2003 World Series of Poker and the Championship Event in the historical context that it should be presented. For every poker aficionado, it is something that needs to be heard as it serves to mark a historic point in the game of poker, one in which the formerly “back room” game officially stepped from the shadows and into the 21st century.