For decades, the professional poker player was a rare breed. They were "road gamblers" with names like Doyle Brunson, "Amarillo Slim" Preston, Johnny Moss, and T.J. Cloutier. They were hardly household names. Many of them made their fortunes in back room games -- and usually lost them again. The only way to get good at poker was through years of experience, and earning that experience was a costly proposition. Many early professional players had fearsome reputations: Some claimed or were known to have committed murder, while some simply maintained an intimidating front to ward off cheats and thieves.
These days, poker is becoming mainstream. The nationally televised World Poker Tour, combined with celebrity poker events, national coverage of the World Series of Poker and a best-selling book about the World Series of Poker by James McManus have added up to a surge in popularity for poker at the pro level. The World Series was once a small event hosted at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas mainly to draw publicity. It featured a few of Benny Binion's friends in a Hold'em duel over a pile of chips. Now, thousands of people show up to watch and participate in the dozens of side tournaments, satellites, and ring games that surround the main competition. Anyone over the age of 21 can buy into the main event with $10,000. Many players have made their way in through satellite tournaments that cost much less to play and offer a seat in the main event as a prize.
With online poker and dozens of poker guides available (including Doyle Brunson's legendary Super System), skilled, talented players are entering tournaments with far more knowledge than their experience would indicate. The 2003 World Series of Poker winner is the perfect example of how poker has changed. With a story straight out of a Hollywood script, Chris Moneymaker (his real name) earned a place in the tournament by entering a $40 online poker tournament. To claim that prize, Moneymaker scraped together the money for a plane ticket and hotel room with the help of his father and a friend. Once there, Moneymaker, who had never played in a tournament that wasn't on the Internet before, found himself at tables with the big names of poker. Despite the intimidating presence of these heavy hitters, Moneymaker kept his cool and caught some lucky breaks on his way to a $2.5 million payoff. By all accounts, Moneymaker, an accountant and a father, displayed great sportsmanship at the tournament, and donated $25,000 of his winnings to cancer research.