At various points throughout my book Poker & Pop Culture, I observe how among the many paradoxes of the game, one is the curious way poker tends to build community at the same time it forces participants to engage in competition against each other.
It’s weird, isn’t it? In theory, a game like poker in which no one person can win unless someone else loses should tear us apart. But we know that’s not the way it usually works. In fact, for most of us who enjoy poker, we experience it as a game that brings people together — that brings us closer to others.
Indeed, poker’s important social component often has a way of somehow “enriching” all of us, even if technically speaking only some of us can ever literally become “richer” when we play.
I couldn’t help but think of that paradox this week when watching the exciting conclusion to the 2019 World Series of Poker Main Event. There were so many memorable moments and stories, many of which were chronicled right here.
Like a lot of you, I’ve been following the ESPN broadcasts of the Main Event for a long time — to be specific, ever since that big breakout year of 2003 when the televised coverage was expanded significantly. (Is that when you started watching, too?)
For me, watching the Main Event was a little different this year. A friend of mine actually made the final table (no shinola!). And it wasn’t even a professional player for whom such an achievement might not have seemed so unexpected. Sitting there among the final nine was my buddy, the serious-though-by-no-means-a-pro player Garry Gates.
It was kind of uncanny seeing a familiar, friendly face there at the table vying for poker’s most prestigious prize. When I try to describe what it was like watching Garry on my television, Norman Chad’s words from those 2003 broadcasts to describe Chris Moneymaker’s improbable run to the title spring to mind — words that some of us were laughingly quoting to each other verbatim as it was happening:
“This is beyond fairy tale. It’s inconceivable.”
The hashtag passed around on social media by Garry’s supporters was #LFGGG — a rallying cry for Garry Gates to keep it (effin’) going. He did that all right, much further than anyone including Garry himself would have ever imagined he would. He made it all of the way to fourth place, finally busting on Monday night for a $3 million cash.
A few hours before Garry’s final hand, ESPN ran a short clip in which Garry talked about how the 2003 Main Event had helped encourage his own excitement about the game.
“When Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event back in 2003, I remember being in my bedroom listening to a radio broadcast of that final table,” he explained. “Just a couple of days ago I see a tweet from Chris Moneymaker saying ‘Can Garry Gates please win the Main Event?’ To see my journey come full circle that way… Chris and I are close friends now, and I mean… this is the stuff that poker dreams are made of.”
Can @GarryGates please win the Main Event.
— Chris Moneymaker (@CMONEYMAKER) July 12, 2019
“Garry says he wants to win this for the casual player who has a dream, like Chris Moneymaker,” explained Norman Chad following the clip, who along with Lon McEachern has continued to provide Main Event commentary every year since 2003. “Actually, he’s Chris Moneymaker 2.0, just a bit older,” Chad added. (Moneymaker was 27 when he won the Main Event; Garry is 37.)
It wasn’t that long after that clip was shown that this year’s inductees for the Poker Hall of Fame were announced, and as it happens Chris Moneymaker was one of those named.
Moneymaker’s victory in 2003 brought many into poker, and his efforts ever since to be an ambassador for the game were a big part of why he earned the recognition. As he pointed out when talking to PokerStars Blog about his induction, both “players” and “builders” can receive the honor. While Moneymaker’s Main Event win represented a high achievement to which any player would aspire, what he’s accomplished as a builder has obviously “contributed to the overall growth and success of the game of poker, with indelible positive and lasting results” (to quote from the PHoF’s criteria).
That 2003 WSOP Main Event further fueled Garry’s interest in poker. (Is that what happened to you, too?) Eventually that interest led Garry down a career path that has seen him become a kind a “builder” for the game, too.
Working for PokerNews, Garry helped influence and grow tournament reporting, so vital to encouraging interest in poker and increasing the game’s popularity. Later he moved over to PokerStars where he has collaborated with players in a variety of ways, most recently as the Senior Consultant of Player Affairs for PokerStars Live.
Garry recently played an important role in the Platinum Pass promotion in which more than 300 players won their way to the Bahamas to take part in the PokerStars Players No-Limit Hold’em Championship, among them champion Ramon Colillas. The great majority of those Platinum Pass winners who got to play the $25,000 buy-in event were a lot like both Moneymaker in 2003 and Gates in 2019 — casual players with a dream.
Describing Garry as “Moneymaker 2.0” is not a stretch, by any means. He was certainly the closest example of any of those who made the final table of a non-professional whose success could inspire others in a way similar to what happened 16 years ago. It’s not hard to imagine at all that some watching Garry’s run this year will be encouraged to come to Las Vegas next summer to take their WSOP shot.
But Garry is also already an ambassador for the game. Unlike Moneymaker who grew into that role after his Main Event success, Gates has had a career doing exactly that.
After his elimination on Monday, Kara Scott interviewed Garry for ESPN. She asked him how after he’d been second in chips with five remaining, “where it went wrong.”
“I don’t think it went wrong at all,” answered Garry with a big grin. “Fourth place in the World Series Main Event? You gotta be kidding me… that’s a dream,” he said.
While acknowledging he obviously would have liked to finish higher, he couldn’t hold back the excitement at having gotten as far as he did. Nor could he repress the emotion he felt after having experienced the outpouring of support for him along the way.
“I felt the love… I want to honestly say thank you to everybody, everybody around the world.” That’s when the tears appeared, and you didn’t have to be of friend of Garry’s to have been affected. “I felt so loved this week,” he continued. “And that meant everything.”
He concluded with one final message, one that circles back to that paradox I mentioned at the start.
“We won though, guys,” he said with a big smile and chuckle. “We won.”
They say poker is a “zero sum game.” In concrete terms — when only talking about the money — poker is undeniably that.
But that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t produce more winners than losers. Sometimes, in fact, it somehow feels like we’re all winning.
Poker brought Moneymaker and Gates together, both literally as friends and now in their shared role as ambassadors for the game. It has brought us together, too, to watch them and support them, and to stay with the game going forward.
And it will continue to do so. It just keeps (effin’) going.
WSOP photography by pokerphotoarchive.com.