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If you were alive, in the United States, and of an age to flip channels on your own in the early 2000s, chances are you remember a few very distinct aspects of the era. Professional wrestling was wildly popular; TRL was dominating music culture by showing music videos every afternoon (whereas today many might have simply missed some of the ‘20 Music Videos That Made Waves in 2020’ we identified previously); and on any given day, at any given hour, you might turn on a major sports network and see professional poker being played.
That last defining aspect of this era on TV was the manifestation of what we now commonly refer to as the “Poker Boom.” In case you’ve forgotten, this was the general course of events: The movie Rounders got a whole lot of people excited about amateur poker success, one such amateur named Chris Moneymaker won the World Series Of Poker, and all of a sudden the game exploded as a bona fide professional sport.
This is all easy enough to accept in retrospect because if we leave it at that it sounds more or less like a trend, or fad. The crazy thing to remember though is that the Poker Boom produced stars. Televised tournaments made a lot of good players extremely famous, to the point that even casual viewers with limited interest could name a handful of the people involved. Today, some of those people are still on TV flipping cards and gathering chip stacks. But the true poker phenomenon as we witnessed it in the early 2000s is no more. Really, it just seemed to fizzle out one day.
For the sake of nostalgia, we thought it might be fun to look back on some of the figures that dominated this era of poker on TV and see what they might be up to now.
As mentioned, Chris Moneymaker is kind of the guy who set it all off. Inspired by Rounders, he made his way onto the pro poker scene and won the WSOP as an “amateur” in 2003. Naturally this inspired many others to give it a shot, giving rise not only to more attention for the pro poker scene but also to a spike in amateur online poker activity. Since his 2003 peak though, Moneymaker has been pretty quiet. He won a good amount of money in poker thereafter and wrote a children’s book called Bet Big To Win Big along the way. He also made it into the Poker Hall Of Fame in 2019, and as far as we can tell is still playing. But for the most part, he seems to be living a relatively quiet, ordinary life with his wife in Nashville. He’s earned it.
Phil Ivey was actually dubbed a “phenom” for racking up WSOP winnings the year before Moneymaker helped to catapult the game to greater relevance. He was thus well-positioned to become one of the game’s true TV celebrities and did just that. Unlike Moneymaker though, Ivey would win consistently for years. This led some to think of him as the best tournament player in history, and according to a Poker.org piece on player net earnings, Ivey is worth more than any other pro player. Unfortunately, his fortunes have since turned a bit. Since 2014, Ivey has been embroiled in a series of legal cases concerning alleged cheating at various casino games. It’s been a dizzying ride for the all-time great, but by the sound of things various rulings, seizures, and settlements have cost him a good chunk of his former winnings.
Arguably the most active public ambassador for poker of the bunch, Daniel Negreanu was every bit as famous, recognizable, and competitive as Ivey at the height of the Poker Boom. He may not have technically earned quite as much, nor does he have as many WSOP bracelets — but he’s one of a very few people in the world who can claim to be on Ivey’s level. And for his part, Negreanu is still very active in the game, competing in everything from organized pro tournaments to high-stakes grudge matches (which sometimes come off as publicly stunts). Over the years, he’s also made a habit of writing books, teaching the game to others, and even producing his own poker video games. The present-day update in this case, though, is that Negreanu is still very much a poker pro (and entrepreneur).
A bitter rival of Negreanu’s, Phil Hellmuth is another of the few men who occupied the truly elite top tier of pro poker in the boom days. He’d been at it longer than most of his counterparts as well, having won the WSOP’s Main Event way back in 1989 — 14 years before Moneymaker. He’s basically been a steady winner ever since, and is still competing at the top of the game today — though over all that time he’s made virtually no news away from the tables.
Chris “Jesus’ Ferguson
Nicknamed for his incredibly distinctive long-haired appearance, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson was always hard to miss at those televised tournaments in the early 2000s. It didn’t hurt also that he was an incredibly strong player and the Main Event winner in 2000. These days, however, it’s fair to describe Ferguson as the villain of the era. As was recounted in detail in a fun little post at Medium.com a few years back, Ferguson wound up being one of the men in charge of Full Tilt Poker — an online gaming site that essentially proved to be a giant scam. Because of this, Ferguson is something of a pariah in the poker world. However, he also made a comeback (after a long, quiet absence) in 2016, and has been something of a regular in pro poker again ever since.
That about covers the main cast of characters! For those who watched the Poker Boom, reading these names again ought to feel a little bit like stepping into a time machine. And in a strange way, it’s almost sort of comforting to see that most of these guys are still doing their thing — even if there have been a few fairly large bumps in the road.