“Me and @tim00 were discussing this in #BluffHQ,” wrote Kev. “What are some of the biggest ‘What if’ moments in poker?”
The thought experiment inspired a lot of response with possible examples, with Sam Farha calling Chris Moneymaker’s “bluff of the century” (rather than folding) during heads-up play at the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event by far the most commonly referenced “What if?” moment.
You remember it, of course. We’ve seen it so many times...
That was also the first “What if” moment that came to my mind upon reading Kevmath’s tweet, but by then a few minutes had passed and a half-dozen others had already suggested it, so I didn’t bother. I spent a couple of minutes idly trying to think of others, but to be honest all seemed so much less meaningful when compared to Farha’s fold I soon stopped trying.
So I thought back to the hand itself. If Farha had called, he would not have won the tournament right there, as Moneymaker had him covered. Indeed, for Farha to have called and discovered Moneymaker had better than his top pair of nines would have meant elimination for the pro, a factor that obviously influenced his decision. But his nines were good, and so calling would’ve meant a big double-up for Farha.
The pair had begun heads-up play with Moneymaker leading with 5.49 million to Farha’s 2.9 million. I believe the blinds were 20,000/40,000 when they began (with a 5,000 ante, unless they’d jettisoned the antes for heads-up), meaning Moneymaker had about 130 BBs and Farha more than 70 BBs at the moment Dan Harrington had gone out in third.
Ultimately heads-up play lasted for 28 hands, just three of which made it to TV. We see Farha win a 570,000 pot, then we are told what the stacks are just before the big bluff hand begins -- Moneymaker 4.62 million, Farha 3.77 million.
At some point later came the final hand (the third shown) in which Farha flopped top pair of jacks but Moneymaker made bottom two pair with 5-4. The money went in on the flop, and Moneymaker’s hand held up, improving to a full house by the river.
All of which is to say, one answer to the question “What if Farha calls?” is that Farha very likely would have won the 2003 WSOP Main Event.
But the mind can’t help but leap from there to consider other possible answers as one begins imaginatively to construct a Philip K. Dick-like alternate past in which the popularity of poker and the online poker industry followed a different course post-2003. And some of us -- including your humble scribbler -- can’t help but think about how what had once been a hobby strangely evolved into a full-time profession, and perhaps wonder whether that would have been the case had Moneymaker finished runner-up in 2003.
I suppose a lot of what did happen following Moneymaker’s win probably would have happened anyway, though perhaps less quickly. The WSOP would have continued to attract larger turnouts, online poker would have continued to expand, and televised poker would have probably evolved similarly, too. One can’t help also but contemplate whether or not the UIGEA would have become law in 2006 had there not been such rapid, conspicuous growth in online poker’s popularity in the U.S. during the three years prior. And whether some other legislative course might have been taken instead.
Poker is always presenting us with these seemingly crucial moments that inspire thoughts about how a particular card or action becomes yet another turning point in the garden of forking paths. Only makes sense, then, that we’d sometimes be inspired to think about poker’s history similarly and ask “What if?”