The year was 1985. U.K. band Dire Straits released the landmark album Brothers in Arms, which ultimately sold the almost unbelievable total of more than 30 million copies. It yielded multiple hit singles, one being Money for Nothing, from which the title of this article is adapted; the actual lyric is "chicks." Music was, of course, a huge entertainment medium.
That summer, Bill Smith outlasted 139 other players to capture the main event at the sixteenth annual World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas. Having paid $10,000 to enter, he pocketed a tidy $700,000 from the total pool of $1.4 million. Outside poker's own insular world, virtually no one noticed. As a form of entertainment, poker was completely off the radar.
Flash forward to the summer of 2005. Brothers in Arms remains a landmark British recording, one of the all-time top sellers. Music is still tremendously popular.
At the WSOP, Joseph Hachem took part in the main event. The entry fee was still $10,000, but the field and the prize money available had grown considerably. With 5,619 competitors, the total pool was an almost unbelievable $52,818,610. When Hachem emerged victorious, his share was a more than tidy $7.5 million. He also became an almost instant celebrity with endorsement deals and representation by the famed William Morris agency. Of the nine competitors who made it to the final table, six won more than the entire $1.4 million paid out 20 years earlier. All nine took home at least $1 million. It also didn't hurt poker's visibility when the WSOP ladies championship was captured in dominating fashion by Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Tilly.
As a form of entertainment, poker has exploded within the past few years. Around the world, millions have taken up the game, and when they're not playing, they can watch more than a dozen poker shows on TV. And although it had already started, the boom is perhaps best defined and symbolized by a moment that took place in the summer of 2003. An accountant, the fittingly named Chris Moneymaker, won the WSOP main event. Unlike Hachem, he didn't put up $10,000 to play. Instead, he paid about $40 to enter a so-called "satellite" online tournament in which the three top prizes were entries. After getting in this way, he then proceeded to win the big one, which had a top prize of $2.5 million that year. Ironically, he stated later that with four players left in the satellite, he considered playing to come fourth because it paid $8,000 in cash.
Moneymaker's win demonstrated that an amateur could beat the top professionals to win the game's most coveted championship. Of course, not everyone would turn $40 into $2.5 million, but how hard could it be to become good enough to make a few bucks?
With such thoughts in mind, it's very easy to give poker a shot. Most poker newbies pick an online site, deposit some money - $50 is typical, but the minimum requirement is usually lower - and start playing. Quite a few lose it all. Some quit, but others consider it "paying their dues" while learning, or figure that hobbies usually cost something - and at least with poker, there's a chance to profit. So, they deposit again. As they improve, they start to win, often by beating the next wave of newbies. How long it takes to become a winning player varies significantly from person to person; some never do.
JonM (online poker alias) took a different route. In his first year playing, he made well over $1,500. What's more, he did so without ever risking a cent. How? By playing in "freeroll" tournaments that cost nothing to enter but pay cash to those who place highly. Most of the estimated 250 online poker sites offer them, usually with prize pools of $50 or less. However, at least a few each month pay out $1,000 to $5,000.
Occasionally, far larger amounts are available. JonM says he has played several events that paid out $20,000 each and one that had a pool of $100,000. He also entered three satellite tournaments where the high finishers qualified to play another freeroll for $1 million or more.