Commentary

A different dream for Darvin Moon

No endorsements, just poker

Updated: September 25, 2009, 1:40 PM ET
By Bernard Lee | ESPN.com

For every child who played a sport growing up, the same dream always ran through their heads. The situation: It's late the game with victory on the line …

Baseball: It's the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and a full count. Here comes the pitch …

Basketball: It's the fourth quarter and your team is down by one. The clock is winding down … 3 … 2 … 1 … the shot is up …

Football: It's the end of the fourth quarter and the clock is about to hit triple zero. You're the quarterback and your team is down by four … and the Hail Mary is about to land in the end zone …

What about poker?

For Poker, you're pulling out your chair as chip leader at the World Series of Poker's main event final table. Waiting for the starting words: "Shuffle up and deal!"

This year, Darvin Moon is the man in the position so many poker players around the world could only dream of. Not since Jamie Gold -- who had 29 percent of the chips with his nearest competitor, Allen Cunningham, holding 19 percent -- has a player entered the final table with such a dominating chip lead. This logging company owner from Oakland, Md., has 30 percent of the chips on the table and is the oddsmakers' favorite, even over seven-time bracelet winner Phil Ivey. The most fascinating aspect of this fairy tale is that, for Moon, it is more like a bizarre dream that makes no sense whatsoever.

[+] EnlargeDarvin Moon
AP Photo/Laura RauchIn his first WSOP appearance, Darvin Moon enters the final table of the main event as the chip leader.

In the life of Darvin Moon, simply participating in the 2009 WSOP main event was a dream itself.

"You know what? I would have been happy with nothing," Moon stated. For the current chip leader, the main event meant embarking on multiple first-time experiences. Moon traveled across the country to Las Vegas for the very first time. In order to see Sin City and the Rio, he would need to fly in the first large airplane flight in his life. Finally, the WSOP would be his first main event poker tournament ever.

Of course, there was even more drama behind the scenes. Although he had learned to play poker with his grandfather at a young age, he only began playing no-limit Texas hold 'em about three years ago. Earlier in 2009, Moon captured a WSOP satellite tournament at a small casino in Wheeling, W.V. For his $130 buy-in, he won a $16,000 package, including a $10,000 WSOP main event seat and $6,000 for expenses. Nevertheless, Moon remained practical. "They took $4,000 of it in taxes, so I really only had $2,000," he said.

Darvin Moon's realistic and sensible mind told him that playing in the main event might not be the best idea.

"The economy is bad and the logging business is terrible," he thought before July's tournament. "I [thought I would] go out and get my $10,000, instead of playing"

However, after seeing the bright lights of Las Vegas and witnessing the WSOP main event spectacle in the Rio's Amazon Room, he changed his mind.

"I got out there on Sunday and I went down to the poker room to watch them play," Moon said. "When I came out of the poker room, I went up and signed up."

While Moon's thoughts regarding the main event had changed, there was one more person who would need to go along for the ride.

"My wife said 'Don't worry about it, you play,'" Moon recalled of his most important supporter. "She said, 'You've always wanted to play in the [WSOP] for the last couple of years. You go and play.'"

Playing on Day 1D, this humble small-town gentleman joined the raucous sellout crowd. Incredibly, the number of players that sat down for Day 1D outnumbered the population in his hometown. Undaunted, he had a most memorable Day 1, being dealt pocket aces six times and flopping three sets. His unbelievable run continued throughout the tournament, as he continued to climb the leaderboard. Day after day, everything Moon did seemed to go in his favor.

"That is the way my whole tournament [went]," said the relaxed chip leader. "All eight days, no matter what I did, it worked out."

On Day 8 with 27 players remaining and playing down to the final nine, Moon's improbable climb to the chip leader culminated with two colossal hands versus two talented young players, Billy Kopp and Jordan Smith. Both these hands can be read in the poker blog, but if you're following along with the coverage on ESPN every Tuesday night, I don't want to ruin the moment. They were unbelievable and in the end, Moon would head into the WSOP main event final table with almost $59 million. In his humble words, "I never imagined I'd have to go back."

Now Moon is the most sought after free agent in poker. Most people assumed during this four-month hiatus he would hold out for the highest bidder -- a position most poker players would envy. However, Moon surprised the poker world by proclaiming openly that he would not sign an endorsement deal with an online poker room. In the modern poker world, built on a foundation of money, it was quite a shocking statement, which he has lived up to so far.

Moon summarized his rationale, "They want you to sign a contract where, they say, they own you for a year," Moon said. "I've been in business for 28 years and I have never had anyone tell me what to do. There is not enough money in the world for someone to tell me what to do."

However, is it really that shocking or just insightful? I dare to say Moon is not as crazy or stupid as some people have commented. Perhaps he is one of the few poker players to focus on his values over possible additional riches. The typical poker dream centers around fame and fortune. The dream scene would end with the glory that comes with becoming the WSOP main event champion. For the majority of poker players, this title and seemingly lifetime sponsorship contract would prompt us to ask "What more could you want?" However, as another cliché goes, "Be careful what you wish for."

Players may not realize how their lives would be turned upside down after their victory. Throngs of fans, endless interviews and countless appearances are the norm for any sponsored WSOP main event champion. After his 2003 WSOP victory, Chris Moneymaker has seen his world transform from the daily grind of being an accountant into a poker icon, which does come with a price. "There are times when I'm with my family, where I wish not to be bothered," said Moneymaker. The 2004 WSOP champion, Greg Raymer echoes these sentiments. However, both of these former main event champions, whether they expected to or not, are thoroughly enjoying their roles as poker ambassador over the past several years. Both concur that the positives far outweigh the negatives.

However, Moon sees things a bit differently. Perhaps he foresees what could be in his future, and he is understandably wary. Perhaps he wants to hold tight to the many wonderful aspects of his current life in a small Maryland town that could be taken away with an online poker room deal. Needless to say, changes in his life may be inevitable if he wins the WSOP main event. However, he may be trying to limit the long-term commitments by not signing an endorsement deal.

Even before he sits down in November, Moon has already won more money than he ever imagined. He already has the fortune and he isn't sure he wants more fame, especially after the November Nine is complete. For Moon, his freedom of lifestyle might be priceless. Although the majority of poker players do not understand or agree with Moon's decision, you have to respect the man for his convictions. He may even make some players rethink their poker lifestyles and values.

"I always play in a tournament to do well," said Moon, but could the hesitations about the overwhelming fame affect his play in November? No matter what, Moon has already made the journey to the top of the poker spotlight. He's just another player who had a dream. No matter what the cards have in store for him, may all his dreams on and off the felt come true.

Bernard Lee is the co-host of ESPN Inside Deal and is a weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and author of "The Final Table, Volume I." He also hosts a weekly poker radio show, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show," on Rounders Radio and in Boston on 1510 AM. The show can be heard from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday and is repeated throughout the week. For questions or comments, e-mail him at BernardLeePoker@hotmail.com.

Bernard Lee is a columnist for ESPN.com and the co-host of ESPN Inside Deal. Since finishing 13th in the 2005 WSOP Main Event, Lee has earned over $2 million in career earnings, including three poker titles. Along with his contributions to ESPN.com, Bernard is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and also the host of a weekly poker radio show in Boston, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show".

ALSO SEE