June 2011 Cover

01 June 2011

In 2009 Chris Moorman had the poker world at his fingertips. Playing up to sixteen tables at once, this prolific tournament grinder consistently topped the PocketFives rankings while routinely crushing the biggest tournaments on the internet. But then, last year his online results seemed to dry up. Had he been left behind by the changing face of the game? Had the King of Online Poker lost his mojo? Jeff Kimber finds the demise of Chris Moorman to be somewhat exaggerated.

“He definitely was one of the best, but not any more, he’s had his day. The game’s moved on now and he’s basically not good enough to compete with the top young players now.”

This was the opinion of one young online pro I was speaking to at the Vic recently, but who was he describing? Hellmuth? Cloutier? Maybe Texas Dolly himself? No, this was his opinion on Chris Moorman, who, at the age of 25, is now considered an old man of the game and as such is there to be shot at.

Moorman has long been regarded as one of the top online tournament players, amassing more than $7million in online tournament winnings and has been a consistent presence at or near the top of the Pocket Five’s rankings for years now, yet his ability is still called into question.

As if in reply to the latest jibes that he’s past his best, just a few days later Moorman took third in a huge online tournament for more than a quarter of a million dollars, silencing the young pretenders and reaffirming his place in the elite of online poker.

“People always like to take shots at you but I enjoy the challenge,” Moorman says with the assuredness of a wily old boxer who, after years of taking on all-comers, feels like he’s seen and heard it all before. “I still feel like I’m up there among the best. Most of the time I’m at a table I look around and I’m not really scared of anyone and I’m trying to run the table.

“There’s only been a few times where I’ve looked around and thought I might not be a winning player at this table, like at the World Series of Poker Europe last year I had a table with Isildur, Yevgeniy Timoshenko and Bryn Kenney, which was just ridiculous.

“Online, there are fewer fish than there used to be and a lot more regs, but I still think, compared to the average reg, I definitely think I’ve got a decent edge. I haven’t done anything completely new or revolutionary lately but at the start of each session I work on a few things, changing little things. I don’t think you can rest on your laurels because so many people are professional that everyone is working hard on their game every day and I don’t think you can just sit there and say, ‘Ah well, I’m winning lots, I’m just gonna log in and win’.

“I think if you do that you get in the mindset of every time you play you have to win because you’re the best, and obviously if the cards aren’t with you, you’re not gonna win that session, and you’ll get pissed off that you’re getting unlucky. You’ve basically got to play your best each session and see what the result is.”

As if to prove his desire to keep improving and stay at the top, Moorman talks me through the latest aspect of his game he’s tinkering with; his ability to shift gears during a tournament. As is always the case for someone who thinks so deeply about his game, this is not as simple as it sounds – for a start, changing gears would normally describe someone trying to play more aggressively, but for Chris, the opposite is true.

“I think that changing gears is so underrated because you can be a really aggressive player but once people know you’re being that aggressive, they adapt, but you want to have changed before they’ve adapted so they’re always one step behind.

“I think I went through a stage when I was just playing too aggressive and obviously everyone knew I was aggressive and they were catching on and my results suffered because of it.

“The last few months I’ve been trying to go back to that and slow down at times. My natural gear is really aggressive, so I have to be careful and tell myself ‘OK, these guys have had enough’. In certain spots when you get deep in a tournament, a lot of people will have push or fold stacks – around 20 big blinds – so they’re not gonna call your raises, they’ll just go all-in or fold.

“So if you get a hand like J-T suited under the gun, it’s a nice hand but you can’t call anyone’s all-in so sometimes you’ve got to do the unthinkable and fold it. At the end of the day if no one’s gonna be calling, it’s the same as 7-3 off – no-one’s calling so you won’t get to see the flop, and you can’t call all-ins.”

While Moorman’s online game has continued to flourish, live poker has proved a different kettle of fish. When your own mum advises you to stick to playing online, maybe it’s time to go back to the laptop, but a final table in the Aussie Millions main event to start 2011 has whetted Chris’ appetite for live poker all the more.

“I had a small taste of what it’s like in the Aussie Millions and it was amazing. I want more of that kind of thing, with everyone supporting you at the final table. Online, it’s like you’re in your own little world. It’s just you trying to beat your opponents, whereas live is more of a show. There are people coming to watch and you’re the centre of attention.

“Everyone wants to be that player who wins live and wins online. Everyone’s like ‘he’s a great player’, and you can’t do that if you just play online, people will just say ‘yeah he wins online but he doesn’t win live’.

“And it’s a challenge as well, because it’s something you haven’t done before, and you don’t want to get beaten by the game.”

Until that seventh place in the Aussie Millions, which netted A$175,000, the joke was that Moorman was the only player in the world whose biggest buy-in exceeded his biggest cash in his live poker career. While this jibe slightly bent the truth, Moorman admits to being a net loser in live tournaments. So what was different about the Aussie Millions?

“I had a bet with Toby Lewis. We were joking around before Day 1, and I asked him what odds he thought I was to make Day 2. He gave me 5/2 and I put $5k on, so if I made Day 2 I was freerolling the tournament.

“Every time it got to a close spot on Day 1 where I could have donked them all off, I was like, no I’ve gotta make Day 2, and I folded. I was still playing aggressive, but not crazy, although on the last hand of the night I did three-bet the only guy at the table who covered me with K-3, just for kicks.

“I got through Day 1 with a good stack and that’s when I’m at my most confident, putting people under pressure on the bubble. Then, when we got into the money, the tables all went to six-handed, which I think suited me, and most of the things I did went right.”

Adapting his super-aggressive online style to the nuances of live play has proved a challenge, but Moorman doesn’t agree with the widely-held opinion of the online community that all live players suck; rather, he looks at the live game as another puzzle, with slightly different elements, that needs solving.

“Online, you get a lot more people playing the same style and it’s predictable. It’s a winning style, but because everyone’s doing it, it’s quite easy to play against once you’ve played against it a lot.
“Live, you have all these people and you can’t rule hands out of their range because they play weird and start doing funky stuff you’re not used to, and you have to adjust to the situation.”

What Moorman calls ‘funky’, other young online stars call terrible, lolbad, tez etc etc, but Chris feels it’s too easy to write them all off together.

“Obviously, there are some live players who are terrible, but there are some really good ones as well. Doing things different is normally good, unless it’s really, really bad different. Maybe it might not be optimal but if you are doing different things, then it keeps your opponent guessing and can make them make more mistakes.

“In the World Series of Poker heads up, I played LuckyChewy [Andrew Lichtenberger], who is a really good heads up player, and he had a pretty big edge over me in the game, but I still fancied my chances because I’ve watched his videos. I kind of know what he’s thinking and I could play my game based on that.

“But in the bubble round I had Neil Channing and he was confusing me because I didn’t really know what his gameplan was and I couldn’t work out a gameplan to counteract that, and by the time I had it was too late. LuckyChewy’s probably a better player, fundamentally, but Channing was the tougher opponent for me because I wasn’t used to that style.”

Buoyed by the deep run in Australia, next on the agenda is a sixth crack at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, with Moorman focused on proving his live poker skills by bringing home a bracelet.

“I’ve planned to do the whole lot the past few years and have ended up playing online after a few bad tournaments when I’ve got a bit down about it. This time I’m gonna try and play everything. I told myself I was gonna learn all the other games properly and play them. Stuart Rutter did it last year and had a few good results, so I got him to send me a list of the coaches he used and I was gonna start coaching with them but that was three months ago and I haven’t done anything about it yet.

“Everyone is at the World Series and no one can take that away from you, you can take that bracelet to the grave. No-one can ever call you a bad live player. You can just wave the bracelet in their face. You can still be down a lot live but once you’ve won something you will always be referred to as the winner of that event.”

Moorman feels it takes a few attempts before online players feel at home on the WSOP felt, but after five years warming up he’s hopeful this will be his year.

“I played one side event as a warm up five years ago. I got to my table and there were four or five empty seats and I was like, ‘what’s going on here?’ because I didn’t know people turned up late. Then they all came in and sat down: Antonio Esfandiari, Kathy Liebert, all people I’d seen on the telly and I was like, ‘Oh my God this is the World Series of Poker, wow, I’ve made it!’.

“Sitting at that table, I was just happy to be taking part. I didn’t think I could win the event, because all these guys have been on TV. I was just in awe. But each year you go back and you know more and more people that have won bracelets, and you know more and more people that you think are terrible that have won bracelets, so you think if they can do it, why not.”

While losing live as he chases that big score has become something Moorman has learnt to deal with, losing online has never been a problem, until a rough period last year.

“I had a pretty bad downswing from May till the end of October last year. I was getting deep runs still, so I knew I was still playing good, but whenever I got down to it I was just messing it up or getting screwed. I think I was too anxious, feeling like when I got deep I had to make that one count and maybe trying too hard.

“In 2009 on PokerStars’ Official Poker Rankings, I think I was ranked second out of whatever the ridiculous amount of people it was, and then in 2010 I was 118,000th. It wasn’t that I’d started to do hardcore drugs and lost the plot and couldn’t play, I was still playing my game and playing good, it was just the ridiculous variance.

“I obviously ran really well when I came second that year, got really lucky in big tournaments, but I had the complete flip side of it the next year and that was really tough, having all that success before then having a year that wasn’t all that great at all last year.

“I wouldn’t doubt myself if I had a bad couple of weeks, but when it turns into a bad couple of months, you definitely hear the things. The new guys are coming in above you and saying you’ve lost it, you could only beat the games when they were soft and now all these new guys are better than you, you’ve lost your passion for the game.

“You want to prove these people wrong and get driven on to try even harder, and maybe that’s where you start changing your game and trying too hard when it was fine to begin with.”

Dealing with your own downswings can be tough enough, but over the past two years Moorman has developed a stable of players he backs which has grown to over 30 in size. The highs can be hugely rewarding, but the lows can see a horse’s bad run cost you dear and leave you in the catch 22 situation of either providing further backing, and therefore getting in deeper, or sacking the horse from your stable and writing off the often sizable losses incurred to date.

A typical Sunday can cost Moorman more than a hundred thousand dollars, and an event like the upcoming World Series could see his outlay run into seven figures. With risk comes reward, and some of the scores his horses have made provided huge windfalls. Tyler Reiman’s second place at last year’s PCA saw him split his $1.75m winnings down the middle with backer Moorman, while Chris hurriedly flew out to the final table of the WPT at Foxwoods last October as not one but two of his horses had made the six-man final table.

On the flip side, any downswing in your own game can be magnified by your stable all losing. And Moorman has had to deal with horses stealing from him and losing friends over backing.

“It’s probably affected my game a bit. I try and deal with things like sending money when I’m not playing or during breaks, but obviously it gives me less time to focus on things I’m doing wrong. But it helps in another way because I’m usually watching when a horse goes deep in a tournament, and they might be telling me their cards, so you learn different styles, so I see the good things that, say, a tighter player might be doing, and try to bring them into my game. When you’re trying to change your game it helps when you have different people to talk to who have different opinions.”

Black Friday has left Moorman’s staking operation up in the air, but, as he tries to work out the best way forward for his mainly American stable, there has been a marked change in the general standard of play on the US-facing sites without our friends from across the pond.

“Since Black Friday I’ve been grinding pretty hard online and have noticed a huge difference. The fields are much smaller and less saturated with solid pros. This has made for a lot more deep runs and final tables. I've also found myself to have a much greater edge than previously in the latter stages and variance is a lot smaller than before because there is less chance of a sustained losing period.”

While the dust settles following Black Friday, and new players continue to emerge and challenge his superiority in the highest stakes online tournaments, one thing remains the same - Chris Moorman is not ready to give up his crown as the king of online poker just yet.