By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009
OAKLAND, Md. -- Of the 71 people who entered the small-time poker tournament in the basement of Elks Lodge #2841 here on a recent Friday, none attracted as much notice as the stout, self-employed logger who flamed out in 24th place: a newly minted poker millionaire by the name of Darvin Moon.
Moon is the most famous Texas hold 'em player in Western Maryland's panhandle, having recently banked a seven-figure World Series of Poker check, and oddsmakers call him the favorite to win the tournament's $8.5 million first prize next month.
Moon has been playing poker semi-seriously for just a few years. He has never read a single page of a strategy book. He doesn't play cards online, where nascent players can quickly flatten the learning curve. (Actually, Moon says he doesn't spend any time online. Also doesn't use a credit card.) He has learned much of what he knows about poker by watching tournaments on TV and playing low-stakes tournaments in and around Oakland -- although, he says, "I ain't even the best player out here."
These days, everybody wants a piece of him. Moon simply wants peace: The laconic poker hobbyist would prefer to be logging or hunting in the woods, where the attention can't find him.
"I ain't no different than you or anybody else," he says. "My business is my business. People are driving me crazy with their questions. Their favorite one is, 'What'd you do with your money?' My favorite answer is, 'What'd you do with your paycheck last week?' "
But since you must know: Moon has purchased a modular home to replace the old trailer on his 3 1/2 -acre lot at the foot of Backbone Mountain. He put a new aluminum roof on his parents' house nearby. He has bought a new Chevy Silverado and some used logging equipment, including a skidder and a log loader. The rest, roughly half a million dollars after taxes, is going into the bank -- and Moon, who turns 46 at the end of October, has gone back to his job cutting pines.
"I've gotta get up and go to work every day," he says. "I'm not rich."
Not yet, maybe, but he is already one of the lead stories at the 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event, where Moon -- a beefy redhead who jokes that he's just "a fat hillbilly" who "isn't real intelligent" -- has nearly one-third of the chips in play heading into the final table, which will be played in Las Vegas in November.
"It's hard not to cheer for him," says Lance Bradley, editor of the poker magazine Bluff. "A middle-class guy from middle America who is a recreational player, and he has the Main Event chip lead?!"
Of the 6,494 players who entered the Main Event, Moon figures "there were 6,300 that were better than me." Of his competition at the final table -- a group headlined by Phil Ivey, one of the most famous and feared pros in the world -- Moon says: "I really believe all eight of my opponents are better than I am. How can't I believe that? They all have more experience than I do. I play three nights every two weeks at little tournaments like this."
Moon started playing poker after giving up softball because, he says, "I got fat." He had also blown out a knee when a tree fell on his left leg. But really, it was about the girth. "I'm up to 285," he says. "That's a little heavy to be only 5-11." (It's also the source of constant needling from friends and family, including Moon's own father, who tells him the morning after the Elks Lodge tournament: "You're so damn fat you can't even walk anymore." Of course, in the slovenly melting pot of the poker room, having a half-watermelon for a gut doesn't stand out, particularly not at the World Series, where players have been known to show up wearing animal costumes or dressed as Roman emperors.)
He's not deeply knowledgeable about game theory and doesn't possess the advanced mathematical skills that give some players their edge. Nor is he a poker savant with the preternatural ability to look inside the soul of another player. But Moon says he's pretty decent at decoding body language at the card table while remaining rather inscrutable. "You can't read me; I never change. But people around here will tell you that I can call your hand before you roll it over." (It's true: At the Elks, Moon repeatedly whispers what two cards he thinks other players are holding, and he's right more than he's wrong.)
He's solid and steady and probably not unlike the better players who come to your kitchen-table game on Wednesday nights. "Darvin's a good card player," says Terry Rinker, who plays regularly against Moon. "Especially when he gets cards."
Moon won his $10,000 entry fee to poker's most prestigious event at a $140 tournament at Wheeling Island Casino in West Virginia -- after which his 79-year-old father, who recently shut down the family's sawmill, advised him to take the cash and get back to work.
"But every poker player's dream is to win the World Series," Moon says. It's an achievable dream, if an extreme long shot: The event attracts the game's best-known players but is also open to amateurs and low-profile grinders, one of whom always seems to win, none more famously than Chris Moneymaker, the perfectly named Tennessee accountant who improbably took the title in 2003 and summarily kicked off the post-millennial poker boom.
So Moon flew to Vegas in July (the first time he'd ever been on a commercial jet) and crushed the field with, he admits, an insanely lucky run of cards. "I got incredible cards for eight days," he says, almost apologetically. "No matter what I did, it seemed like it worked."
Says Card Player magazine President Jeff Shulman, who will be sitting at the final table with Moon in November, albeit with 40 million fewer chips: "Darvin tries to say he's not that good, he's just an amateur who got lucky and ran really well for eight days. But at some point, you can't say you're just lucky. He was making good decisions." After that round of the tournament, Moon and his wife of 15 years, Wendy -- a CVS pharmacy technician -- came home to their old 14-by-70 trailer (three bedrooms, two baths, no children) with a $1,263,602 check, the minimum each of the final nine players will win. It was a particularly welcome windfall, given the terrible state of the lumber market, although Moon seems genuinely disappointed that what happens in Vegas really doesn't stay in Vegas, at least where the World Series is concerned: "I didn't want anybody to know about the money, but the whole town knew before I got home."
"In our town," says Martin Scott Finch, a Moon acquaintance and poker fanatic, "if you got a million dollars, you're pretty much gold. A million here is like, I dunno, $30 million in Vegas. But this money ain't gonna change him. Darv's a good guy, a down-to-Earth guy. It's crazy to think that the chip leader at the World Series final table is from this place, though."
Several businesses along North Third Street, which cuts through the center of town, are celebrating Moon's success on their marquees. He can't seem to get through a meal without being congratulated -- or queried. About whether he's going to move away from Oakland (never); whether he's bringing friends and family to Las Vegas for the final table (he'll have more than 100 people in his rooting section); and whether he's ready ("I dunno, I guess.").
A win would bring even more discomfort to a man who covets his freedom to the point that he declined a sponsorship deal with the online gaming companies, which typically offer six-figure deals with million-dollar winner's bonuses to players at the final table. "Never had a boss, and I never want to have one," Moon explains. Still, he says he'll find a way to cope if he tags the top prize. "Though I'd really only have $5.1 million by the time I pay taxes," he deadpans, his expression seemingly frozen, his voice a low monotone touched by a distinctive Maryland drawl. But he concedes that when World Series organizers put the $8.5 million prize money on the table, "not changing my expression -- that was hard. It was a hell of a pile of money."
So how is he preparing for the pressure-packed tournament?
While the other players try to elevate their games -- Shulman, for instance, just hired 1989 champion Phil Hellmuth to coach him on his final-table play -- Moon has been playing with Meat and Hunk, Mama and Ducky, Joey and Bubba and the other regulars at the Elks and the American Legion and over at the fire hall in Clarysville. Soon, he's going into hiding.
"We're leaving Oct. 7 to go to Wyoming for three weeks of mule deer hunting," he says. "I'll be out there in the mountains, in a little cabin with no electric, no water. Can't wait."