The Paul Bunyan of Texas Hold 'Em
Md. logger says it's dumb luck, but new folk hero is proving his high-stakes timber

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 2009

LAS VEGAS -- Darvin Moon, self-employed logger and newly minted poker millionaire from Western Maryland's panhandle, opened the door of his luxe, 1,100-square-foot suite at the Rio Hotel & Casino on Thursday, and in skipped the bellhop with the luggage and the chirpy questions.

"How are you? First time with us?"

"Second," Moon said flatly. "And hopefully last."

"Soooo sorry to hear that. You don't like it?"

"Don't like Vegas," Moon replied. "I just come here to win a little money and then go home."

A little money! That's like saying there are a couple of lights on the Vegas Strip, or there's a bit of bare skin being flashed around town.

Having already banked a seven-figure check for his early efforts at the World Series of Poker's Main Event in July, Moon has returned to the Rio to see whether he can't win a little more money and then some: First place at poker's marquee event pays $8,546,435, and oddsmakers have listed Moon as the favorite to win.

"Lotta work to be done," Moon said matter-of-factly.

He's a self-effacing, self-taught amateur from Oakland, Md., who insists he's not particularly great at the game, that it was just dumb luck that got him here, that he's in over his head as the worst player of the nine remaining in a field that began with 6,494.

The final table convenes Saturday just after noon local time. (Don't look for it on TV quite yet: ESPN, which has been broadcasting the tournament in edited, tape-delayed form since the summer, will show the finale Tuesday night at 9 Eastern time. A live audio webcast will be available at BluffMagazine.com. And The Washington Post has live coverage of Moon and the rest of the action on a blog, Darvin Moon's Poker Adventure.)

"If Darvin can pull it off, I think it becomes the stuff of storybooks," said ESPN's poker commentator, Norman Chad, who loves the narrative of a guy who walks in from the woods and takes the chip lead, a story line Moon is only happy to play up.

In July, when he left Vegas with a $1,263,602 check -- the minimum each of the final nine players will win -- Moon declined an offer to be driven to the airport by limousine. "I done paid my $7 to ride the shuttle, and that's what I was going to ride," he said.

He's spent much of the past couple of weeks regaling reporters with stories about his hunting trip out West, and about the $20 tournament he found himself playing in somebody's basement in Wyoming. He busted out early in that game. "To be honest with you, I don't really know what I'm doing when I play poker," he said, and perhaps somewhere, someone believes him. He loves playing the fool, saying repeatedly, "I'm not real intelligent."

No wonder he's been dubbed "Darvin Gump" on the Internet.

He's become something of a folk hero, though, as a small-town, working-class stiff who insists he's going to go back to work in the woods when he's done here. He and his wife, Wendy, recently upgraded from a 14-by-70 trailer (3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, 0 kids) to a modular home on their 3 1/2 -acre plot at the foot of Backbone Mountain. Moon, who just turned 46, doesn't use the Internet, doesn't have an e-mail address and doesn't own a credit card, which makes things interesting when he checks into a hotel: He had to put down a stack of twenties as a deposit on his room here -- as if the Rio couldn't just dock his final World Series payout, which could be in the high seven figures.

On the eve of the final table, the anxiety is palpable. "I can't wait to get this over with," said Jeff Shulman, who publishes Card Player magazine and has the fourth-most chips at the Main Event. Shulman has been so nervous that he often wakes up in the middle of the night and spends two hours trying to fall back to sleep.

"It's weird to think about Tuesday morning," said Steve Begleiter, the former head of corporate strategy at Bear Stearns (yep, that Bear Stearns) who has the third-most chips at the final table. He, too, sounded stressed. "One of us is going to wake up and our life will never be the same."

Standing in the casino, watching a small poker tournament wind down, Moon was approached by a man with a question: "How in the hell can your heart take so much pressure?"

"There is no pressure," Moon said. "Either you can do it, or you can't. No sense worrying about it."

Oh, the sang-froid!

A kid standing nearby was wearing a T-shirt with a silk-screened message: "Winning a million dollars won't change me." If the shirt had been size XXXL, the portly Moon might have offered to buy it on the spot.

"I'm no different than anybody else," he said. This was moments before two young women approached and said they knew he was famous but couldn't remember his name. "Peter Frampton," Moon said, before they figured it out and asked for his autograph.

People wanted pictures. And handshakes. And more: "Darvin, I bet a bunch of money on you to win! Do it for us!"

Moon wondered what would happen when his support network arrived Friday. "We'll have 107 total," he said of his family and friends coming to watch his big play. "I should tell them that I'm not posting anybody's bail."

It could get rowdy, he said, especially inside the Penn and Teller Theater, where the Main Event final table is set up in front of high-def cameras and under rock-concert lighting. The room will be filled with 1,487 spectators. The total population back home in Oakland is 1,930, according to Census figures.

"This is a little different than back home," Moon said. "Oh, it sure is."

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