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Darvin says he's got no game. Is he bluffing?

darvinmoonwoods.jpgMoon slashed his way through the Main Event field in July, but he keeps saying he doesn't really know how to play poker. (By Ricky Carioti/TWP)

LAS VEGAS -- Not long after the World Series of Poker Main Event broke for its 114-day hiatus in July, a production company contacted chip leader Darvin Moon about flying down to Florida to record a poker-strategy video. Moon declined.

"I don't have a strategy," he told me yesterday. "To be honest with you, I don't really know what I'm doing when I play poker." Then, repeating a joke he's told me dozens of times during our various conversations, he added: "I'm not real intelligent." Beat. "Be sure to put that in there."

No wonder poker nerds have taken to calling him "Darvin Gump."

Moon has made this a major part of his WSOP narrative, hard-selling the angle to anybody who will listen, including his fellow players. Especially them. He repeatedly plays up his lack of poker-playing experience and skill, noting that he accumulated nearly a third of the chips at the final table simply by getting great cards: "I had just an unbelievable run for eight days." Better to be lucky than good, etc.

During an interview yesterday with ESPN for Tuesday's final table broadcast, Moon told producers that he prefers Texas Hold 'Em over Omaha and other forms of poker, because "it's the only game I know how to play -- and I'm not sure I understand it." (Never mind that he learned to play stud as a kid, long before picking up Texas Hold 'Em.) Moon observed that he's the worst player among the November Nine. He insisted that he'd prove nothing by winning the Main Event's $8.5 million first-place prize, other than this: "I got lucky one year."

After the taping, he was walking near the casino floor at the Rio, where the World Series is staged, when a fan wished him luck. "I'm gonna need all the luck I can get," Moon said. During a short gambling session at a table game based on Hold 'Em, he joked to last year's big-fish-out-of-water, third-place finisher Dennis Phillips, that he was still hoping to learn how to play poker before the final table convenes Saturday.

Later, when the November Nine came together at the Rio's 51st floor outdoor patio for a group video shoot, Moon continued to work the angle, insisting to poker pros Eric Buchman (second in chips at the final table), Kevin Schaffel (sixth) and James Akenhead (ninth) that he'd be willing to fold pocket aces before the flop if his tournament life depended on it. In so many words, they gently told him he was nuts and tried to explain why that's an incorrect play.

So is Moon really a fish (a favored poker term meaning lousy player; synonymous with "donkey") who just got hit with the deck unbelievably hard in July? Or is he a sandbagging card shark? Or something in between?

"He's probably the worst player at the table, but he loves to advertise that," ESPN poker announcer Norman Chad said. "He's a wolf in sheep's clothing. He does some things that suggest he has a higher skill level than he gives himself credit for. There's a little shark in him, a little pool hustler in there."

Phil Ivey, the game's most famous and feared player (seventh in chips), called Moon's bluff at the VooDoo Lounge last night. "You don't know how to play? B.S." Ivey told the amateur.

Jeff Shulman, the president of Card Player Media, who has the fourth-most chips at the final table, told me in September that there's more to Moon's game than he's letting on. "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."

Shulman cited the final hand played in July, when Moon busted Jordan Smith in 10th place. Smith had pocket aces and re-raised before the flop. Moon called, caught a third eight on the flop and bet into Smith, who moved all in with the second-place hand. "A lot of inexperienced players would check in Darvin's position," Shulman said. "But if he's putting Smith on a big hand like aces, he might be able to get all of his chips if he leads out (with a bet). It was an extremely advanced move for somebody who says he is not advanced."

Andrew Feldman, the poker editor for ESPN.com, told me last night that he's been thinking quite a bit about Moon's self-deprecating image as a luckbox who will be in trouble if he actually has to play real poker at the final table. Feldman has come to this conclusion: "Darvin is playing a meta game that we haven't seen before. He's trying to portray himself as this complete aw-shucks amateur who's going to let the other players run over him. But I feel that he might be setting them up."

Or is he?

"I don't think he's sandbagging," said Bernard Lee, co-host of ESPN.com's poker program, "Inside Deal." "I think he's better than he's giving himself credit for publicly, but he's also being realistic when he says there are eight better players. I think what he's maybe saying is that they have more experience playing in these tournaments, and that's true. Let's be honest: He got great cards, and he's going to need to keep getting them to win."

For what it's worth, late last night, in between bites of beef tenderloin and sips of Bud Light, Moon said that he's written down some of his strategies -- the ones he says he doesn't have -- and is thinking about the possibility of releasing a book should he do the unthinkable and win the Main Event. "It'll be called, 'How an Amateur Can Win the World Series of Poker,'" said Moon, who boasts that he's never actually read a poker strategy book himself.

Was he bluffing? I didn't get a good read on him. I must not be very intelligent, either.

By J. Freedom du Lac  |  November 6, 2009; 10:43 AM ET
Categories:  Sandbagging  
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Comments

I am still a low level, mostly online, player after about 4 years and still really do not get the math behind Texas Hold'em. Sure, some of it makes sense, but I need to think about it and I really do not see Darvin Moon being all that sophisticated with his betting strategy which leads me to believe that he works largely from his gut. Sure, he has learned a lot through playing a lot of hands at different levels, but this may be the one in a million player who gets through the WSOP by being naive.

Which big pros, aside from Phil Ivey, did he go up against? Was he ever at a table with Phil Hellmuth? My sense is that Hellmuth targets players like Moon and generally wins unless his ego gets in the way. Part of Moon's luck might have come from where he was sitting each day and who he was playing with and that could be an overlooked intangible if, by the time anyone really noticed him, most of the top players had already busted.

Posted by: skipper7 | November 6, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

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