Like many poker players his age, Nic Manion first was introduced to the game in 2003.
That was the year an amateur player/professional accountant named Chris Moneymaker won a seat at the World Series of Poker Main Event via an $86 satellite tournament — then went on to win the whole darn thing, including the $2.5-million first prize.
Moneymaker's out-of-nowhere, fairy-tale run — combined, of course, with the perfect last name for such a story — is credited as the start of the modern-age "poker boom," with the Main Event field jumping from 839 the year Moneymaker won to 2,576 the next year, then 5,619, and 8,773 the following two years.
Simply put, poker hasn't been the same since.
And neither has Manion.
"I had broken my leg racing at the last race of our snowmobile series, and so I was home flipping through channels and I saw poker on the TV," Manion said in a recent interview with The Detroit News. "I was like, 'Well, this is dumb. Why is this on TV?'
"Then I ended up watching like eight hours that day."
For a year, Manion devoured poker on television before he had the nerve to actually play himself.
Finally, he made the drive to Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mount Pleasant and bought in for $75 at a $3-$6 limit table.
"I turned it into $300," said Manion, "and that's how the addiction started."
Manion, 35, who grew up in Big Rapids and now lives in Muskegon, is writing his own Cinderella story, as one of the final six players remaining in the 2018 Main Event. Despite a slight downturn on Day 8 on Thursday night, Manion still enters Friday night's action second in chips and in fairly decent position to become the fourth Michigan native to win the Main Event — after Clarkston's Ryan Riess (2013), Shelby Township's Joe Cada (2009) and Grand Rapids' Tom McEvoy (1983).
Cada, remarkably, also is alive in this year's Main Event, albeit as the second-shortest stack entering play Friday night at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
"It hasn't really hit me, yet," Manion said after a night of tossing-and-turning sleep ahead of the first day of final-table play.
'Go with your gut'
Manion already is guaranteed a payday of at least $1.8 million, sixth-place money. The pay jumps for each elimination get more substantial from here on out.
That's life-changing cash, especially when you consider Manion figures he's never netted much more than $30,000 a year in his lifetime — that's just three times the buy-in of the Main Event. He was a mailman from 2007-08 before getting laid off. And his life has revolved around poker ever since. He began dealing poker at a charity room at Great Lakes Downs in Muskegon, earning $50 a shift. He'd take that money on his off-days and buy himself into local tournaments, either live and online. Then, when he ran out of money, he'd go back to dealing for $50 a night.
If he wins the Main Event, first place pays $8.8 million. To put that in perspective, it would've taken him 176,000 shifts of dealing cards to earn that.
"It's been weird because usually I'm watching the Main Event on TV, and you see people bust out and then the cash (payout) next to their name," Manion said.
Manion's run to this point is more remarkable than just a West Michigan man with three dogs getting hot at the tables for one week in Vegas.
Consider this: He didn't even know for sure he was coming to Vegas until a few days before — he had to make sure his father could watch his three dogs, an English Bulldog, a Boston Terrier and a French Bulldog. Only when Dad confirmed did Manion buy his plane ticket.
He was traveling to Las Vegas because a Muskegon buddy had offered to buy him into a satellite tournament — a smaller, cheaper tournament, where the prizes are entries into bigger, more expensive tournaments, rather than cash payouts.
Manion's was a $2,175 mega-satellite, and he won a Main Event seat — but Manion and his buddy decided to sell that seat, worth $10,000, for profit, which is a common, fiscally responsible practice. But Manion then entered another satellite and quickly was down to 5,000 chips in the 500/1,000 blind levels. Yet, remarkably, he rallied and earned a Main Event seat there, too — and this time, he decided to use it.
Like that second satellite, the Main Event, his first WSOP event, didn't start well. While he got up to about 100,000 early on, he then got coolered when his straight was crushed by a full house. That knocked him to 20,000 on Day 1. He was down to 11,000 chips, from a 50,000-chip starting stack, on Day 2.
Then, slowly but surely, his fortunes began to turn — with a little luck, and some darn impressive play. His most remarkable decision came at the end of Day 6 — after dinner break, which he used to do laundry at the Vegas home of his poker-playing buddy, fellow Muskegon native Jordan Young, since Manion didn't consider to pack enough for an extended Main Event run. The suitcase tally included five T-shirts, two pairs of basketball shorts, two pairs of regular shorts, and eight days worth of underwear and socks. He's now been in Vegas for 13 days.
Back to the pivotal Day 6 hand: Facing a big raise, he folded pocket kings — the second-best starting hand in poker — having convinced himself his opponent's bet size meant he had to have pocket aces. Manion's intuition was correct, and he saved his tournament life and advanced to the final three tables. (The aces ended up losing anyway to pocket threes, which became trip threes on the flop.)
Professional poker players usually can count on one hand — some on one finger — how many times they've ever folded kings, pre-flop. Manion actually called it an easy decision.
"When you get that feeling that this is not a good situation to be in," he said, "then you have to go with your gut."
Kings would soon play an even bigger role in Manion's Main Event run.
With the field down to 10 players late Wednesday night, and the top nine guaranteed seven-figure paydays, Manion was conservative in protecting his decent-sized chip stack, playing very few hands most of the night.
That is, until he woke up to pocket aces. Facing an all-in from the shortest stack at the table, Yueqi Zhu, Manion also shoved all his chips in the middle — and, unbelievably, got called by another player, Antoine Labat.
The players flipped their hands — and both Zhu and Labat had pocket kings, leaving Manion more than a 95-percent favorite to win the hand before the flop even ran out. That hand, now the talk of the poker world, left Manion as the chip leader heading to the final table, busted Zhu and left Labat as the short stack (he busted out in ninth place).
"We were just hoping to make the final nine with just about 30 miillion chips just by blinding out," Manion said, with a laugh. "That was my goal.
"It's just crazy how this all happened."
Instead of his goal of 30 million chips, Manion — who when he got back to Young's house that night, had hundreds of Facebook notifications and countless text messages, all of which he tried to reply to before going to bed — began play Thursday with more than 100 million chips. And while he had a tough day Thursday, and is down to 72.25 million chips, he still is in second place — albeit more than 80 million chips behind the overwhelming leader, Michael Dyer.
'What the hell is going on?'
The championship is the endgame, of course, but it's worth noting, second place still pays $5 million, third $3.75 million, and fourth $2.825 million. The friend who bought Manion into the satellite tournaments, Jeremy Martin, also from Muskegon, will receive half of his winnings. Another hometown friend, Damon Chittenden, gets 3 percent (they swapped a piece of their Main Event winnings), and a fellow poker professional bought in for half-a-percent for $60. (That half-a-percent is now worth at least $9,000.) Manion gets to keep the remaining 46.5 percent in what is a pretty-standard arrangement for a tournament as expensive to get into as the $10,000 Main Event.
Of course, Manion hasn't seen a nickel of money yet, outside of $8,000 for wearing some poker-site patches on his shirts during televised play.
You don't get paid any of your poker earnings until you bust out, so as far as he's concerned, he's just fine holding off until late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, when the champion is expected to be crowned — the last player standing in a tournament that began with 7,874.
Sidebar: How do you receive such big winnings, anyway? Manion says you actually can request cash, but most players at this stage get it mostly in a wire transfer.
"I would love to make a bed out of it," said Manion, laughing, "and just lay on it and take the picture."
After that, he plans to start investing, with sights particularly set on real estate — his sister's husband is a builder. And, of course, he plans to continue playing poker, at the same stakes he's been playing the last few years. OK, maybe a bit higher stakes.
That's a topic for another day, though. For now, he'll continue enjoying this ride of a lifetime — an even more exhilarating ride than those snowmobiles he loves to race back home in West Michigan. His sister has joined him in Vegas, and several other buddies also were making the impromptu trip to cheer Manion on from his rail inside the Penn and Teller Theater at the Rio.
"And I just had another buddy just text me," Manion said. "He says, 'Hey, I'm in Vegas on a work thing: What the hell is going on?'"
Oh, you know, just playing a game — a game that doesn't seem so dumb anymore.