Greg Raymer: A World Champion Fossilized in Time

10,000 years or 10 million years? There’s no telling, exactly, how long it takes a fossil to form. For ages, archeologists have believed the process took tens of thousands of years, if not millions. Things like skeletons, teeth and shells to become forever preserved in their petrified form. That line of thinking has changed drastically in recent years, though, as some researchers now claim fossilization happens much sooner. Their belief is it must be a rapid process, of a few hours to a few months, if it’s to occur before decay destroys any record of the organism. Greg Raymer may not be a scientist by trade, but he does hold a Master’s degree in biochemistry.

Greg Raymer

When it comes to the science of poker, he’s already solved some of the world’s toughest equations. How to become a world champion? Solved. How to launch yourself as one of the most recognizable faces in the game? Solved. And, on the topic of how long it takes for a shell to become a fossil, he’s got the answer for that too — precisely 15 years.

“They called me ‘Shell’ in my college fraternity after the TV commercials,” Raymer said. Recalling a series of vintage television ads from Shell Oil featuring a character called the ‘Answer Man.’

I used to have guys lined up outside my dorm room to help with their homework. I’m good at explaining things. At helping people understand things they don’t quite get, and I enjoy doing it. I would have become a teacher if there wasn’t so little money in that profession. It doesn’t pay well, so I pursued other options.

Greg Raymer was cramming in a lot of homework in the late eighties and early nineties, when he earned not one, but two advanced degrees from the University of Minnesota (M.S. Biochemistry, 1989 & Law, 1992). This was before practicing law as a patent attorney for the next dozen years. One of the options he was pursuing along the way was the game of poker. He became pretty good at it and, at the age of 39, stunned the world by winning the 2004 World Series of Poker main event. His life changed forever. Once nicknamed ’Shell’ by his frat buddies at Kappa Sigma, the entire poker world now knew him as the ‘FossilMan.’

It took him 15 years to turn a shell into a fossil, from his college days in Minnesota to the bright lights of the world championship in Las Vegas. And his timing couldn’t have been better. Remember, Chris Moneymaker had only just triggered the poker boom a year earlier by claiming the 2003 world championship. He was unknown, unsung and unheralded at the time. But had the perfect name for a card player, Moneymaker. He proved everyone wrong by outlasting 838 others for the title, including the legendary Sammy Farha heads-up. The Tennessee accountant, who had qualified for the tournament through an online satellite, had just turned his $39 entry fee into a cool $2.5 million.

Chris Moneymaker

Poker players everywhere, even non gamblers, thought to themselves, “If he’s doing that, so can I,”. The so-called ‘Moneymaker Effect’ was in full bloom. By the time the 2004 WSOP rolled around, the game had exploded. The main event drew a then record field of 2,576 players. It generated a record prize pool as well. After several days of intense Texas Hold’em action, and after his full house bettered David Williams’ smaller full house on the final hand, Greg Raymer had his arms raised in victory. Like that, he was $5 million richer. And poker’s world champ. Was he over awed by the occasion? No.

“It’s like anytime you have a victory in anything, whether it’s beating your buddy in a game of chess or winning a little league baseball game, it’s the same kind of feeling. It’s only amplified because of the scenario,” he said.

Born in Minot, North Dakota and raised in Michigan, Florida, and Missouri, the 55-year old now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s had plenty of time to reflect on that championship run nearly two decades ago. He likes the sporting analogy.

“If you’re a gymnast and you beat another team at a high school gymnastics meet, you’ll feel great, like you’ve accomplished your goal. Now, if you win the Olympic gold medal, you’ll get the same type of emotion but it’s a hundred or even a thousand times stronger because the Olympics are so much more significant. It’s not that the feeling is different, it’s just… more.”

The Infamous Sunglasses

Raymer’s championship run was epic and certainly more iconic than most. Not only did he manage to build a huge chip stack early on in the tournament and successfully use it as a weapon to bully his competition, but he also introduced us to one of the most ominous and domineering poker faces ever. Who can forget those sunglasses with the holographic reptilian eyes? They were spooky, to say the least, and his opponents admitted as much. Some just couldn’t handle it, and their chips became his.

Greg Raymer Sunglasses

When the final card was dealt, Greg Raymer let out a primordial scream. It was the kind that tells everyone in the building you’ve reached the game’s pinnacle. That you’ve climbed to the top of the poker mountain, and that you’ve achieved fame and fortune. It was the kind of scream millions of others can only dream about. He was poker’s new hero. Despite the attention, the transition from patent attorney to international poker celebrity has been relatively easy for him.

“I know for some other champions, or guys who have won major tournaments since the poker boom, it hasn’t been an easy adjustment. They’re not comfortable with the attention. They’re not comfortable, even after years of it. When fans come up to ask for photos or autographs or just want to talk to them, it’s just not a comfortable situation. I think it might be in my genetics. It just happens to be my disposition, and I seem to handle it quite naturally.”

A Timeline of Success

The ‘FossilMan’ doesn’t don the reptilian eyewear much anymore, but he continues to see clearly at the poker table. Raymer has won $8 million lifetime, or $3 million more than his main event haul in ’04. His results are proof he plays at the highest level. He seems to find his best stuff when it matters most, at the World Series of Poker. He’s cashed close to 50 times and reached eight final tables.

Remarkably, a year after being crowned world champion, Raymer almost retained the title by going back-to-back. It was a valiant effort. He placed 25th out of 5,619 players for $304,680, his third largest payday ever. Raymer’s second largest score ($774,927) came at the 2009 WSOP. He finished third in a special $40,000 buy-in event to commemorate the WSOP’s 40th anniversary. It was a super tough field and the final table was star-studded, featuring the likes of Ted Forrest, Isaac Haxton and Justin Bonomo.

Among his other notable finishes at the WSOP:

  • Back-to-back final tables in Seven Card Stud in 2007 (4th in Stud Hi/Lo & 6th in Stud)
  • Final table in No-Limit Hold’em in 2005 (6th)
  • A very deep run in the $10,000 world championship of No Limit Deuce to Seven in 2011 (9th)

Poker in the Heartland

In 2012, he won an unprecedented four titles on the Heartland Poker Tour. He was overwhelmingly named the HPT’s ‘Player of the Year.’ He must love that series of events because back in January, just before the worldwide coronavirus lock down, he pocketed close to $200,000 for winning an HPT event in Chicago.

Heartland Poker Tour Logo

Affable, engaging, and quick-witted, Greg Raymer is sponsored by the eyewear company Blue Shark Optics. He is also a supporter of the cause, fighting for legal, regulated online poker in America, and has also written the highly-touted book FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, published by D&B (dandbpublishing.com).  Learn even more about Greg at fossilmanpoker.com.

Why Fossilman?

It all started at a rock and minerals show in San Diego. His wife wanted to have a look at some gemstones, so Raymer accompanied her to the exhibit and the rest, they say, is history. Once there, he stumbled upon a palm-sized fossil, found it appealing and thought it would make a great card protector. It was cheap, too.

“So, here’s this cool little piece of stone, with a little fossil in it, basically a polished piece of marble, and you can see this pattern in the fossil. It’s essentially a seashell from over 300 million years ago. The players in the poker room all thought it was pretty interesting. I tell them how old it is, and they think it must have be worth a fortune.”

Sensing a business opportunity, Greg Raymer returned to the show to buy more. He started selling them at the table. And they were a hit.

So, whatever city I was playing in, I’d just make it a hobby to search out and purchase fossils I think would make good card protectors and I’d just have them sitting at the table. Naturally, people get bored and ask questions. I’d tell them, ‘this is 10 million years old’ or ‘this is 100 million years old’ and then would just casually mention, ‘Oh, by the way, I sell them too.’

Of course, that was all before he won the world championship. Yes, he still sells fossils on his website, but nowadays Raymer will autograph them and sign them over to any player lucky enough to bust him from a tournament.

“If I win the tournament, I sign the fossil and put it on my trophy case,” he said, with the ink yet to dry following his win in the Windy City.

The Final Hand

The anatomy of a winning hand is hard to explain, especially when it happens on the biggest stage of all. But Raymer’s education and experience allows him to do it quite eloquently.

“It took me a moment to realize I had won,” he admits, reflecting on that final hand back in 2004, the one that changed his life and his bank balance forever.

Wearing his reptilian glasses, and protecting his cards with a fossil, Greg Raymer was perched in the four-seat with David Williams, his heads-up opponent, to his left in the seven-seat. Raymer was dealt pocket eights and was dominating Williams’ holding of an ace and a four. The board ran out 4, 2, 5, 2, 2, leaving both players with a full house, but Raymer’s was higher.

“Matt Savage was the tournament director that year, and was standing over the dealer’s shoulder. So, when the river card was dealt and I decided to push all my chips in the middle, I looked at Matt to verbalize it clearly. I wasn’t going to say it quietly, I wanted him to hear me clearly, to avoid any chance of a bad ruling. I didn’t want to say it to David or the dealer. Of course they needed to know, but my concern was Matt Savage. Nothing could go wrong if he heard me. So, I glanced up at him, which means I’ve pointed my face away from David, and announced, ‘All In!’. Before I could turn my head 90 degrees to look at David, he’s already snap-called me and turned his hand face up.”

A quick call like that is not usually a good sign for the person who shoves, and Raymer actually thought he had lost the hand. Lucky for him, the agony is short. After a few seconds of analyzing the board, he realizes he is the winner. He bellows out that primordial scream, and shakes hands with Williams. He then sits down for the winner’s photo, where he surrounds himself by bricks of cash. $5 million worth. Before politely handling the post-match interviews.

Greg Raymer 2004

Great memories for Greg Raymer, flashbacks fossilized in time.

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver Dewan is the founder of High Roller Radio and has interviewed a number of the world's top poker players and gamblers. A former radio and television broadcaster, Derrick was brand manager for Poker Pro Canada magazine and has written for a variety of publications, including the Toronto Star & Windsor Life.

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