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Capture the Flag: Where Top Cash-Game Pros Talk Strategy

Billy Baxter

by Lizzy Harrison |  Published: Apr 09, 2008


Billy Baxter turned the phrase professional poker player into a legitimate job title decades ago when he stood up to the Internal Revenue Service. In William E. Baxter v. the United States, a Nevada judge ruled that Baxter's gambling income was not unearned income (which could be heavily taxed). The judge decided that Baxter had earned his poker winnings and that they should be taxed as any other earned income would be. Baxter has made his living as a professional poker player to this day, in part thanks to that landmark decision. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2006.

Lizzy Harrison: What factors make for a good cash game?

Billy Baxter: A lot of bad players and a lot of money on the table; you do not see that very often, but it does make for a good poker game. What you should look for in a game is a variation that you like with some decent money on the table. If you are lucky, you will find some bad players at that table.

LH: What is your preferred game, and why?

BB: Back when I started playing poker, the most popular game was no-limit deuce-to-seven single draw. Obviously, that is my favorite game, since I started with it. I really like playing all kinds of lowball, though. I am kind of in a time warp. I had quit playing poker back in 1985 and moved back to Georgia. I thought that I had done all that I wanted to do in the poker world. I thought I was done with gambling altogether, for that matter. I ended up moving back out here [to Las Vegas] in the '90s, and the first thing I noticed was that they had made everyone quit smoking in the poker rooms. That was one thing I had hated about poker rooms, the smoking! So, I started playing poker again. Poker now is more popular than ever, and to me, playing poker is like going to the golf course; it is fun.

LH: When you are playing for fun, how do you select the stakes that you play?

BB: Well, I always prefer to play no-limit poker, no matter what game I am playing. Lately, though, around here, there have been a lot of mixed games and lowball games; those are mostly limit. I have been playing $400-$800 and $600-$1,200 at Bellagio lately, mostly those new games like badugi and triple-draw deuce-to-seven. All of those weird games are very popular now.

LH: What are the highest stakes you have ever played?

BB: I have played in what was the biggest game ever, if you compare the value of a dollar in the '70s to the value of a dollar today. We played no-limit deuce-to-seven with $1,000-$2,000 blinds and a $500 ante. Doyle Brunson, Bobby Baldwin, Major Riddle, and Jimmy Chagra, the infamous drug dealer, all played in that game back in the '70s seventies. Chagra had deep pockets; he would show up at the poker table with duffle bags full of cash. He always brought his money in duffle bags.

LH: How should a player determine when he is ready to move up in stakes?

BB: When you start beating the game that you have been playing in, and you can financially move to the next game, you should always try to move up to the next level.

LH: What is the most common mistake you see inexperienced cash-game players make?

BB: I do not usually like to talk like this in front of a lady, but there is an old saying in the game in regard to novices: "They eat like a bird and s—- like an elephant!" That means that when they win money, they win only a little bit, but when they lose money, they lose it all.

LH: What skills are more important in cash games than they are in tournaments?

BB: We hit on it just a second ago, money management. One of the main skills that a cash-game player needs is the ability to maximize winnings and minimize losses. Another important skill is choosing to play in games in which you know that you are the favorite. You have to know it; you cannot just think it. That is another problem: A lot of people do not know when they have the best of it and when they have the worst of it. That is what separates the poker players who are successful from those who are not successful.

LH: What advice would you give a successful tournament player if he wanted to move into the cash-game arena?

BB: I would tell him that he really just has to put his foot into the water to play in a cash game. A lot of these tournament players play tournament poker very well, but are absolutely terrible when they try to play in the cash games. The reason behind that is that it takes an entirely different mentality. Having to reach into your own pocket to take out some more of your money when you lose is hard; some of the tournament players just cannot handle that. Tournament players are very fearless when they are playing an event, as all they can lose is a set amount, maybe $10,000. When players like that get into a cash game, where they can easily lose $40,000 or $50,000, they really do not handle it very well.

LH: What characteristics do great cash-game players share?

BB: First of all, all great cash-game players have heart. They also have game-selection ability. Great players play for the money, and they know who the losers are in their games. There are winners and losers in every walk of life, and it really does not take long to figure out who the winners are and who the losers are, especially at the cash-game tables.

LH: Which cash-game players do you most respect, and why?

BB: You know, I am kind of an old-timer, so I guess I have to go back a few decades. I have to give the good players their due respect. Doyle Brunson was, and still is, a great cash-game player. Obviously, Chip Reese was one of the best. There was one gentleman who was the hardest guy who ever lived to beat out of his money. He is dead now, and you might not be familiar with him, but his name was Fred Ferris. We called him Sarge. He is in the Poker Hall of Fame; he was inducted in the late '80s , and his picture is on the wall. He was really a great cash-game player; it was not so much that he played all of the games well, but he was just tenacious and hard to beat out of his money. But, obviously, there are some very good new cash-game players around. Phil Ivey is a pretty good player.