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Meet the Current Player of the Year Leader: Eric Baldwin

Eight Final Tables, Two Wins, and $1 Million in Winnings in 2009

by Kristy Arnett |  Published: Oct 02, 2009


Eric Baldwin
One man’s dreams of becoming a professional baseball player and competing in the World Series slowly faded during college as dreams of making his name in a different World Series were kindled. This summer, he not only realized his aspirations of winning a gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker, but also earned recognition as the best tournament poker player in the world thus far this year.

He is current Card Player 2009 Player of the Year leader Eric “basebaldy” Baldwin.

Baseball Comes First
Baldwin was born in Peoria, Illinois, but his family moved to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, when he was 2. They resided in “Packer Territory,” but his father was quick to teach him proper Illinois fan loyalty.

“He pretty much brainwashed me into becoming a Bears and Cubs fan,” said Baldwin with an infectious laugh as he adjusted his trademark Cubs baseball cap. “I’ve got a really close friendship with my dad. He’s my best friend, and I owe a lot to him.”

Throughout high school, Baldwin’s life revolved around baseball, but occasionally he found time to play cards with a few upperclassmen. As a freshman, Baldwin once left a friend’s house devastated after losing $200 playing “Between the Sheets,” a card game in which a player is shown two upcards and must guess whether or not the next card off the top of the deck will be in between the two cards. After the movie Rounders came out, the group started to play poker, and Baldwin fared much better in the skill-based games.

Four nights a week, Baldwin and his friends played $1-$2 no-limit hold’em or $2-$5 limit hold’em in a rotating schedule of basements. He quickly noticed trends of losing, winning, and break-even players.

“At first I thought I was just getting lucky, but then I realized that there were elements of skill involved, and that I was winning most of the time. That’s when I really became interested in the game.”

Baldwin began studying the game and identifying beginners’ mistakes. He says that new players often need to work on their bet-sizing. He finds that many players will often overbet their strong hands in an effort to protect them, but end up scaring away second-best hands, and underbet the pot with marginal hands and draws, inviting observant players to bluff them off these hands.

“Many beginners make poor starting-hand selections on a short stack. They will limp in or call preflop raises with small pairs and suited connectors. With a short stack, the implied odds are not high enough to justify playing these hands this way.”

After high school, Baldwin attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he played right field for the Warhawks. He started out majoring in chemistry, but switched to psychology. He searched for like-minded, laid-back poker players to start a regular home game with, but never found any. Instead, he stumbled into online poker.

“My first four-figure cash was in a $50 buy-in Omaha eight-or-better freezeout. I was so excited that I called pretty much everyone I was remotely friends with,” Baldwin recalled fondly.

He was hooked on tournaments. Coming from a competitive baseball background, he liked the idea of having a tangible measurement of success. There’s a finish line, and a clear goal — winning first place. He continued to play online, but never had a problem balancing it with school and baseball.

“He was very committed to baseball all year long,” said Baldwin’s college baseball coach, John Vodenlich. “He was a great hitter; he could hit for average and power. His ability to read the pitcher and mentally process the situation was unmatched. That’s probably why he is a good poker player.”

When Baldwin’s four years of baseball eligibility were over, he still had a year’s worth of credits left to finish his degree. Knowing that a job in clinical psychology wasn’t for him, and with no idea of what else to pursue, he decided to use his last year of college to attempt to make poker his career.

With a limited bankroll to start, he played $50 and $100 sit-and-gos. He’d build up a bankroll and take shots in bigger multitable tournaments (MTTs), and continued doing that until he “binked” (lingo used by online poker players, meaning “cashed”) in a couple of them. During that year, he won a satellite into a $5,000 PartyPoker tournament in the Bahamas, the Canadian Poker Championships. Out of the 103 players who began the tournament, Baldwin finished third, for $45,000, just behind Shannon Shorr.

“That was the turning point in my career. It gave me the bankroll I needed to really give it a good run, and I also met Shannon, who knows so many people in poker. We formed a group of friends, and that’s huge if you are going to be successful in the poker world.”

His core group of friends includes Shorr, Cody Slaubaugh, Adam Geyer, Justin Young, Zach Clark, and Mike Katz. They can be found together at nearly all marquis tournaments stops, and, of course, sweating one another at final tables. His first year proved successful enough for Baldwin to continue playing for a living, and after graduating, he spent the next couple of years living in Madison, Wisconsin, improving his game, playing online tournaments, and frequently traveling to big live tournaments.

Leading up to this year, Baldwin’s tournament highlights included two *WSOP *final-table finishes (one of which he bubbled the televised final table in 10th place), a win in a 2008 Five-Diamond World Poker Classic preliminary event for almost $150,000, and a Sunday $750,000-guaranteed tournament win on Full Tilt for more than $132,000 in December of 2008. Then, this year, he strung together a number of impressive deep runs to put himself among tournament poker’s elite.

2009 Recap So Far
Baldwin collected his first 2009 Player of the Year (POY) points in March, when he placed second in a $1,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em event at the Wynn Classic. He received $32,000 and 300 points. The following month, at the Five-Star World Poker Classic, he had two sixth-place finishes in prelim events, for 192 points. It was his win in The Venetian’s Deep-Stack Extravaganza II $2,500 buy-in main event that gave him his first big boost in POY points. He was awarded almost $200,000 and 1,008 points. His final table happened to be on the same day as the final table of the World Poker Tour Championship event, in which Shorr was still in contention.

“That was a fun day. I was bummed that I couldn’t watch, but after he finished fifth, they all came over to sweat me. They were a fun rail.”

Going into the WSOP, Baldwin was feeling good, but was swiftly slapped in the face by the reality of variance. He was zero for 13 — until event No. 34, $1,500 no-limit hold’em.

On day 1, Baldwin chipped up quickly. His day was quite uneventful until he ran into a big confrontation with Phil Hellmuth, in which he flopped top set (jacks) against Hellmuth’s nut-flush draw. Hellmuth check-called the flop and hit the nut flush on the turn.

“He checked the turn and then min-raised my bet. I just called. I thought he might have a flush, but with the min-raise, I was getting a good price, so I had to call,” said Baldwin. The river paired the board, and in the end, Hellmuth doubled up Baldwin. “That’s when the fireworks started. It was pretty entertaining. He was cursing the deck for pairing the board.”

With momentum going into day 2, Baldwin picked up speed with a few big hands, but at the end of the day, his tournament life was hanging by a one-outer. He was all in preflop with pocket jacks against K-J. His opponent caught a king on the flop, leaving Baldwin drawing to the last jack in the deck, which promptly hit on the river.

Going to the final table, Baldwin was second in chips. His family was unable to make it to Las Vegas for the final table, having already planned a trip to Vegas a few days later, but his college baseball coaches were there, including coach Vodenlich.

At one point during three-handed play, Baldwin was the chip leader and had a chance to take a player out to go to heads-up play with a 4-to-1 chip lead. Unfortunately for him, his opponent hit a seven-outer, putting Baldwin third in chips. Rather than lose patience, he continued to fight, and after pulling off a successful all-in bluff against James Taylor, he regained the chip lead.

“The two guys were tremendous players, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. You can’t just sit around and wait to make hands. You have to make some plays, and I was playing to win.”

Eventually, he was heads up against Jonas Klausen, and soon thereafter, Baldwin was sporting a bracelet on his wrist. He won $523,000 and 1,440 POY points.

Just a few days later, Baldwin entered the $10,000 buy-in pot-limit hold’em championship event, while his father played in the seniors event. It was a good week for the Baldwins. His father cashed, and Eric made another final table, despite having very limited experience in the game. Although it’s similar to no-limit, Baldwin said that he had to make some adjustments.

“There are no antes. You lose only one-and-a-half big blinds per orbit if you don’t play a hand, so you can tighten up. Also, when you are short-stacked, you can’t just go all in preflop, so it makes short-stack play more difficult. For the same reason, there’s less incentive to three-bet people unless you want them to call, because there’s just not as much in the middle. It comes down to a lot more post-flop, multi-street hands.”

Baldwin finished third, which was good for $260,000 in prize money and another 1,120 POY points, vaulting him into the top 10 on the POY leader board. After busting out of the WSOP main event, he went over to Caesars Palace to play in the $1,000 buy-in Mega Stack main event. He finished seventh, for $23,000 and 240 POY points. After these summer series were over, Russian Vitaly Lunkin was first in the POY race, just 37 points ahead of Baldwin. Then, in a preliminary event at the Legends of Poker at The Bicycle Casino, Baldwin finished third for 288 points, which moved him past Lunkin and into the top spot.

“After the World Series, when I realized I had a shot, I wanted to make a run at it, so I went to L.A. to play, and I’m not sure that I would have gone if I wasn’t in the running.”

Player of the Year Ambitions
The only task harder than getting to the top is staying on top, and Baldwin knows that he’s still got a lot of playing to do with the last quarter of the year remaining. With a plethora of POY qualifying tournaments filling the schedule, and dangerous players just a few points behind him, he says that he’s committed to playing more live events to try to increase his lead.

“I’ve been skipping Sundays of online poker to play live, which is something I definitely wouldn’t do if I wasn’t in this race.”

As one who strongly believes that luck is the result of preparation meeting opportunity, Baldwin has done well in setting himself up for success. The 27-year-old now lives with his high-school sweetheart in a Las Vegas home that he purchased with poker winnings, and he remains dedicated to continually evolving as a student of the game.

“I’m not going to lie, winning the Player of the Year race is something that I want, and I’m going to go after it. I’m sure that I’m still a huge underdog versus the field, but I’ve got a shot, and it’s fun, so I’m going for it.” Spade Suit

Eric Baldwin2

Baldwin’s Top Tips for Multitable Tournaments
Eric Baldwin has racked up more than $2 million in tournament winnings in a short time. Here are five of his tips for success:
1. Check your ego at the door. It will get you into battles you shouldn’t be in.
2. Be aware of your thoughts/mood/state of mind. If you are able to recognize negativity, you’ll be less likely to let it affect your play.
3. When you’re in the driver’s seat, drive! Play out your rushes. Others will not be playing optimally against you.
4. Preparation leads to confidence and success. Know what is likely to happen before it happens, and plan accordingly. 
5. Continually try to improve your game. Poker evolves rapidly. When you think you know it all, the game will pass you by. Spade Suit

Poker Curriculum
Eric Baldwin may compete in the biggest tournaments in the world now, but he didn’t start there. He dedicated himself to learning the game and took it as seriously as any of his college courses.

Baldwin devoured all of the latest poker books, and said that the Harrington on Hold’em series was the most influential.

“That was a big one for a lot of people. Then, as that evolved and all of the concepts got out there, it became a matter of playing off of those concepts and exploiting people who were making those plays.”

Study and Incorporate
As Baldwin moved from online poker to live tournaments, there were many adjustments that he needed to implement in his game.

“You can be a very successful online player by just being able to play well with less than 30 to 40 big blinds. But in order to make the transition to the bigger live tournaments, you definitely need to work on your deep-stack game. I got more into talking to my cash-game buddies and reading some cash-game books, even though I’m not playing cash games, just to incorporate that.”

Get a Study Group
Baldwin says that he owes a lot of his success to his friends. To get to the next level, it’s important to have a group of people with whom you can discuss hands and ideas.

“The guys with a lot of cash-game experience have taught me good spots to float and/or multi-street bluff. The tournament gurus have helped me realize that there are spots where the quality of your starting hand has very little importance. They’ve also taught me a lot about using stack sizes to put people in awkward situations.”
Challenge Yourself
To move up to higher buy-in tournaments, Baldwin had to learn, adapt, and challenge himself, even if it meant stepping out of his comfort zone.

“A key for me in moving up to higher buy-in tournaments was understanding preflop aggression and when to use it. Late in tournaments, knowing how to pick up pots preflop is essential to maintaining and building your stack. Another key was realizing that there are things to be learned from all different styles of play. Situations arise where it is optimal to play a style other than your normal one. Being able to play all different styles enables you to adapt to such situations. It also helps you to get into the heads of your opponents and realize what they are doing at the table.” Spade Suit