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David Baker - Cooks Up Recipe for Success

Learns Mixed Games to Win WSOP Gold

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Sep 03, 2010

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The 2010 World Series of Poker was dominated by young, successful online pros, looking to make a splash in the live-tournament arena. Players such as Carter Phillips, Jason DeWitt, Richard Ashby, Will Haydon, Jeff Papola, Shawn Busse, Ryan Welch, and Dan Kelly all were able to win their first career bracelets.

David Baker Cooks Up Recipe for SuccessBut it was David “Bakes” Baker who stood out from the pack. With more than $2.2 million in lifetime tournament earnings before this summer, he was considered to be one of the premier up-and-coming players in the online community. His bread and butter had been no-limit hold’em tournaments, with nearly all of his 140-plus tournament cashes over the past four years coming in that discipline.

That all changed this summer after Baker dedicated himself to learning mixed games, in order to get a better chance of winning a bracelet and to capitalize on the growth of high-stakes non-hold’em action.

Starting entirely from scratch, Baker began to play the eight-game tables on PokerStars almost night and day until he was one of the best. When the WSOP rolled around, he no longer had to wade through fields of 3,000 or more for a big payday. Instead, he concentrated on competing against the true greats of the game in much more manageable fields.

With everyone solid in no-limit hold’em, Baker found that there were numerous soft spots and plenty to exploit in the mixed games. The switch in strategy worked, and he now has not only a final-table appearance in the $50,000 Players Championship, but also his first WSOP bracelet in the $10,000 no-limit deuce-to-seven championship.

The Baker Background

Baker was born on Oct. 17, 1986, in Charlotte, North Carolina. In high school, he picked up poker, but it wasn’t until his freshman year at Michigan State University that he began to play the game for money. In fact, he experienced a tough learning curve, competing in home games against two future WSOP bracelet winners.

“In college, I was playing in small-stakes games with guys who would eventually go on to do really well in the poker world. I remember playing with Justin Scott and Dean Hamrick. It’s kind of cool that all these years later, that game has produced three bracelets. Those guys were really good players by that point, and I was just this freshman who was blowing my dad’s money on poker. It wasn’t until a year or so later that I became a winning player.”

Baker used his dad’s money to deposit online, and after a rough start, he was finally seeing his bankroll grow. Of course, success in poker meant that school would have to take a back seat.

“School was not going well. I had a bunch of credits already from my advanced-placement classes in high school, but I wasn’t exactly focusing on class. I think I started out with 13 credits in the fall, but by the spring semester, I was taking five.” Baker’s education at MSU was clearly going nowhere, so about six months later, he moved to Miami to take classes at the School of Audio Engineering.

“I was really into drumming in high school, as well as music, so it really made sense at the time. I enjoyed my time there, and I could definitely see myself making it a career, but the classes were scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., enabling me to continue playing online. Finally, I made a substantial score online.”

One decent cash wasn’t going to derail Baker’s education, but perhaps a few could. “I had never had more than $3,000 in my account, but all of a sudden, I was up to about $8,000 after some minor scores on Full Tilt. I was tempted to make a run at poker for a living, but the classes weren’t exactly rigorous and I could easily do both. A few days later, I won $30,000 on PokerStars and all of that flew out the window. I dropped out and turned pro.”

A Promising Start

Baker was only 20 years old when he made his first trip to Las Vegas. After receiving some coaching from bracelet winner and Deuces Cracked instructor Vanessa Selbst, Baker was offered a room at her house for the summer and spent his time playing online and cheering from the rail of the Rio.

After his 21st birthday, his natural inclination was to try his hand on the live-tournament circuit. “I had played a tournament series at Turning Stone Casino, but it was at Foxwoods that Team Waffle Crush decided to take me on as one of their horses.”

Team Waffle Crush, made up of players like Shaun Deeb, Thayer Rasmussen, Vivek Rajkumar, Ray Coburn, Jonathan Aguiar, Adam Shuman and others, decided to offer Baker a backing deal for big buy-in live tournaments. He immediately made them happy by cashing in the $10,000 main event.

Despite a great relationship with his backers, extenuating circumstances saw him dropped from Waffle Crush into the awaiting arms of high-stakes cash-game player Tom “durrrr” Dwan. “Tom was in the market for horses, and my name came up. Some other guys were into really heavy makeup to Team Waffle Crush and I wasn’t, so it was easier to let me go. Two tournaments later, I ended up chopping the $5,000 event at Bellagio’s Five-Star World Poker Classic for $250,000, and they were kicking themselves.”

So Close, Yet So Far

David BakerBaker continued to win online, racking up more than $1.5 million in tournament winnings during an 18-month stretch, but his live results were lacking. Whenever he got close, a rough stretch of cards or bad luck had him wondering what could have been. In 2009, after deep runs in both the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and WSOP $40,000 no-limit hold’em event, Baker had picked up more than $200,000 in cashes, but it was a far cry from what he could have won in those events. Despite the agonizingly close calls, Baker managed to stay positive.

“That’s something I try to do every day. I try to make the best decision at all times, and the only time that the money crosses my mind is when I’m judging how it affects my opponents.”

Baker Mixes it Up

No-limit hold’em had given Baker a career, but it also had given him heartache. With a newfound determination, he poured all of his energy and free time into learning the mixed games. He figured that with a little experience under his belt, not only could he make a run in some WSOP tournaments, but perhaps he could profit in the cash games, which is something that is becoming increasingly difficult to do in hold’em.

“I began with a bunch of pot-limit Omaha, and from there, I discovered the eight-game tab on PokerStars. There was a really bad player sitting in the games, and I decided to join him. I won a little bit, and then started to really study the games. I got hooked, and spent the past year just really grinding out those games, and even took some shots as high as $400-$800.”

When asked what makes these games so profitable, Baker explained that tilt is a major factor. “Just like in other games, people will overestimate their edges, but in the eight-game format, a lot of players have a hard time avoiding tilt. Players can still go on tilt in no-limit hold’em, but it’s much easier to recognize the problem and stop playing. It seems that in this format, players can go on tilt and really start to punt off some stacks without realizing it. Because you are playing more hands in those limit games, it’s much harder to go on autopilot with your decisions.”

The Young Gun Takes On the Old Guard

The $10,000 buy-in events at the World Series of Poker are generally reserved for specialists and the old-school veterans of the poker world, but Baker was able to turn a lot of heads with his breakout performances this summer.

“This is going to sound cocky, but I knew I’d eventually win a bracelet. It’s not like I’m getting tired of poker anytime soon, so I knew that eventually, all the stars would align and I’d get mine. It was just a matter of variance swinging back in the other direction.”

When asked what made the difference this time around, Baker made sure that all signs pointed back to his decision to learn the mixed games. “The thing about this year is that I learned to play all of those mixed games. I did fizzle out a bit last summer, but you have to understand the kind of tournaments I was playing in. Last year, the average field size I was competing in was somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 people. This year, that number was down to about 500. I was playing a much higher-variance schedule of events, and now I’m giving myself a better opportunity to come out on top with more consistency.”

Baker had ESPN producers scrambling for bio sheets when he made the final table of the $50,000 Players Championship to start the summer, eventually busting out in sixth place and earning $272,275. After a small cash, he broke through for his first bracelet, picking up $294,314 in the $10,000 no-limit deuce-to-seven championship. Then, in his self-admitted worst game, Baker nearly made another final table, finishing 15th in the $10,000 Omaha eight-or-better championship.

Baker was able to master no-limit deuce-to-seven, a game played primarily in Bobby’s Room, by picking up on bad habits and tendencies of some of the more seasoned pros, and finding ways to exploit them. “It’s a game that hasn’t been picked apart or really deeply analyzed as much as hold’em has. Sure, the greats in the game know what they are doing, but I wanted to make sure I positioned myself to compete on their level.”

In it for the Long Haul

The money he won was substantial, and the bracelet put him on the poker map, but Baker is just happy that he is finally getting some recognition for his skills. “Forget the finish and forget the money; it really felt good to be able to come into this Series as the online kid and leave with the respect of some of the best players in the world.”

Now that WSOP gold is in his possession, Baker is looking forward to what the next few years on the tournament circuit will bring. With the bar set high, he knows that it’s going to be difficult to top his summer success, but that won’t stop him from trying. “I said in my ESPN interview that I’d be the best player in the world in five years, so I’d better back it up.”

A Look at David Baker’s Big Scores

2008 PokerStars Super Tuesday first place $74,360
2008 WPT Five-Star World Poker Classic preliminary event second place $230,580
2008 PokerStars Sunday 500 first place $91,500
2009 PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) event No. 19 first place $215,000
2009 World Series of Poker $40,000 no-limit hold’em event 15th place $128,666
2010 Full Tilt Poker FTOPS XVI event No. 25 fifth place $125,000
2010 WSOP $50,000 Players Championship sixth place $272,275
2010 WSOP $10,000 deuce-to-seven lowball championship first place $294,314

Spade Suit

David Baker Breaks Down His Winning Deuce-to-Seven Lowball Strategy

There’s not a lot of literature available on deuce-to-seven no-limit single-draw lowball. In fact, most of the game’s best picked it up only after expensive lessons at the table. Billy Baxter runs a regular lowball game at Bellagio in Bobby’s Room, but finding the game at reasonable stakes is nearly impossible outside of online play.

If you don’t know, the game plays out as follows: Players at seven-handed tables are dealt five cards each, with the goal of making the lowest possible hand. Aces are high, and straights and flushes count against the players. This makes the best possible hand, or the wheel, 7-5-4-3-2. In no-limit single draw, a round of betting occurs after the cards are dealt. Any remaining players with a hand are then given the option of drawing one to five cards, or standing pat, keeping their original five cards. Another round of betting occurs before the lowest hand scoops the pot.

In this interview, David Baker explains some key concepts about the game that enabled him to win his first career bracelet.

Julio Rodriguez: There are similarities between “deuce” (no-limit deuce-to-seven lowball) and no-limit hold’em, in that position is very important. What were you able to notice about position in deuce?

David Baker: In no-limit hold’em, the aggressor is most often the player with the better hand, at least for the time being. In deuce, there is a strong emphasis on position, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the button has a better hand than anyone in the blinds. I noticed that out-of-position players were being too passive with their decent and good hands and draws, allowing players to check behind with rougher pat hands. This, of course, means that players are missing out on a lot of value. The key is to be able to make very thin value-bets when out of position in spots where you are likely to be called by worse hands.

JR: Were there any other tendencies that you were able to exploit?

DB: The main thing that I recognized is that people get very gun-shy about calling big all-in bets when they are either drawing to very good hands or holding decent pat hands. I noticed that a lot of players were more than willing to three-bet with garbage pat hands, like rough tens or jacks, but not willing to go all the way with them. Basically, they are opening themselves up to be exploited by someone like me, who is capable of four-betting very wide.

David Baker Cooks Up Recipe for SuccessThat’s not to say that three-betting and folding is that bad a strategy against the average player in the field. The average player in the field is not willing to four-bet wide. Most players in that situation get three-bet and call in position, and usually draw one when the preflop aggressor stands pat. But then they are at the mercy of their draw and the action of their opponent.

Instead of playing that way, I decided to take control of each pot I was in, and I dictated the action. If I felt that they were three-betting me with a pat 10, I had no problem sticking it in with four cards to a 7, 8, or 9, because I knew that most of the time, I wasn’t getting called.

JR: Basically, you played your hands in a way that maximized the pressure on their stacks.

DB: Think about it from their perspective. The big stack at the table just raised their button again, and they three-bet with their pat 10 to show him that they weren’t going to let him run them over. Then, he four-bet them for their stack, and they were left with a tough and uncomfortable decision to make. Do they call off for the rest of their chips? If they do, do they stand pat or break their hand? It’s a situation that happens often in this game, yet I didn’t see a ton of players taking advantage of it.

It’s this game’s version of a semibluff, but what is a semibluff, anyway? In hold’em, most people recognize that two overcards and a flush draw isn’t really a semibluff anymore; it’s the best hand.

JR: Some players would argue that with a hand as strong as four cards to a 7, perhaps you are losing value by pushing opponents off their hands before the draw. They would say that you should be calling, hoping to hit your 7 in order to win a bigger pot from a worse pat hand.

DB: Pat tens and jacks make up 85 percent of pat hands. Needless to say, it’s difficult to be dealt pat nines or better. You can’t compare being dealt the wheel to being dealt pocket aces in hold’em. It’s actually closer to being dealt a straight flush. Basically, for someone to make a strong hand and for me to draw to a better one is so improbable that you can almost throw it out the window. The only time that I might make that play is against a very aggressive player. There might be some value in making your hand and getting bluffed into, especially if the player is likely to have snow.

For me, it was very important that I won pots without a showdown before the draw, and I made sure that I had the best hand at showdown after the draw. I made sure that I played most, if not all, of my premium draws very fast, and I tried to avoid any situation that forced me to make a tough decision with a rough hand.

JR: Speaking of tough situations, many spectators were impressed by the calls that some players were making with paired hands. Did you have to make any hero calls such as those during your tournament run?

DB: My style of play generally kept me out of those situations, but I’m not too impressed by those plays, anyway. First of all, you are almost never getting a good price to call those bets. This is a two-street game, so unlike triple draw, you aren’t generally getting 5-1 or 6-1 on your call to make it profitable in the long run. Second of all, if you are that suspicious of your opponent’s bet to consider calling with a small pair, why not raise instead, getting a hand like an ace or a king to fold? That’s another thing that I didn’t see much. People were very afraid to bluff-raise post-draw, despite the fact that it’s an extreme sign of strength.

I’m not going to say that I’ve discovered any new secrets about the game, but I can acknowledge that I noticed very specific patterns in the “old school” way of play that I was able to exploit. This time around, it led to my first bracelet. Spade Suit