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Capture the Flag - David Benefield

by Brian Pempus |  Published: Feb 18, 2011

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Poker pro David “Raptor” Benefield’s rise to notoriety is the average grinder’s fairy tale. The 24-year-old Benefield, who started playing the game in high school with friends, is a deposited-$50-and-never-redeposited poker fable.
The Full Tilt Poker and CardRunners pro grew up “consumed with sports,” playing about 10 games of baseball per week from the age of 8 up until high school. His parents didn’t let him watch TV when he was young, so he turned his efforts to sports and reading. His competitive nature began to take its roots, only to intensify after a shoulder injury forced him away from the sport he loved.
Benefield began playing sit-and-gos online before eventually making the transition to $2-$4 no-limit hold’em. After the switch to cash games, his career exploded, and it wasn’t long before a 21-year-old kid from Forth Worth, Texas, was sitting in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio, playing $500-$1,000 pot-limit Omaha.
Benefield has won millions on the virtual felt over the span of his short poker career. However, during his run of success at the tables, he made the decision in the fall of 2009 to attend college and move away from the full-time poker grind.
Card Player caught up with Benefield, who makes occasional appearances in the nosebleed-stakes games these days, to discuss the break that he took from the game, his current $1.3 million downswing, and his plans for the future.
Brian Pempus: Can you talk about your shoulder injury in high school? What was it like to give up baseball? Did the injury spark a passion for poker?
David Benefield: The shoulder injury started me in the right direction for dealing with loss. I played baseball my whole life, up through high school, and had aspirations of playing in college or going pro. I realized that I would never be the same player I was before the injury, and I had to accept that and move on. Around that time, I started taking poker very seriously. I have always been the type to devote myself completely to something until I master it, and poker was no different. I was lucky to grow up in a good family, as I never had to experience much hardship. The shoulder injury was the first big blow for me, but it probably helped me deal with future losses in poker better. Coming back from a loss makes us stronger. It shows that we are tough enough to lose but still come back. I was, and always will be, a competitor. Some people break after experiencing a big loss, and that is why a lot of people can’t handle high-stakes poker, even though they may be good enough. Being able to sleep at night and come back the next day and win is not an easy thing to do after a $500,000 or $1 million loss.
BP: Can you discuss your desire to end your career as a full-time poker pro in 2009? Was it based on your desire to attend college? How did you eventually re-enter the poker world?
DB: In the fall of 2009, I returned to school and took the first semester off completely from poker. I wanted to get involved in school and make sure that I had time for my studies. Before that, I hadn’t really taken that many breaks; a week or two here and there, at most. I decided that I couldn’t and didn’t want to see myself playing poker full time 10 or 20 years in the future. A lot of people think that it’s the ideal life, and it could be for them. I need more human interaction — more making a difference in people’s lives. As such, I figured that going back to school was the logical step, and stepping away from poker a bit was the best way to further my education. Before the break, I was playing $200-$400 fairly consistently. I didn’t leave a ton of money online, so I came back and started playing $25-$50 pot-limit Omaha, and ran pretty well. A couple of weeks later, I took a shot at $200-$400 heads-up play, and won around $450,000. That got me back on track for the high-stakes games. I don’t think I got rusty during the break, but maybe I lost something. Who knows? I have always analyzed every session after playing, and tried to figure out the holes I need to fill and the flaws I can exploit in my opponents.
BP: What is your poker career like now? What are your preferred stakes to play? What is your best game right now?
DB: I play occasionally, when the games are good or I can get some heads-up action. I am probably not as good as I would be if I had been playing full time for the last year and a half, but I am still successful, and I play enough to keep some money flowing in. During the school year, I play probably three hours maximum during the week. I spend a lot of time and effort on my studies, trying to learn as much as I can, so I don’t get to put in too many hours. I wake up early and go to bed early, which is a stark contrast to my days as a poker pro. I am a sophomore right now, studying classics and philosophy at St. John’s College. I read a lot and translate ancient Greek, then argue with my classmates over Plato and Aristotle. I will be transferring next year, though.
I don’t really have a preferred game or stakes. I like playing in good games, but I also don’t mind playing with people who may be better than me, to figure out why they may be better. I try to do this at lower stakes, though. These days, I am not really sure what my best game is. I certainly know more about heads-up no-limit hold’em than I do about pot-limit Omaha, but I make a lot more money playing pot-limit Omaha. There are a lot of good no-limit hold’em players out there, so it is easier to find soft spots in pot-limit Omaha. I have been playing quite a bit of the 10-game mix, trying to learn every variation of poker. Deuce-to-seven triple draw is pretty popular at the higher stakes these days, but I am far from good enough to start playing there yet.
BP: Can you talk about the current state of online cash games? How have online cash games changed since you first emerged on the scene? Who are your closest friends in the poker world? Who are some of your toughest opponents?
DB: Online cash games are definitely getting tougher, but there are still plenty of soft spots out there, probably in pot-limit Omaha and deuce-to-seven triple draw. Online games have changed a ton since I started playing. Everyone has a basic idea of how to play now, and most people who play $2-$4 and higher are very good. There are very small differences separating the medium-stakes guys from the high-stakes guys, and these differences are not in technical knowledge of the game. When I first started playing, most people didn’t have a clue. A solid, winning $2-$4 no-limit hold’em player today would crush $50-$100 no-limit hold’em five years ago.
The people I speak with the most these days are Hac and Di Dang. They have helped me a ton with my game over the years, and we are pretty close. Phil Galfond is also a close friend, and has been since my $10 sit-and-go days. I lived with Tom Dwan a few years ago and watched him play pretty much every day for more than a year, and I probably learned more by watching him play and talking about hands than anything else. My toughest opponent seems to be [Scott] “URnotINdanger2” [Palmer]. I can’t really seem to beat him lately.
BP: How have you dealt with the downswings in your poker career? What have been some of the worst downswings that you’ve had in the past? Have you ever been close to going broke?
DB: I have dealt with downswings well and not well, although I have gotten considerably better at it over the years. The worst downswing is the one I am currently in — around $1.3 million. 2010 was a really profitable year, even though I managed to drop more than $1 million toward the end of the year. It wasn’t a good way to finish the year. I have never been close to going broke, as I have lots of investments that I won’t ever touch for poker. Whatever I have in my Full Tilt Poker account is what I can lose, and once I invest money, it is there for my life, not for poker. I don’t have a problem with moving down in stakes for a couple of months to rebuild. It helps me sleep at night. I sell pieces occasionally, although it is more to get a reciprocal piece, not because the game is too big. This helps spread out some variance and enables me to still make money when I am not playing.
BP: What are your goals for the future? Do you see yourself being a poker player deep into your life?
DB: My future goal is to find a path that leads to happiness. I doubt that it will be poker, but I don’t know. I could see myself teaching or coaching baseball, but that probably wouldn’t be my full-time profession. I am transferring schools so that I can study economics, so we will see where that leads. Sustainable energy is really interesting to me, as well. I have a friend who used to be a great poker player who started a green-energy consulting company, and I think that is really cool. ♠