David Benefield is a 26 year old online pro who has been crushing the high stakes NLHE and PLO games for many years playing both heads-up and short-handed games. He has won millions but decided to take a break from poker to become a full-time student. We can, however, see him at the high stakes tables again as he has currently taken some time off from studying. He is currently in Macau playing the big live cash games there. In this interview he discusses his rise in the game, his toughest opponents, the state of cash games at the moment, and balancing studying with poker amongst other interesting topics.
Hi David. Thanks a lot for allowing me to interview you. You were active within the high stakes community over a few years playing the biggest games online at both NLHE and PLO. Could you please explain how you started and have risen through the ranks to play the nosebleed stakes?
I started playing poker in 2002 with some friends around the coffee table. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I ordered a few books and began posting on 2+2. I played in some underground games in Dallas on and off until I turned 18 and was able to play online. I started out as a sit and go player, but switched over to NLHE online in 2005. I generally grinded $3/$6 with occasional $10/$20 shots here and there. I continued with this method all the way up in stakes. I would take shots in good games even if I only had 6-8 buy-ins for that game. I would fire one barrel and if I lost, I didn’t have a problem dropping back down in stakes to rebuild. Eventually, I hit a hot streak and never really had to go back down.
It seems like many pros are not scared to take shots at bigger games and move back down. I think a great deal of discipline is needed to move down in such a situation. What sort of bankroll management did you have, and do you think anyone was really rolled to play as high as $500/$1000 HU?
I think the bankroll requirements for 2-3 nosebleeds are a little different than 12 tabling $5/$10. $500/$1k doesn’t run very often. It also doesn’t run on very many tables. As such, it is reasonable to expect many people to take shots without having a 100 buy-in bankroll. The ability to realize when you have a massive edge and being willing to take the controlled risk is important in maximizing EV. I think controlled shot taking is the most important aspect (aside from actually getting good at poker) in moving up in stakes.
I never liked having a lot of money in my online poker accounts. Whatever money I had on what usually what I ran up from a smaller amount, like $50k. It made it psychologically easier for me to take shots with this method. I liked pulling money offline a lot and putting it into accounts that couldn’t be touched by poker. I never had to worry about going busto in life because of poker, and it made it easier for me to deal with the big swings.
That seems a very sensible thing to do at a young age thinking about the future. Do you prefer playing heads-up or ring games?
I love playing HU. Something about 1on1 competition has always appealed to me. It turns into a much more psychological game if you are playing multiple tables against the same opponent for hours on end. I stopped getting HUNL action a few years ago (though I am sure I would get tons now) so I started playing PLO. HUPLO is a really interesting game, and I feel like I am finally starting to figure out how it works. I generally find ring games boring. I don’t like folding.
I guess that’s the way many HU players feel when they are playing a shallow stack ring game. There is not too much action at heads-up nowadays with all the bumhunting. What do you think should be done to solve or limit this problem?
I look at this from two points of view. Part of me wants to say the system is unfair. 300 people sitting alone HU waiting for a giant fish seems broken. It allows an average, lower stakes player to camp out on higher stakes tables waiting for a giant fish that will provide him a huge hourly rate and low variance. I think that the better players should have first access to these tables, something like the king of the hill format. I think this would create a little bit more action, and it would allow the better players that have put in the time first access to the easier money. If you want to play with a fish, you have to fight for the HU tables first.
You can also argue that everyone should have the ability to play against the fish, and anyone that wants to play HU should be able to. The king of the hill format is hugely biased towards the good players, meaning average players have to drop way down in stakes in order to camp out and get action. I also understand how this system could be viewed as unfair. For the poker site, whichever option creates the most action (which leads to paying more rake) is the best, and neither of these systems really do that.
I think a cool solution is removing the HU tables completely in the traditional sense. Only 6-max and full ring tables would exist in the lobby for players to sit. In order to create a HU match, there would be an anonymous button next to every player name that you could click, similar to the add table button already in use at FTP heads up tables. If both players click the button, a HU table is created with the option to add tables. This stimulates action at the 6-max tables as well as allowing all the HU players the ability to play their game if they desire. Is it a perfect solution? Probably not, but I think it is a good start.
You raise some interesting points and I think the sites should definitely consider trialing one of the ideas you suggested. We often saw you waiting at the tables to try and get some action. Will you play anyone?
I haven’t played much online since Black Friday. I know the game has changed a lot and the players are getting tougher and tougher. I also assume that my game has not progressed as much and has possibly even gotten worse. I have kept up over the last 18 months talking about hand histories with friends and sweating games from time to time, but it is no substitute for playing full time. I just reopened my FTP account yesterday and have been trying to run up a bankroll. So far I am getting a lot of action, but I haven’t played higher than $25/$50.
To answer the ‘will I play anyone’ question… probably not. I haven’t played NLHE seriously HU in a few years. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it recently, and I would imagine I am pretty rusty. I will definitely multi-table anyone at smaller stakes, but I don’t want to jump into the nosebleeds and start battling the superstars just yet. In PLO I am more confident with my game, but I still am not ready to jump into the highest stakes games and play anyone. That said, I think I will battle anyone at $25/$50 or smaller.
It seems like there have been a few people who have risen through the ranks to become ‘superstar’ players whilst you were away from the game. Who have been the toughest opponents you’ve played?
I think a lot of players are really tough at NLHE. URnotINdanger2 beat me up a bit before Black Friday, as did Jungleman12. I played Kanu a bit on FTP and he was always super tough too. Gus Hansen won all my money at HUPLO, so he is probably the most tough.
Kanu seems to be respected as one of the best HUNL players in the world but wasn’t really battling it out at the nosebleed stakes when you were playing on FTP. I’m surprised to hear Gus is your toughest opponent in HU PLO as many pros are licking their lips to play him; what aspect of his game did you have trouble with?
Kanu and I played a bit of $50/$100 a couple years ago on FTP. I didn’t actually know it was him until like a week ago.
My comment about Gus was a little tongue in cheek. He’s up more than anyone else against me, but most of our hands were at $500/$1k so a high level of variance is to be expected. He is definitely tough when he is playing his best game. In CAP PLO, he is extremely aggressive which makes him tough to beat when he is hitting hands.
It is well documented that you and Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan lived together for a period of time. I’m sure he would be willing to play Gus heads-up. What particular advice did the New Jersey Wonder Kid give you?
Hah. Tom never really did much game selection. As far as advice, he never really sat me down and said ‘David do this xxx’, but I used to watch him play a lot and it really helped me improve my game. He plays a radically different style than I do, so it was great getting to see and understand how he plays. I think one of the best ways to improve as a poker player is to have a good friend that is also eager to improve. Always having a critic close by to tell you when you mess up or help you come up with new ideas for how to play is a phenomenal resource.
I fully agree that having a close group of poker friends can certainly help a player progress in his game. You have many friends who are top high stakes pros. Which of them has been the most influential for you in terms of improving your game?
Other than Tom, I would say Phil Galfond probably helped me improve the most. I have known him since 2004 and he has always been awesome at talking about hands or listening to bad beat stories. It is hard to pick favorites, so many people have helped me improve along the way.
A few of your friends have also made a stopover in Macau to play the big cash games there. Is this your first experience over there and what stakes are you playing? How have the games been so far?
This is my second trip to Macau. I stopped by for a week after my summer in Beijing. I have played stakes ranging from HKD $300/$600 to HKD $20k/$40k. Some games are good, some are bad. Unfortunately, the good games are next to impossible to get into for Westerners.
It must be hard getting motivated to play tournaments when you are having massive swings on a daily basis in the cash games you play. I have heard that you would really like to win a bracelet so are you considering playing more tournaments in the future?
I think the whole bracelet thing was something I thought was a big deal when I was a lot younger, in a “hey guys look I have a bracelet!” sort of way. I really want to win a tournament, but if there is more $EV in cash games I will play those instead. I don’t really enjoy tournaments, but I still think winning one would be pretty cool.
Hopefully it won’t be too long before we see you with a bracelet. Why did you decide to stop playing poker and go back to studying full-time? Most people would not understand why someone who has made over $5 million at such a young age would go back to school.
I don’t think I was very happy playing poker full time. I made enough money that I felt it was ok to take some time and figure out what I wanted out of life. I didn’t really know where to start, but finishing school seemed like a decent option. I did 3 years, and am taking a year off to play a little poker. I plan to return to school next fall, and should be able to graduate in 2 semesters. After that, I don’t really have a plan.
How have you found the college experience so far and which college are you at?
I am at Columbia University in NYC. My college experience is probably a lot different than most. I don’t really party or get super involved with on campus activities. I live about 30 minutes away from campus and am there only to go to class and study. My life exists outside of school. That said, I have met a ton of super smart, really interesting people at school that will remain close friends for a long time.
Wow. You are academically very smart as well then going to an Ivy League school. How do you appreciate the value of money when you are a student as you used to have six figure swings on a daily basis?
I am pretty nitty in real life. I don’t care to buy flashy things or spend much money. I have a pretty nice apartment and probably spend more on food than most (I have a sushi habit), but that’s about it. I really dislike not having an income stream, as my bank account just goes down and down and down (Thanks DOJ!). I spend more time managing my money now and making sure it is in the right places so that I can sustain my lifestyle. The best thing money has given me is the freedom to choose my own path. If I find something I want to pursue, I am generally lucky enough not have financial limitations holding me back.
A lot of the online pros seem to be quite reluctant to spend a lot of money unlike many of the old-school gamblers who would lose a lot of their winnings playing house games and buy expensive cars etc. You have said on Two Plus Two that you have invested your poker winnings in a variety of start-ups. What type of start-ups have you invested in and how have the investments fared for you so far?
I don’t want to get into this too much, but I will talk a little about one. My good friend and old roommate (also ex-superstar tournament player) Travis Rice started a green energy consulting company called KingsGate Energy. We focus primarily on LED technology and optimizing energy efficiency for small businesses. I think it is a great business that will continue to prosper as more people pay attention to their environmental impact.
That sounds really interesting and I think the big buzz of saving the environment at the moment should certainly help the company. Do you intend on getting a “normal” profession after you graduate from university?
Probably not. I don’t see myself ever starting out at an entry level job doing someone else’s grunt work. I will probably get more involved with one of the companies I have invested in and go from there.
Why would you want to work 40 hours a week behind a desk being told what to do when you don’t need to haha. Why did you decide to take a semester off from college to play poker again?
After the 2011-2012 school year, I spent the summer in Beijing studying Mandarin Chinese. Monday – Friday I had 6 hours of class and 6-8 hours of homework. I had close to zero free time for 9 weeks and burned out a little bit on studying. I figured that spending some time in Macau playing poker and working on my Chinese would be a nice break. I am not really in a hurry to graduate, so it works out pretty well.
You are in an ideal situation of not having to worry about finding a job immediately after you graduate. I assume it allows you to do the things you want to at the moment. Do you intend on jumping straight into the high stakes games on Full Tilt and PokerStars, or will you be trying to build a new bankroll from a small deposit?
I had my friend transfer me $2k a few days ago. I ran it up to $40k in about 5 hours over just a couple of days, so things are going pretty well so far (I’m obviously running insanely hot and probably just jinxed myself, expect busto soon). I didn’t want to deposit a bunch and then get crushed playing big, plus running up a bankroll from a small amount feels pretty good.
That sounds great so far; hopefully all goes well and you can spin the $2k up to a crazy amount. Do you prefer playing NLHE or PLO, and at what stakes?
I like PLO a lot. If I could play 4-6 tables HU at $25/$50 all the time I would be pretty happy. I actually don’t love playing really high stakes, it stresses me out a lot.
There must be lots of stress when playing six figure pots on a regular basis. It seems like it doesn’t affect just a few people like Tom, both Phil’s and Patrik. How do you feel they handle the stress of playing so high?
I think Tom, Ivey, and Patrik are all a little sick in the head. They all bet big on props, play huge stakes, and don’t seem to care that much when they lose. I honestly have no idea how they do it. I think losing large sums makes Phil Galfond sad like the rest of us. I don’t really group him with the others.
Finally, I have to ask where did you get the name “raptor517” from?
It is my AIM screen name from like 16 years ago. I liked dinosaurs and my birthday is May 17th.