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Poker News | World Poker News

Backing into trouble

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Imagine you are at a poker tournament... a very attractive woman comes up to you and starts talking to you. You strike up a conversation and find out that she is a poker player. You're thinking to yourself how great this is... you've met your dream woman... a knockout who loves poker. “I don't have enough to play in tomorrow's event,” she says, giving you a sweet, but seductive look. She moves in closer to you. You can almost feel her breath on your neck. You don't want to say it but you can't control yourself. “I'll back you into the tournament.”

Three days later, you're out $5,000 and the new love of your life... is off with another man. You walk by and hear him say “I'll back you into the tournament.”

Does that seem far-fetched? Something out of a movie? In most circles, it would be but as most of you probably know the poker world is not your normal world. Giving money to other players in return for something (whether it be the promise of something or financial reward) is referred to as backing or staking and it has, and is, a huge part of the poker community. Should you back someone? Should you be backed? This article is going to discuss backing and staking in-depth and help you come to the right decision. Maybe by the time you're done reading you'll be able to say “Back yourself into the tournament hot stuff.”

The risks and rewards of backing

For the purposes of this article, I am going to limit discussion to typical backing deals and not go into the more complex ones that can take place. Typically, a person will provide the tournament buy in for a player in return for a set percentage of the winnings (usually 50%) after the entry fee has been returned. So for example, if I decided to back my buddy Kevin into the World Series of Poker and he won five million, he would return the entry fee and I would get half of the profit. Sweet! Instant millionaire! However, if Kevin was going to finish out of the money I would get nothing in return. I'd be out the whole ten thousand. Not such a good deal there.

There are obvious risks and rewards associated with backing arrangements. The most obvious is what I discussed in the previous paragraph. If your “horse” wins money, you make money. That is the reward. If your “dog” loses money, you get nothing in return. That is the risk. These, however, are not the only issues that can arise. Complications with taxes, understanding of the agreement that was reached (see Jamie Gold and Crispin Leyser), not receiving payment for your share of the winnings (or underpayment) are just a few of the problems that could arise. If you are going to stake someone it is important that you and the player you are backing are in complete agreement as to the terms of the arrangement. In fact, I would advise you to put the agreement in writing so you have something to fall back on if questions arise later.

The biggest problem with backing itself is that most players that require financial assistance aren't good enough players or have other problems to deal with in the first place. If they were a great player or handled their money responsibly why would they need someone to help them? There are some exceptions to the rule. You could know a great low to mid-limit player who is looking to make the jump up to a big tournament or cash game but the buy in is too much of his bankroll. You could also be dealing with a great player who has gone through one of those inevitable bad runs of a lifetime where they played great for 6 months but could not win anything. Each case will vary but it is important that you understand first why the player is asking for the assistance. If it is because they just need the money, than it's probably not a good idea.

Even great players have problems that must be investigated before deciding whether to back them. They could have a gambling problem, a drug problem, or some other issue that is causing them financial difficulty. Or they could just want to take advantage of their status as a great player and not have to risk their own money. This was one of the biggest problems I witnessed at the World Series of Poker this year. I would see great players who had been backed by another player playing in a tournament. They were playing reckless and with great abandon. They didn't care if they lost. If they did they would just go find some other sucker to back them or buy themselves in (in which case they'd actually probably try hard).

Another area of concern is staking friends. It is hard for people to say no to friends, especially ones they consider to be close. This type of backing is the most common type of agreement that gets made and it has probably ruined more friendships than it has made. Why? Because when money is involved, people often make irrational decisions or become emotionally involved to the point where lines are crossed. It's fine to help out a friend, but make sure when you are doing so that you are doing it for the right reasons and that like above, you make sure both sides understand what the agreement consists of. There's nothing worse than hitting a big score and having it ruined by a fight between friends over who gets what.

When should you as a player want to seek out financial assistance? If you are confident enough in your abilities and have the bankroll then the answer to that question is obvious... never. Why would you want to give someone half of your winnings when you know the probability of you winning is higher than losing? Usually if you are an above average player you should not want to be backed. As mentioned above, however, there are a few exceptions. If you are a very good low limit player and want to make a run at a big game but don't have the bank to do it, seeking out a partner to spread out the risk is probably a good decision. Let's say you've been playing $1/$2 NLHE cash games for about a year and have turned your bankroll from $500 to $50,000. You know you're ready for the 50/100 game but you don't want to risk your entire bankroll. Finding a partner to put up half your buy in could limit your risk and allow you to play your best game since you won't be as worried about the financial consequences.

Ethics – are there any?


You put your friend into the World Poker Tour Championship. Three days later, you are both in the money and he gets moved to your table. You raise and he moves all in over the top of you and you have pocket aces. What do you do? If you call, he's going to go out and the extra money you could win by him moving up is gone. Even though poker tournaments are large events and the seating is random, the chances are if you play enough tournaments, eventually you are going to find yourself facing this situation. It is a dilemma poker professionals face often and brings to the forefront the question “is backing/staking ethical?”

There are arguments to make for both sides. On the ethical side, you could say that players are putting up their own money and should be entitled to make those kinds of decisions. If someone wants to fold pocket aces because they don't want to eliminate another player that should be their prerogative. Because there is not significant sponsorship money, the prize pool in any given major poker tournament comes directly out of the player's pockets. It makes it hard to tell people what to do when this is the case. Even if rules and regulations were made limiting or preventing backing, the deals would still be made when play wasn't going on.

The best way to protect everyone involved is to require any staking arrangements to be disclosed to the tournament staff prior to the tournament starting. This way if two players get seated at the same table, questionable decisions can be looked at and players who have made an investment in another player are protected if the backed player cashes.

Some famous (and not so famous) backing deals


In the beginning, I talked about the seductive woman who sweet talked her way into poker tournaments. Sadly, that was not fiction. At this year’s World Series of Poker, I befriended this woman and watched her wiggle and wink her way into tournament after tournament. It was almost comical watching as men in their 50's and 60's would fall over themselves to give her money. I don't think any of them even cared if she could play poker as long as there was the potential to get intimate with her. She told me that the chances of that ever happening were about as likely as Phil Hellmuth not talking about himself for a whole day. The thing is... no crime was committed. She didn't put a gun to their head. They willingly gave her the money. She willingly lost their money (she did manage a nominal cash in one event).

Perhaps the most famous backing deal that ever took place was when Billy Baxter put Stu Ungar into the 1997 World Series of Poker main event and Ungar went on to win his third bracelet. What's not widely known is that in1990 Baxter had backed Ungar who was found unconscious in his hotel room during day 3 from a drug overdose. Ungar had so many chips at the time that he still managed a 9th place finish in the event. One can only imagine the doubt that Baxter had in 97 when Ungar asked for help and Baxter told Ungar at first no. Finally, with just minutes left before the main event was starting, Baxter gave in to Ungar's pleas and put him into the event. Ungar was still battling his demons and struggled at times to make it through a day of play, but in the end he was the victor and Baxter was half a million dollars richer because of his gamble on a gamble.

You can't walk through a poker room without hearing about who is backing who. Here is an interesting one for you... Phil Ivey was backing Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi at the World Series of Poker. Doesn't make much sense does it, but Mizrachi himself verified it for me. Some other fun ones include Michael Craig backing Shannon Elizabeth, Michael Binger stakes his brother Nick (with good results), Erick Lindgren is known to back numerous players including Josh Arieh before his 3rd place finish in the 2004 main event.

In that same 2004 event, Greg Raymer went on to win five million dollars. What many people don't know is that Raymer had help to get into the event. He had posted on internet message boards soliciting investors even though he knew he would receive grief from his peers from doing so. He received e-mail from friends and people he had never heard of including someone from Poland. Raymer sold $500 shares and bought about a third of the shares for himself. In the first session, he lost a bit and the shares value went down a small amount. After two more sessions prior to his big win, the shares were up to about $600 apiece. After the win? $36,000. That's right... $500 turned into $36,000. Now that's reward!

Backing into trouble

When it all comes down to it, whether you choose to back or be backed comes down to trust. Do you trust the player you are backing? Do they trust you? Do you believe in the player you are staking and perhaps more importantly, do they believe in themselves? Take the time to understand what you are getting into. Know what the risks are and make sure that you are protected in order to maximize the rewards. Backing and staking is more often than not a losing proposition but if you are selective and smart about your financial decisions, it could possibly lead to turning $500 into $36,000. Everyone likes free money.

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