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Baker wins $10K Eight-Game Mix title, $271,312 at WSOP

25 June 2012

This is the story of not one man, but two.

It is the story of a friendship. It is the story of sportsmanship. It is the story of doing the right thing, even when it’s most difficult, and perhaps even painful.

Sadly, it is also a story that’s far too rare in our world – not just in poker, but in all competitive deeds, be they in sports or business or anything else that places people in conflict with each other.

This story of two men and their enduring friendship, manifested in a display of extraordinary sportsmanship began on a Tuesday evening, inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

These two men took their seats in the $2,500 buy-in Eight-Game Mix event at the World Series of Poker. They sat pretty much unnoticed among the other 477 players gathered together on this night, all with one single utterly selfish objective in mind -– to outlast each of their opponents and rake in every last chip in the tournament, a feat ultimately rewarded with a six-figure payoff as well as the a WSOP gold bracelet.

The first day passed. Both men remained very much alive among the final 150 or so players who were fortunate enough to return for Day Two.

Then, the second day passed. Again, both men found themselves among the survivors. On the third day, these men -- longtime friends and colleagues, but also fierce competitors on the poker tournament circuit -- sat across from each other at the final table of the gold bracelet event. Several more hours passed. One by one, others
in chairs around them began to disappear. By 4 a.m., there were only two men remaining at the table. But there was only one gold bracelet to be won.

The two men were David Baker and Greg Mueller.

The irony of outlasting several hundred of the world’s best poker players on the game's grandest stage and playing for a gold bracelet against a close friend is but a dream in the minds of just about everyone who aspires to fulfill poker’s ultimate fantasy. But for Baker and Mueller, the dream came true. Mueller would later say that when the final table was down to five-handed, he secretly hoped to have the opportunity to play heads-up against Baker -- not because he thought his friend would be an easier match. To the contrary, Mueller knew Baker would be tougher and an even greater challenge.

Indeed, Mueller got his wish. In fact, he got much more than that. The two-time gold bracelet winner, chasing not only a third personal victory, but perhaps even greater destiny as Canada’s greatest poker player, saw this moment as his opportunity to not only notch another victory in his belt, but add to a growing list of poker accomplishments that would unquestionably gain the respect of everyone in the game.

Mueller came close to victory. Oh, he came so very close. At one point during the heads-up match, Mueller had Baker down to the felt and was within a hand or two of busting his final adversary and snatching up a third WSOP title. Victory was within his grasp. He could taste it, touch it, and feel it. Victory seemed but moments away.

But then, during the overtime portion of an unscheduled fourth day, everything fell apart. For Mueller, the good cards that had been coming suddenly disappeared. Draws that had been hitting started missing. A chip stack that was soaring instead went tumbling over to the other side of the table, finding another home in the stack of Baker.

Finally, the duel ended when Mueller missed yet another draw, which was the final fateful excruciating moment of a one-hour nightmare during which he went from huge chip leader and prospective triple gold bracelet champion to the rail and a runner-up finish.

Defeated and devastated, Mueller stood up from the table. Before he could reach out his hand across the table, Baker had already extended his. Baker could feel Mueller’s pain. Impervious to the celebration of his own hard-fought and long overdue victory, Baker seemed more interested in consoling Mueller.

Mueller departed the stage. He showed no sign of anger. He didn’t throw any cards or chairs. He didn’t mutter any curse words. But the painful look on his face said it all. Mueller was crushed.

“It looked like someone stuck a knife in his chest,” was how one observer described Mueller’s look.

Most poker tournament reports would end there. Normally, the winner would spend the next several minutes posing for the cameras, being interviewed by the press, and enjoying a moment in the spotlight.

But this is where the story of these two men, their friendship, and the ultimate act of sportsmanship actually begins. As Baker was finishing up with the customary photographs and interviews, Mueller entered back onto the stage. To any casual observer, it seemed an odd sight to see the “loser” returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak. After all, the second-place finisher –- once the gravity of losing is realized -– often disappears. Sometimes runners up are not seen for
hours, or even days.

But this moment was different.

Mueller approached Baker, and shook his hand again. Next, he hugged Baker and then Baker’s girlfriend. He shook the hands of many of Baker’s friends and followers. He then smiled and talked of how happy he was that Baker had finally won his first gold bracelet. If not paying attention, one would have thought Mueller had just strolled into the room from another tournament to congratulate his colleague.

Later, Mueller explained that he simply wanted to "be there" for his friend. He wanted to share a special once-in-a-lifetime moment of triumph for someone special. He put aside his own pain and disappointment, never showing the least bit of regret about what had happened just moments earlier. Mueller went on to describe that he thought it was important to demonstrate that even though he'd lost, he was glad his friend had won. That victory was a special moment to be shared together.

There was nothing contrived about the way this happened. It wasn’t planned. There were no cameras around to record this special bond between two ultimate professionals. But in the end, it was noticed. One couldn't help but notice it -- perhaps because of how rare and precious moments like these are in a society that sadly and all-too frequently invokes a mantra that it's not really about how you play the game, but whether you win or not, no matter what the human cost.

Hopefully, there's a lesson here for us all. While poker can be a series of bitter and bloodthirsty battles, while the game entails a cut throat culture of incessant clashes, behind all those dollars won and lost, and beneath and the egos and confidences battered and rejuvenated, there are some very endearing and everlasting friendships -- unbreakable bonds between people that no victory or defeat will ever change.

Indeed, there were two champions who played on the stage on this day. The way this tournament ended is a subtle reminder that poker remains a game -- not just of cards and chips -- but of people, including some very good people, indeed.

Baker collected $271,312 in prize money, while Mueller won $167,637.

The competition required players to play a mix of eight of poker’s most popular games, including Hold’em, Omaha High-Low Split, Razz, Seven-Card Stud, Seven-Card Stud High-Low Split, Deuce-to-Seven Triple-Draw Lowball, Pot-Limit Omaha, and No-Limit Hold’em. By almost universal consideration, it is poker’s best test of all-around talent and skill.

No doubt, Baker has plenty of both. The professional poker player from Katy, Texas (a suburb of Houston) had already proven himself to be one of tournament poker’s most steady performers in recent years. Prior to this event, he’d cashed 27 times at the WSOP since 2006, placing him among the top-10 within that time frame. He’d also already earned in excess of $1 million at the WSOP before this victory, a testament to the notion that it wasn’t so much a question of if Baker would win a gold bracelet, but when.

"I’ve always known that if I just kept getting there and kept giving myself shots that I would run well late in the tournament, and that’s basically what happened," said Baker. "I caught some good cards, and I definitely got better cards than (Mueller) in the last 30 minutes. He was kind of hamstrung by his hands and I had some real good opportunities and I finally ran good."

Kevin Calenzo won $106,564 for his third-place finish, while Joseph Couden (fourth), Donnacha O'Dea (fifth), Konstantin Puchkov (sixth), Christopher McHugh (seventh) and Chrix Viox (eighth) also made the final table.

The tournament drew 477 players, down slightly from 489 entries last year. The top-48 players finished in the money. Notable players who cashed but did not make the final table included: Rep Porter (11th), Matt Hawrilenko (13th), Scott Seiver (15th), Jennifer Harman (16th), Freddy Deeb (19th), Jerrod Ankenman (20th), Barry Greenstein (21st), Steve Zolotow (25th), Jeff Madsen (26th), Cory Zeidman (27th), Gavin Griffin (29th), Max Pescatori (33rd), John D'Agostino (36th), Bruno Fitoussi (37th), Noah Schwartz (39th), Ylon Schwartz (40th), Chris Bjorin (42nd), and Jeffrey Lisandro (48th).

Modified from tournament notes provided by WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla.

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