Being David Benyamine isn’t easy. We chat with the Big Game legend: “I don’t really look at what I’m losing on a yearly basis”

He’s won and lost millions in the Big Game, had some vicious swings online and blown fortunes in the pit. In 2007 he reportedly suffered a sickening $8m downswing, but this year he has been unstoppable. So just what makes the affable Frenchman tick?

David Benyamine stares at me blankly. I’ve been trying to jog his memory over the fact that I have met and interviewed him before, but he’s not having it. Vegas, the Venetian, August 2006? Finally he shakes his head. ‘I don’t get much sleep and it doesn’t help my memory!’

It’s a fair point. Benyamine and fiancee Erica Schoenberg have just arrived in Barcelona for the EPT Barcelona Open after a manic 48 hours which included a tournament stop in Cannes and a TV appearance in Paris; but more than that I think Benyamine may be referring to the sleep-deprived year he’s had. According to High Stakes DB (the internet database that tracks the results of the biggest online players) the 36-year-old Parisian has played 165,630 hands, 1,716 sessions and put in 2,234 hours of hard graft since 1 January 2008. Discounting two months where he didn’t log in once, that equates to half his life this year devoted to playing online poker. Even factoring in some multi-tabling, it’s a mindblowing amount of time spent at the tables and obviously not conducive to getting much shut-eye. But you can’t argue with the results. The database puts Benyamine’s profit across all games at $ 4.7m, way above the likes of Patrik Antonius, Durrrr and even Phil Ivey (though admittedly the swings at this level are huge).

When I suggest that it’s a far cry from the brutal $8m which he reportedly lost online in 2007, he can barely muster a shrug. ‘You know, I don’t really pay much attention to that. I don’t really look at what I’m losing on a yearly basis. If there was no High Stakes DB, I almost would not be able to tell you if I had a winning month or losing month.’

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at Benyamine’s nonchalance. After all, risking large sums of cash is part and parcel of being a high-stakes poker player. But as Benyamine starts to reveal more and more details of his life at the tables, I get the unshakeable feeling that he operates at the extreme end of an already extreme profession.

Big game hunter

Benyamine’s first experience of the Big Game was in 2004. With barely half a dozen Vegas junkets under his belt and his only taste of high-stakes poker the occasional dabble in a $ 500/$ 1,000 PLO game, Benyamine knew he had no right to be there and ‘could not afford it at all.’ When you consider that even players like Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey had to grind it out for years until they could sit among poker’s elite, his thinking could be classed as courageous or downright foolish. He swallowed hard and pulled up a chair. ‘I took a little shot with $ 40k which was the smallest buy-in at the $ 2k/$ 4k limits,’ he said. ‘I’ve always been excited about playing high and playing with the best. That’s what turned me on, that’s what I really wanted to go for.’

The small buy-in left no room for mistakes or the vagaries of variance and he was rapidly felted. ‘I tried my best but was just really, really unlucky.’ He left the table feeling ‘a little scared’ yet his enthusiasm wasn’t dampened. In later months two more losing sessions followed, putting his total Big Game deficit at $ 400k. At this point most players might have scurried away red-faced, maybe resolving to drop down a few levels, but Benyamine actually took things up a notch. ‘My bankroll was down to $ 300k and on the fourth session I had pretty much all my money on the table. After that I almost never lost.’

Stupid money

Four years on you might think that he has addressed the bankroll management issues which were patently lacking in Vegas, but he readily confesses that this is a side of his game which has never improved. ‘I think it’s just been high stakes all the time. When you have no bankroll, you’re always playing too high,’ he says without a hint of irony. Schoenberg concurs with this observation. ‘David never drops down in stakes, which from what I hear is a big no-no in terms of bankroll management.’

Nowhere is Benyamine’s flagrant disregard for what seems like one of the golden rules of professional poker more obvious than in his online play. He is blissfully unaware of his day-to-day, week-to-week swings and sometimes the only way he’ll know where he stands is if someone specifically asks him. ‘I just take two hours and check everything out and then I can see if I’ve been losing. I don’t think I’m winning on Full Tilt since I started. I know I’m close to even or maybe even winning small, but I’ve been losing quite a bit over the last few weeks, so it took me back down.’

I’ve brought along a record of his biggest winning and losing hands but he makes it clear that there’s no point discussing hands with him – he can’t remember them. ‘We play many big pots. I play 10, 12 hours. Sometimes I’ve played 17 hours,’ he says. ‘It’s so regular that I play – I don’t even remember the good days because I play so much. I know that if you asked me what I did three days ago, I would not know.’

Then the Frenchman really lets the sledgehammer fly: ‘I don’t feel much of a difference if it’s a $ 530k pot or a $ 170k one. Sometimes I don’t even look at the numbers.’

I’m astounded. The most successful online player of 2008 has just told me that he pays no attention to bankroll, is never quite sure whether he’s up or down for the day and he never puts much stock in the value of the pot. It probably doesn’t need mentioning that he never uses any analysis software like PokerTracker, expressing only that it could be ‘interesting’ to use it.

Untroubled mind

Given his carefree attitude, you’d think that David Benyamine would be scraping around for pennies, not multi-tabling on the $ 200/$ 400 no-limit tables and winning $ 4.7 million in nine months. And yet it’s clear that both he and Schoenberg live the kind of financially easy life that only multi-millionaires can. ‘We’re both very spoiled,’ says Schoenberg. ‘If David wants something he goes and gets it. If I want something I go and get it. We don’t indulge in excessive spending but we have the ability to do so.’

Indeed, Benyamine explains that all those traits which might ordinarily be identified as flaws by the wider poker community are actually integral for his success. His predilection for playing at the highest stakes – despite not always having the bankroll – is absolutely essential because it keeps him sharp. ‘If I don’t have the excitement, I don’t really play,’ he says. ‘I have to have it or I play really bad. When we play limit, it’s about saving a few bets and being aggressive on the right side. It’s easy to win or lose if you get good cards or bad cards but to play really good, you need to focus on only a few bets per day. If I don’t have that fire, I can’t do it.’

He says he has no problem in dropping down in stakes, but it will never be in reaction to a downswing. ‘Sometimes I play a little smaller because that’s where the good games are. I don’t play really small because I feel like it would be wasting my time a little. It’s not necessarily true that the highest limits have the best players. Some players have been going on good rushes and they want to gamble or feel ready to challenge the best. They don’t have the skills or knowledge but they’re still trying it.’

As for his obliviousness to the outcome of specific pots and his daily account balance, there’s method in that madness too. ‘I just play the hand the way I think it should be played. Sometimes I’ll lose a big pot and win at the end of the day; sometimes I win a big pot and still end up losing at the end. You’re trying to play good poker, not focusing on how you’re doing for the day, the week, the month or the year. I think it’s a big mistake to do that if you can afford it. If you can’t afford it then you really have to.’

No distractions

Benyamine emphasises that stopping just because you’ve recovered a big loss is a huge mistake. ‘I’m not trying to be a winner for the day and quit. People say, how could you not quit after coming from so far behind? I tell them it’s because I was feeling good, I had nothing to do the next day and I felt like I could play two or three hours more. I only quit because I think I’m not playing my best, for whatever reason – I’m tired or I’m thinking about something else.’

The penny is starting to drop. Benyamine is simply taking non-results focused poker to its logical conclusion – he just experiences much bigger wins or losses than 99.9% of the poker population. But it’s still hard for me to understand his blase attitude to whether a pot is $ 100k or $ 500k.

As it turns out, it’s not as crazy as it seems, simply because win or lose, not all the money is his. ‘I might have a million dollars in my account but it’s in six pieces. I own a sixth and five other friends own a sixth too. I have lost $500k pots, but because I only own a sixth of it I only really lost $ 80k. I wouldn’t be able to a lose a million if my bankroll was $ 2m. I don’t have tons of money, I have only a little bit.’

Schoenberg believes that being able to detach yourself from fiscal issues and stay clear-headed is absolutely essential at his level. She says that the biggest flash of temper he has ever allowed himself is pushing the keyboard away. ‘He has this calm, tranquil demeanour when he plays. I on the other hand – for much lesser stakes – have thrown the laptop!’

But the 30-year-old former model is confident that she is starting to acquire this mental quality bit by bit, just through watching her other half play. ‘The first time I saw him win or lose a $ 100k pot online I was mortified,’ she says. ‘Then I went to the other extreme and it didn’t faze me in the least. You have to become a little impervious to that amount of money and what it represents – otherwise how could you ever sit there without being sick? You need an iron constitution.’ Nevertheless she is happy to always retain some perspective when the numbers get too ridiculous. ‘I don’t know if I ever want to be able to shrug off $ 500k. I think of pots in terms of shoes, cars, food for a year. He just sees a pot but I understand his take on everything is different, as it has to be because he’s playing.’

One point that Benyamine is keen to impart is that, although the vast amount of cash barrelling around his screen is a strong incentive, the biggest motivator of all is testing himself against the best players in the world. ‘I play heads-up against Phil Ivey very often on Full Tilt. We aren’t playing each other just to waste some time – it’s a real challenge. We are trying to beat each other just for pride. We play high but if we were playing five or ten times lower I would feel very satisfied too if I had beaten Phil.’

Just to get a rep

There is no better evidence of Benyamine’s love of a challenge than his recent bracelet win at the 2008 World Series of Poker. To recognise the huge significance of this victory, you have to understand the Frenchman’s attitude towards tournaments as a whole. ‘Tournaments are really frustrating – you lose one hand and you’re out,’ he bemoaned back in 2006. Since winning the WPT Grand Prix de Paris in 2003, he had pretty much given up on the tournament circuit and had no plans on going back. That is until someone in the Big Game laid down the gauntlet. ‘He said that he didn’t think I would do too well in tournaments,’ Benyamine explains. ‘He compared me to some other players and said they would do way better than me. I felt a little hurt and I told him we would talk after the WSOP.’

Schoenberg takes up the story, ‘David said “I’m really going to put 100% into it and show everyone I can do it.” He had made so much money in the cash games that it was almost impossible for him to sit through five days of a tournament to win what he could in one night. So he had to change his mindset and that took a while.’

The results speak for themselves. Benyamine came seventh, third and tenth in successive events. Then finally on the 19 June, he took down the $ 10k Omaha hi/lo World Championship and secured his first WSOP bracelet. The $ 535k first prize might have paled in comparison to his cash-game exploits, but he had shown the world that he was not a lame duck when it came to tournament play. And more than that, he had proved it to himself. ‘When I took that challenge, I didn’t take it up for that person but I took it for me. I could have finished second or third and I think I would almost have felt the same. When I said that I’d show the world what I was capable of doing, I was saying that more to motivate myself to do well and to push myself to my limits.’

The price of success

On the face of it, everything is perfect in Benyamine’s world. Poker has brought him money, a doting fiancee and the respect of his peers. But success has not come without a price. Schoenberg compares their relationship to ‘ships passing in the night’ at times: she goes to bed at a time when he’s just ready to start a long night session. ‘I’m more of an early bird, whereas David stays up all night and plays.’

Another casualty has been his health and appearance. Hunching for hours on end in front of a computer screen has seen his weight balloon and exacerbated the back problems that forced him to bow out of a promising tennis career. He finds it difficult to even indulge in golf, one of his favourite hobbies. ‘When my back is hurting, I am at home miserable,’ he says. Schoenberg is adamant that a largely sedentary lifestyle is not for her. ‘It’s affecting our lives too much. It wasn’t an issue when he could play golf but it’s gotten worse and worse. It’s really important – he’s got to buckle down and shape up.’

Fortunately Benyamine is on the same page and is starting to see the importance of life outside poker. ‘I am satisfied with my [poker] results but just need to work on the other things. I need to provide Erica with a steady boyfriend and a good life. Maybe she’s not saying it because she loves me but she deserves to have a man who takes care of himself the way she does with herself. That’s my number one goal.’

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