Sam Grafton: The art of staking

One of the least understood aspects of poker today is the world of backing. Poker headlines don’t always reflect the reality of where the money ends up. There are lots of players with great results that have a lot less money than you might imagine. There are other players with more modest achievements who end up with huge bankrolls through canny piece buying – or staking of horses. ‘Horse’ is the term for a player who has all their tournament buy-ins fronted by a backer. A group of players whose buy-ins are supplied by one backer are referred to as a ‘stable’. While horses don’t have to worry about managing a bankroll and dropping stakes when on a downswing they do have to split their profits with their backer and have to be crushing the games to make a good living. 

Back to win

Backers used to go entirely unmentioned in the poker media. Poker’s hype machine leads the public to believe that everyone who binks off a big first prize receives 100% of the payout. That, after all, was the narrative the poker boom was built on. Photos of the big tourney winners, arms around a huge pile of dollar bills as if hugging a favourite aunt. It is in nobody’s interest to disabuse the public of the notion that all that lucre goes directly to the winner.

The reality is that just out of shot stands either a legion of investors ready to take a cut, or a single backer who will scoop up the majority of the score. In recent times there has been slightly more recognition of the role of backers in greasing the wheels of the poker economy. Most knowledgeable poker fans knew, for instance, of Cliff Josephy and Eric Haber’s role in staking Joe Cada to his Main Event win. And it was commonly reported that last year’s champ, Greg Merson, was staked by Anthony Gregg. Rather than it being a sign that you were busto and needed a stake, being backed by an elite player has attained a certain reflected glamour.

Make-up artist

I spent a little over 18 months as a ‘horse’. I was lucky enough to play for some superb poker players and my game improved hugely from being able to draw on their experience. People often ask whether it’s hard ‘giving away’ half the money after a big score. The reality is that when your backer has shown a lot of faith in you by putting you into big buy-in tournaments it’s a pleasure to hand over their share. An ideal backer-horse relationship much more closely resembles a business partnership, not that of boss and employee.

The times backing becomes most difficult are when make-up reaches a high level. Make-up is the term for the poker losses a horse must recover before he and the backer can chop any profit. Once this number gets high, and it’s certainly not uncommon for it to reach the $100k mark, it becomes very difficult for the horse to play their ‘A’ game. Obviously, when on a five or six figure downswing confidence gets short anyway, but the fact that any significant profit is so far away means a horse’s motivation can sag. It’s at this point that backers should be doing their utmost to motivate and incentivise the horse. Often the reverse is the case, and as make-up gets higher the working relationship breaks down. 

Horse trainers

Naturally enough it’s the top players that run the big stables but often these players are not the best managers of people. In the business world millions are spent on courses to ensure managers are getting the best out of those that work alongside them. In poker you don’t need any qualifications or training to run a stable, simply the capital to invest. It’s for this reason so many backing relationships break down and end in a way that leaves one, or both, parties feeling disgruntled. There is a lot of content available to a budding pro to help them improve their game. With the world of staking being far from public view there has been very little discussion of the strategies and experiences of being a horse or a backer. As the world of backing increasingly moves out of the shadows hopefully there will be a lot more information so we all have a clearer sense of how this world functions and how to make it a fruitful partnership for all concerned. 

Lessons learned

Moorman: the $10m man

Moorman: the $10m man

He’s the boss of all bosses. A beast among beasts. Chris ‘Moorman1’ Moorman has surpassed $10 million in tournament cashes. I feel like I’ve played as much as humanly possible over the last three years and have just $2.3m in cashes. Moorman has cashed four times as much as me and for over $4m more than his nearest online rival.

This is a remarkable achievement. The fact Chris is a well-rounded, kind, thoughtful individual, beloved by a wide circle of friends makes it all the more remarkable that he could achieve the kind of volume required to meet this landmark. This is on top of $3m in live winnings and running one of the largest high stakes stables ever assembled. All I can do is offer the great man my congratulations and bow down before his achievements.


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