42 years after winning his first bracelet, Billy Baxter is still the uncrowned king of lowball poker.
He's also, technically, the first "Robin Hood of Poker."
In case you were thinking, “but I always thought the Robin Hood of Poker is Barry Greenstein," it is. But that’s a different story.
And Billy Baxter was first.
Heads-up Versus the IRS
I fought the law and I won – The Dead Kennedys, 1986
When Billy Baxter left the court of Reno/Nevada in 1986 with a big smile on his face, he had accomplished something unique.
He had won a trial against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the highest government agency responsible for the collection of taxes.
On this day, the 44-year old man born in Augusta, Georgia, became an immortal in the world of poker.
Last year when he cashed at the WSOP another five times – a record 41 years after his first WSOP cash in 1975 – people still asked him about it.
It basically comes down to this: Every poker player in the US who’s even made one single dollar playing poker owes Billy Baxter.
Just as Much 'At Work' in the Casino
Back in the 1980s the maximum tax rate in the US was 50%. Baxter didn’t like to spend that much money on taxes, but did it anyway.
Then the IRS came up with the idea to raise the maximum rate to 70%, but only for so-called “Unearned Income” -- money people earn without 'doing anything' for it, like interest income or similar.
Baxter decided to stand up and fight. He said that if Jack Nicklaus got up in the morning and then earned a bunch of money playing golf, he is just as much 'at work' in the casino.
He made that comparison because professional athletes were exempt from the tax raise. So, the question of whether poker is a sport existed 35 years ago. And the IRS had never in their history lost a case like this in court.
They did this time, though. Baxter proceeded by first paying the additional tax so he couldn’t get sued for tax evasion. Then he sued the IRS for compensation.
The IRS took him on, sure of victory. Imagine their surprise when the judge ruled in favor of Baxter.
An Investment That Paid Off
“I find the government's argument to be ludicrous," the judge commented on his ruling. "I just wish you had some money and could sit down with Mr. Baxter and play some poker.”
The IRS responded the way you’d expect. They went to a second ruling – and lost again. They then went on the threaten Baxter with taking the issue to the Supreme Court, but Baxter wasn’t easily intimidated.
Eventually the IRS shifted gears and offered Baxter a deal. Baxter looked at it and refused. They went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overruled the revision and the IRS finally gave in.
The first verdict became legally binding. Baxter struggled to pay the costs for his lawyer but the investment certainly paid off long term.
The case “William E. Baxter vs the United States” caused a nationwide stir. Sports Illustrated and later Time magazine picked it up, and from then on Baxter was labelled “The Robin Hood of Poker."
Moving from Pool to Poker
Like several WSOP “founding fathers” Baxter grew up spending a lot of time in pool halls. It was there where he learned the meaning of competition and psychological pressure and where he became tough enough to make it in poker.
Thanks to poker, he first became a partner and later even the owner of a casino named Paisley Club in the 1970s. Upon the friendly advice of the police he shut down the Club a couple of years later – legal issues.
Some of the Roulette and Blackjack games that Baxter offered were “unofficial” and they eventually sent him to jail for several months.
But Baxter was a gambler and so were his friends. He managed to turn his sentence into a profit by betting with Jack Binion and Doyle Brunson that he would lose 40 pounds in prison.
When he was released he stepped on scales 43 pounds lighter than he was when he went in.
On a side note, Baxter would disagree with me here calling him 'a gambler.' He would say something like “if you look for an edge and how to exploit it, it’s not gambling, and that’s what I do." At least he has voiced that opinion before.
WSOP Game Changer
Baxter had already played the best in the world before he became famous. His rise began with the founding of the World Series of Poker.
Four of Baxter’s first seven cashes were wins. Only one of them wasn’t a final table appearance. He’s now at 34 cashes at the WSOP and 10 on the WPT.
His best result in the WSOP Main Event came in 1997 when he finished 22nd -- one spot behind Phil Hellmuth.
It was the year of Stu Ungar’s last WSOP Championship. That year, Ungar couldn’t find a backer to raise the $10k buy-in until minutes before registration closed.
The man who eventually gave him the money was Billy Baxter.
Baxter also offered Ungar the $10k to buy in the following year but Ungar refused, again just minutes before sign-up ended. It was the last time he was seen at the WSOP.
Baxter, however, is still around. He has won seven bracelets at the WSOP for 8th place on the eternal bracelet list, level with Men “The Master” Nguyen and behind only Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Johnny Moss and Erik Seidel.
The Lowball King
Interestingly, Baxter has won all his bracelets in Lowball games. The first one came in 1975 in 2-7 Draw; the last was a Razz bracelet which Baxter won in 2002.
In an interview during the 2005 WSOP Baxter was asked why he seemed to specialize in lowball games. Baxter said:
"Deuce–to-seven, in my opinion, is the ultimate bluffing game — and I’m good in that situation. What’s the term they use? Mano a mano?
"There is not nearly as much bluffing in hold’em. But in deuce-to-seven, you only have one draw. That lessens the likelihood of a guy improving his hand. So, you have to bluff — and you have to read bluffs."
In the same interview Baxter poked fun at poker pros who had spoken out for limiting the number of players in the Main Event because it 'became too hard to win it.'
"One of the silliest things I’ve heard is that the entry fees should be raised because there are so many people playing, and that makes it too hard to win. I see a large field as an opportunity for anyone who considers himself a good player.
"In eliminating weak players, which is what you do by creating a bigger entry fee, you knock the value out of the pool. If you’re a good player, you’ll get through some of those fields, and your skills will come out. That’s when you see who’s capable of winning.
"Being able to close the deal is a big thing — in any sporting event. I think the value is in letting all these people play."
What About That Time ...
Baxter hasn’t been very active as a backer – although he made a 5,000% profit on the deal with Ungar in 1997 alone – but he’s still rather good at tournaments.
His last three results are 15th out of 1,247 players at the WSOP, 3rd out of 1,840 players at a WPT and 13th out of 1,119 players at the California Championship in May.
His tournament winnings add up to over $2.6 million.
And having said all that, Baxter is really a cash-game player much more than anything else. He's retained the ability to spot weakness and exploit it recklessly – an ability that he already had in abundance in the 1970s, according to Doyle Brunson.
Baxter has lived in Las Vegas for almost 40 years and he’s not planning on moving. There are countless other stories about him – and for him to tell.
If you meet him in Las Vegas this summer, say hello. Maybe he’ll tell you the one where he played Gin Rummy against Stu Ungar on a plane on the way to Donald Trump’s birthday party in New York.