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'Raptor' is ready for the final table

11/1/2013

Watch David Benefield compete at the WSOP main event final table on Monday, Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2

Back on July 15 in the Amazon Room of the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, the remaining 10 players headed to the ESPN main stage. These talented individuals were about to play for the privilege of becoming a member the 2013 November Nine, while also trying to avoid becoming the WSOP main event final table bubble boy.

American David Benefield entered that confrontation ninth in chips. He would've been ecstatic if the shorter stack, held by Mark Newhouse, was quickly eliminated, but a grind ensued. An hour after sitting under the feature table lights, fighting on the biggest bubble of the year, the 27-year-old's wish was, albeit stress-filled, granted as 2001 WSOP main event champion Carlos Mortensen was eliminated by JC Tran.

"Mark [Newhouse] had six big blinds, and I think I had 18 to 20," said Benefield. "I wasn't going to get out of line. I couldn't do much other than fold and wait for really good hands. So, when Mark doubled up immediately, and then re-raised all-in shortly after that, he had more chips than me all of a sudden. I thought, 'Oh no! This could not end well.'"

Benefield entered Day 7 dead last in chips among the remaining 27 players. No player in the November Nine era had ever made the final table from that position. The lowest player ever to make the November Nine was from 24th, by both last year's October Niner Andras Koroknai and 2010 November Niner John Dolan. Coincidentally, both those players entered the final table second in chips.

Benefield, currently a student at Columbia University studying Chinese and political science, passed the time during the November Nine hiatus as the short stack, a situation he battled with throughout most of the tournament. 

"The last few days of the tournament, I never got my stack above 25 big blinds," he said. "I just somehow played a short stack the entire way through. It's really kind of brutal, but I just happened to stay alive. I was constantly on the verge of busting out, so it was really stressful. I'm shocked I'm still in, really."

The Texas native had been deep before in the WSOP main event. In 2008 he had high hopes of making the initial November Nine, but lost a crucial hand to Brandon Cantu for a massive pot where his turned straight lost to Cantu's flush on the river. He was eliminated in 73rd, and at the time, he was considered one of the rising young stars in poker who competed in the high stakes cash games online.

"I just played extremely aggressively," he said of his fearless approach to those games. "I managed to be successful even though I did not think I was playing particularly well at the time, but the games were really good."

Benefield's introduction to poker is reminiscent of so many others from his generation.

"I think I had a pretty standard story," he recalled. "I was 16 and my friends and I from high school got done watching 'Rounders.' It seemed like a pretty cool game, so let's try to play. We started playing around the table and played small tournaments and progressed from there."

After being introduced to the game, he became intrigued by the nuisances and tried to improve his skills by reading and studying books like 'Hold'em Poker for Advanced Players' and 'The Theory of Poker,' both by David Sklansky. Once he turned 18, he deposited into the world of online poker and his career took off from there. "Raptor" began playing $10 sit-and-gos, working his way up to $200 sit-and-gos after only a few months. A year and half later, he got into the world of cash games online.

"I jumped into $3/$6 with my limited knowledge of no-limit poker. Eventually, I jumped into the bigger games of $10/$20 no-limit and the six max tables."

After finishing high school, most of his friends decided to go college and pursue traditional professions. However, he and another friend, Mario Silvestri (who finished 39th in the 2011 WSOP main event), decided to follow their dreams to become poker professionals.

"It is such a big traumatic step to take to become a poker professional and not go the traditional route when you are 18 years old," Benefield said. "But I always had the attitude that I am just going to try this out and if it doesn't work I can just go back to school. What is the problem spending a year and seeing what happens."

Understandably, his parents were not happy with this unorthodox career path.

"My dad was a military guy for 25 years. My mom a college professor, highly educated. They were not happy to say the least," he said.

However, after a couple of months, his parents recognized that their son was having success and tried "to support their son emotionally, but not financially."

Benefield's bankroll grew and his desire to play bigger followed in the same direction. After five years of grinding out a poker career online, Benefield gradually became burned out and wanted to do something different with his life. In 2009, the poker world announced that Benefield had retired. However, he prefers to say that he was phasing out of full-time online play.

"I don't think it was traditional burnout," he said. "I just wasn't loving the routine I was in. I just wasn't particularly happy and I think I just needed a change. I did not want to look back on my life 20 to 30 years later and the only thing I did was play poker on the Internet. I kind of wanted to just see what else was out there in the world."

Now finding the approach more suited for his parents liking, Benefield entered a small liberal arts college, St. John's College, where he focused on classical philosophy. After two years, he transferred to Columbia University. He began taking Chinese as his language requirement and enrolled in political science courses. Eventually, he became East Asian studies major with a focus in political science. After a year at Columbia, he decided to do a summer language program in Beijing, spending time going back and forth to the gambling capital of Asia: Macau. Benefield quickly rediscovered his love for the game.

"My plan was to stay there, study Chinese, and play a bunch of poker," he said. "When I first got to Macau, I played every day. I was always in the casino or I was playing online. I was putting in massive volume and really enjoying it."

Despite being overseas, Benefield still made it back to the WSOP in Las Vegas during the past couple of years, albeit with a reduced schedule.

"In 2012, I only played three or four events," he recalled. "[I missed the main event that year] because I was spent most of that summer in China doing that study abroad program. This past summer, I was in Macau and then I came back to New York. I was just enjoying hanging out with my friends there during May and June. So I was tardy making it out to the series. I did not show up until halfway through and only played six or seven events this year."

One of those limited events was the main, and after missing it in 2012, he was thrilled to have the opportunity to play.

"I think everybody gets some feeling of excitement when you play the main event. Even though it is not the biggest buy-in but it seems to have the most prestige behind it," he said. "Of course, I wasn't expecting to final table. I always try to go in and make good decisions and I think I had pretty good tables all the way though and I was lucky to accumulate chips every day and it worked out pretty well."

After making the November Nine, Benefield decided to take another semester off from Columbia to prepare for the final table. In preparation, he played the entire World Championship of Online Poker and traveled to Europe to play in several tournaments, including WSOP Europe. From Aug. 30 to Oct. 4, Benefield cashed in five events for $595,613 and made three final tables. The momentum is definitely in the corner of the short stack.

"I just feel like I'm a much more well-rounded person," he said. "But you know poker is still a very large part of my life. I still love to play. I just don't think playing full time, where it is the entire focus of my life, is the way for me. I think whenever I'm away for poker for any considerable length of time, I get reinvigorated. I feel real excited to play."

No one has ever won in the November Nine era as the short stack, but if there is any player in history that can overcome this situation, it just may be Benefield. The Raptor is back.