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May 20, 2008 7:03 PM

Road to the WSOP by Joe Awada | Last week, I noted that I’d be inviting other players to join the discussion to offer their views and advice on how to approach and succeed in the game of poker.

We’re very fortunate to be able to start with Billy Baxter, a good friend of mine and expert professional poker player.

Poker players in Las Vegas are familiar with Billy; he’s a big-time cash game player who frequently belly-ups to the high-limit tables at the Bellagio.

He’s also an accomplished tournament player with seven gold World Series of Poker bracelets to his credit. Recently, Billy also won two events at the World Poker Tour’s Five Star Classic held at Bellagio last month.

Over the next two weeks, Billy will give us his views about playing in tournaments such as the World Series, and the business of becoming a professional poker player.

But first, in his own words, Billy recounts how he became a professional poker player.

"When I was about 13, my mother would often drop me off in downtown Augusta, Georgia, to attend the picture show while she was out making sales calls for her insurance agency," Billy says. "But I found that downtown also had pool halls, where you could bet and win 50 cents or a dollar on a game of pool.

"Well, I started winning money and by the time I was 16 I had put together about $5,000 or $6,000."

Billy also played a little poker and later found a small bar that had a back room where local businessmen came to play. Because he was only 18, he got a fake ID and started playing.

"At first, they’d break me, so I’d go back to the pool hall, win some more money and come back to the poker table," Billy says. "That went on for awhile until I got pretty good and started winning."

Later, while attending college, Billy found an Augusta supper club that also had a casino – not legal, of course – where you could play craps, roulette, blackjack and other games.

"The guy that owned the place asked me to play gin rummy," Billy recalls, "which I was pretty good at. Well, I wound up beating a guy out of $40,000 one night.

"In 1961 that was a lot of money … The owner made me a partner in the casino, which I eventually bought from him and ran for a few years."

Billy says he closed the operation after the local sheriff "suggested, very nicely" that closing would be the proper thing to do.

"In that part of the country, the sheriff had more power than the governor," he says.

Billy relocated to Las Vegas in 1975 and has been a professional poker player ever since.

Of course, nowadays, he says there are less circuitous avenues to becoming a poker player.

"I think there are a lot of opportunities for good young players to make lots of money," he says. "There are a lot more tools than when I started. You used to have to sit in the chair to learn how to play and you had to pay your dues. Now, you have books and other resources."

Billy suggests new players should try small limit games until they’re comfortable or they start winning, then work their way up through the limits.

"You’ve got to jump in the water to get your feet wet, but don’t jump in over your head," he says.

As far as the upcoming World Series, Billy suggests new players start with the smaller buy-in events that often attract large fields.

"That’s where the value lies," he says. "You want to find situations where you have an edge. Some of these early players have been saving all year – there are weaker players and players with scared money."

That’s certainly advice that has served Billy well. In addition to winning seven WSOP bracelets, Billy two years ago was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.

Next week, Billy will discuss the skills required to be a working, professional poker player.