by Craig Tapscott, Special to FOXSports.com
Last spring, one man appeared out of nowhere to rule the online tournament scene. No one knew his name, only his online alias. Bax. Johnny Bax.
Each week the mysterious JohnnyBax racked up wins and final tables at PokerStars and many other online poker sites. Who was this class act with a license to kill on the felt? Could it be Carlos Mortensen, Marcel Luske or some other top professional undercover? Does Bax wear a tuxedo while playing and order his martinis shaken not stirred?
At pocketfives.com, a website ranking online players, the forum was flaming with speculation.
"His name cannot and will not be divulged in full on this site ever. Just go by Johnny Bax and love it," said Todd Arnold.
"Is he some kind of Secret Service agent? Or is he under a witness protection program?"
"Bax's real name is Henry Hill."
The forums buzzed. Then all hell broke loose in April when this online enigma faced off live with Johnny Chan at the WPT Championship at the Bellagio. Even in the reporting of the hand that knocked Bax out his real name had been withheld, possibly for his and anyone who may have known his whereabouts protection.
Card Player.com reported the hand as follows:
Bellagio WPT Championship: The first player of the day has already been eliminated. Johnny Bax was pleased to find himself seated at a table without any top professionals, until Johnny Chan took a seat a dozen or so hands in. Bax looked down a few hands later to find pocket kings, and made a standard raise of $400. Johnny Chan raised him to $1,500, and Bax called. The flop came 9-5-3 rainbow, Bax checked, Chan bet $2,000, and Bax called. The turn card was a 2, and again Bax checked. Johnny Chan put $13,000 in the pot, and then tried to pull $8,000 back, saying he misread the colors through his sunglasses. Bax wanted the bet to stand, and the floor was called over to rule that all $13,000 had to stay in the pot. At that point, Bax pushed all in, and Johnny Chan called immediately with pocket aces. The river was a blank, and Chan doubled up while Bax was sent home as the first elimination of the day.
Back behind the security of his monitor, Bax shared his thoughts at the pocketfives.com forum about the crushing blow that took him out.
"Oddly, my strategy for the day was to play no big pots without the nuts. Well, when he reraised me pre, I figured he had TT JJ QQ AA or AK and maybe AQ," said Bax. "When the flop came ragged, my intention was to ck/call the flop then ck/raise the turn, and lay it down if he came back over the top (telling me AA). Well, when he 'accidentally' put 13k chips on the turn and immediately pulled back 8k(floor ruled 13k must stay), I saw that as my opportunity to take the pot. I pushed in and he nearly beat me into the pot. I thought he could have had AA, but at that point would have put me on a set and laid it down. That's why he's a 2-time WSOP Champ and I'm a wannabe. Secondly, my table had eight other unrecognizables and Johnny 'Freakin' Chan. I would not have made this play against any of the others. The reason I made it against JFC, is because I thought he was able to lay down AA, which is the only one of the variety of hands I put him on preflop that could beat me there. I was obviously wrong, but am not mad at myself one iota for the play I made."
Bax marched on from this experience and continued to chalk up online wins. He qualified online for multiple $10K seats for the 2005 WSOP and traveled to Vegas once again to tackle live poker head on. This time around the results were nothing short of spectacular, thus ending the mystery of his alter ego.
In a preliminary hold'em event, Bax had been knocked out on a horrible beat. That particular day a $1500 buy-in seven-card stud event was being held. For fun and simply the hell of it he entered, even though he had never played much stud or competed in a stud tournament. The first order of business was to corner a few friends for advice. Friends who just so happened to have a few WSOP bracelets between them - Scott Fishman and Brett Jungblutt.
"I didn't even look at the stud event," said Bax. I came here to play hold'em. I ran into (my friends) and told them I wanted to play stud, and could they give me some pointers. Each one gave me about five minutes, and the things they were telling me were not about playing my hand, but playing my opponent's hand - things like that."
"I never would have dreamed I could win this event. Stud is made up of good players. It's not like hold'em where you raise with all your chips and some donkey calls you down with a 10-3 of diamonds. People who enter stud tournaments - most of them know how to play�. except me, of course," said Bax. "I have no ego. I'm just trying to put some food on the table."
The cat was out of the bag. This time the official posting listed Cliff Josephy as the bracelet winner and recipient of $192,000. No worries. Immigration didn't show up to drag him away, no mobsters dipped his feet in cement and he went about his business as stockbroker, devoted family man and one dangerous poker player.
Bax would continue his banner year by winning the prestigious Tournament Leader Board at PokerStars for 2005. This year began no differently with an 11th place finish in the WPT Borgota Poker Open and many more wins and final tables online. FOX recently caught up with the infamous Johnny Bax for a rare interview.
FOXSports.com: Where did you grow up and when were you first introduced to poker?
JohnnyBax: I grew up on Long Island in NY and went to the University of Michigan. I played poker in High School and college a few times. Then played in home games where I was a big loser. I didn't really try and win. I went in there for mostly entertainment. I simply look forward to going to the game.
Then In December 2003, while visiting my parents in Florida, I saw my Dad playing poker on the computer. I immediately was interested. For a while I played with play money and learned the basics. I had never played hold'em before. Then I saw there was a tournament at Foxwoods in April of 2004 and my Dad transferred a few hundred bucks into an account and I started online.
FS.com: How did you improve so fast?
JB: Sheets, another friend and fantastic player helped. I was a stockbroker and he was a client of mine. I knew that he played so I asked him lots of questions. I read a few books, which gave me a broad framework of what to do and not to do. Then I kept refining my play myself with other peoples help; a lot from sheets and other pros, Scotty Fishman in particular. They didn't get anything out of their relationship with me. I had nothing to offer yet they were very free with their time. And I know how valuable time is.
When I get passionate about something, I really devote myself to it. At least with this vice (poker), there is a chance for me to make money at it, as opposed to the others vices some people have.
FS.com: What bankroll and games did you begin with when you first deposited real cash?
JB: The $30 and $50 sit and go's. I learned how to play tournaments from that experience. I went through that first deposit fairly fast then started again with $3000 and never looked back. I really don't remember the first tournament I won, but I remember one of the first ones I got deep in and lost. It got down to the final two tables and I had a lot of chips and my cable went out. There was nothing I could do. I didn't have a friend that could take over at that time. I waited around for an hour and then went to sleep. I blinded off and finished 12th or 13th.
FS.com: What do you think your style of play is?
JB: It's funny. I think people describe my style as very, very aggressive. When in fact I'm not. I don't think I'm that aggressive. I know there are plenty of players that are way more aggressive than myself. I actually think I am kind of tight. People laugh when I say that. But if you see me in the first hour of a rebuy tournament I do whatever I can to get chips. Other than that I don't think I do anything maniacal. I basically play my cards and I play the other players.
I mean I won't call with 7-9. None of us like to call. Naturally, I like to be the aggressor with the pots that I'm in.
FS.com: What part of your game needs to improve the most?
JB: I don't really analyze my game as much as I should. My results have been pretty good so I really haven't had to. I'm not really sure. Perhaps my late game short stack strategy. I'm starting to be more patient. To not push with less than premium hands.
I just played a lot. Like any job that you do that you focus on and spend many hours, you just get better at it. I spent as much free time as I could playing the game. I enjoyed it. I'm still enjoying it right now.
FS.com: Do you have any different approaches to live vs. online play?
JB: Its funny I thought the fields would be stronger in live play. I just played two live events, the PCA and Borgota and there was some awfully bad play there, on all streets on all counts. The one thing I'd like to work on in my live game is getting reads on people. I focus on a few different things and so far I'm not picking up too much of anything, so I have to figure that out.
FS.com: Would you share some of your thoughts during your win at the WSOP seven-card stud event?
JB: I played basic tournament strategy. I built up some chips early and was able to figure out what was a good hand and not a good hand. Things went smoothly. When we were down to a hundred guys I was the chip leader. On day two I moved to the Final Table and was a close second in chips. I started winning some hands and had a really big stack so I started abusing everybody the way I would in a no-limit sit and go. The whole Final Table was just tourney strategy.
FS.com: Congratulations on a stellar year Bax. We look forward to seeing what you can accomplish in 2006.
Craig Tapscott is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com Poker, Card Player & Card Player College magazine.