David Baker and Mark Gregorich narrowly missed out on a massive payday in Las Vegas sports betting contests.

2020 was a long year for many professional poker players. Back in March, live tournaments and cash games virtually disappeared overnight in Las Vegas, and around the world, and over the summer, the halls of the Rio, normally packed to the brim with Davipoker pros and amateurs alike, were empty. As two-time WSOP bracelet winner David ‘ODB’ Baker put it, “2020 was a terrible year for me and most poker players. The bills don’t stop, but the games did.”

Well, Baker and good friend and fellow poker pro Mark Gregorich ended the year on quite a high note, after a strong showing in two high-profile NFL betting contests in Las Vegas. The contests run the length of the NFL season and handicappers are betting five games each week against the spread. They finished first place in the $1,500 buy-in Westgate SuperContest, earning $435,623. In addition, they tied for second place in the $1,000 buy-in Circa Sports Millions contest, earning another $200,000. Tack on bonuses for their first quarter finishes in both contests, and the two ended up hauling in $785,623. Baker and Gregorich shot out to an early lead, and they never looked back from there.

“We got off to a really hot start. After the first quarter, heading to Week 5, we knew we had a shot. We had an 18-2 start. It really started to feel real about the halfway point, and about Week 12, we really started adjusting strategies.”

The lead-up to the 2020 season was unlike any other. No preseason games for anyone, and limited training camps meant that teams came out of the gates rusty. For Baker and Gregorich, their strategy coming in was to bank on good quarterbacks who would be less affected by the upheaval of the usual preseason routine.

“We went into the year thinking home field advantage was basically nullified. We also were quick to hypothesize and it became just a basic fact later that QBs had a huge advantage with empty stadiums. Early on we feasted with good QBs on the road laying small numbers. As the year went on, these spots became harder to exploit. Lines that early were 2-5 became 6-10,” Baker told us.

This was just the second year in the SuperContest for the duo, and their first time in the Circa Sports contest. However, their years of poker knowledge and game theory surely assisted them in their abilities to navigate the potential pitfalls of leading from the front in the beginning.

“In the SuperContest, we had a decent lead, 2-4 points, and the field started to thin. At that point we went for more chalky plays and tried to block. Get good lines. At the same time in Circa we were falling back a bit,” Baker said.

“A few of the picks we made on both cards lost. We knew we needed to take some leverage spots and go against the grain. We successfully took the worst lines a few times and in turn gained leverage,” Baker continued.

Tournament poker players will often tell you that all they ultimately want at the end is a sweat. A shot at the crown. Well, Gregorich and Baker found themselves in about as good a spot as any heading into the final week of the season. They held a half-point lead in the Circa Sports contest, while their lead in the SuperContest was a more comfortable three-point advantage.

Of course, the two sports bettors spent hours of time picking out what would likely be the five biggest sports bets of their lives. Baker gave us a peek behind the curtain of what these two discussed the most leading up to the final Sunday.

“We went into Week 17 with many thoughts obviously. First thought was, try to play the Washington-Philly game if at all possible, and try to land on the team that was going to have the best line value at kickoff. Meaning Washington was -2 in the contest so if we thought the line would move up, play them, if down, play Philly.”

They ultimately settled on taking Washington (-2) and of course, the thought of hedging crossed the player’s minds, but in this specific scenario, that wasn’t going to be very easy. As it turns out, the two players had already made a decision that they would have put a hefty wager on the Eagles in order to ensure a bigger payday.

“This was the only hedging spot we planned to take. If we needed the game we would be able to bet a nice chunk on philly with a middle. As it worked out if we needed Washington we would have made a lot by betting philly at 6.5-7 The rest of the cards we approached similarly to past weeks.”

Baker and Gregorich submitted three picks across both cards: Washington Football Team. Baltimore Ravens, and Carolina Panthers. They went 2-1 on those picks, and went different on their other two. On Circa Sports, they took the Packers and Seahawks, while the SuperContest card had the Cowboys and Steelers. Both ended up 1-1.

“We had a pool of teams we liked. Carolina, Buffalo, Green Bay, Seattle, Dallas, Detroit became a late possibility. We pretty much were down to those six teams for three slots. Green Bay was our favorite but the line was -5/-5.5 in the contests and -4 in real life. We were committed, but the line movement caused us to only take them in Circa.”

Gregorich lobbied for his hometown Seahawks for one of the final picks, as he had done a few times already in the season. As is often the case in Seahawks games, the final quarter was wild, giving the poker pros a roller coaster of a ride that would put a major final table to shame.

The Seahawks were -6 favorites, meaning that Baker and Gregorich needed Seattle to win by a full touchdown. However, the Seahawks offense struggled throughout the game, and all looked lost when the Niners took a 16-6 lead early in the fourth quarter. But then, back-to-back Seattle touchdowns put them up 20-16, and made it possible for a miracle cover. Then, a sack fumble gave the Hawks the ball back, and after another touchdown, Baker and Gregorich looked like they would still have a shot at the $1 million first place prize in the Circa contest.

However, the 49ers put together a garbage time drive, and punched it in with 23 seconds left. The score was meaningless to the overall outcome of the game, but it changed everything in Las Vegas. Baker compared the emotions of the final two minutes of that game to a spot he’s been in many times over the course of his poker career.

“Imagine being at the final hand of a major tournament with $800,000 difference between first and second. You get it all in with AK vs KK. No biggie, you lose, it’s a cooler. That’s how it felt the whole game. We were on the wrong side. Clean flop, no sweat. We are going to lose,” Baker said.

“Then from out of nowhere the ace hits the turn. Now we are going to win! Then before you know it, the king on the river comes to beat you. That’s how it felt. Yes, we still needed Washington, but that line moved to -6.5, so we knew we had a nice middle to hedge and win a lot of money.”

The sweat was so large because of the very top heavy payouts in the Circa Sports contest. First place was $1,000,000, while second dropped all the way to $200,000. Normally, a poker player would like to have a top-heavy payout structure, but Baker didn’t pull any punches when criticizing the payouts.

“I think the pay scale was pretty gross honestly. First was three times the amount of second place. But whatever, sometimes you’re on the good end of steep payouts, and sometimes not.”

Baker and his wife already had plans to move to Las Vegas before what they hope will be the 2021 WSOP, so Baker said that most of this prize money will go towards buying a new home there. For Baker, it is a bittersweet ending to a year that he and everyone else will never forget.