5 Minutes Read
For the past few weeks, we have come out with several interviews documenting the hard work and dedication that poker players, operators, and even recreational players put in to be successful in the game. Quite a few of our recent interviews have featured Spartan Poker’s Millionaire champions. This latest heads-up edition is again an interview with another Millionaire champion, so what sets this one apart from the rest, you may wonder? Well, this time around, the subject in question is not just a phenomenal online MTT crusher and high-stakes cash game player, but he is also a former national-level boxer! Pulkit Goyal (cover image) is genuinely an ideal amalgamation of brains and brawn!
Hailing from Bhatinda, the 26-year-old`s story is proof enough that poker’s popularity has spread to tier-two cities as well. Brother of a well-known poker player and Adda52 Team pro Tarun Goyal, Pulkit, was introduced to the game by his brother while still in college. And there has been no looking back for him in the game since then.
Though his forays in the live poker scene have been few and far between, he has still managed to pick up scores at stops like the TIPS & KENTA series and WSOP International Circuit, both in Rozvadov, Czech Republic. In fact, he even final tabled the record-breaking 2019 IPC Main Event, finishing eight for ₹6.56 Lakhs.
While his short but enviable live poker resume is remarkable, the virtual felts is where this former international level taekwondo martial artist and kickboxer has really flourished. If we begin to list down his litany of online scores, we’d be stuck here a while. However, his recent victory in Spartan Poker’s SSS The Millionaire ₹1.5 Crores GTD for a massive ₹26.95 Lakhs has brought him back into the spotlight. Contesting against established pros like Vaibhav Sharma, Manish Lakhotia, Gaurav Sood and PokerGuru Ambassadors Ashish Ahuja, and Kartik Ved, on the final table, Pulkit went all the way to the finish line, stamping his name as the 42nd Spartan Poker Millionaire champion!
In a candid tête-à-tête, Pulkit told me about his poker journey and his transition from cash games to tournaments. He even shared with me his views on expanding poker to tier-two and tier-three cities, details of his spectacular run in the recent SSS The Millionaire event, and much more. Here are the excerpts.
You first made headlines when you won Adda52’s Mary Kom contest in 2014. It was reported that you met and even “exchanged punches” with Priyanka Chopra Jonas. This holds significance since I have been informed that you are a national-level boxer yourself. How do you look back at that experience?
It was a pleasant experience. I don’t precisely remember the promotion, but that association happened between Adda52 and the movie ‘Mary Kom.’ I think it was probably a Cash Games Leaderboard contest where Adda52 gave an opportunity to the top 5 runners to meet Priyanka Chopra during her ‘Mary Kom’ movie promotions. I traveled to Mumbai for the same. She came and just spent 2-3 minutes (as she was busy with her movie promotions) with us, took photos, and left. It was nothing special but a decent experience.
Regarding “exchanging punches,” it was just a casual moment when I told her that I am a national level boxer.
So how did a national-level boxer from Bhatinda become a poker player?
I am a black belt in karate. When I was in the 10th standard, I used to participate in inter-school competitions, mostly kickboxing and karate, and continued to take active participation in those competitions till my 12th standard.
After that, I took a break from my studies and ventured into business with one of my dear friends and was engaged with the business for another two years before resuming studies, rather I started my college life and education. When I was involved with my business, my brother [Tarun Goyal] was in Bangalore, where he was an IT professional, and there, he started playing poker. My curiosity towards the game came from my brother. When I went to college, I got hooked on the game, it began from cash games, and then gradually I learned to play tournaments that too at a slow pace.
So, you started out as a cash game player on Adda52 before making a move to tournaments. Tell me about your poker graph from 2013 to the present.
Yes, it is absolutely correct. I used to play cash games only, and slowly I moved towards tournaments. It’s not like I don’t play cash games anymore, I still play high-stakes cash games and tournaments on Spartan Poker and PokerBaazi.
Unlike most, I had started playing 10/20 and then went up to 25/50 and so on. My stake jumps were faster. Nowadays, I play all high stakes – 100/200, 200/400, 500/1000, and even 1000/2000 in cash games. I play PLO 4 card and 5 card cash games. On Indian sites, most of the action is of 4 card PLO. I avoid playing PLO tournaments, though, as you play more hands in PLO.
In tournaments, I play all tournaments like recently at TIPS I played all the events. I played the WSOP events too, but I didn’t cash in any of them, so it went unreported. Last year in TIPS, I finished 5th on the final table, and this year I finished 8th along with several other ITM finishes and Day 3 and Day 4 finishes. I also final tabled the IPC Main Event in Goa.
Are you still playing at Adda52?
Yes, sometimes I play on Adda52. I remember playing the Big Slick event, about 10-15 days ago, which probably I won. Since then, I haven’t played on Adda yet. The main reason why I don’t play on Adda is because of their TDS policies. They cut TDS directly when you win a tournament or even in cash games. The plus point on Spartan Poker is that they bear TDS for you, and on PokerBaazi, you get TDS cashback. The taxation policies are the main reason that I don’t play on Adda much, but I do play sometimes.
You are killing it in online tournaments of late. Last year it was topping the IOPC leaderboard to win a Jeep Compass, and last Sunday, you hit the jackpot by taking down the SSS Millionaire for ₹26 Lakhs. What and who do you attribute your success to?
I think the main reason is that I am putting a lot of volume in tournaments lately. I participate in all the daily tournaments, and on Sundays, it is a hardcore grinding session for me. See, I think it is the volume that is paying off for me as I am not being coached by anyone. But yes, I recap my hand history with my brother and Sharad [Sharad Rao]. Whenever I’m in doubt with any of my hands, I look up Sharad and my brother, who help clear my doubts.
The SSS Millionaire was full to the brim with top pros and online regulars. How did you navigate through the reg infused field? Take us through your journey from Day 1 to eventually winning the event.
As the series allowed us to carry multiple stacks on Day 2, I played in all 3 starting flights. On Day 1A, I tried, but it did not end well for me. On Day 1B, I managed to bag a good stack, I folded correctly and made the right calls to end the day with a good stack. On Day 1C, I tried but got busted in the last level.
I started Day 2 being one of the top stacks. It was an excellent grinding day for me, a series of hands did not hold, but after that, finally, I won some hands to get back into the game.
The ICM pressure must have been massive on the FT – now this is one question I tend to ask the winner of most flagships given the sizeable pay jumps. The ninth place was to get ₹2 Lakhs while the up top was 13x that. There were big names on the table as well, with the likes of Vaibhav Sharma, Ashish Ahuja, Kartik Ved, Manish Lakhotia, and Gaurav Sood. What were the dynamics like on the final table? Care to share any tough or interesting spots/hands that you were in?
When the final table started, I was placed fifth in chips, so I was considering ICM mainly as the payout jumps were huge. When I got soft spots, I utilized them entirely, but mostly I was considering ICM during FT play.
The final table had pros like Vaibhav [Sharma] and Ashish [Ahuja], so my main concern was that whenever I was involved in the action with them, I should play my hands safely and properly. I knew Ashish was a very aggro guy, but I had a position on him, so that helped.
Vaibhav was shorter than me, so he was not a big concern for me, but Ashish, I knew from my earlier experiences, as I have played with him in both live and online. He is aggro, but having position over him really benefited me.
With five players left, the turning point in the game came. Ashish shoved from the small blind holding king-five and I tank-called from the big blinds for my tournament life with ace-ten suited. I won the hand with a broadway straight while he had hit the top pair, giving me the chip lead. I extended that lead further. Ashish open-shoved his 15 bigs stack with ace-king, I shoved on top with 55 bigs and a third guy also moved all-in with a similar stack like mine with pocket queens, I had ace-king. An ace on the rundown gave me a massive chip lead, and after that, it was just about applying pressure on others.
I know about Gaurav Sood, but I don’t know Manish [Lakhotia] that well, frankly speaking. I know Gaurav is a good player and has been crushing these days in a lot of tournaments. I know his game; he is on the tighter side than my gameplay, so I was not afraid of him. My primary opponent was Ashish on the FT as his ranges are a lot wider than mine, and he is an aggro guy who invests a lot of time in study to improve his game.
At the start of the final table, Ashish was the chip lead and was putting pressure on everyone, so there were lesser push folds. But he lost his lead in a big pot. I felt ‘Jaqkten’ was a recreational player, and I would be able to gain chips from him. The table dynamics were that Ashish was the aggro guy, and the rest of us were relatively calmer than him. Kartik [Ved] was also there, but he also had the ICM pressure as there were many short stacks. Once Ashish got busted, I felt I could now win this and eventually bested them all (chuckles).
There was a ₹10 Lakhs prize money difference between first and second place. Did you and Vaibhav Sharma ever consider cutting a deal? If yes, what was the reason for not making it, and if not, any specific reason behind it?
My heads up with Vaibhav was interesting. I knew that he is an outstanding player – one of the best pros in our country, but I had massive chip dominance over him. We did not discuss a deal as the difference between the first and second place was ₹10 lakhs and me being a cash games player, the cash difference didn’t matter. I just wanted to beat him and claim the title. In the final hand of the day, I had Jack-eight suited on a flop of seven-deuce-three that gave me a flush draw. I raised, he re-raised me, I moved all-in, he tank called with nine-seven. I rivered the flush to win the title.
Spartan Poker is a clear market leader, especially when it comes to tournaments. What are your views on this?
I think that’s partially true. It can get bigger, but yes, it’s a good sign of a boom in Indian poker. We can expect a lot of big tournaments in the future where the up top is over ₹1 Crore. It’s good for India that poker is picking up. For now, Spartan is leading, and it’s perfect, but at the same time, with these high buy-ins, pros and regs can participate, but it becomes difficult for recreational players. But there are satties, so that’s also good.
Any plans for the prize money?
I have invested the money in a new business already.
Your online tournament success dates back to 2014, but the live career graph started ticking only in March this year. What’s the reason for this? Will you be attending the upcoming live tournaments in Goa next year?
I think I started playing live in 2018, and before that, I kept to online only as I did not have time for traveling because of my businesses. But now I am only a silent partner and investor in my companies and my partners handle everything. That is why I have time for traveling, and so I put volumes in live tournaments.
I traveled for TIPS events like I would be going to Rozvadov in February 2020 for TIPS. In January, I will definitely be attending IPC, not sure about BPT, but I have definite plans for IPC. One of the reasons I will be going for IPC is that they host rake-free tournaments, and the infrastructure and environment of Big Daddy are also excellent. I also have plans for WSOP next year. So basically, I intend to put volume in live felts next year.
This year was my first time at WSOP. I was mostly playing cash games there as the cash games action during WSOP is good. I played a few tournaments but didn’t have any notable results. I reached Day 2 in some of the events, but none were in the money finishes, so I kept my focus on cash games.
I am coming for IPC for sure but not sure about BPT. Then I will go to TIPS and maybe go to Vegas in March to play cash games. I will first go to California and then Vegas in March and will stay there till July end. Reaching there a month before WSOP to play cash games. I will be playing and focusing more on tournaments this time and obviously will play the Main Event.
Rozvadov seems to be a favorite poker venue for you. Tell us about your experiences playing there.
Yes, it’s a beautiful place, and I love the cold weather. It’s winter there almost throughout the year, so I really love it. The field is also relatively soft there. Obviously regs come when there is a big series but there are ample recreational players there as well. Another good thing is that during these tournaments, there is a lot of high stakes cash game action so I prefer to go there. The casino is nice there and we get good facilities. Manish [Goenka] and all chill with us, so that’s good.
You had said in an interview in 2017 that you always aim for first. Do you still stick by that mantra, or have you changed your view on that?
I still stick to that motto. I don’t want to ever play just to make it in the money, for me it’s the title that matters. I aim for the first. For, e.g. there was a crucial spot where Ashish Ahuja shoved from the small blind, and I had Ace-ten suited in the big blind. I am 65% ahead in this situation, but due to ICM pressure, I decided to fold. But that decision was not due to pay jumps.
Most of the poker explosion it seems is happening in the metros, but there is a lot of interest building up for the game in tier-two and tier-three cities as well. What, according to you, can be done to grow the game in such cities?
To be honest, I am not sure about this. Mainly it’s awareness of the game. The thing is, these tier two and three cities are still backward and people consider it gambling because they are not aware of the skill aspect of it. Obviously, there is luck involved, but it’s just not that. The experience and your skill matter the most.
The government also has to step in and make it legal throughout. They are taking high taxes but at the same time, consider it gambling. Even I have friends who started playing seeing me, but since they were not skilled, they lost and quit shortly. You have to consider that it’s a process.
How do you work on improving your game, and what would you suggest to players looking to get better in the game? There is a lot of talk about running simulations and working on solvers among the regs in the circuit. What’s your take on this and some other tools currently in vogue?
I review my hand histories of all the tournaments, and if I have any doubts on a particular hand or spot, I clarify them with my brother or Sharad (Rao). That helps a lot, and it helps me identify where I made mistakes or where I bled out my stack. For new players, I would suggest that you discuss the hands with the top players and regs. You should constantly try to learn from the better players and always try to get better at the game by study and practice. I watched a lot of videos on Run It Once, but I personally didn’t study that much. Another crucial thing for new players is to keep putting volume. You gain experience and can consistently improve.
I think these solvers are a great idea, but I don’t use them often. I only use them for a few hands. I think they can help a player get to the next level. I learnt the game on my own, and I know some excellent software is used by almost all regs, but I am not using them.
Who are the players you look up to in the circuit and talk to discuss hands/spots with?
Ashish Ahuja has a solid game, and he is a great guy. Then Shravan Chhabria. Anant Purohit is a great guy as well, and I sometimes discuss hands with him too. He has been killing it off late.
Any immediate poker goals?
No immediate goals, but the ultimate goal is to just win the WSOP Main Event once, but I know j need to work on my game a lot. But yes, I just want to ship the WSOP Main Event.
Any words of advice you would like to give to aspiring poker players?
Play your A-game and focus on it completely. Try to play each hand to the best of your ability and keep learning!