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Nikunj Jhunjhunwala (cover image) needs no introduction. A high stakes cash game specialist known for his finesse in deep structures tournament, Jhunjhunwala entered the history books when he tamed a 697-strong player field, a star-studded record-breaking turnout at the recently concluded 2018 World Poker Tour (WPT) India ₹55K Main Event for a career-best ₹66.35 Lakhs!
Mumbai-based Jhunjhunwala`s tryst with poker began nearly ten years ago and he hasn’t look back since then. He enjoyed a breakout week in December 2015 when in a matter of days he took down two major titles back-to-back for a cumulative ₹35.41 Lakhs in prize money.
The energetic poker player who loves to play squash apart from handling his business interests took an eight-month sabbatical right before turning up in Goa to play at the 2018 WPT India. A break, which in his own words was much needed and one that helped him look at poker with a better perspective.
Interestingly, right before his 2015 IPC wins; Jhunjhunwala was teased by his friends that he could not win tournaments. He certainly proved them wrong and how!
The motivation to win this time around seems to have cropped up through a prop-bet Jhunjhunwala made with a friend promising to final table either the Main Event or the High Roller. The rest as we know is history.
The 2018 WPT India Main Event champion spoke to PokerGuru on his run at the event and more. Here are the excerpts of the conversation.
Hi Nikunj, thanks for speaking with PokerGuru. Congratulations on winning the WPT Main Event! While winning a WPT title is an impressive feat, winning your maiden WPT title at the Main Event is a tremendous achievement. How does it feel?
This is the first time I participated in WPT India. Initially it just didn’t sink in and it took me like 24-30 hours to register that I have actually won the WPT India Main Event title! The player field was the best in India, 697 participants! Everyone was very focused on the event, and it was a very tough field, so yeah, I’m super happy and super elated about this victory.
You have mentioned that prior to entering the event you were on a “poker sabbatical.” What was the reason for taking a break from the mind sport, and what was the driving factor that got you to Goa for the series?
I had been playing poker for quite a while without a break, non-stop and a year and a half year back I got married. I wasn’t being able to give time to my wife, so I took a conscious decision to be away from poker lifestyle and concentrate more on family and also on my work.
For eight months, I was completely off poker. It was a much-required break. It cleared my thoughts; it made me realize aspects of poker like how important folding is. Sometimes, we poker players tend to lose value for money which is what was happening to me. Getting back to a regular 10-6 office culture helped me change that, so I think it was a blessing in disguise.
This year around Diwali, I got back to recreational poker and it was during a Diwali celebratory event that I caught up with my other poker buddies. We were talking about the WPT and off the bat just decided to go for WPT. It had been only 15 days that I had got back to playing poker recreationally.
It also seemed the perfect setting to meet everybody under the same roof, since during this sabbatical that I took I had been completely disconnected from the fraternity. And so that’s how WPT happened.
You said that you had made a prop bet with a friend for final tabling at either the Main Event or the High Roller. You ended up winning the Main Event, but had you not won, what would you have to do then?
I was flying out of Mumbai with my dear friend Manish Goenka and during the flight I was telling him that because of me having taken the break, mentally I was so fresh with poker that I told him that for old time’s sake I’m going to at least final table one event and I was only playing two events – so I was implying either the High Roller or Main Event and take it on from there.
In an interview with PokerNews you said that there were two people at the final table you wanted to avoid with your short stack coming into the final day. Who were these players?
Two really good players according to me were Akshay Nasa and Amit ‘BBlacklegend’ Jain and I made a conscious effort to stay away from both of them and just play with the others.
Such as fate be, Amit was to my immediate left, and he had a massive chip stack. We play a lot of cash together so he knows what I am capable of in a hand and what my hand ranges are. And I was pretty short with only 18 bigs (big blinds), and of course, there would be an ICM pressure so I just didn’t want to be bullied on the table with the chip leader and consciously decided to slow down till I double up and then I’d start opening up.
I have recently played with AkshayNasa in the Match IPL wherein his game was like an enigma to me and its only back when I went back to the scratchboard and saw all the hand histories that I realized that Nasa has got fantastic potential.
You are cash game buddies with Adda52 Team Pro Amit Jain. Were there any other players you ran into at the Main Event who you have played with before?
There were tons of people whom I was familiar with in the event. I have been in the poker fraternity for than 7-8 years so I can confidently say that I know more than 70 percent of the field. There were also many other players who were pretty good. Vidwath Shetty, according to me is a great talent. He’s from Bangalore (Bengaluru) and I have always been a huge fan of his game.
At the start of final table, you had the second-shortest stack. What was your strategy going into the final table? Were there any player/players who you were especially cautious of?
Yes, I was eighth in chips. Initially, I was consciously trying to avoid hands with Amit Jain and just kept folding for the first few hands till he lost some of his stack. I was trying to make sure just to get whatever blinds I was losing back and trying to hang on to the 18 BB’s. Once Amit lost a chunk of his stack is when I started opening up my ranges and started collecting small pots and building my stack.
Can you tell us about any interesting hands that you remember?
I remember that on the final table I was pretty much card-dead for the initial heads-up game with Sahil Mahboobani. I was mentally feeling low and Sahil (Mehboobani) was rolling all over me. The good thing was my rail was so so strong with the likes of Kavin Shah, Samay Parikh. Even Manish Adnani joined the rail, there was a whole bunch of guys railing and hooting away when I was taking the small pots and it kept me going.
So during the heads-up, there was this particular hand where I opened on the button and Sahil (Mehboobani) 3-bet me. I had pocket nines and I flatted, thinking that since he was being agro (aggressive) and I had position, I thought let me see a favorable flop and if he can just hang himself and I could probably just stack him there in that hand. The board was eight-three-three and I had an overpair to the board. He bet the flop, I called. The turn comes in ten and he bet 60% of the pot, I called. The river came in ace and he just jammed for my tourney life. I thought about all the possible hand combinations that he could have been holding. Three is very difficult for him to have but there were a lot of ace-X combination that he could have overplayed and clipped.
But in a heads-up scenario when you’re holding a pair, it’s so much more difficult to give someone credit for a pair and a higher pocket. Most of the people would have lost the tournament in that hand, putting nines pre-all with nines, but I saved my stack on that.
Back in 2015, you won back-to-back titles at the India Poker Championship (IPC), in the Main Event and the HighRoller. You eventually went on to win the IPC Player of the Year (POY). Can you tell us a little about those events and the series?
It’s a different high altogether winning two back-to-back tournaments in a span of three to four days, so it was a great feeling. Back then the field was very good although the numbers have multiplied now. I remember that once the tournament got over, the fatigue set in, I partied hard and then passed out for 24 hours!
Let’s turn to Nikunj, the poker player. How and when did you start playing poker and what inspires you to continue? Talk us through your poker journey since your 2015 title wins in the IPC.
I started playing poker 8-10 years back, and like everybody does, on Zynga. I simply love the nuances about poker, the math, the psychology, the different elements about poker. The beauty about poker is that aces are the best starting hand in poker, but probably aces could be the worst hand that a person could have. Compared Teen Patti or Flush, poker lets you take and express different story lines, and get your opponent who may be having aces, to fold.
Initially, I stuck to playing home games with a few friends. One thing led to another, and I eventually landed up in a casino. In those days we used to play with a buy-in of ₹5,000 and the challenges of poker got me hooked.
Apart from the eight-month sabbatical that I took, I have been playing a lot of cash games and PLO, usually on an everyday basis with the likes of Kavin Shah, Samay Parikh and Amit Jain.
It’s very ironical that since my two title wins at IPC, I had the worst run of my life and I was actually contemplating whether the limelight was even worth it. I come from a traditional Marwari background so it was kind of difficult to explain to my parents that playing poker was what I wanted to do. At that time I had a thriving business which I had started by myself. But yes, when the IPC trophies came, I could see the proud sparkle in my father’s eyes, the beam that I saw on my father’s face, from cheek to cheek, a memory that I’ll probably take to my grave!
You are well known in the cash game circuit and known to prefer PLO. How do you feel the variance has helped you in the long run?
PLO is a very intriguing game and has huge variance. But the equities in PLO runs very close so if you have not done the bankroll management well and are having a bad run, PLO can turn out to be a bad experience. But it’s great fun as well and PLO really helps you understand hand ranges, and learn to eliminate hand range, and there are so many spots that people put you in PLO and check your grit.
The poker scene in India has seen a boom off late, picking up both as far as live tournaments go and also on the virtual platform. What is your take on this?
The numbers speak for themselves! If eight to ten years back, the field of a domestic live tournament used to have 80-100 people, we had 697 entries in the WPT Main Event this time. Maybe next year it could touch 1000. In this context, Manish Adnani I feel is doing brilliant work in Delta Corp, he’s been instrumental in growing poker.
Yes, online poker has also grown tremendously in India. Personally, I prefer playing live and am considered one of the biggest fishes online! (laughs). Although online poker is the same game, it is so much different. You can’t see your opponents in person, there are no physical tells, you can’t really talk, the game is also much faster online compared to live due to a time stipulation.
You were also a member of the Mumbai All Stars team that won Season 1 of the Match IPL last year. Talk us through your experience playing for the team in the league.
Poker Leagues have introduced a completely different format where player’s team up, and this changes everything. You’re playing the hand ranges of all the players who are sitting on your seats across your table and across all tables so, it’s a very calculative and interesting format and I have thoroughly enjoyed playing in the Match IPL.
Talking about poker leagues, India now has a full bounty of poker leagues offering a sportified environment for the game in the country, the latest addition being GPL India. What is your opinion on the same?
The more poker happening in India is good and the coming in of poker leagues will only help poker grow in popularity now that we’re televising poker in different social platforms.
With a major WPT title now under your belt, what are your future plans and poker aspirations?
I’d love to play in the WSOP now. A lot of my friends have been telling me to come to Vegas as the events offer very deep structures, which suits my game. So yes, I’m most definitely looking at Vegas next year, and let’s hope that if this run continues, I can win a bracelet for India. I also want to visit Rozvadov and play in the King’s Casino since I have heard great things about it, and also Monaco.