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One of India’s most accomplished poker pros, Raman Gujral (cover image) has had a great start to the year. Gujral just earlier this week claimed his first-ever live international title at the 2019 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) $1,100 NLHE for a whopping ₹54.64 Lakhs.
Gujral’s tryst with poker began as early as 1998 when he was introduced to the game at a friend’s house in the U.S. The call for pursuing a regular livelihood saw the UCLA graduate with a degree in Mathematics join a day trading firm in L.A as a scalper. He moved to Las Vegas in 2003 with his mentor and got to learn more about the game. From 2003 to 2010, Gujral’s poker exploits were limited to the virtual felts but in 2010, he travelled to Goa for an IPRT tournament and was introduced to the coastal state’s cash game scene. There has been no looking back for the pro and as his story goes, Raman eventually settled down in Goa but has now moved back to Chandigarh.
Interestingly, while pushing himself through college, Gujral used to give Mathematics tuitions and discovered that he enjoyed the art of teaching. In his own words he said, “The challenge of making a winner out of an ordinary player excites me to no end.” Gujral is perhaps a rare breed who loves teaching the game almost as much as playing and as many may not know, he has mentored some very successful poker players like Ankit Singh, Kavin Shah, Pulkit Kalia, Rajnish Kumar and Nitish Gupta.
All these players have gone on to establish themselves as renowned players in the domestic circuit. In fact, Gupta was our first PokerGuru Young Gun way back in 2013 and even took down the PokerBaazi The MoneyMaker ₹1 Crore GTD in December 2018.
The old-timer with a 15-year long poker career is often referred to as the “Grandfather of Indian poker”, but the seasoned pro rightly pointed out to us that he is no way a grandfather.
He is an experienced strategist though, as the Chandigarh-based poker professional played a crucial role for his Team Mumbai Jetsetters in Season 1 of Global Poker League (GPL) India. The team won the inaugural GPL India finals and Gujral was among the eight Indians to win a PokerStars Players No Limit Hold’em Championship (PSPC) Platinum Pass. While Team India’s performance at the $25K PSPC event was a bit of a dampener, Gujral’s win in the $1,100 NLHE has been a much-needed consolation prize and it couldn’t have come at a better stage!
While Gujral’s total live tournament earnings stand well over ₹80 Lakhs, he is most known for his expertise in high-stakes cash games. And unfortunately, even with our prodding we wouldn’t have gotten a figure on the amount of money he has won at the cash tables, we can with utmost certainly state that those figures clearly outshine his live tournament winnings.
The much-feared cash game specialist is also a devoted family man and abhors travelling for poker as it takes him away from his daughter Sara.
In this candid chat with PokerGuru, the humble and down-to-earth poker veteran bares it all about his poker journey, and even shares his experiences from the PCA series in Bahamas and much more. Here are the excerpts.
Hi Raman. Thank you for speaking to PokerGuru and congratulations on winning the PCA $1,100 NLHE! How does it feel winning your first live international title after so many years of playing this game professionally?
Hey… you are almost making me look bad! [smiles] Yes, it’s been 15 years since I started playing poker, but I was never really a tournament player. First 5-6 years of my poker career I was an SNG specialist. Thereafter, I switched to cash games. It’s only in 2017 when PSL [Poker Sports League] started that I really got interested in tournament poker. This was the fifth international tournament series I played in. I don’t feel anything really. If anything, I am a bit surprised by how big a deal you guys are making it into.
You were a part of the Team Mumbai JetSetters that eventually won the inaugural season of the GPL India. What was the experience like?
The GPL experience was awesome for the most part. When it comes to playing, we poker players usually have fun. The interviews and cameras made me feel awkward at times, but when it came to business our team and I had a blast. The tournament was very well structured. Team events have their own charm and I loved being part of the Mumbai JetSetters team.
While Kavin Shah was the Team captain, Vivek Singh, Saurabh Sindhwani and Aneesh Nair were also a part of the team. What was your rapport with them? What role did you play in the team?
I have known Kavin [Shah] for about 7 years now. He has done very well in poker over the years. I guess we share a mutual respect for each other’s poker game.
I didn’t know the others before GPL, but a team event creates a bond quickly. My role in the team was the same as other team members – score as many points for the team as possible. Kavin and I also made most of the strategy regarding which player to use in the semis and finals.
You are popularly known as the “Grandfather of Indian poker” – and are credited as one among a few in the first line of top pros to come out from the country. Tell us about how you got into the game and how did Goa happen to become your place of residence?
Actually, it’s Sumit Asrani who is responsible for this title. He told a reporter from Sports Keeda that I am ‘like the grandfather of Indian poker’ – the reporter then asked me if I’m okay with such a title. My response was: “sure… use whatever you like, but personally I would prefer father … I’m not that old” [laughs]. Now it’s being carried forward by other poker media groups – just wanted to clarify that.
Regarding what brought me to Goa, I happened to go to Goa for a tournament. I noticed that the cash games were super soft, so I decided to move. This is what it looks like from the outside, but the fact is that the universe conspired to make it happen.
Not many in the poker community know that you have played an important role as a mentor for numerous budding players who went on to become superstars. Care to name a few of your past students?
Yeah, I’ve coached quite a few players. Ankit Singh was my first student. His success in Goa motivated a bunch of students from his college to come to Goa to explore the cash games. I then took on Kavin Shah, Pulkit Kalia as students. Both of them have done very well for themselves. Other students include Nitish Gupta and Rajnish [Kumar]. There are several others who I have coached/staked for shorter durations.
When I was studying in the US, I was working as a math tutor to pay for my education. I enjoy teaching even more than I enjoy playing poker. The challenge of making a winner out of an ordinary player excites me to no end. Though it’s not as rewarding as playing myself!
Coming back to the GPL, winning the first season guaranteed your entry into the $25K PokerStars Players No Limit Hold’em Championship (PSPC). What were your expectations going into the event and how different was the actual experience?
I don’t want to sound like a weirdo, but I had no expectations. The opportunity made me want to work on my tournament game. I had a good feeling about this trip – that’s about all. The actual experience was fantastic. The way the Pokerstars crew treats their clients is something unreal. For a change this trip was not just fun on the poker tables, but fun off the tables as well. We had some fun swimming with dolphins. Nikhil Segel organised a sailing trip to Rose Island. All of that made this trip special.
The PSPC event Day 1 gave me some confidence. Day 1 was a cruise. I held my own against some of the best poker players on that table. A couple of players were very good. On level 1 itself I had to make a big call for half my stack – but bhai ko kaun dara sakta hai? [laughs] On Day 2 I misplayed one hand and got out soon after. I then decided I’m not good enough to play the Main Event. Maybe I was a bit harsh on myself. Thereafter I played cash games and a couple of the smaller buy-in events.
Besides the PSPC, PCA National and $1,100 NLHE, what other events did you participate in?
Besides the $25K PSPC, I played the $5.3K NLHE, $1.1K PCA Nationals event and the $1.1K that I won.
You are a well-known high stakes game pro and have played some of the biggest games in Goa and even other parts of the country. Now apart from poker prowess, it is assumed that networking skills and other incentives have to give out to get a seat in a good cash game. Is this true? How much of the high stakes circuit is political requiring connections and how difficult is it for pros to get into good cash games?
I am not the right guy to be answering this question. I almost stopped playing cash games live in 2014. Now I only play cash games on PokerBaazi and tournaments on all Indian sites. Neither of them involves any politics or networking skills.
How has the poker scene in Goa evolved in the last 10 years – dating back to the early days with Casino Royale? The live circuit seems to have cooled off considerably as Vietnam and other Asian countries have become popular stops for Indians. Also, how about the cash games in Goa?
Again, I’m not the right guy to be answering questions about live cash games in Goa. I haven’t played there in a long time. I have moved back to Chandigarh and am currently only playing online. And of course, Vietnam is taking over as a favourable destination for tournament players in India. The way the tourney winnings are taxed in live setting in India is pretty ridiculous. Not being able to offset your winnings with your expenses or even your losses is a huge deterrent. Now if I go for a tournament in Goa it’s more to chill with my poker buddies than for the EV provided by the tournaments.
Poker rooms in Bengaluru have been closed for operations for over six months now – how has that benefitted the Goa Casinos in terms of poker traffic? How do you think the increasing traffic on domestic online sites is affecting the live poker ecology positively or negatively – and why?
Increasing traffic on online sites is obviously good. These numbers reflect the increase in the poker playing population in India. These sites have introduced many to poker, many of whom may never had made a trip to Goa to play. I expect these sites to continue to bring more and more new comers into the game. These beginners can now try their skills at low stake games starting at ₹1-₹2 blinds, something that casinos cannot afford to offer. Learning should be cheap and online poker is providing beginners with the right platform.
You have been largely missing from the live action these past few years but now that you have won an event at the PCA, will be getting to see more of you at live events – especially at major International stops e.g. WSOP?
I still prefer playing online. Travelling is not really my thing. I don’t like being away from my daughter for too long. This trip was the longest I have stayed away from her voluntarily. As of now she needs my time more than my money. That being said I may go for WSOP this year – i.e. if Sara allows me to go for a month or so. And most likely I’ll go for the next series in Vietnam.
What do you feel is missing in Indian poker? What in your opinion will help in taking the game to the next level in India?
Hmmm….not so sure what we need next. We have good players, good coaches, good stables, good poker sites. Not so good as far as live game settings go, cause they are either illegal or very highly raked or both. I guess proper tax laws would be number 1 on my list. Poker on mainstream TV is another. We also need to have more land-based poker rooms so that rake can be lowered to a much more beatable level.
And with these words Gujral signs off.