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The recently concluded PokerBaazi Premier League (PPL) V was a resounding success, growing in popularity edition after edition and this time it brought forth some highly deserving champions. PokerBaazi Team Pro Paawan Bansal (cover image) came out on top, having won the PPL V ‘Player of the Series’ (POY) leader board. Playing poker for the past eight years, this Meerut lad has already created quite a reputation for himself.
2016 was a landmark year for Paawan, spent travelling the international circuit participating in different tournaments. He became the first Indian to cash the Aussie Millions A$10,600 Main Event this January (66th place for $10,501), besides cashing at the World Poker Tour (WPT) Vienna where he made a 14th place finish in the Euro 1,100 Event for almost $2,614, as well as a runner-up finish in the €200 No Limit Hold’em WPT Late Night Turbo for $2,074.
Paawan also visited the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas. Here, he speaks to us at length about his POY win at PPL V, which he says was a goal he had worked hard towards. He also shares his experiences travelling abroad, playing and interacting with global poker pros, besides how he keeps his game up-to-date, his relationship with PokerBaazi and a lot more. Here are the excerpts.
I started 2016 with the Aussie Millions in Melbourne, which was my first tournament series outside of Asia. This was before I joined the PokerBaazi team. Went there with a couple of friends, played a few events, took breaks in between to watch the Australian Open and India vs. Australia cricket matches happening at the time. Staying in backpackers, we made some new friends and went out to enjoy the Melbourne nightlife every now and then. It turned out to be more of a vacation than a poker trip!
You began the year with a score at the Aussie Millions, going on to many other scores at the WPT Vienna. Please tell us about the takeaways from these series.
The Aussie Millions main event was an amazing experience. On day 2 and day 3, I got to play with some of the best players in the international circuit so early on in my live tournament career. Early on day 2, my table broke and I was moved to a new one and saw a couple of superhighroller sickos in Brian Rast and Philip Gruissem on my left! After a few nervous moments, I realized what an incredible opportunity it was to learn from the best in the business while testing my skills at the same time. This kind of experience can only be possible if you travel around the world abandoning the luxury of crushing your regular game. Picking up a decent chunk of chips on this table mostly against Brian Rast made me realize that I can hold my own in the international circuit, as previously I had only played events in Asia.
WPT Vienna was my first international tournament with PokerBaazi. In the €220 No Limit Hold’em WPT Late Night Turbo event, I finished runners up when my Aces got cracked by deuces in a pre-flop all in situation. Apart from the heartbreak of missing out on a WPT title so narrowly, the experience was phenomenal. As luck would have it, I ended up playing quite a few pots with Ole Schemion, the best player in the room. We drew the same table in three of the tournaments and were constantly trying to get the better of each other. However, during our conversations away from the table, I was pleasantly surprised to find out how down to earth and genuinely nice he was as a person. His humility was truly inspiring and made me want to incorporate that in my personality and my game. Ever since then, whenever someone comes up to me in the Indian circuit for advise or help or just to talk about poker in general, I am more than happy to engage and try to be accessible.
You also attended EPT Grand Final Monte Carlo in May and WPT Italy and then went to the Mecca of Poker for the WSOP. Do tell us about your close miss of the money on Day 3 of WSOP Main Event and share some highlights from these trips.
The EPT Grand Finale was memorable! Monte Carlo is one of the best places I have been to. You can see the French Riviera in all its glory and it’s just an amazing place to play poker. Getting a glimpse of the lifestyle of the high stakes poker players in the EPT circuit just reignites that drive.
During the very early stages of the EPT Grand finale Main Event, I was the chip leader in the room and that was one of the best feelings I have had in my tournament career. Unluckily, I couldn’t sustain it beyond day 3 when my set went down to a rivered flush (all in on the turn) for a humungous pot. However, I busted Winfred Yu after battling with him for a day, which was somewhat of a consolation.
WPT Italy was a small series, I played in 4-5 events across five days and it was mostly local players. Having reached there after over a month of crazy travelling across Europe, I wasn’t really at my A-game and ended up bricking the series.
WSOP Main Event was grand and I hadn’t experienced anything like that before. The environment inside Rio during WSOP Main is surreal to say the least. There are endless numbers of tables across the room and it’s just mesmerizing to see so many players doing what you love. The fields we are used to in India are usually 200-300 entries at the most whereas WSOP is on another level altogether, thousands of players in the room and that’s something you don’t see every day. It motivates you to play your best as you know you need to navigate your way through the field, so that in itself is a great experience and I was lucky enough to make it to Day 3.
Till Day 3, I had a very healthy stack, but after a couple of coolers I lost a big pot with a questionable play and lost a flip soon after to bust just before the money bubble burst. It was excruciating to not cash after playing close to my best poker for three days in a row but that just goes to show the stiff competition at the WSOP. Apart from the end result, the Vegas experience was mind-blowing. This is one series everyone shows up for and there is so much to gather from other players. Even though I failed to cash during WSOP I felt like my Hold’em game improved a lot by talking to guys like Raghav Bansal, Amit Jain, Aditya Sushant, Vinod Megalmani and Dhaval Mudgal.
You hail from Meerut, a not so popular city for Poker, How and when did you come across the sport?
My batch mates introduced me to poker in the first week of university life in Singapore. We started out with $2 buy-in games, which increased to $5 or $10 while we were playing with seniors. I recall being fascinated seeing the same bunch of guys winning most of the times. Initially, I had this perception of poker being like Teen Patti, more luck than anything else- sometimes you have the cards, sometimes you don’t! However, with time, I realized that this is not a luck based game and you need skill to become a winning player in the long run. I started reading famous poker books and watching high stakes poker videos on YouTube to try and pick up a general idea of how to win in poker.
University games were not often enough for my liking anymore and I started playing on Zynga. Within a year, I had gained enough confidence in my game to start playing for real money and I deposited $600 on Full Tilt Poker. Looking back, I got extremely lucky in the first few days as I shipped a massive 2,000-entry field event for around $4K in only my third ever MTT. Soon after, I shifted my focus to learning Omaha cash games which turned out to be the turning point in my online career as PLO was a relatively new game and most players didn’t have the kind of head start as in Hold’em. I completely immersed myself in PLO playing 4-12 tables up to eighteen hours a day, the hours I was putting in soon started paying dividends as I rose in stakes from $1/2 to $25/50 building up a nice roll along the way.
You have been a prominent member of the PokerBaazi Pro Team, how has the partnership been?
When I joined PokerBaazi, it wasn’t the established website it is today. It was a group of enthusiastic guys dedicated to providing a good platform for budding poker players in India. I started talking to them in January before I went for Aussie Millions and was intrigued by the crazy efforts they seemed to put in with customer support and relations with each and every player, even on forums. It had almost been a year since then and not much has changed as Pokerbaazi continues to set Industry standards on those fronts.
Before I signed up with Baazi, I had the feeling every operator was just here for the money and people often used to be in difficult situations when they faced problems with poker sites. This was definitely not the case with Baazi and I wanted to be associated with them and help them improve the state of online poker in India as well as I could. They concentrate on how to grow the industry and not just poker as a profession or as a means to mint money.
Please share your PPL V experience. Was winning the leader board and becoming the ‘Player of the Season’ on your agenda from the start?
Being branded ‘Baazigar of the series’ is something I have had on my bucket list ever since the inaugural PPL back in December 2015, which was my first online tournament series online as I had been mostly a cash player until then. Last PPL, I finished fourth and it was quite disheartening to come so close and not seal the deal. Ever since I saw the first PPL V banner I had decided to give it my all to become the Baazigar of the Series. It was uplifting to see the kind of support we got for PPL V in the midst of certain software and technical issues on day 1, which we worked very hard to fix.
The main event had a 25-lakh guarantee and the prize pool reached almost 30 lakhs, which is something I had never seen on Baazi before, so it was a really proud moment. I was pretty much at the top of my game throughout PPL V final tabling six events including a couple of runner-up finishes, so was very happy with my performance. Leader board scores have been incredibly close in most PPL seasons but this time I took a commanding lead by the end of day 3 and never looked back.
You have been actively discussing PLO hands on online forums and have made your mark in NL Hold’em. Which variant do you prefer playing? How much time do you devote to improve your game and how do you do it?
I prefer playing PLO for cash and No Limit Hold’em for tournaments. In India, there are not a lot of Omaha tournaments and I feel very rusty when I play one after a month or so. At PokerBaazi, we have been working hard to include more and more Omaha events, because of the interest and action the game generates.
To be up to date with this ever-evolving game, I keep watching Run It Once videos and try to understand what the top guys are doing differently to crush the harder than ever online games. You have to see them play certain spots to figure out the changes you can make to your own game in order to be a more profitable player. The WSOP, high stakes poker videos make for interesting Television, although some of it may not necessarily be good poker, but you can always pick up things from there as well.
When it comes to poker there is always room for improvement so the trick is not to get complacent and keep learning every opportunity you get. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, I got a chance to interact with one of the best poker minds these days in Ole Schemion, who has innumerable super high roller and high roller titles to his name. Based on a few interactions with him about the game, my outlook to poker had changed for the better. This is one thing I feel is highly underrated- how you approach Poker as a profession eventually dictates how well you do in the long run. The sixth best player in the world could lose money if he always sits down at the table with the top five.
When I was just starting out, I read a lot of books too although one has to be careful with the reading material nowadays. Poker has evolved enormously over the years and has become so advanced in recent times that even the strategies mentioned in Super System, the bible of poker, might not work.
What are your plans for future? Any set goals?
For the foreseeable future, I want to keep travelling the circuit and play some more international tournaments. Getting the necessary exposure and improving my game is my primary goal at this point in time. It might sound like a cliché but winning a wsop bracelet is right up there as well. In the long-term, I would want to try and use my experience to change the way poker is perceived in India by the majority of the population and bring it out of the shadows.