5 Minutes Read
You could easily mistake him for your college junior! Young, lean, and his understated boyish charm, and that slightly impish smile which easily stretches into a whole-hearted grin and warms you up instantly. We are talking about the 25-year-old Pratibh Saluja, the newest sensation to rock the domestic poker circuits and indubitably a Rising Star of Poker. From playing poker as a childhood fascination to winning 11 AOPS titles, Pratibh Saluja has taken significant strides in the game, and he is only getting started!
We had an enlivening conversation with Saluja and discovered that the Kolkata-born grew up in the City of Joy and moved to Delhi to pursue higher studies. Saluja spent three years working in the actuarial services and strategy consulting domains before a chance encounter with poker rekindled his long-lost love for the game.
The pandemic forced him to shelve his MBA plans, presenting him with the perfect opportunity to deep dive into poker. Over the past year, Saluja has grown to be regarded as one of the top poker talents to watch out for. His record of online winnings may yet be modest, but Saluja has left an indelible mark already.
Here`s a look at Saluja`s inspiring poker journey and the leaderboard account of his poker highs and lows in his own words!
True Love, the Second Time Around!
Pratibh was just about 10 years old when a friend first introduced him to poker. Interestingly, he began playing Pot Limit Omaha (PLO) instead of the more popular No-Limit Hold’em (NLHE).
“My first poker experience was when I was in Class 5. I used to hang out with a group of friends, and one knew how to play poker. He taught the game to all of us, and we started playing.”
Yet, his affair with the game remained just that – child’s play in the initial years. “Back then, I obviously had no clue that there is an entire poker industry which exists, and there are properly structured poker tournaments, or that you could even choose poker as a career. Poker was just a fun thing to do!”
As the years rolled in, the Kolkata boy grew up to finish graduation with Honors in Economics from Delhi’s Hansraj College. He followed it up with a cushy job as an Actuarial Analyst.
Fast forward to 2018, and Saluja was living an independent life in Gurgaon, sharing an apartment with a bunch of IIT graduates. But a chance encounter one day rekindled an old passion.
“One day, I just walked back home after work and found my housemate playing poker on his phone! I was instantly intrigued. He told me about Adda52 and that he was playing poker quite regularly on the site.”
That was all it took for poker to come marching right back into Pratibh Saluja’s life!
His training in finance and experience working on astute financial projections and risk assessment renders Saluja a natural fit for the game. Dedicating most of his after-work hours, he started by grinding the micro-stakes tournaments.
“I did well in the first few months, which gave me a confidence boost. I was making more money than my salary at work, right out of poker!”
Before long, Saluja started looking out for poker home games in Gurgaon on an app called Meetup, even finding players for live games.
“I found some people who shared the passion for the game. We used to play over the weekend, and we kind of grew as poker players together. Some of the players I met were Pankaj Sharma, Som Asopa, Gurdeep Singh, and Abhishek Prasad.”
During this time of re-discovering his old love for poker, Saluja decided to go all out and explore all facets of the game. He began his tryst with live poker by playing small-stakes home games. Until he took, quite by chance, the next big step that would subsequently push him into the bigger leagues.
“One of my poker playing buddies suggested that we should all go to Goa for a live tournament series. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I had the false impression that I’m one of the best poker players out there!”
And just like that, armed only with a gutsy zeal to explore the opportunities life has to offer, Saluja booked himself a ticket to Goa for the upcoming Deltin Poker Tournament (DPT) in 2018.
The Goa trip was an eye-opener in more ways than one. Saluja came to experience the domestic poker industry up hard and close, realizing first-hand the growing circuit of players who pursued the game seriously.
“They were playing the highest stakes, with buy-ins ranging from ₹30K to even ₹1 Lakh, which was new to me. I played only a few events, but the experience itself was surreal!”
Also, it was at the DPT in Goa that Saluja chanced upon meeting poker veterans such as Sumit Sapra and PokerGuru Ambassador Laksh Pal Singh. Interestingly, Singh, who has mentored many poker newbies, also made an occasion to meet Saluja over a couple of study sessions. Saluja was able to pick up and learn from their interactions in Goa.
“Both of them have been instrumental in opening the world of MTTs to me. Sapra was a mentor to me for a while and helped me by providing me with study materials. I had no idea till then that you can apply certain strategies in poker and more technical aspects that you can learn to improve as a player.”
With the Goa trip, Saluja indeed came of age, devoting significantly more volume playing MTTs.
But the Stakes Were High!
Still working full-time at his day job, Saluja was forced to restrict his play into just so many hours.
“When I started putting in a lot of volume, it was difficult. It was like me managing two full-time jobs, managing an 8–10-hour grind with a job. It became very, very hectic. There were times when I used to break down. I wasn’t sure as to where I was going with my poker journey, and it started to impact my day job.”
And while his love for the game was matched only by a steadily upward learning curve, the demands of a full-time job claimed precedence.
“The main problem was that I didn’t have time since I was onto a full-time job, and I couldn’t really imagine the possibility of taking poker as a full-time career. I stopped playing for nearly a year and just focused on my job. I was also planning to go for my MBA last year.”
By mid-2019, Saluja had decided to stow away the cards for good. He decided to pursue his day job more seriously and even set his sights on an MBA. He got himself admitted at the prestigious ISB, Hyderabad, slated to start his MBA classes in April of 2020.
But April was to come after the March of 2020. The pandemic broke through, bringing with it an unprecedented lockdown. Saluja’s MBA plans were shelved, and he couldn’t see himself going for an online MBA course. Destiny’s hand seemed to be gently nudging him back into poker. Only this time, he had ample time in hand.
“I felt that poker is something I’m good at and I can succeed in. The lockdown months were the perfect time for me to give poker a shot, full-time, so I decided to defer my MBA plans and quit my job. I decided to give the entire year to poker and actually explore the game. I think 2020 was a game-changer for me. So yeah, I’ve been putting in a lot of volume since last year (smiles).”
More Teething Troubles
Poker gave Saluja the freedom to work as he pleased. Recalling his working days, he says, “I was just spending like 15 to 16 hours working like a robot and like not having time to myself. After a while, I felt lost.”
Adding to his dilemma was the question of parents’ approval for what is, even today, a rather unconventional career choice—a career whose fundamental prerequisite is the ability to effortlessly cope with stressful and frequent downward swings.
“So, on a good day, when you’re winning, then all is good, life is good. But if you lose, like a couple of sessions and then a big event, it becomes very taxing on an emotional level.”
Saluja now acknowledges that finding a work-life balance while playing poker full-time is definitely challenging, but he’s entirely convinced he’d have it no other way.
“I have played a lot of poker over the past year, and the hectic routine had its own negative effects, as well. But I’m thrilled that I decided to give poker a year. It helped me figure out how poker is as a game.”
Saluja’s family, too, like many others, who initially saw poker as gambling and not a skill game, gradually transitioned from concern to confidence. For Saluja, it was important that they came around and supported him.
“They realized the kind of work I am putting in, the focus, energy, the time it needs daily, so they’ve been appreciative of the fact that I have been diligent about it. There was a time when my mom asked me every day in the morning – how was yesterday? What was the result?! They’re more accepting now, and I can see that they don’t hesitate any longer in telling people what I do for a living. It’s been a very gradual road, but it’s been good so far.”
Leveling the Leaderboard
Last year, Saluja put in massive volume in MTTs. Currently, he plays three to four times a week, almost invariably playing eight to ten tables at a time.
“Sundays and Thursdays are where I don’t miss playing, and then I choose these two, three tables during the week to grind.”
Quite evidently, 2020 turned out a gainful year for Saluja, with the ball set rolling just right at the January 2020 IPC Awards. PokerDangal felicitated him as the “Most Consistent Tournament Player of the Year 2019.” Besides, Saluja also won a few MTT leaderboards last year, including the Asia Online Poker Series (AOPS) mini Leaderboard in July.
Talking to Saluja, it’s evident that topping the AOPS Leaderboard went a long way in cementing his conviction that poker was his calling.
“When I’m grinding the series, I pin my eyes to win the leaderboard from Day 1. So the AOPS came in a few months after I decided to take up poker full-time. I told myself, if I can actually win this leaderboard, then I’ll be able to prove to myself that I can make it in this industry, and it’ll be a perfect start to my poker year.”
And as of today, he stands vindicated. It is, indeed, no mean feat for someone playing poker professionally for less than two years to have accumulated over ₹1.36 Crores in winnings!
A have-been actuarial analyst, Saluja is modest when he says he’s been lucky to have never busted his entire bankroll even once. “I started off good, and I always followed proper bankroll management. So my bankroll has been just growing organically.”
Firmly believing that every player is unique and there’s much to learn from others, Saluja’s favorites in the domestic circuit are Young Guns Arsh Grover, Gaurav Sood, Anmol Mehta, Sanat Mehrotra, and Shardul Parthasarathi, and MTT crushers Sriharsha Doddapaneni and Siddhanth Kripalani.
“These young phenoms are actually killing the game right now, and I feel they have a very fresh approach to the game.”
For a strapping 25-year-old, Saluja is uncharacteristically pragmatic. There are no good or bad poker players, he concedes. Sharing his winning mantra, Saluja is candid about what works for him: putting in volume and picking the feel of the game from there.
“I don’t think I’m an outstanding poker player as of now. I still have a lot of potential to get to, and I feel I’m just starting off in poker. But I’m very aware of the kind of game that I have and how I stand. So I try to work on my strength. I also feel that no course or person can teach you more than what you can teach yourself, which is kind of my mantra. Each hand is a learning experience, even if you’re not involved in it. The more volume you put in, the more experience you gain. You have to immerse that knowledge and extract value out of it.”
His aspiration for himself is to be simply good at the game and succeed in it. Yet, to do this progressively.
“I already know that only around 5% of poker players in India are profitable. So, if I’m in the green, I’m already in the top 5%. My next aspiration will be to be in the top 1%. But more than making money, I just want to gradually grow into a better poker player with every hand that I play.”
Not a stranger to setbacks – Saluja was all but ready to attend the Asian Poker Tour (APT) Vietnam just when the pandemic played truant with plans, yet he’s nowhere near despair. Also, the greatest poker tournament series in the world, the World Series of Poker (WSOP), Las Vegas might still be an elusive dream to him. Still, Saluja is open to travel to domestic and Asian stops.
“I want to travel but within my bankroll, so traveling for local stops like Goa is what I’m looking forward to once traveling becomes easier.”
Saluja’s self-awareness emerges from a realistic assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Poker may be a gambling sport in a way, but poker players are the most responsible gamblers in the world. So, just know what your leaks are and find avenues to get better every day.”
And for someone who’s just started out, his online exploits are formidable. Be it as “Slippery Slope” on Spartan Poker or “MrGTO” on Adda52, Saluja has arrived.
With a learning curve that is only buoyantly upward climbing, Saluja is here to stay. And we can’t wait to watch him reach the top of his game. Not just this year. But year after year!