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Tournament Leaderboard Crusher Neeraj Kumar on His Winning Strategy

Neeraj Kumar TLB Crusher
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  • Attreyee Khasnabis October 4, 2020
  • 5 Minutes Read

Taking a break from our general trend of interviewing the big tourney winners or breakout players or even up-and-coming talents, today’s feature is on someone who has built his reputation as a leaderboard crusher! We are talking about Neeraj Kumar! Going by the easily recognized moniker ‘SelfClaimedPros’ on most online poker sites, Kumar is presently a runaway leader on the annual tournament leaderboard (TLB) with 72,164 points – something that goes on to show his consistency and hard work.

The 38-year-old player from Meerut is a value-hunter and undoubtedly one of the few players deserving a lot more recognition than let-in by his online record. With ₹1.79 Crores in recorded winnings this year, his online scorecard reflects a modest ₹13.08 Lakhs profit. On the face of it, this is not much of a win rate. That is because MTT scores are not his primary source of income! Instead, it’s the massive leaderboard prizes that form the bulk of Kumar’s earnings in the game.

Kumar, who has an MBA in Finance, like many other serious poker players today, got his first taste of the game through Zynga Poker on Facebook. His obsession with poker only increased and he kept getting better at it as time passed – so much so that he started making more money in poker than his day-job.

Still, he took two years to systematically analyze whether poker full-time would be a plausible career for him to pursue than his current corporate job.

While I was playing, I was working in a bank. I was getting a good paycheck. Then I compared and saw that I can make this much money in poker without going to the office.”

However, unlike most players who are always waiting for the big scores, Kumar, on the other hand, has dedicated his poker career to chasing leaderboards. Once the Bengaluru-based player decides on chasing a leaderboard, he focuses on playing as many events in the tournament series as possible and finishing ITM to score the TBL points for a top finish. And to do that profitably, he has had to make radical adjustments to his game.

“When you are chasing the leaderboard, you have to make sure that you make it more into the money. When you play to win a tournament, you won’t fold a lot of hands. You will try to win the chips. But when you are playing for the leaderboard, you have to sit tight. You have to wait for others to bust.”

So, chasing the leaderboard and playing to win are two different things,” he informs us.

Needless to say, this strategy has worked quite well for him. He comfortably rakes in between 40 to 50 Lakhs every year from his leaderboard finishes, while at the same time booking a decent profit on the side from his MTT scores.

My main profits from poker are from TLB’s. This year, I have not chased many leaderboards, but till last year, it was like every year, I was making ₹40-₹50 Lakhs in TLB.

He has topped the TLB standings at most of the marquee series at sites like Spartan Poker and PokerBaazi and reaped massive cash prizes, enough to make it his primary source of income.

This is not to take away any credit from Kumar’s MTT prowess. Overall, he is a profitable player with an impressive ₹4.06 Crores in recorded winnings and a litany of big scores to his name.

Kumar also pointed out that while 2020 has not been a good year for him poker-wise, the COVID-19 pandemic has been beneficial for him differently. Previously, he wasn’t inclined to study the game as much, but now that he had a lot of time on his hand, he has been putting in the efforts to study. With motivation from Akshay Nasa and Rubin Labroo, Kumar has been watching poker videos and reviewing hand histories to better his gameplay.

The hard work has borne fruit with his MTT scores showing a visible spike during the recent lockdown period. He won a personal-best ₹11.63 Lakhs from his runner-up finish in Spartan Poker’s ₹1 Crore GTD The Millionaire on August 30, while also shipping the ₹35 Lakhs GTD UVS Millionaire Lite for ₹4.99 Lakhs on September 20. On October 2, he won the Battle Royale on PokerStars India for ₹1.03 Lakhs.

A thorough businessman, Kumar knows that the day poker stops being a profitable career path for him, he will most certainly move on to a different vocation. His view of treating poker like a business rather than a sport reiterates the notion that that poker players are, in a way, entrepreneurs.

For me, it’s just another kind of business. I don’t have any goals, and till the time I’m making good money in it, I will keep playing poker. Otherwise, I will switch to something else.”

So, without any further ado, read about Neeraj Kumar’s remarkable poker story!

 

Starting Off on Zynga Poker & First Experience With Live Poker

Like many other poker players, Neeraj Kumar was also introduced to the game through Zynga Poker on Facebook. Once he got hooked to poker, he even visited a casino in Singapore to play the game live.

“So basically, like other players who started on Zynga, that’s how I started out as well. Poker for me was like when you go to the casino, and you play against the house. When I was working in Singapore, there was a casino there that I used to visit. That is where I saw people playing against the house. Then eventually, in 2014, I started playing live poker against the players.”

Talking about his first experience with live poker, Kumar said, “When I was first playing live poker, I had thought that if I can’t even beat a single dealer house, how am I going to beat eight other players? So, when I came back to India in 2015, I visited a casino in Goa. That was when I started playing live cash games. For the next three years, I played cash games only, and in 2016, when I created my account on PokerBaazi, that is when I started grinding small tourneys online.”

 

The Highs & Lows of Kumar’s Poker Journey

The thing about poker is every serious player goes through phases of highs and lows. Kumar’s poker journey has been no different.

“In 2014, I started playing cash games. I was doing good. One day I created an account on PokerBaazi. There was some ₹40 buy-in tournament going on. Okay. I played just for fun. On the same day, I did like two, three tourneys, and then I got interested in tourneys. I realized that this was a much better thing to do. But by 2016, I was broke.”

“I consider myself a grinder, actually. I’ve never been so ambitious that I have to be a very good poker player. Also, while I was playing, I was working in a bank. I was getting a good paycheck. Then I compared and saw that I can make this much money in poker without going to the office. So, I will say since 2018, it’s been a good journey. Before that, I was just playing for fun. But for the last two, three years, it has been a good journey. Not this year. It has been a terrible year for me so far.”

 

Turning Pro

Kumar eventually came to the realization that instead of working nine hours a day and then grinding at night, it would be a much better option to simply pursue his passion for poker and make a living, especially since he was doing so well.

His attitude of approaching playing poker as a business venture reaffirms the notion that most poker pros are entrepreneurs. They invest their capital on their own poker skills and try to make as much profit as possible.

Here is where Kumar put his MBA degree to work. Like a financial analyst, he carefully analyzed his options and took two years to finally commit himself to take up poker professionally. But being the hardcore businessman he is, he has no doubt that he will shift to a different vocation as soon as poker stops being profitable for him.

“My decision to take up poker had nothing to do with a big score. After assessing what the cost would be, I took an opportunity for what I can do in poker against what I am doing in my job. I found that poker was much better, and I was doing good. So, I played for three years at that time, and I was persisting with my good form. It eventually became difficult to work for nine hours and then grind all night. Life was becoming tough.”

“So, at that time, I took a call. I compared everything, and I found that I can do better with poker. One of the points was that, at that time, there were a lot of monthly tournaments going on. So, I thought that I can make that much money in leaderboards only if I put that extra 6 or 7 hours here. But it was not a one-day decision. I took almost two years before moving to full-time.”

 

Strategy For Topping Leaderboards

Sharing his secret behind topping leaderboards, Kumar said, “I think the biggest reason is that I’m very patient. The other reason is that my consistency is good. So, you have to keep patience when playing these long series.”

Discussing how he strategizes when attempting to crush a leaderboard, “So before starting the series only I decide whether I will chase the leaderboard or not. If I decide to chase, then I will make my schedule accordingly. I will get up on time. For example, if the series is starting at 1 PM, I will register late. I will start at 2 PM, and then I will make sure that I play all the events. It’s absolutely necessary when chasing the leaderboard that you play all the events.”

“The next important factor to note is the point formula for the TLBs that is if you finish ITM, then only you get the points. So, at that time, you have to make a lot of adjustments in your game. You can’t think about winning the tournament every time. Because your strategy is to win the TLB. So, chasing the leaderboard and playing to win are two different things.”

“When you are chasing the leaderboard, you have to make sure that you make it more into the money. When you play to win a tournament, you won’t fold a lot of hands. You will try to win the chips. But when you are playing for the leaderboard, you have to sit tight. You have to wait for others to bust. So, those are the things you have to do,” he further explained.

When asked if ICM makes a difference, he said, “Not much actually. It’s just once you are in ITM, once you’ve made sure that you’ve got the minimum points for this TLB, then you play your normal game.”

“I think last year’s IOPC was the biggest TLB chase for me. Apart from that, I have chased a lot of TLBs on PokerBaazi. But my main profits from poker are from TLB’s. This year, I have not chased many leaderboards, but till last year, it was like every year, I was making between ₹40-₹50 Lakhs in TLB, he stated.

 

Impact of COVID-19 on His Poker Regime

Kumar says the COVID-induced pandemic and subsequent lockdown has not impacted him much.

“Actually, it has not impacted me much. I stay in Bengaluru, and I’m single. My work is to get up, do my everyday things, and then to just play poker. Therefore, this pandemic hasn’t affected my daily schedule. Before, my time was divided between live and online poker, but now, I’m spending more time on online poker. I’ve started studying. Earlier, I did not study much since I did not have much time. But now, I have started giving some time to studying as well. In fact, a while back, I was going through a terrible time, and some personal things happened. I was not in a good mindset. I was losing a lot. So, Akshay Nasa and Rubin Labroo helped me. They motivated me to study, and now I’m giving a lot of time to study. I do a lot of hand history review with those guys. That has helped me a lot in the last 2-3 months.”

“Nowadays, I only play the featured tournaments on the five leading sites. I start at around 8 PM, and I continue till 3 or 4 (AM) in the morning. I give about 3 to 4 hours to study. I watch a lot of videos. Earlier, I was not interested. I used to think about what was the use of watching these online videos before playing poker. It was boring for me. But now, I have gained interest in them,” Kumar added.

Sharing his views on the shutdown of live poker, Kumar said, “I don’t think live poker is going to revive in the next one year. So, we have to focus on a lot on the online series. All major international series are also shifting online like the WSOP, WPT, and now WPT Online is coming to India. So, basically, that’s really good for online players.”

 

Views on the Future of Poker in India

Talking about his favorite domestic players, Kumar said, “There are many good players in India. I like Aditya Agarwal. He’s one of the best in India. Then there is Sriharsha (Doddapaneni), Akshay (Nasa), and Ujjwal Narwal. He’s one of the best, right now, in the game. And apart from that, Rubin Labroo is also a good poker player. So, these are the players that I look up to.”

He also revealed how he works to improve his gameplay. “Instead of using any training subscriptions, I try to work on my game by watching videos. That helps me a lot. I follow all the videos of Bencb. I have subscribed for his course also.”

Kumar feels that the best way to take poker to the masses is by marketing it as fun and entertaining.

“I feel like the people who are trying to popularize the game in India, the only mistake that they are making is that they are not representing it as entertaining or fun. See, most of the players in India are playing for the money. But it will appeal to the masses more if the entertaining side of it is also advertised. At least, that’s how I see it. Most people who play poker are now doing so to earn some extra money. Not for fun. We keep saying that it’s still a game. It’s still a game, but the masses will not come into this game and develop their skill. They have to take it as entertainment.”

 

Long-Term Goals in Poker

Talking about sustaining a career in poker, Kumar revealed, “I live in the present. So, for the time being, poker is my focus. Like I said before, when I had decided to take up poker full-time, I had done an analysis to see if I can make as much money playing poker as I was making in my corporate job. So, for me, it’s just another kind of business. I don’t have any goals, and till the time I’m making good money in it, I will keep playing poker. Otherwise, I will switch to something else.”

“I appreciate the work that PokerGuru is doing. I’m a huge fan of PokerGuru. I think PokerGuru is doing a great job. Through your effort of making every player’s score public, it gives players a chance to share their achievements and also gives other players a chance to analyze their opponents. It also popularizes the game. So, I would like to thank PokerGuru for all the good work you guys are doing. It really helps bring more players to the game,” Kumar said, summing up our enlightening chat!

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