6 Minutes Read
Young Guns, as we like to call them, possess the hallmark qualities of being stalwart, dynamic, and zealous.
Our latest addition to the list, Neel Joshi, is all that and more. At just 23 years of age, he has created quite a buzz around him with his phenomenal accomplishments.
You know what they say- high risk, high reward. A chemical engineer from BITS Pilani turned exceptionally skilled poker player indeed exemplifies that phrase. Neel has been on top of his game this year, with his annual scorecard reflecting recorded earnings of ₹1.49 Crores with a ₹75.47 Lakhs profit on tracked Indian websites. He has already accumulated a total of ₹2.87 Crores in online winnings, a remarkable feat for someone who began playing poker seriously just two years ago!
Like many of his contemporaries, Neel’s fascination with the card game began in university. The ‘intricacy of the game, coupled with an innate sense of mystery,’ piqued the Pune-based player’s interest. He likens it to a ‘navigating a maze’- the more he plays, the more fascinating it gets.
Credit must be given where due. BITS Pilani’s relaxed attitude towards attendance and his hostel’s thriving poker culture respectively enabled and fueled Neel’s passion for the game. When he transitioned to playing poker online, it was more of an ‘avocation’. As his interest grew, he diverted a portion of his earnings to invest in his poker bankroll, all while still in college. His story stands as a testament to his resolve.
Neel’s rise to fame has been nothing short of meteoric. One of his most memorable performances to date was his runner-up finish in PokerBaazi’s ₹5 Crores GTD EndBoss. This score in the country’s grandest tournament was worth a colossal ₹65.01 lakhs!
His success on the virtual felts also overflows into live poker. While his online resume is more illustrious, one cannot overlook his litany of deep runs at stops like the DPT, BPT, and IPC. He even made his WSOP debut last year, where he cashed in the $1,500 buy-in Millionaire Maker.
The game may be individual, but the journey most definitely is not, at least in Neel’s case. He cites Sandeep Varma as a mentor and as someone who has had a massive impact on Neel’s career. Young Gun Anuj Yadav, who is incidentally Neel’s senior from BITS Pilani, has also contributed to bettering Neel’s gameplay.
Despite being an up-and-comer in the industry, Neel goes against the grain and exhibits a ‘pay it forward’ attitude. He makes it a point to facilitate the entry of newcomers into the community and helps them hone their skills.
That’s enough of us talking about him. Let’s bring you his exciting poker story in his own words!
And the Game Commences
Like other Young Guns, Neel discovered the game during his hostel days at BITS Pilani, where he was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. “I used to play long poker sessions with some of my hostel friends. Back then, it was just a fun thing to do, with money not being a factor,” he says.
At the time, though, poker was a “side hustle” for Neel, who was already earning good money by tutoring people living abroad on engineering-related material. The fact that his college had a low mandatory attendance percentage undoubtedly aided his passion.
Ever the ardent learner, he began watching videos and reading about poker, which helped make his understanding of the game more nuanced and profound.
Poker is comparable to chess, he feels. “It’s compelling and complex. I found it incredibly fascinating, and the magic continues to entice me even today.”
Deep Diving Into the Mid-Stakes
Neel’s income from tutoring helped fuel his grind sessions online. Yet, instead of treading the oft-used path of starting with low stakes and gradually moving up, he dived straight into the mid-stakes.
“I feel like grinding up from the lowest stakes is not the most optimal choice. The rake is extremely high, and you can get into adverse strategic practices that can be hard to unlearn and correct. Instead, jumping into mid-stakes and working your way up can be advantageous. Venividi1993 (a long-term PLO high stakes crusher and Galfond’s first opponent in the Galfond challenge) echoes these views. Though this is anecdotal, it worked well for me.”
Not Keeping Mum: Familial Reactions
Walking the road not taken comes with its own set of challenges. Neel says that although he did not receive outright support from his parents, they eventually came around. Even though there are still a few who have not warmed up to the idea, Neel has all the support he needs with his parents by his side.
“Initially, [my parents] were a bit apprehensive,” Neel remembered, “but slowly that changed. My father used to think it was a game of luck – it took me almost a year to convince him. I am yet not convinced if he is convinced (laughs). But regardless of some natural reservations, they now champion me steadfastly. I also see an active interest from their side to learn how poker is played, its jargon, the whole works!”
If anyone has been incredibly supportive, it is Neel’s young sister Rahi. “She’s thrilled. She understands that it is more than a game and comprehends the entire lifestyle involved. She also likes my approach to it, so there is no hesitation to bolster my passion for poker.”
“It is hard to form role models based purely on theoretical expertise,” says Neel, whose personal idols are not just poker legends but interesting people with great personalities.
Neel is a big fan of Michael Soyza. “I found [Soyza’s] appearance on the RYE podcast to be impressive. He is extremely humble, relatable, and someone I deeply admire.” He is also especially inspired by Jason Koon as “[Koon] is brilliant and shows integrity at every turn. I’ve seen almost all of his podcasts and videos, and he has inspired me like no one else. I would certainly recommend RIO members to watch ‘From The Heart’.”
Phil Galfond and James Obst are also Neel’s exemplars for probity. He says they are paragons for all that poker stands for. “The RIO videos have been eye-opening, to say the least,” he remarks, further stating that they “have allowed [Neel] to view the game from a multifaceted lens and garner new perspectives.”
On the Local Felts
Nonetheless, if there is one person who he really looks up to and considers a mentor, it is Sandeep Verma. Neel recalls how he first connected with him. “In 2018, I won a tournament on PokerBaazi called Freedom in August. I was still a recreational player back then. I remember messaging him on Facebook out of the blue, and he was kind enough to respond.”
Talking about skills, he says that “[Varma] was senior to me in terms of poker and understanding the game. He was instrumental in teaching me not just in-game strategies, but stuff that mattered beyond the table”.
It was through Varma that Neel connected with Young Gun Anuj Yadav, later discovering that the latter was two years his senior in college.
“That guy is a machine; he can study and play for hours at a stretch, without any signs of fatigue, inspiring other players to do the same,” Neel lauds.
He even recounts his first meeting with Shravan Chhabria. “When I met [Chhabria], we were playing on the same table. He encouraged me quite a bit and boosted my confidence.”
Neel’s support system also consists of others that play various roles in his journey. “Anmol Mehta is a dear friend; we often study together. Ujjwal Narwhal continues to add value to our study sessions with his impressive technical knowledge. I can’t not mention Sahil Mahboobani, who’s been a positive influence. Suresh Kolli’s contagious enthusiasm to improve at the game often spills over onto me. There are so many people that I am grateful for.”
The Indian Poker Community
As is apparent, even though Neel has been a part of the domestic circuit for a relatively short time, he shares a strong bond with many players. “It’s a close-knit community, and I feel that despite being each other’s competitors, there is so much mutual respect and camaraderie.”
Even so, not all players are cut from the same cloth. Like other industries, the poker community does get a few bad apples who use underhanded techniques to in-road their way. According to Neel, multi-accounting is one such tactic. “I have personally never engaged in it in my life. I feel that to be an ambassador to this beautiful mind sport, having integrity is a must.”
A Mantra for Success
“While getting better at theory is elemental in becoming a successful player, it is not limited to this. Finding those river check-raises or folding queens pre-flop will not count towards your success as much,” emphasizes Neel. He emphasizes catalysts-forming habits, creating a routine/lifestyle, developing strong study groups, and having a support network in place.
Weak-links: “Too many players get sucked into their vices. Although it is inevitable to avoid mistakes, anticipating them the next time around will prove to be a huge help. Everyone knows their weaknesses. Working on them will yield positive results not only for your games but for your life itself.”
Health: “I cannot stress this point enough. Health is directly proportional to your performance. For instance, if I have not slept well, I’d much rather skip the session than make spewy plays or -EV decisions.”
Expected Value: “Managing money is where it’s at. Planning taxes, using deposit codes correctly, understanding more about what augments your EV (the number of tables you play, your rebuying strategy, how you spend your 5-minute MTT breaks, etc.) will prove to be favorable in the long run.”
Networking: “If you study by your lonesome, or with only one study group, you risk stagnation or an echo-chamber. Getting diverse opinions is indispensable to navigate all the information that is circulating out there. It is also important to make connections whenever possible.”
Set-up: “The material aspects of poker are not immaterial in the slightest. If you are playing for hours every day, comfort is paramount. A sturdy chair coupled with a proper monitor and mouse will do wonders. Having a stable internet connection will make your experience more seamless. All in all, think of these as an investment towards increasing your EV.”
According to Neel, in-game mistakes are relatively easier to resolve and rectify over time, but it would be folly to give less importance to Bankroll Management (BRM). This is a cardinal rule to follow and understand, as finances are a significant part of the game. He highlights that between knowing the correct playing strategies and bankroll management, the latter takes precedence.
“I often notice in the domestic online turf that most people don’t follow proper BRM, which hampers their play and restricts their ability to make optimal decisions. So, playing within BRM is not only crucial; it is imperative,” he says.
It is out there – the poker community is infamous for myriad tales of players going broke and then bouncing back. “It’s an exceedingly tough spot. I have never been in it, and I would never recommend anyone to be in it, so always play within your BRM. Remember, you are using money to make money- it is hence your weapon and your asset. Tend to it.”
Training Subscriptions & HUDs
A strong advocate of training subscriptions, Neel mentions that he is “a fan of Run It Once (RIO). I have a coaching subscription from RIO, and my friends like to joke that I use this platform like people use Netflix! I find it extremely informative and valuable.”
He maintains that HUDs are beneficial and, if used correctly, can improve players’ win rates. “Personally, I didn’t use HUDs because, for a long time, my laptop did not have such technical capabilities.”
When it comes to solvers, Neel says that “after a point, PIOsolver becomes an important part of your study routine.” However, he warns that it can be tricky to use correctly. “It is indeed a steep cost-benefit analysis. You need a $1,000 license and a powerful system to run it in the first place. Moreover, there are loads of assumptions that go into running a sim, like the villain’s perceived range or nodelocking.”
“A better option is watching videos on coaching sites, where the pros have run and explained the spots that occur more frequently. This is a much better use of one’s time,” asserts Neel.
“However, at higher stakes, PIO is irreplaceable; it will be the most important tool you use, and frankly, your best friend. ”
The EndBoss Run
A significant moment that distinguishes Neel’s career came in April 2020, when he came within striking distance of winning India’s biggest online tournament to date – the EndBoss. He trounced a 5,000-entry field in the ₹5 Crores GTD tourney but eventually lost the title to Abhishek Maheshwari. Nonetheless, the runner-up finish boosted Neel’s online bankroll by a staggering ₹65.01 Lakhs.
Neel speaks of this experience with reverence. “This was my greatest score by a considerable margin, and all my past performances paled in comparison. It also got me a lot of media recognition.”
As is visible, it is indisputably a significant milestone for his poker career.
Experiencing Live Poker
Neel first experienced the thrills of live poker back in 2018, at the DPT in Goa. “It was a fantastic experience. I got to see some of the players’ faces, whom I had been battling it out online with…,” he said, recalling how he ended up sharing a room with Vinod Megalmani. Neel has even played at the WSOP, where he cashed in the $1,500 buy-in Millionaire Maker last year.
Speaking about the differences, Neel says, “there were, of course, certain things about live poker that caught me off-guard initially, like doing the mental math to count the chips in the pot or counting stacks, for example.”
Nevertheless, he actually prefers playing poker live. “I like the ambiance of being in a casino. Being amidst the smartest people from varying walks of life seems like a privilege, as does getting to visit some of the greatest destinations over the globe.”
An avid traveler, Neel mentions that live poker pairs well with his love for globetrotting and experiencing new cultures.
Life During the Pandemic
Well, none of that is possible in the present. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed socializing and gallivanting, there was no chance of it hampering Neel’s poker regime. On the contrary, like most other regs, his hours on the virtual felts have increased, as has the amount of time he has devoted to studying his craft.
“This year has been insane in terms of online volume. Due to the lockdown, the guarantees skyrocketed, and the number of tournaments did, too. I have to say, volume is an excellent teacher, and so it has all worked out well.”
Neel is ardently optimistic that poker will continue to grow in terms of popularity and reach. “Just take a look at how the lockdown attracted so many new players to the felts! Yes, live poker has been adversely affected due to the pandemic, but that being said, I think the situation is looking up for online poker in India.”
Our latest Young Gun acknowledged – “I feel honored to be recognized as a Young Gun. The ones I have seen featured in the past include some truly elite players (and some good friends). I have a long way to go when I look at their journeys. Fortunately, I’m just getting started!”
He had a bundle of encouraging words for up-and-coming players. “Get a kick-ass study group, connect and network on social media, and find like-minded, motivated individuals who can become understanding team-mates. These steps can go a long way in your development as a poker player.”
Well said, indeed! Today, Neel is widely acknowledged as one of the most promising among the young crop of poker players in the domestic circuit. We wish him all the best for a dazzling poker career ahead!
Note: This interview has also been edited by Anamayee Shirolkar & Namita Ghosh