Pratyush Buddiga: Spelling Bee Champ with a Brilliant Poker Mind

Cover photo: With President George W. Bush after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee  

There are smart people that play poker, but not nearly all people who play poker are smart. Even when smart people play poker there’s no success guaranteed. The path to being a successful poker player has gotten tougher and tougher over the years, but if there’s anyone who can still make it to the absolute top it’s this man.

Even if you’d followed Pratyush Buddiga’s rise on the international poker circuit you would still lack the context to really understand what makes stand out.

According to an SAT scores website there were more than 1.3 million American teens that took this test in 2006. Just 631 students scored 2380 or better, and Buddiga was one of them. As if ranking in the top 0.04% of US high school students wasn’t enough, this youngster also recorded a 4.8 GPA and won the 2002 National Spelling Bee competition.

Side note: Earlier this year high school student Kwasi Enin was accepted into all eight Ivy-league schools. He scored 2,250 out of 2,400 on his SAT.

 While many companies were probably eager to offer him a position after he graduated, the now 25-year old is a professional poker player’s not going anywhere but every international destination for big tournaments.

When reading this article many people might think that Buddiga’s crazy for giving up a career in finance, and the Duke alum partly agrees as he might’ve missed out on the best of both worlds.

Poor Decisions

“When I eventually look back it could be the case that I made two poor decisions in life. Not continuing poker when I discovered it, or not continuing my career path after graduating. Right now though, poker is making me really happy and I love the freedom it gives me to travel in my 20s. My basic goal with poker is to build up enough of a nest egg to eventually start my own business or help fund a business,” Buddiga said.

“I really hope to never have to work a day in my life, like a real job. Working 9-to-5 or in a cubicle would kill me, especially after playing poker with all its freedom. I really hate taking orders from people or having a boss. Whatever I end up doing, I feel like I will be self-employed. Even though I missed out on the best five or six years of poker, I feel that I still have been lucky enough to get a good opportunity to make a lot of money from the game. Poker is not dead yet, maybe it will be three years from now but I still think I can make enough money for the next few years to make up for it,” Buddiga said with confidence.

While Buddiga remains confident about the money that’s out there to be made from poker, he also has something exceptional to fall back on. Graduating Duke University, the 23rd ranked University in the world, is not something to sneeze at and Buddiga realizes that he’s in a lucky situation.

“I think I am so lucky in the sense that I know so many people that I feel that if they don’t make it in poker, they have no shot. If you have no degree and you dropped out of high school, and it’s been 10 years since you last had a job, not many companies are going to be banging down your door to hire you.”

“Now everyone sees a bachelor’s degree as the minimum requirement for basically any entry-level job. Unless you want to work at Starbucks, you are going to need a degree. Having that degree gives me a nice fall back option if poker doesn’t work out. At the start of my senior year, I started thinking I want to play poker after I get out of school. But I thought that I should still get my degree because if it doesn’t work out I still want something to fall back on. I could still take the GRE and go to grad school if I have to. Hopefully that never has to happen because I would hate to have to go back to school. But it’s nice that I still have way more options than a lot of people I feel like,” Buddiga said.

Pratyush Buddiga in the EPT London Main EventPratyush Buddiga in the EPT London Main Event. Photo credit: Danny Maxwell,

Duke, The Super High Roller of Universities

While Duke is ranked as the 23rd best University some of the brightest young minds are among the biggest long-term winners in poker. Buddiga draws the comparison and decides on what he thinks is tougher.

“I think getting into Duke is hard. If graduating from Duke includes the whole process of studying well enough in high school and doing well enough in your SATs to get into Duke and then succeed at Duke, I would say Duke is harder for sure. Just because it’s not so much more work, but it’s less fun work,” Buddiga said.

“I think being good at school and being smart are somewhat two different things. Going to a top school like Duke is so competitive. It’s different from poker because at poker there is a base level of skill you can get up to. You don’t have to be battling in super high rollers to be a winning MTT player. Duke and Harvard and other similar schools are like being in the Super High Rollers, even though that sounds arrogant.”

“It’s not about just getting the questions right, it’s about beating everyone in your class. If you are not good enough compared to the rest of the students, you’re not going to pass. I think going to a good university is like beating MTTs and then going to a school like Duke or Harvard or Yale is like being good enough to beat Super High Rollers.”

While winning a Super High Roller, besides having the money to afford it, take a lot of luck and skill, graduating Duke takes a lot of skill and dedication without the added variance.

GPA and SAT Champion

“When trying to get into a school like Duke there are a few things they really look at and one of them is pretty basic, it’s how you are doing in your high school, what your grades are and your GPA as well as how tough your high school is. This is something that somewhat held me back.”

“I was number one in my class but my high school was a pretty average high school in Colorado. There are a lot of prep schools all over the East Coast that I didn’t know about at the time. I didn’t learn about this till I got to Duke, but there are a ton of prep schools that turn up a ton of elite kids. They will have between 50 and 75% of kids go to the Ivy League. That’s probably the first factor.”

“I remember my freshman year dorm; one of the kids was talking about how he used to stay in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm in high school. This is some school in New York, Phillips Exeter Academy, and every kid there just goes to an elite school.”

“It’s parents that pay like 25 to 50 000 US a year for high school just so their children have a better resume for college. So I would say your grades in high school and how tough your high school is one thing, and then number two is your scores on the SAT and ACT, which are the standardized tests everyone in the country takes. So most of the school have a range they are looking for,” Buddiga said.

“When I was in high school the perfect score was a 2400. So I would say most Duke students scored somewhere between 1,900 and 2,200. Then if you go down the list, if you go to Colorado University maybe the range would be 1600 to 1900 or something. Obviously there are going to be people that are exceptions in both cases. I got a 2380, 20 points shy of a perfect score. It still kind of kills me to this day that I didn’t get a perfect score,” Buddiga sighed with a smile.

“I didn’t make any mistakes in the math or reading sections and the third section was writing. I got docked 20 points for it and since it was writing an essay, I’m not exactly sure what I messed up but I like to blame my hand writing since it’s the worst hand writing in the world. To this day I like to console myself that the only reason they docked points was because of my hand writing,” Buddiga said.

The other important thing Universities look at is GPA, and Buddiga had an impressive one.

“Mine was weirdly inflated, because if you take an Ivy or honors class, they put it out of 5, so an A was worth a B in a regular class. So my GPA is 4.8, as I basically got straight As,” Buddiga said.

Getting into a Good School

While the best Athletes get recruited to play for schools all over the country things work a little differently for top scholars. Nobody gets recruited, you have to do all the legwork yourself and then it’s still up to the schools to ultimately make the final decision. 

“You can get recruited by a lot of schools but the best schools don’t recruit. Harvard isn’t going to send you a letter saying ‘Please apply to our school’. They are big time and they get their pick of the best, so you apply to them and they’ll see whether they’ll take you or not. I got a ton of schools offering me free scholarships to attend their school for four years. But in terms of the very elite schools you will not get an invitation from them. You need to apply and find out if you make it or not,” Buddiga said, as he eventually managed to get into Duke.

While most of Buddiga’s life seemed to revolve around getting into a good school he never really expressed why he was working so hard on what he eventually planned to do with his degree.

“I remember when I was around 14 and I told my English teacher I wanted to be a journalist and she told me that was a waste of my talent, which I thought was pretty mean. I guess she also didn’t think I was a very good writer,” Buddiga laughed.

“I did get docked 20 points on the essay when taking my SAT so maybe she was right,” Buddiga continued in laughter.

The life goal when being a poker player is to have a huge score to build a future on, but not everyone’s good and lucky enough to have that big success. While Buddiga’s still just starting out as a professional, he’s also in a great spot with a degree to fall back on, so his worst-case scenario isn’t all that bad.

“My worst case scenario is never that bad and that’s something I need to remember and keep in mind. No matter what I’m always going to be able to find something to do even if I don’t end up winning an EPT. It’s not as high stakes as it seems at the time. My ultimate goal will definitely be to help use poker to fund something that does become a million dollar enterprise. Right now, no idea has struck me that would be genius enough for me to quit poker over. It is something I do think about however,” Buddiga said about his future potential.

Pratyush Buddiga after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee

Pratyush Buddiga after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee

Becoming the Best at Poker and Being the Best in School

There’s certainly no lack of future potential for Buddiga who’s mostly focused on making it as a poker player on the highest stakes. We asked him if he feels like he’s got what it takes to be the best.

“Sometimes I like where my career is going. I’ve talked about this with friends before, and especially after a score or a deep run like Macau or Berlin, you feel like ok this is it, I’ve arrived. It’s all happening now. ‘Three months from now they are going to be talking about me as one of the best.’ Then you have four bad Sundays in a row and then you’re like ‘oh god should I even play poker, what am I doing’. I think that’s pretty standard for most people in poker, to go through those emotional swings. There is a lot of time where I feel like, I guess the best way of saying it is, I know I can do it, now I just have to go out and do it,” Buddiga said.

“You lose so much when you’re playing tournaments that you can’t expect to win all the time. I remember in high school, I used to hate that if we played a quiz game or something, the teacher would randomly assign teams and once I got put on a team, the other team would always complain, ‘oh they got Pratyush, they are going to win.’ I always felt like ‘ok now I have to win because people have said it and it’s out there.’”

“If someone got a higher score than me on a test, they would tell the whole class. It got to the point where I didn’t want to have everyone know what I scored on a test because it was annoying. Obviously I’m not going to have the best score on every single test in every single subject. That’s just not going to happen. I’m not perfect. I would get a 93 and someone would get a 96, and they’d be like ‘Oh my god I beat Pratyush!’ It was kind of annoying. That doesn’t happen in poker because I don’t think I’ve gotten to the point where other poker players are like ‘Oh Pratyush is going to win the tournament.’ More importantly, everyone obviously knows you just lose the tournament 85% of the time, and then 15% of the time you cash and then you go from there.” 

“Luckily poker is something that at least amongst other poker players, you don’t get exhorted pressure the same way you get in school,” Buddiga said.

While everyone in the world seems to be aware that it’s not easy to get into a good school and follow that up by getting a degree, the same can’t be said for being a poker professional. Explaining to your parents and friends that being a professional gambler is your career choice after having great prospects when coming out of Duke can be hard, but Buddiga managed.

“My friends from back home sort of think that it’s more likely you are going to win than it actually is. They have seen have some of my success, and they see me live a comfortable life, so they are like ‘You must just win all the time.’ Then I have to explain, ‘You need 10 or 15 scores a year and that pays for your whole year basically, and that’s like 10 to 15 days of the year where you’ve had an awesome day.’”

Dedicated Studying is the Key to Success

Professional poker players try to take advantage of small edges, and it’s very easy to get too comfortable when things are going well.

“That’s something I’m good at avoiding, complacency. I think it does strike a lot of people from time to time. After six months without them winning they’re wondering what happened, and then they blame running bad, even though they don’t work hard and two years later they are out of the game.”

“For me on the other hand, even if I have one session where I played bad, I immediately try to work on that and I don’t get complacent. I’m constantly thinking what can I do to be better. It’s something that’s been there from the spelling bee days. It’s something that carries through to today. The sense that inevitably I will be the best, a lot of it goes back to the spelling bee, as dumb as it sounds, winning that and then winning the geography competition in high school made me feel that eventually I can do anything I want to do,” Buddiga said.

“That sounds so cheesy but it feel like it’s true. No matter what, eventually I am going to be a winner or the best in what I do. Obviously that hasn’t happened in poker by a long shot but I’ve gone from being a mediocre mid-stakes guy in 2012 to I’ve become ok. Jeff (Rossiter) said he was second tier in your interview, I would say I am maybe in the bottom on that second tier or still in the third tier. I feel like I can get to that first tier. I still have a lot of work to do but hopefully by the end of the year or the next year I can get there,” Buddiga confidently stated.

Getting to the top in whatever Buddiga chooses to do goes back to his parents. Their entire lives revolved around making sure their two sons got in the best situation possible in order to succeed. Born and raised in India they got their own degrees, his dad a Master of Statistics, before moving to New Zealand.

“We lived there (New Zealand) till I was five years old and my dad got a job opportunity in California. They thought they needed to go to the US; ‘The best school are in US, even though we made a bunch of friends in New Zealand, we have to do what’s best for our kids in the future.’ And that’s how we ended up in California first and then a year later we moved to Colorado.”

Dedicated Parents

“My parents have always been obsessed with doing whatever it took for us to do well. It didn’t end up having to happen but I remember when I was 16 or 17 and obviously wanted to go to an elite school like Duke. Tuition, room and board ended up being about 55k a year, so it was a 200k investment over 4 years. Who knows if it’s worth it or not? For a piece of paper, everyone can debate that with college.”

“For them education is the number one thing. They were like ‘Even if we have to sell our house to put you through school we will do it.’ That’s how dedicated they are. I feel like a lot of parents, even though they love their kids, they have their own lives too, but for my parents, everything revolved around my brother and I. No matter what it would take, they would make sure we would have the best opportunities, and the best life we could possibly have. My mom always says, ‘Your goal as a parent should be that your children live a better life than you did.’ That’s what they were going for,” Buddiga thankfully said.

Pratyush Buddiga on the far right during his time at Duke University
Pratyush on the far right during his time at Duke University

 “I think it’s because we were so smart early on, that they felt confident that we would continue to be smart. It’s not just that we were naturally gifted, my mom worked really hard with us as well. From when I was five my parents would be reading to us all the time and doing math puzzles and a ton of my learning came from outside school when I came back home. My parents would teach me a bunch of stuff and eventually that morphed into the goal of wanting to do the spelling bee. I was doing a ton of work outside of school. I put in even more hours studying for the spelling bee; I used to do 10-hour days and on the weekends study from 10 to 8. Now I have trouble watching a training video for an hour so that’s kind of embarrassing but when I was 10 years old I could do it,” Buddiga said.

When someone does so much to become the best at something it’s no longer about sheer talent. It’s about discipline, motivation and determination, and Buddiga showed that he had all those components.

A Winner’s Mentality

“I just wanted to win so badly. I wanted to be number one and win the championship. The nice thing is that unlike poker there is not that much variance. You can just do it. You have to get yourself in the mix to be in the one of the ten best in the country and then there’s some variance obviously. But it’s not like in poker, where you can be one of the ten best in world and still have a losing year. I can easily not win a single tournament. It was a very achievable goal that I had to work insanely hard for but it didn’t feel unattainable at any point,” Buddiga said.

The obvious question, when someone studies that hard for a spelling test, is ‘Did you learn the dictionary by heart?’ and Buddiga’s respond wasn’t too far from that.

“I didn’t memorize the dictionary, which is something people sometimes think. I did go through the entire Merriam Webster dictionary which is like 450,000 words, but a lot of it is mostly learning the root words and trying to see the word a few times so that your first instinct is right.”

“That’s what it’s mostly about. In the actual spelling bee at nationals, every word I knew that I’ve heard except for two of them and both of them, even though I wasn’t 100% sure, I was 90% sure, and I just went with my first instinct. And I had seen the words before. The best example is that there is this word, troching, which is a French word and in French usually the qu sound, it’s QU or QUE. The word is French so obviously it’s troquing or something like that. Despite the clue, my first instinct was troching, I could see it in my head, I knew that I have seen it somewhere. That was the one I tanked on the longest. Even though the information was telling me one thing, I went with my first instinct and I spelled it, and it was right. That was definitely the toughest one I got just because the clues were misleading,” Buddiga said, as he eventually won the competition by spelling prospicience correctly.

Winning the Spelling Bee in 2002 seems like no big deal to most, but the nation-wide attention to this competition can’t be underestimated. Even Bill Simmons dedicated a column to it.

“I would say people care more about the spelling bee than they do about poker, at least amongst non-poker players. It was definitely a pretty big deal. I did CNN, the Today Show, Jimmy Kimmel and a bunch of other stuff, 12 years ago now. I didn’t really understand it at the time, I was 13-years old and just being like ‘All right, ok I’ll go on the show and talk about spelling.’ Looking back on it now, I wish I enjoyed the experience more. Most people are going to go through life and not be on the Today show or go on Jimmy Kimmel Live. It was definitely an awesome experience and something I’ll treasure forever,” Buddiga said.

After Pratyush won the Spelling Bee in 2002 his brother went on to finish second in 2004. Akshay famously fainted during the live broadcast when he had to spell ‘Alopecoid’. Unlike Pratyush, Akshay’s graduating from Stanford with a masters in engineering after graduating cum laude from Duke. 

“He’s by far more famous than me because he’s the one who fainted. It’s ESPN top hundred plays of the decade. It’s crazy. It has so many YouTube hits. A couple times I’ve gotten recognized as him. And other times people when they find out about the spelling bee, are like ‘Om my god have you seen that guy who fainted?’ It’s obviously not a big deal to him anymore but at the time it was crazy. It was definitely a ‘Moneymaker moment’ for the spelling bee.”

“The year I won it was $12,000 for first and the year he finished second it was $12,000 to first. The next year it ended up being $40,000 in prizes and got moved up to primetime on ABC. It got so much more exposure. I thought it was pretty big when I won, I did a bunch of TV shows but now it’s just massive. Wall to wall spelling bee coverage on ABC and ESPN.  The fainting video went viral and sparked that. My brother is the Chris Moneymaker of spelling bees. I like to joke that I’m the Robert Varkonyi of spelling bees just because I won before anyone actually figured out how to play the game,” Buddiga joked.

Make sure to tune back in on Wednesday when Pratyush Buddiga tells the second part of his story. In the second part Buddiga attacks the US school system and emphasizes that getting a degree isn’t what it used to be. The poker pro also dives into what he did to reach the top in poker, and what he needs to do in order to get to the ‘first tier’ of tournament players. Follow Pratyush on Twitter by clicking this link.

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