Pratyush Buddiga: Spelling Bee Champ Rips US Education System

In the first part of the interview with Pratyush Buddiga you were able to read about his impressive testing scores and performance in school. In case you missed it, here’s the link.

In the second part Buddiga opens up about everything that’s wrong with the school system in the United States, and how a University degree is worth a lot less than advertised. The 25-year old also opens up about his poker career, learning curve and potential.

 A Dedicated Student

“From the age of six or seven my whole life revolved around getting into a good University. Being number one in my class the whole way through was very important to me, that’s what I wanted and I cared a lot about being the best,” Buddiga said as he recalled his high school days.

“The same goes for the spelling bee and when I entered geography competitions. Poker was a side thing I found, and I never thought back then that it could be a serious career. So for me it was not hard at all to focus on school after having discovered poker, because school was my entire life at that point. Getting into a good school, getting a good degree and ultimately working on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley was my goal.”

“We had the ‘IB program’ back in high school, which was an advanced placement for every class. You couldn’t just choose to take a tough class in math; you had to take a tough class in every subject. My number one priority at the time was preparing for college. It’s crazy I guess when you’re 15 or 16, but once I finished the spelling bee and the geography competition in 10th grade I basically only focused on getting into a good school,” Buddiga said.

“Poker was a fun hobby to waste my time on, but not any different from playing board games with my friends,” Buddiga said, reflecting on having discovered poker at a very young age but not going through with it.

Buddiga left poker for what it was and focused on school. The school that would ultimately fulfill his childhood dream of getting a good degree was Duke. However, looking back on things now Buddiga realizes that a good degree isn’t a guarantee for success. We asked him about his views on the competitive nature of American academics.

Pratyush Buddiga during the Scripps National Spelling Bee finalPratyush Buddiga during the Scripps National Spelling Bee final in 2002

The Devaluation of Bachelor’s Degrees

“It’s a bit of a problem now. Nowadays everyone has a bachelor’s degree. Everyone in my generation was told ‘You need to go to college.’ It was a must. Maybe not every one of them was told to aim for a Top 10 university, but everyone was told to go to a good school.”

“From your teachers, from your parents, every adult told you when you were a child if you go to college you can become whatever you want, you’re special, and you can accomplish whatever you want to do in the world. You can be whatever you want to be. The harsh reality is that that’s exactly not true. Even if you get your perfect major and go to the perfect school that doesn’t mean that there is going to be a job that’s waiting for you there.”

“I feel that it’s caused a lot of eventual unhappiness for people who are my age. I know people who have went to school for journalism, art history and even engineering and so many of them are working jobs that aren’t what they expected to be doing after graduation. I think a lot of them are dissatisfied and some of it has to do with the economy but a lot of it just has to do with the fact that for the best jobs, you need to be really, really good at them. Not everyone is going to have the talents, skills or work ethic to be exceptional.”

“An engineering company doesn’t want a mediocre engineer, they want a really good engineer and since everyone is going to college now, they can have their pick of the litter. They can pick ‘Ok we only want the five best from the local university’; they don’t have to just pick a random scrub just because he has a degree. There are so many people with a piece of paper that doesn’t really do much. It’s just a basic requirement now. It’s no longer a special thing where people are like, ‘Oh wow you have a bachelor’s degree in economics.’ It’s like ‘Ok, you can’t even apply for this job if you don’t have a degree,’” Buddiga said about the harsh reality of getting a college degree.

“The system has to change. People can’t afford to pay $30,000 to $50,000 a year for an uncertain future. Even if the economy gets better and jobs stabilize and salaries increase, people still can’t afford to pay that much money and pick up that much student debt without having a certain future.”

“They are going to have to do something about student loans. People need to realize that you don’t have to go to college. That might sound terrible, but you can start your own business. Or if you have a love for welding, what’s the point of going to engineering school for 4 years if you want to work at a local shop? Go to a technical school for a year or two and get a job you like.”

“There is so much outside pressure, ‘Oh you didn’t go to college.’ I think people are going because they feel like they are suppose to do it, instead of asking ‘What do I want from life?’ For some jobs, you do need to go to college, like if you want to be a journalist you need writing classes, but there are so many jobs out there that I feel people could do without a four year education. I think that people feel like they have to because otherwise they will be deemed a disappointment by society,” Buddiga said.

Pratyush Buddiga on the right after winning the AAA Travel Challenge nationals in 10th gradePratyush Buddiga (right) after he and his team won a $25,000 scholarship after winning the the AAA Travel Challenge, a geography competition.

Picking Poker over a Career on Wall Street

Buddiga’s stance is strong on what needs to happen to the school system and its debts. While at Duke University, Buddiga took part in a special program in New York City where he got a taste of working in the world of finance. It’s safe to say this had something to do with him returning to poker, as getting to rub elbows with ‘Wall Street guys’ didn’t show him the future he had in mind for himself.

“The hidden part of that program is that your classes are a total joke so your have a lot of time to try to hobnob and try to ingrain yourself with bankers, like Duke alumni who are already on wall street. The classes are really easy but after meeting some Wall Street guys and going through all the meetings that we went to at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and listening to their presentations, I just thought that this is the most miserable thing ever. Why would I ever want to do this?” Buddiga asked himself out loud.

“They were like ‘Yeah this summer you work 120 hours per week, every week and you are doing Excel spreadsheets all the time’ and I thought ‘This sounds terrible.’ The way everyone described it made it seem that it takes five to ten years of hell for the hopeful chance that you become a CEO or become an independent firm. It didn’t sound worth it to me, especially since so many of them end up washed out because they can’t handle it. So instead of hobnobbing with Duke alumni I just started playing poker and the rest of this is history,” Buddiga said, as he graduated before turning into a poker professional.

When Buddiga graduated, the heyday of online poker was already years in the past. The current regular in high stakes tournaments had to close a huge gap to the best players but for now he seems to be doing just fine. This however doesn’t take away the regret of not having kept up his poker game throughout his years in university.

“The first time I’d ever played poker was back when I was 16. I even played a little bit over the years, but when I went to university I stopped. This was right around the same time Mike (McDonald) started becoming one of the best in the world, and he won the EPT in Dortmund—-meanwhile I was trying to become valedictorian, go to a good school and get a good job. Looking back on it now, if I would’ve continued playing poker back then, I could’ve been much further along than I am now,” Buddiga said.

“Back then when I first started playing at the age of 16, I might’ve played 300 tournaments online in total besides playing home games with friends. That was all before I turned 18, and when I got into college. From the moment I got into university I stopped playing poker and didn’t play for about three years.”

“At the time when I quit playing I wasn’t following the poker circuit at all, I only read Bond18’s (Tony Dunst) blog a few times but that was mostly because he wrote these stories about the crazy life in Las Vegas. I had no idea what was going on in the poker world at that time, I’d heard about Timex in Tony’s blog. I actually will always remember this quote Tony said about Timex always talking about how important “equity” was. I had no idea that he had won EPT Dortmund or that I woudl eventaully get coached by him a few years later when I was trying to move up in the poker world,” Buddiga said about trying to bridge the gap.

Learning over Partying

“I can say that I think I work about as hard as any tournament player in the world. Here’s an example of how much I still think I have to work on my game; after chopping the Fallsview tournament in February, I hopped into the WPT Main Event and busted on Day 1. Together with Mike and Tony Dunst we went back to Waterloo, because it was a Saturday, but instead of celebrating my score and balling out at some club or whatever, I decided to watch a RunitOnce video because Sauce1234 had put out a new one. I was really excited to watch that video on a Saturday night, and went to bed right after it,” Buddiga laughed.

Up until today the Fallsview side event ($222,172) is Buddiga’s biggest victory, after he beat a final table with eight lesser-known Canadian players. This however wasn’t his biggest score as he took home $772,870 for finishing eighth in the GuangDong Millions in June 2013.

“The one time I had a big score where it wasn’t disappointing, because I won, I ended up watching a training video that night. Perhaps that sounds bad, because I’m a poker junkie, but I’m just obsessed with becoming one of the best. Sometimes that goes both ways, because I also get down on myself when I’ve made mistakes, not allowing myself to blame things on running bad. Sometimes you just get unlucky, but when I make a mistake I’m really, really hard on myself. Long term however I do think that my attitude is much better the way it is. Being in that mindset is important for me, because it makes me constantly work on getting better,” Buddiga said.

There are tons of different ways to work on ones game, and Buddiga explores all of them on a recurring basis. Watching training videos for him though is not just to get better; it can also be an entertaining way to fill some downtime.

“Watching training videos goes both ways, they are overrated and underrated in a lot of ways. A lot of people watch videos and try to implement things they see an instructor do without thinking about why someone’s making that specific move. In some videos someone will raise-call in a certain situation versus a specific opponent, but three days later that situation, when looking at position and stacks, can be a lot different. There’s some danger in that with videos, so it’s better to approach videos as a way to create a better thought process as well as learning basic theory stuff. In many ways though, many players will treat watching poker training videos as a TV show, and I do too even though I’m learning things as I go as well. Some instructors I watch mostly for entertainment reasons,” Buddiga said.

Getting Coached by the Best

In the rise to the top Buddiga has been coached by some of the best and he doesn’t shy away from pointing out that there’s no one set road that leads to success.

“One of the things that I feel is very important, is talking to as many different people as possible who all have very different views on the game, but also have success and I respect. A year and a half ago I took coaching from gray31 (Grayson Ramage), who may not be that well-known live and prefers online, but he’s one of the most aggressive regulars out there.”

“He (Ramage) plays quite different from how guys like Timex and SirWatts play, because they went through the ranks together for the most part and therefore they have adapted certain things from each other’s games. They tend to view a lot of things the same way while Gray comes from a completely different background but is also very successful and very, very smart. Talking to someone like him gave me a very different perspective and helped me mold me own game in a different way,” Buddiga said.

“Recently I started taking coaching from another successful tournament pro who has different views, and for me it comes down to blending all the styles together and using that to form my own in the meantime. The goal ultimately is to become better than all of them, but I don’t think I’m even close just yet. A lot of people get stuck in the thinking that only their friends are good at poker and therefor all they say is true and that’s all they will ever need to learn in order to be successful.”

Pratyush Buddiga during the GDAM Millions final table Pratyush Buddiga during the GDAM Millions, where he ultimately finsihed seventh

“If you look at any thread on twoplustwo where people ask who the best online tournament players are everyone just lists their friends. The Germans will point to wizowizo (Ole Schemion) and 0PIGGYBANK (Martin Finger), the Polish will mention Dominik Panka and the UK guys will say Toby Lewis and Chris Moorman. It’s whoever they talk strategy with on a daily basis, that’s who they think are the best.”

“In general you can learn something from any successful tournament or cash game player. You’re not going to take everything from everyone, because even I find myself disagreeing with things when talking to some of the best players in the world. Even if you don’t agree it’s important to try to understand why someone’s doing something the way they do it because there’s always a thought process behind it with the best players. If you can somehow learn to understand why people do certain things the way they do it you can learn a great deal from it, even if you don’t agree with it,” Buddiga stated.

When taking coaching from the best players in the world you obviously turn into a better player, but Buddiga thinks that high-level coaching especially helped him when facing very tough opponents.

“I became much better at battling regs after talking to Gray31, because I think he’s one of the best at exploiting them, going after them and constantly putting them in tough spots. For a while I felt like I was becoming a bit too obsessed with trying not to making mistakes, because I went from being very mediocre to playing the highest stakes very quickly. During that time I felt like I was getting ran over but after talking to Gray I think I got a lot better at dealing with tough opponents.”

Adapting and Staying Focused

In the world of poker there are many cooks in the kitchen and while there are universally accepted theories on what’s good and bad there’s still lots of room for discussion about specific spots. Over time the top players will surface though, and Buddiga explains that different styles can work but in the long run the results will dictate who was right.

“It’s important to work the math out for yourself so you can really make sure it makes sense what’s going on. There was a trend where one group thought one thing about a certain approach when it comes to tournament strategy while the other had a very different view on that same topic. The best way to judge what’s right is to look at the evidence and make sure it makes sense.”

“Most of the poker players have a big ego, so if they’ve had success they will continue to keep playing bigger and bigger and bigger. Eventually it’s going to catch up to them, and we saw that with a lot of guys that were doing very well four-to-five years ago. A lot of people said that those players had tons of fundamental leaks and indeed, over time they went broke. Nowadays you see those players selling action for $1,000 tournaments while they were playing $25ks on their own just a few years ago. Eventually the chickens do come home to roost, if you don’t keep working on your game you will eventually lose all your money,” Buddiga said.

Finding the right balance between having a big ego and having lots of confidence, which is very important when playing poker, is something Buddiga himself struggles with from time-to-time as well.

“I go through some of the more severe confidence swings compared to the people I know. There’s a couple of other guys that are similar to me, but in my case it’s quite extreme, as I’ll go from one week thinking I’m terrible and unable to beat the Sunday 500, to the other week wondering why I’m not playing $25k and $100k tournaments on the reg,” Buddiga laughed.

“The biggest thing for me is because I beat myself up over a lot of mistakes is that my confidence can drop very quickly. Usually I need to talk to someone about strategy, take one coaching session or watch a few videos to get back into the right mindset,” Buddiga explained.

“Success is something that will keep your confidence level up. I’ve had some success but it doesn’t compare to my roommate Mike, who’s one of the greatest tournament players of all time. A couple of bad Sundays for someone like Mike are just ‘whatever’ while for me that can really hurt my confidence for a few days.”

“This also goes back to his personality, as he’s so logical. In my life I’ve never met anyone who’s capable of letting things roll of his back the way he does. In his mind it’s purely about equity and expectation-value based, because even when it’s bubbling a $100k he still just jokes around a bit instead of being down on himself. Busting even one of those tournaments would be pretty frustrating, but for him it’s just another day at the office,” Buddiga pulls the comparison between him and McDonald.

Pratyush Buddiga during the EPT Barcelona Super High RollerPratyush Buddiga during the EPT Barcelona Super High Roller, photo credit: Danny Maxwell, PokerNews

Winning in the Shadows

One of the perks of winning a big poker tournament, if you enjoy it, is the media attention and global coverage. The bragging right, the fame and your picture on every website and magazine is something most poker players desire when they first start out, but Buddiga’s biggest win didn’t come with any of that. The one upside with that is he didn’t care about it at all.

“I didn’t care about the lack of media coverage when I won the Fallsview side event. I was so relieved to finally not get eighth in a tournament that I really didn’t care about the rest.”

“When we were down to nine I clearly remember thinking ‘please don’t get seventh through tenth like in all those other tournaments’. I had finished eighth in EPT Berlin, eighth in Macau and ninth in the Sunday Million for an online comparison. Making the Top 3 in that event made me so happy, but happy might not even be the right word. I was relieved,” Buddiga sighed.

“The lack of coverage didn’t bother me, because it was just a side event and it’s normal that people don’t care about that. Eventually it would be great to have a big score on the EPT  in the spotlights but after coming close so many times it was nice to finally not get eight through seventeenth.”

When talking to Buddiga it feels like the pro puts lots of pressure on him in situations where variance dictates, but he disagrees.

“I don’t think I put too much pressure on myself, because in all of those events where I went deep I got the money in really good. I felt like I played really well in all those spots, but I think I put mostly pressure on myself in between tournaments. During the tournaments it’s not a thing, and not on my mind, and I’m confident with my play.”

“The closest decision I’ve had was a hand during EPT Berlin where I wasnt sure if I should four-bet shove ace-queen and I did, and he called with ace-ten. That hand didn’t work out in the end, but I was very happy with that hand itself.  Deep in tournaments though that is not a factor, at that point I just always think ‘this is going to be the one’.”

After a brief pause Buddiga adds, “The Fallsview final table was much softer than the usual ones, so therefore I might’ve felt the pressure of having to win a bit more, since I really felt like I needed to.” 

“I feel like it’s better to think that my lack of huge scores is my fault compared to putting it on being unlucky. I’ve had five or six very big opportunities in my poker career, but then I look at someone like Mike who’s had the same amount in just the last six months. The goal should be to put yourself in as many good spots as possible and make sure you always compete when there’s a big series going on, or when there’s a Super High Roller, just to put yourself out there with a chance to win that big one. That’s how I look at it,” Buddiga said.

“Most of the guys that came up with me in poker are also in similar positions right now. We haven’t had our breakout score yet, or the coming out party if you want, whereas friends like Mike and Dan Smith and Jeff Rossiter all have had a ton more success but I still don’t think they are satisfied with their results, I just think they are more confident.”

Pratyush at age 19 visiting the Taj Mahal
Pratyush Buddiga at the Taj Mahal at age 19

Staying Confident

“Those guys, or any of the biggest pros who’ve been there before go on a downswing, and still remain confident in their own game while I still chase that first big victory. It’s a lot easier for someone like me to go through confidence swings because when I’ve blown some opportunities I’ve had thoughts of ‘What if an opportunity like this never comes around anymore?’”

“After Macau, where I finished 8th, I thought to myself that I might never have a chance like this again. Maybe not as big as that, but there for sure will be other big opportunities down the line. Hopefully the next time I make the final two tables of a big event I can pull through and get that score,” Buddiga said.

“If you haven’t had life changing success in this game it’s sometimes easy to feel like you’re not cut out for this game,” Buddiga added after a brief pause.

With more than $1.8 million in live tournament earnings, most of which accumulated in the last 24 months, Buddiga already has some nice results to look back on. The opportunities for extraordinary scores have been there, but for now that huge one will be on his mind for the upcoming months.

I think I’ve been lucky when it comes to the amount of opportunities I’ve gotten so far. Perhaps I’ve gotten two or three more than someone of my skill should’ve gotten, but then I think that I’ve ran pretty bad in those specific opportunities. The two EPT Main Events where I made the final two tables, Macau where I got 8th and some deep runs online all could’ve gone a lot better than they eventually turned out,” Buddiga said.

“It’s all about turning those opportunities into Top 3 finishes, and ultimately wins. That’s where most of your return comes from. A 12th place finish pays the bills, but a first-place prize will change your life,” Buddiga closed out.

The bills are getting paid for now as Buddiga has racked up $655,000 in live tournament cashes this year after raking in $905,000 the year before. Look for this talented young player in the upcoming big events, as he’ll no doubt be one of the contenders.

It’s not a question of ‘Will he get his breakthrough victory?’ it’s about when it will come.

Make sure to follow Pratyush on Twitter to keep up to date with all the fun updates from his poker-playing-world-traveling lifestyle.


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