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Final Table Takedown With Mukul Pahuja

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jun 25, 2014

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Mukul PahujaMukul Pahuja is a professional poker player from New York currently living in South Florida. Pahuja won the Player of the Year award for this past World Poker Tour season. In 2013 he placed second at the 2013 WPT Montreal Playground Poker Fall Classic, and then captured fourth at the 2014 WPT Bay 101 Shooting Star, and second at the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown. He accumulated the most WPT player of the year points ever accumulated in a single season. Pahuja enjoys playing basketball and watching football along with catching up on the newest movies. He is recently married and enjoys spending his time in the Florida sun with his wife and dog while he’s not on the felt. Pahuja has more than $2.8 million in live tournament cashes.

Event: 2014 WPT SHR Poker Showdown Main Event
Entrants: 1,795
Entry: $3,500
Finish: 2nd

Hand No. 1

Key Concepts: Using player tendencies to make in game adjustments

Mukul Pahuja: I find myself somewhat short stacked with about 35 big blinds (BB). 

Craig Tapscott: Can you share your thoughts on how your strategy adjusts when short-handed sitting on this awkward stack size? And how important is it to pay close attention to all the other stack sizes at the table?

MP: My strategy with an awkward or short stack is always going to depend on a plethora of factors. How many people are at my table, their specific tendencies, and the stage of the tournament or pay jumps involved can all affect my decision making. The other stacks involved at the table are a major factor as well. It is incredibly important to pay close attention to all the stack fluctuations at your table and not just your own. In today’s poker landscape, most players understand that your stack size is the most important factor to consider before making your decisions, therefore knowing your opponents’ stack sizes is a key to understanding their thought process. 

Eric Afriat raises to 600,000 from the button. Mackey calls.

MP: I am dealt KClub Suit QDiamond Suit in the BB. I think over my options and…

Pahuja calls.

CT: Could this have been a good spot to shove?

MP: Well I decided on just a call for a couple of reasons. My stack at this juncture of the tournament was at a relatively awkward size as I said, in that I am not terribly short and needing to move all-in over any open. However, I’m not very deep at 35 BBs either.

CT: What is you read on Afriat?

MP: Eric had proven to be pretty sticky throughout my experience with him in this tournament, not prone to folding once having any chips invested. This makes for awkward situations when I do reraise and he calls, and I then have to play the pot out of position with a relatively short stack in relation to a now inflated pot. Having to relinquish the hand at any point after three-betting preflop would mean losing 20 percent or more of my stack. 

CT: Did James Mackey just flatting from the small blind (SB) set off any alarms in your head?

MP: A bit. James hadn’t done much flat calling out of the SB, so I perceived his holding to be moderately strong. He was generally more inclined to three-bet or fold his weaker holdings from this position, therefore I thought he could comfortably back-shove over my reraise far too often, putting me in a tough decision for my tournament life.

Flop: QClub Suit 5Club Suit 4Heart Suit (pot: 1,950,000)

Mackey checks. Pahuja checks. Afriat bets 975,000. Mackey folds.

MP: Clearly this is a good flop for me. I have top pair with a king kicker as well as a backdoor-flush draw to the second nuts. And getting heads-up with Eric is a good result too. His bet of one-half the pot is very standard and can therefore mean a variety of things.

CT: What’s your guesstimate on his hand range?

MP: At this point, Eric’s range is still pretty wide. He is continuation-betting (c-betting) with nearly his entire preflop range. After some deliberation I decided to…

Pahuja raises to 2,450,000.

CT: How did you determine your bet-sizing for the check-raise?

MP: After deciding I was going to raise for value, I wanted to figure out an amount that wouldn’t scare Eric away, but would help me achieve my goal of getting my entire stack in by the river. I think I could’ve min-raised and still sized my bets properly to get all-in by the river, but I needed to balance with my bluff range and size my raise in a way that Eric thought it possible I could be light. The 2.45 million seemed like the sweet spot. 

CT: Could you have played it a little tricky and just flatted his bet?

MP: Conventional wisdom, or shall I say “modern day” conventional wisdom if that makes any sense, is to just call against an aggressive opponent like Eric. As I mentioned earlier, his range to continue here is still very wide. The logic behind just calling with a strong hand is that we want to keep his bluffs in and have him continue to fire at the pot as we disguise the true strength of our hand. Just calling also moderates the size of the pot and keeps us from going broke when he does happen to have the narrow part of his range that actually has us beat. A “low-variance” approach to the hand if you will.

CT: Why did you lean toward taking the higher-variance line?

MP: As I mentioned earlier, Eric was prone to really battle for the pots in which he was invested or had the lead in. Especially when up against players he deemed aggressive and capable, Eric liked to stand his ground and find a way to showdown. Another factor in my favor was that I had just doubled up James a couple of hands earlier. I understood that my perceived image from Eric would be a tilted one, and this would only help my endeavor of getting full value in the hand. 

CT: What other factors made you lean toward check-raising?

MP: Well, one of the tendencies I noticed from Eric that swayed me into raising the flop was that he liked to check back the turn very often. I noticed Eric liked to make most of his bets on the flop and on the river while in position, when he was most comfortable figuring out where he was at in the hand. I didn’t want to leave the decision of whether to play a small or a large pot up to Eric on the turn. Rather, I wanted to build a bigger pot right away and take the lead in the pot, giving myself a chance to get my entire stack in by the river. 

Afriat calls.

Turn: 2Diamond Suit (pot: 6,850,000)

Pahuja bets 3,200,000. Afriat calls.

MP: I was pretty much ready to get all of my chips in right there, but also prepared to get all-in on just about any turn card. The exception being an ace that wasn’t the AClub Suit.

CT: Were you surprised that he had called your check-raise on the flop and then just called here on the turn? What do you think is going through Afriat’s mind?

MP: I wasn’t shocked to see Eric just call the flop rather than fold or reraise as many people would do. Eric’s poker experience is mostly live cash games and some tournaments and he therefore lacks a certain fundamental skill set when it comes to playing shallow-stacked poker. These deficiencies show themselves a bit in this hand, especially here on the turn. Once I bet 3.2 million with only 4.6 million behind, I think he should be making a decision for all the chips in my stack before the river comes out. Even with a draw that is getting favorable odds.

River: 9Diamond Suit (pot: 13,250,000)

Pahuja moves all-in.

MP: At this point in the hand, all of the tough decisions have been made and we’ve been gifted a dream run out. With only 4.6 million left and a pot of over 13 million, I have a very easy all-in. This is after all, the situation we were hoping for when we check-raised the flop. We took this line to get maximum value. Sure, a lot of times Eric is calling with a draw that has missed or he was calling twice with one pair and is now planning on folding, but we simply can’t take the chance that he has a worse hand capable of calling a shove of only one-third the size of the pot.

Afriat calls and mucks when Pahuja reveals the KClub Suit QDiamond Suit. Pahuja wins the pot of 22,400,000.

CT: I’m curious. What are some of the other possible deficiencies in tournament strategy that you see in players who primarily play cash games?

MP: First off, I think a lot of cash games players do a lot of things much better than most tournament regulars. It all comes back to stack sizes. Cash games players are more accustomed to playing deep stacks for hours on end. In a cash game when a player gets shallow from losing money, they can just buy back in to get deep again. In the same regard, tournament regulars without much cash-game experience tend to have trouble accumulating in the beginning stages of tournaments or in slow, deep-stack structured tournaments throughout. The deficiencies lie in the lack of one’s experience. Figure out what situations make you most uncomfortable, work on those leaks, and it will be harder and harder to point out your deficiencies.  

Event: 2014 WPT Bay 101 Shooting Star Main Event
Entrants: 718
Entry: $7,500
First Prize: $1,256,550
Finish: 4th

Hand No. 2

Key Concepts: Using player tendencies to make in-game adjustments

Pahuja raises to 175,000 holding KSpade Suit 5Heart Suit from the button.

Mukul Pahuja: While K-5 offsuit may seem like a raggedy hand to play, there are multiple reasons I decided to come in for a raise.  

Craig Tapscott: So it’s not just your typical button raise?

MP: Well first off, king-high rates to be the best hand pretty often in this situation. Also, playing most of your buttons short-handed is imperative as you need to maximize the situations in which you’re playing in position. The stack depths of both the blinds (52-to-90 BBs) is pretty much ideal for a raise as well. We want to be able to steal the blinds and antes at a consistent rate without having a short stack who can move all-in. The last and one of the most important reasons to raise is ICM (Independent Chip Model) considerations.

CT: Please explain.

MP: With Shaun Suller in the SB with 50 BBs and James Carroll sitting on about 35 BBs, Suller will play this position and situation pretty straightforward. Shaun is handcuffed by ICM; stuck in the middle of the two stacks that can bust him while there is a shorter stack still in play. With $320,000 locked up for fourth place and first paying $1.2 million, I didn’t expect Shaun to get too far out of line as the pay jumps we were playing for were pretty significant. Also, there is little incentive for Dylan Wilkerson in the BB to play a big pot with me as I am the only one left that can do catastrophic damage to his stack.

Suller folds. Wilkerson calls from the BB.

Flop:  JHeart Suit 3Spade Suit 2Club Suit (pot: 430,000)
 
Wilkerson checks. Pahuja bets 150,000.

CT: Can you share why you chose that bet sizing, a little less than your preflop raise?
MP: On a board as dry as this one, I don’t think it’s necessary to waste chips and bet too much here. It is unlikely Dylan’s range connects with this flop very often, so a small bet accomplishes what we wish. We can win the pot right here, protect against worse hands that can outdraw us, or get certain better hands to fold such as superior king-highs or even some ace-highs. Also, we’re setting ourselves up to potentially steal the pot on the turn with a second barrel.

Wilkerson calls. 

Turn: KDiamond Suit (pot: 730,000)

Wilkerson checks.

CT: Great card.

MP: Yes. Turning top pair is obviously a great turn of events, but after Dylan checks we have an interesting decision on our hands. While we likely have the best hand, we have to determine Dylan’s range and break down his tendencies in order to figure out the best course of action. 

CT: What’s there to think about? You have to bet for value now, correct?

MP: Now that I’ve made top pair, betting is up in the air you ask? It is a valid point. I’ll explain why this is a tricky situation. 

CT: I’m waiting.

MP: (Laughs) While we have a reasonably strong holding in top pair/weak kicker; it’s very difficult to come up with inferior hands in our opponent’s range that can call all three streets postflop. What hands worse than K-5 are calling a raise preflop, a bet on the flop, turn and the river? I can’t stress this next point enough. It is imperative to formulate a plan for the river, right now before you act on the turn.

CT: So what sort of things are you asking yourself before you decide to check or bet this turn?

MP: Well if Dylan calls my value bet on the turn, am I going to bet the river unimproved? More importantly, what if Dylan raises when I bet the turn? Now, K-5 shrinks up considerably and we could be stuck in a very tough decision if we hadn’t figured out a course of action for all possible scenarios in advance. 

CT: What history had you had with Wilkerson? Does that come into play?

MP: I had to consider everything I’d seen from Dylan up to that point. Against a lot of opponents I am just checking back and looking to extract a second street of value on the river or induce a bluff and call his or her river lead. However, Dylan is a very smart and capable poker player who understands my aggressive nature. He knows that a big card like a king or ace on the turn is a great card for me to continue to represent and therefore continue to barrel as a bluff. As mentioned earlier, I continued on this flop to help set up a double-barrel bluff some of the time and Dylan is fully aware of this.
CT: And what is his hand range after calling your bet on the flop?

MP: When he calls the flop, he can still have a very wide range of hands that include ace-high, gutshots, and any pocket pair he decided to just call with preflop. Understanding that he is capable enough to either float again, hang on with one pair, or even turn a marginal holding into a check-raise bluff swayed me into betting the turn.
Pahuja bets 380,000. Wilkerson raises to 850,000.

CT: OK. You’re the man with the plan. What now?

MP: We must now call and evaluate his river decision. While getting to showdown for cheap would be ideal, we have to be prepared to face another river bet. I was prepared to really study Dylan’s timing and bet sizing in order to make the best decision possible.
Pahuja calls.

CT: And if he fires out big on the river?

MP: Facing another big bet would basically mean one of two things: Dylan is continuing to bluff with air or he has the two-pair plus hand that he is representing.

CT: By thinking it through before your bet on the turn you were prepared for all scenarios.

MP: Well, sort of. As I said before, I was prepared to evaluate Dylan’s sizing and timing and was going to give myself a chance to make a good read.  Too many times I see good players make a call like the one I made on the turn and already have the auto-call button clicked for the river. I’ve learned to take my time in all big decisions and have a plan for most hands, but also be willing to stray from those set decisions when there is enough evidence to sway me.

River: AHeart Suit (pot: 2,430,000)

Wilkerson checks.

CT: You can’t really fire a value bet here, right?

MP: I don’t think we have many options but to check back here and table our hand. Dylan would check this river with any two-pair hands that don’t include an ace and even check an ace that was bluffing the entire way. Turning our hand into a bluff to try to get these hands to fold is far too optimistic as is trying to get value from an inferior holding. 

Pahuja checks. Wilkerson reveals ASpade Suit 5Diamond Suit and wins the pot of 2,430,000.

CT: After thinking back over it again are you surprised he check-raised you on the turn with A-5? Obviously your read was spot on when you called the turn raise.

MP: No, I’m not very surprised Dylan check-raised me on the turn. I know he’s very capable and a smart, thinking player. Although I don’t think Dylan is representing too many value hands with this line, it’s still going to work very often. A lot of times I simply won’t have a hand that can withstand the pressure he’s applying on the turn. At the end of the day, if I was surprised he took this line, betting the turn and calling a raise myself wouldn’t be very well thought out. 

CT: You game has really been raised up to world-class level over the last year. What are some of the finer points you have been working on to improve?

MP: That’s a very hard question to answer, Craig. There have been a lot of small adjustments along the way that may just be starting to have a cumulative effect on my game and its bottom line. Or I could just be getting really, really lucky at all the right moments (laughs). All I know is that I continue to make mistakes and have a lot of leaks that need plugging. I really feel as though I am only scratching the surface as far as what I am capable of doing in poker. Only time will tell.

CT: Then to what particularly do you think you owe your recent success?

MP: Well as far as to what I owe my success, that’s an easy one; the important people in my life. From my incredibly supportive family, to my brilliant poker playing friends who help me get better every day. I have a lot of people in my life who have helped me get to where I am at. Most importantly, out of all those people, it’s my wife who has been my rock since day one. The success I’ve been able to obtain is directly correlated with my happiness and level-headed decision making, only made possible by the well-balanced life I’ve been able to build for myself away from the felt.  ♠