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Mohsin Charania: Poker’s Slumdog Millionaire

Two-Time World Poker Tour Champion Shares the Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs of a Professional Poker Player

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Mar 18, 2015


If you Google Mohsin Charania, it’s a snap to find out that he’s of Pakistani Indian descent, a poker phenom, and indeed a multi-millionaire. In 2012, he banked $1.7 million by capturing the European Poker Tour’s Grand Final title in Monte Carlo and he’s a two-time World Poker Tour champion. All in all, Charania has accumulated live and online career earnings fast approaching $10 million. It’s an achievement worth noting, but it’s not reality.

Humble Beginnings and a Loving Mother – A Good Recipe for Success

The truth is Charania grew up in a pretty rough and tumble neighborhood in Chicago and attended a grade school with metal detectors at each entrance. If you wore a new pair of shoes to school you could easily come home barefoot, and don’t even think about riding your bike. So he walked to school. Charania’s mother, Amirbano, eventually moved her family to a home in a nearby suburb, which offered a safer environment and better educational opportunities for her three children.

Charania had been one of the smartest kids in his previous classes, but found out all too quickly that the education he had received in the Chicago public school system was substandard. He was far behind the other kids in his new eighth grade class; still he pushed to be placed in honors classes regardless. Yet, he was turned down repeatedly.

Once again his mother stepped in to support her son. She petitioned for them to give her boy a chance to catch up. She knew her son could do anything he set his mind to. “I always felt that there was a burden on me to excel at school,” said Charania. “Because this whole time my Mom was working two jobs so I could attend a better school. I felt like if I got bad grades I would be disappointing her. So I didn’t.” The hard work paid off. He earned a full scholarship to the University of Illinois, majoring in finance and economics.

Poker Comes Into the Picture Senior Year

College came easy for Charania. The advanced classes he had taken in high school and a nose-to-the-grindstone mentality in college had fast-tracked his credits enough to all but graduate by the end of his junior year. A job at the prestigious JP Morgan firm awaited him, but he decided to hang out on campus, take a few classes, and enjoy the college life. He wasn’t ready to leap into the 9-5 corporate cubicle he’d worked toward to fulfill his mother’s dreams and what he had thought were his own.

One evening, Charania was invited to a nickel and dime poker home game at a friend’s near campus. Sometimes, a simple crystallized moment in life can change everything and a destiny of an expected life can spin on a dime. Charaina felt such a moment while playing poker, a game he knew absolutely nothing about. Everything changed that day, as the depth of the complexities of the game challenged Charania’s quick-thinking brain and, more importantly, his curiosity.

Flash Forward to the 2014 World Series of Poker Main Event

The culminating final table of the 2014 Main Event was one of the most formidable and entertaining final tables in recent history. And right in the thick of things was Charania, who watched good friend Martin Jacobson take home a whopping $10 million. Charania had been a crucial cog in the wheel that prepared Jacobson for a shot at the title.

Charania was part of a team of world-class players, which included Faraz Jaka, Jason Koon, Anton Wigg, Ankush Mandavia, Mark Radoja, JC Alvarado, Dan Smith, Max Greenwood, Timothy Adams, Sam Chartier, and Marvin Rettenmaier, who all ran simulations of the final table with Jacobson, focusing on player and stack size dynamics. They would meet up online daily to discuss strategy. They each shared their extensive knowledge and resources with Jacobson, who in his own right was a world-class player and the one many thought was the man to beat.

“Playing for $10 million is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Charania. “I was bewildered that a few players didn’t prepare for this final table. Martin was already one of the best players at the table. We would run simulations of the final table online, three a day, for months. And every time we would come across weird or sticky situations we would post it in the group chat and come up with possible solutions.”

Those three months launched Charania’s already world-class game to a whole other stratosphere. And being in Vegas for Jacobson’s win was hands-down the best poker moment of Charania’s career, surpassing his own major event wins. “Being at the November Nine and watching Martin win (who, by the way, is the nicest guy on the planet) the main event was amazing. When you are at a final table yourself, you’re so laser-focused on winning, you can’t take in the whole experience. The highest level I’ve achieved at poker was through those three months with the group.”

Craig Tapscott: What areas of improvement did you see in your game?

Mohsin Charania: I got much better at Independent Chip Model (ICM) situations live, which was a huge part of the WSOP main event. And I started to be way more aware of my surroundings at a final table.

CT: Share more about what you mean by ICM situations live. And did it come into play when you won the 2014 WPT Five Diamond main event a few weeks later?

MC: I was learning how to exploit other people and their need for pay jumps. In the past, I had been more concerned with adjusting my own play for ICM. Let me share a real life example. I played a hand versus a guy when there were 13 people left at the WPT Bellagio event. The pay jump of $20,000 was at 12th. And I saw my opponent in a pot looking up at the clock quite often. In this pot, I knew he had a good hand, but wasn’t going to go all the way with it. So I played a hand super weird and bluffed him in a huge pot and got him to fold top pair.

CT: How else was the ICM knowledge applicable?

MC: There were spots where I was making folds where I could easily justify getting it all-in because of ICM. It was more about knowing that other people didn’t know when to exploit me. When the pay jump is so big from ninth to eighth, I would shove versus some opponents. Unless they have the nuts or a very good hand, they are not calling. It was more about exploiting other people’s ICM.

Usually you think about ICM in that you need to fold in certain spots because of a big pay jump and another player is very short-stacked. Whereas, in this situation I knew which players were paying attention to ICM and I could exploit them for that. I went from 700,000 to 4 million chips at one point in that event with only one showdown.

CT: Anything else important to share from that WSOP experience?

MC: Well I had drilled something else into my head: The concept that there is always another hand. That was huge for me. The realization, in this precise moment, that there is always another hand after this one. This hand is not the end all, be all. I learned how to slow things down. A lot of times, I would compound mistakes. I was of the mindset there is always a way to win a hand, and it hurt me at times. Sometimes the best way to win the hand is to let the hand go and then try to win the next one, or the one after that.

CT: Regarding the WSOP main event once again. Many people don’t realize that to offset variance for the tournament circuit many pros will swap percentages of themselves. This year you hit the supreme jackpot, as Martin was part of your swaps.

MC: I had five players that I would swap a percentage of me for a percentage of them. For example, at this WSOP, I had Shannon Shorr, Faraz Jaka, Marvin Rettenmaier, Chris Moorman, and Martin Jacobson. It reduces variance. But I still root for my friends when they have big scores, whether I have a piece of them or not.

CT: And I am sure watching your good friend Jacobson win made you hungrier to win a WSOP event of your own?

MC: For sure, but I don’t tend to do well in Vegas. I think it’s because we are not deep-stacked. I heard Vanessa Selbst say once that in those events you have to bluff a lot more because the blinds go up so fast. So I’m learning how to switch up my strategy and adjust to the stack sizes and levels at the WSOP. I need a bracelet to complete the Triple Crown of winning a WPT, EPT, and a WSOP event.

Flashback to Online Poker After College

After pocketing a degree in finance and economics in 2007, Charania worked for financial giant JP Morgan for two weeks, then abruptly quit. Playing poker online and live in local casinos was fast becoming more lucrative and much more fun.

Charania went into total immersion mode to learn everything about strategic poker. By 2008, the five- and six-figure scores began rolling in. During most of that year, he hung around the top five in Card Player’s online player rankings and was considered an up and coming star in the game. But at the time, most of his family was in the dark about his new vocation, including his mother.

CT: So how did your mother eventually find out you were playing poker for a living?

MC: This was 2008. I was playing on ESPN at the WSOP Europe main event. Some family friends had Googled me and knew about my online success. My mom then saw me on TV and asked why I wasn’t working or in graduate school. I told her I was doing very well and showed her my tax forms. Then she said okay, that’s fine. She knew in college I got straight A’s and she was resigned to the fact that her son wasn’t going to screw up his life, that he’s smart enough to figure it out.

CT: And with all your financial success you began to help your mother to repay her for all those years of sacrificing for you and your family.

MC: Yes. I forced my mom to retire after working two jobs for years. I support her now, bought her a new car, and paid off her house. My goal was always to make enough money so she would never have to work again. I’m glad to have achieved that.

A Huge Downswing Evolves Charania’s Game to Elite Status

After a stellar year in 2008, poker’s variance began to rear her ugly head and ravage Charania’s mindset and bankroll. It seemed that no matter what he did, how he played a hand, he got crushed. Nothing worked. So he went back to the drawing board and started to depend on feedback from players he respected to improve his game. Up to that point, Charania was pretty much self-taught, having never read a book, watched poker on TV, or perused poker training videos. To stop the bleeding, he sought out top players he had met online, as well as from the home game that began it all.

Charania could never have fathomed that the little five and dime college game would have such a lasting and influential impact on his life. The players in that regular game would become well-known champions in their own right, they included future WPT champion Ravi Raghavan, Andy Seth, and none more influential than eventual close friend, traveling partner, and WPT 2009-2010 Player of the Year, Faraz Jaka.

“When I started traveling with Mohsin towards the end of 2011, he was a player who had witnessed a ton of online success,’ shares Jaka. “He had live experience, but was still waiting for that big live score. The biggest difference I notice now with Mohsin is that he learned to start focusing on the positive things (both in life and in poker) and to stop worrying about the things not in his control. Mohsin has grown a ton off the table and has created a very balanced lifestyle for himself. This new mindset and life balance continues to impact both his life and poker game in a very positive way.”

CT: Let’s talk about the tough times you went through after so much early success and how your game has evolved.

MC: I was talking to the best online players in the world for help when I was getting completely crushed. It’s one of those things where you are gradually getting better, but you are not seeing the results, and you are getting annoyed. But you are still kind of playing badly, and repeating some things you thought worked before. I began to understand it was mostly variance. And in poker, that will kill you.

CT: But for the first time you seem to have realized how good you had been running previously.

MC: Yes. As I started losing, I was getting complacent and would blame running bad. But I hadn’t realized how good I was running before. The reality sunk in that I wasn’t really getting better at the game. So I started to not like myself. Not because I wasn’t winning, but because I was complaining so much.

CT: So you worked to improve your game and also your attitude.

MC: My good friend Faraz was instrumental in my resurgence as a person and a player. I could never tell a bad beat to Faraz. He just wouldn’t listen to it. He is just so positive. That deeply affected me. Also, I’ve learned that, if I bust an event, I’m not so rattled and have to talk about poker 24/7. I can easily go to dinner with my girlfriend, Sasha, and just chill. She has also had a huge impact on my personal growth and helping me to live a life that is much more balanced and centered.

CT: And you’ve made a massive leap in the strategic and psychological approach you have toward the game?

MC: Undoubtedly. With poker five years ago, all you needed to know were the basics and you could win a lot of money. Whereas now, you’re either going to be elite, breakeven, or go broke. It is a completely different game.

CT: It seems like you were able to tame your ego that overinflated from so much early success and be more open-minded.

MC: It was an evolution. I began to realize that I was becoming more honest with myself. I was more open to criticism when I played a hand badly, even a hand that I had won. In the past, I had only sent in bad beats or hands I thought I had played horribly and lost. And once I started accepting that information, I knew the game and my thinking about the game was evolving for the better.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The Truth About Charania’s Multi-Millionaire Status
Similarly to the lead character Jamal in the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire, Charania grew up in a scary neighborhood with very little money. The way out for Jamal was a game show to win a million dollars, for Charania it was a good education. Jamal did it for the love of a girl and freedom; Charania did it for the love of his mother and a better life.

It’s true. Millionaires are born at many WPT, EPT, and WSOP events. But the public in general doesn’t know the real truth behind a poker player’s earnings. The dollar figures they can Google or find on poker databases do not accurately depict what a player has banked. Charania graciously decided to shed a little light on a subject that is rarely talked about in the press.

CT: You won a lot of money at a young age. How did it affect you?

MC: It definitely affected me, good and bad. I was twenty-three years old and, no matter how smart you are, you are going to spend it. And I paid a ton of money in taxes; mainly because I wasn’t writing off what I could properly do so at the time. I just didn’t know better. Of course, I was also helping my mom. I just thought money was always going to be coming in. But that is just not the case. Also, when you have access to a lot of money, you have to go through a learning curve of losing it. I certainly did.

CT: I had heard you lost money backing a stable of players.

MC: I started backing a lot of people, which is always the downfall for any online player. I lost a lot of money.

CT: Let’s get real for a second. So you’re telling me you don’t have eight million in your bank account? I thought you were buying dinner tonight.

MC: [Laughs] There is a weird misrepresentation in poker of how much players earn. If you go on Card Player’s database, you will see that I cashed for about $1.8 million last year. But the reality is there are taxes, entry fees, backing players and their entry fees, percentages shared, travel expenses, and so on. 

CT: And players routinely have a small percentage of themselves, especially in the high roller events.

MC: In the bigger buy-in events they may only have 5-10 percent of themselves. It is a total misconception that some players have $17 million in earnings.

CT: It is crazy to me that anyone can easily look up Mohsin Charania and find out how much you supposedly made last year. Most people never share information about their income. It’s nobody’s business.

MC: That’s okay. It’s all part of the game. But I don’t think it’s too cool that people outside of poker quiz me about how much money I make. Or think they know, to be more exact.

CT: What do you mean?

MC: Well I can go out with friends, and a doctor in the group will want to talk about the $1.7 million dollars I won last December, just because he Googled it on his phone. I will wryly say, ‘I don’t mind sharing if you tell me what profit you made on your last heart bypass surgery.’ That usually stops the conversation cold and I do it with a smile and a little humor, but people get the point.

CT: And you are giving away a significant percentage of yourself ongoing in the events you play?

MC: Of course. I do it to offset variance.

CT: Any final advice for the grinder out there who is working hard to improve his or her game?

MC: Poker is an overwhelming game of skill, but winning any one tournament is pure luck. You have to be smart to stick around. That includes mental toughness, endurance, and patience. I will always bet on the guy who is really smart and is willing to learn. Just possessing innate skill won’t get you through. The players that win consistently are the ones who work extremely hard and go beyond raw skill. It’s probably why, in the beginning, I was playing smarter and better than other people, but I eventually started losing a lot of money and had to go back to the drawing board. I had to learn how to adapt, evolve, and be open to growth. If not for that change in my mindset, I sincerely doubt I would be in the position I am today.

CT: A globe-trotting tycoon with yachts, mansions, and an army of assistants?

MC: [Laughs] Exactly! ♠