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A Poker Life With Amit Makhija

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Aug 05, 2015


Amit Makhija at the WSOPIt’s been nearly a decade since Amit Makhija established himself as an emerging force in the poker world, and since then he’s cemented himself as one of the top players in the game. With $2.6 million in live tournament earnings, $3 million in online tournament earnings, and an undisclosed profit in high-stakes cash games, Makhija has managed to achieve longevity in a sport that has a tendency to swallow players up and spit them out.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Wisconsin native. There have been times when Makhija wasn’t particularly motivated to put in the required work, and Black Friday had a decidedly negative effect on his player sponsorship opportunities.

Now 30, Makhija has spent the last few years rededicating himself to his progression as a professional poker player and hopes the next decade is chockfull of even more success.

Poker Beginnings

Amit Makhija grew up as the middle child in Brookfield, Wisconsin, a suburb just 15 minutes from Milwaukee.

“My parents moved from India to the U.S. when they were in their 20s,” he explained. “My uncle came to the states first and managed to get a job in Wisconsin, so when my parents came over, they basically followed him to Brookfield.”

His father was an engineer who later became a business owner. His mother is a doctor. Needless to say, education was very important in the Makhija household. After high school, Makhija enrolled in the University of Minnesota, double majoring in finance and economics. It was there that he discovered his passion for poker.

“I started playing poker seriously during my sophomore year of college in 2005,” he recalled. “I had played some $5 home games in high school and stuff before that, but it was mainly an excuse to drink in our basements. I had kind of forgotten about poker, to be honest, but my little brother was really into it. He’s five years younger than me, and one day when I came back to visit from college, he was in the play money games on PokerStars. I thought it looked fun, so I started playing too. Then I found out about all of the freerolls they had on some of the other sites, won one of them, and all of a sudden I had a $100 bankroll.”

That first $100 proved to be the catalyst for Makhija’s entire career, but at the time, it served to fuel his passion for a game that was just beginning to expand into something huge.

“It was pretty much a standard poker boom story,” he admitted. “I read some strategy books, got better and started building up my bankroll. I never had to make a deposit and I never went broke. By the time I had reached my senior year I was doing really well. During the last week of my finals, I had won over six figures.”

Turning Pro

Makhija had graduated and could have easily entered the traditional working world alongside his parents, but poker was going so well, he thought he’d give it a shot professionally without the constraints of classes and homework.

“My parents were well aware of how much poker I was playing. Every time I came home, I was playing online. When I told them I was going to try and make it in poker, they were obviously concerned, but by that point I had achieved enough success that they could at least see that it wasn’t a completely ridiculous idea. My bankroll was already pretty substantial because I was playing high-stakes online like $25-$50 or $50-$100 no-limit hold’em cash games and $5,000 heads-up sit-n-gos. I had 27 percent rakeback on Full Tilt, and I remember one month that I put in so much volume at the heads-up sit-n-gos that I got back $25,000. I basically had contributed six figures in rake to the site.”

In 2008, Makhija’s first real year on the tournament circuit, he had an absurd string of results. He made four final tables, earned nearly $1 million in live tournaments and finished 21st in the Card Player Player of the Year race. This was highlighted by a fifth-place finish in the $10,000 pot-limit hold’em championship event at the World Series of Poker for $198,528 and a runner-up finish in the WPT Legends of Poker main event for $563,320. To top it all off, he won a major FTOPS (Full Tilt Online Poker Series) title for another $550,000.

“I had an incredible run. I made a few TV final tables and a lot of money. All of a sudden my parents were bragging about me to their friends and they weren’t as concerned about my future. But what that run did actually do was give me a sense of entitlement. In my own head, I had basically solved poker. I had an ego that needed to be knocked down at bit. I remember that year they were doing a fantasy draft and I was picked first overall in a tournament that Phil Ivey was playing in. That’s how good I was running at the time.”

Growing Pains

Makhija’s second year as a pro was solid, but nowhere near the level he achieved in 2008. His third and fourth years were much the same. He was turning a profit, but he knew he wasn’t playing his best.

“The games were good, obviously, but I was a little delusional about how long that would last,” he admitted. “To make things worse, I got lazy and wasn’t playing enough. I was terrible at game selection. When I did play, it was high-stakes heads-up against other great players. I wasn’t learning the other games like the other players were, either. I kind of stuck with hold’em, which made the games even tougher. I didn’t lose money those years, but I didn’t make even close to what I could have if I just had better work ethic and didn’t have that game selection leak.”

Makhija still had flashes of success. Between 2009 and 2011, he made big final tables and deep runs online and on the European Poker Tour, WSOP and the now-defunct Epic Poker Tour. His online play was so good that he was named as one of the Brunson 10, a group of top players handpicked by Doyle Brunson for his online site, The deal didn’t last beyond Black Friday, however.

“Black Friday was really crappy for me because I had an online poker site deal. The deal was great, because not only did it pay for most of my expenses throughout the year, but we also got to give our input on software changes and stuff like that. We were getting a salary just to put in a minimum of ten hours a month. Then there were changes made in the upper management and we were kind of forgotten about until the deals went away.”

Turning A Corner

Without a deal, Makhija rededicated himself to improving his game. His frustration at how quickly the rest of the poker world was catching up served as his motivation to put in the necessary hours for his development.

“I got really into a lot of the software out there, like Hold’em Resources Calculator and GTO Range Builder,” he said. “I’ve been trying to steer my game towards game theory optimal. The best players are moving closer and closer to it.”

Of course, just because he’s leaning on the numbers more these days doesn’t mean that Makhija is completely giving on playing the player.

“I don’t necessarily want to play like a robot, but I want to know exactly how to play like a robot if I want to against the best players in the world,” he explained. “I want to be able to play in a way that makes it very, very difficult to be exploited. Against weaker players, however, I don’t mind being more flexible in order to get the desired result.”

Since Black Friday, Makhija has had a number of big scores. He went deep in the WSOP main event twice, finishing in 47th in 2012 and 228th in 2013. He also made an additional WSOP final table and finished third in the California State Poker Championship. Most recently, he chopped the Card Player Poker Tour main event at the Bicycle Club Casino and took second in a $25,000 buy-in high roller event at the Aria.

Moving Forward

Makhija has enjoyed his time as a professional poker player, but he does have some mixed feelings about the game.

“There are some negative aspects to life as a poker pro. It’s a very isolating experience. There are people who you are good friends with that you need to beat day in and day out. It seems like people are never fully happy for you either. Your upswing is their downswing and even if they aren’t running that bad, they are depressed because they are not doing quite as well as you. Nobody is ever at the same place, mentally.”

Despite his reservations about his chosen profession, Makhija is still happy with the path he has taken.

“I don’t know that I would recommend being a poker pro to other people,” he admitted. “If my future children came to me asking to learn how to play cards, I would teach them, and then tell them to get a real job. I’d much rather they played poker just as a hobby. But I don’t think I’ll ever look back on the last decade with any regret. It was a lot of fun and I love that I get to compete for a living. I’m living out my dream.” ♠