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Table Talk: Interviews With Poker's Top Talent — Nick Pupillo Is 2019’s King Of The Mid-Major Poker Tournament Circuit

27-Year-Old Having A Career Year, With Two Titles and 15 Final Tables

by Erik Fast |  Published: Jan 15, 2020


Nicholas Pupillo currently sits in 14th place in the 2019 Card Player Player of the Year race, having made 15 POY-qualified final tables and winning two titles. He has accumulated $836,654 in earnings this year and is the highest-ranked player in the standings that focuses almost exclusively on the ‘mid-major’ tournament scene.

The 27-year-old’s focus as a tournament pro is squarely on tours like the World Series of Poker Circuit and the Heartland Poker Tour. These tours host myriad tournament series around the country, built around events with buy-ins ranging from $365 to $1,700.

Pupillo’s 15 POY-qualified scores in 2019 have come in events with an average buy-in of $1,607, making him an anomaly near the top of a POY leaderboard, which has been dominated by the stars of the high-volume super high roller circuit for the last few years. To put things in perspective, current points leader Stephen Chidwick’s average buy-in in the 20 POY-qualified events he final tabled was $38,603, or just more than 24 times larger than Pupillo’s.

Nicholas Pupillo“I just try to play my game and be well prepared both mentally and physically for whatever event I am playing,” Pupillo told Card Player when asked about how he’s been able to be so incredibly consistent, despite playing in larger field events when compared with the high roller regulars who surrounding him at the top of the POY leaderboard. “I am proud to be among the top 15 in this Player of the Year race playing the mid-stakes events.”

Pupillo is based out of Gilbert, Arizona and has established himself as one of the most consistent and feared players on the mid-major scene, earning the respect of players like all-time WSOP Circuit gold ring leader Maurice Hawkins, who pointed to Pupillo as the best player on the tour outside of himself.

“If I have a reputation as somebody that people don’t want at their table, that’s probably a +EV thing for me, if I have ‘fear equity,’ so to speak,” said Pupillo. While he has become one of the stars of the scene, he did note that there are plenty of other stars emerging on the mid-major circuit. “I respect a plethora of players out there, including Will Berry, Josh Reichard, and Max Young, just to name a few.”

Pupillo has accumulated more than $3 million in career live tournament earnings, despite recording his first live tournament cash just six years ago. He grew up in Illinois, where he picked up poker playing in home games with co-workers from the aptly named Ace Hardware store that he worked at while in high school. He quickly became obsessed with the game and began playing whenever he could after graduating. He didn’t fully commit to playing professionally until the age of 22, following his first major score in the 2014 WSOP $1,500 buy-in Monster Stack event. He had taken a small loan from his grandparents before entering the event, which quickly paid off when he finished 12th for $99,981.

Over the past five years, Pupillo has established himself as one of the more successful players on the mid-major scene, but 2019 has truly been his breakout year.

“I think by playing volume is how I have mostly improved,” said Pupillo. “I have been playing pretty regularly these past few years, and I’ve gotten better largely as a by-product of the amount of time I’ve spent at the table. I also think that my pregame and mental preparation and doing the small things right is better than a lot of players that are playing these stakes.”

Pupillo after winning the HPT Black HawkPupillo kicked off 2019 by making a final table in a smaller side event at the 2019 Aussie Millions in February. Two weeks later he had flown from down under all the way to Black Hawk, Colorado to play the Heartland Poker Tour main event at the Golden Gates Casino. He came out on top of a field of 588 total entries to earn the title and the $194,478 top prize. It was the second-largest score of his career. He managed two more final-table finishes that month, including a fourth-place showing in the $1,700 WSOP Circuit main event at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino for $93,604.

March and April saw Pupillo add three more final-table finishes, all in events with buy-ins between $1,000 and $3,000. He closed out the spring with a deep run in the $3,700 buy-in main event at the World Poker Tour Choctaw series. Pupillo placed third out of a total of 577 entries, earning $179,430 for the fourth-biggest payday on his resume.

Pupillo made two more HPT final tables in the summer, placing seventh in a $1,100 event in Colorado and second in the $1,650 main event at the Hollywood Casino St. Louis, earning him another $98,185 for his latest deep run on that tour. He then won his third career WSOP Circuit gold ring by taking down a $400 buy-in event at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Wisconsin in September. Just a week after that, he placed seventh in the WPT Borgata Poker Open $3,500 buy-in main event, securing $100,657. It was his seventh career six-figure score.

The fall saw Pupillo make two more WSOP Circuit main event final tables, with a fourth-place finish in the $1,700 buy-in event at the Horseshoe Southern Indiana and a seventh-place showing in the $1,700 buy-in event at Harveys Lake Tahoe. The two scores added over $57,000 to his annual total, bringing his year-to-date earnings to $836,654.

At the end of the Heartland Poker Tour’s 15th season Pupillo was named the tour’s player of the year, having made three final tables with one title won. He cashed for a total of $330,646 on the tour, having made the money in six HPT events.

With that award and a preponderance of other big scores on the mid-major scene, Pupillo has truly established himself as one of the elite players at that level, and doesn’t seem in to be in a hurry to jump up in stakes either.

“I’m not in a rush to move up to the high roller events, with buy-ins of $25,000 or higher,” said Pupillo, “But eventually, that could become an idea that I would entertain.”

For now, Pupillo will continue to be an end-boss of the mid-stakes tournament scene, much to the chagrin of those who find him at their table.

Top-of-page photo credit: WPT / Joe Giron.