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A Poker Life: Mukul Pahuja

Pahuja Trades In Wall Street Career For Poker

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The last year was an incredible ride for 28-year-old Mukul Pahuja. During that stretch the New York native made five major final tables and earned more than $2.2 million en route to becoming the World Poker Tour Player of the Year for Season XII.

Much like his older brother Vinny before him, Mukul spent his time after college in finance on Wall Street, but a successful week at a WSOP Circuit stop gave him the courage to try and make it as a full-time poker pro. Although it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, Pahuja righted the ship and has since cemented his status as one of the best up-and-coming players in the game today.

Poker Beginnings

Born in Queens and raised in Long Island, Mukul was the fourth of four children.

“There was a decent amount of pressure from the family to go into a traditional career, not too dissimilar from the stigma you find with immigrant parents, but I was fortunate to be the youngest child,” recalled Pahuja. “By the time the focus was on me, my parents were over it and I was able to kind of do my own thing.”

Being able to do his own thing allowed Pahuja to explore poker while simultaneously working his way towards Wall Street.

“In a lot of ways, I was just following Vinny’s footsteps into finance and eventually Wall Street,” he admitted. “When I was still in high school, he was already at NYU Stern School of Business and on his way, so that kind of lifestyle really appealed to me. From there, I wanted to get into a really good business school and ended up at Penn State.”

Also like Vinny, Mukul began to see poker as a viable source of income. However, he doesn’t feel that his brother was the sole reason for getting into the game.

“Vinny had a lot to do with me getting into poker, obviously, but I think I started out like a lot of young guys start out in the game,” he said. “Really, the two of us started playing at almost the same time. He was playing in home games in Manhattan when I was playing home games back in high school in Long Island. We ran almost parallel paths.”

After taking a hiatus from Lehman Brothers for poker, Vinny tore up the East Coast circuit in 2008, making eight final tables and racking up nearly $600,000 in earnings. That year, he finished tenth in the Card Player Player of the Year race. The lifestyle appealed to Mukul, but he wasn’t quite ready to leave his job as a trader with Bank of America.

Then in December of 2009, Mukul took fourth in the $5,000 buy-in WSOP Circuit stop at Harrah’s in Atlantic City for $73,347. A few days later, he won a $2,000 buy-in event for an additional $51,169. A year later, he was finally ready to take the plunge into professional poker.

A Rough Start

Pahuja had taken his time turning pro, mapping out a plan for himself and his future wife Alexis in Coconut Creek, Florida, where poker-friendly law changes had created a regional boom. But the timing couldn’t have been worse.

“I talked to everyone I knew in poker after having that big week and the consensus was that if I really wanted to take poker seriously, I had to start grinding harder online and get my volume up in order to reduce the variance of live poker. So the plan in moving to Florida was to play a lot of live cash, just because the games were so good, and get my reps in online. Then the week before I moved, Black Friday hit.”

No longer able to supplement his income with online play, Pahuja struggled to get going. After spending his previous years living rent free in his parent’s basement, he had gotten in over his head with life expenses and the good side of variance had yet to make an appearance. He’d only been a pro for a few months, but a lengthy downswing that included that summer’s WSOP had already put his career in jeopardy. In August, he entered the make or break $5,000 buy-in Florida State Championship main event.

“That $5,000 tournament was probably a bit higher than I should have been playing at the time,” he admitted. “If that tournament didn’t go well, I was fully prepared to pull back on the live tournaments, really grind out lower-stakes cash and perhaps even get a part-time job.”

Turning It Around

Pahuja came into the second day of the tournament in last place, 30 of 30 players. Adding to the pressure was the fact that only 29 players would make the money. Yet on the bubble, he did not hesitate to get his 12 big blind stack in with pocket fours. Nobody looked him up and a few hands later, another short stack was eliminated, ensuring his cash. He went on to finish in fourth place for $92,050.

The next year was also a bit of a struggle, but Pahuja believes it was exactly what he needed to become the player he is today. Pahuja cashed eight times in 2012, putting together just enough money to keep his head above water.

“I credit 2012 for keeping me in a position to be successful,” he said. “I had a lot of decent scores in those lower buy-in tournaments and that allowed me to keep playing with all of my action. I never had to get backed and obviously that paid off big when I started to hit all of those recent huge scores.”

Finding Success

His 2013 campaign was more of the same, until a summer that turned everything around. After managing just three small cashes at the WSOP, Pahuja took some time off to buy a house and get married. Immediately after stepping off the plane from his honeymoon, he jumped into some satellites for the $10 million guarantee Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open taking place just a few miles from his home in Hollywood. After navigating his way through a field of 2,384, Pahuja took third place for a whopping $872,625.

“Nothing really changed in my life, but it was all about the relief that comes with financial security, Pahuja said.”

Armed with a sizable bankroll, Pahuja continued to dominate the tournament circuit by taking second at the WPT Playground Poker Fall Classic in Montreal for $362,430. He then finished eighth at the WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open in Coconut Creek, Florida for $36,147. A few months later, he took fourth at the WPT Bay 101 Shooting Star in San Jose, banking $320,800.

Those finishes alone could define a career, but Pahuja kept going, finishing runner up at the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown for an additional $691,965. All told, he increased his lifetime earnings to more than $2.8 million and locked up WPT Player of the Year honors.

Moving Forward

It would be easy for a pessimist to look at Pahuja’s results and see missed opportunities. Five major final table finishes, but no wins, left millions of dollars on the table. But Pahuja prefers to focus on the positives.

“I’m not going to lie, those thoughts do cross your mind, but it’s a very unhealthy and silly way to look at those results,” he reasoned. “First of all, I could have easily bubbled all of those events and left with nothing. Secondly, even if I did make the money, those seconds, thirds and fourths could easily have been 12ths, 13ths and 14ths if a flip doesn’t go my way or I get sucked out on. I’ll look at the individual tournament and recall some spots I could’ve played better, but I’m not going to be bitter about the actual results.”

Indeed, Pahuja has more than 2 million reasons to be thankful. If someone looks up his shove with pocket fours on the bubble of the Florida State Championship main event three years ago and Pahuja fails to make the money, he might not be where he is today.

Who knows?” he said. “I might be a bank teller today if that hand didn’t go my way. All I can do is continue to put myself in position to play the best poker I can. So far, everything has been working out.”

Although he says everything has worked out, Pahuja still hungers for a marquee tournament win. He’s come within a couple spots a few times, but so far has not been able to take one down.

“It’s still my main source of motivation,” he said. “Every close call is just gasoline on the fire that gets me better and more motivated to get that win. I still have a lot left to accomplish.” ♠