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A Poker Life: Pratyush Buddiga

Buddiga Transitions From Spelling Champ To Poker Pro

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Pratyush BuddigaIn the last year and a half, Pratyush Buddiga has put himself squarely on the poker map by winning more than $2.3 million, the majority of which has come in three super high roller events featuring some of the world’s best players. After just four years in the game, the 25-year-old from Colorado has gone from fringe online grinder to bona fide tournament poker superstar.

But, no matter what Buddiga accomplishes in poker, it will be hard to escape the label he earned as a 13-year-old by winning the 2002 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Buddiga had seemingly unlimited options after graduating from Duke University in 2011, but chose to pursue a career in poker instead. Luckily for him, the hard work ethic he picked up as a child stayed with him, all but assuring him a promising future in poker.

The Spelling Champ

Buddiga was born in New Zealand and lived there for five years before his family moved to California. Two years later, they settled down in Colorado Springs. Pratyush, along with his brother Akshay, were encouraged to thrive academically from an early age. It wasn’t long before both were entering local spelling competitions.

“My parents were definitely strict in the sense that they valued academics and believed that I shouldn’t be wasting too much of my free time,” he said. “When you are younger, you are more malleable to what your parents want and I definitely got from them the value of hard work. But, as far as the spelling went, by the age of nine, it wasn’t my parents who were pushing me. I was pushing myself. I needed to be the best.”

At the age of 13, his third year competing, Buddiga won at the class level, then regionals. After securing the Rocky Mountain News as his sponsor, he went on to nationals, better known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee where 250 to 300 of the best spellers in the country compete for a $12,000 scholarship. After spelling the word ‘prospicience” correctly, he was crowned the champion.

Just two years later, Akshay nearly secured the family’s second spelling title, falling just short and finishing in second place overall. Akshay infamously fainted while spelling the word ‘alopecoid,’ in a video clip that went viral. The next year, the first-place prize for the ESPN and ABC televised event was increased to $40,000.

“There was always a lot of competition between us,” Buddiga admitted. “It wasn’t unfriendly at any point, since I was older than him and had the advantage of more experience, but he was often my toughest competition in spelling bees. It was a lot of fun battling it out with him when we were younger.”

Some Time In The Spotlight

America’s obsession with the spelling bee championship has since been documented, recreated, and even parodied in movies such as Spellbound, Akeelah and the Bee, and Bad Words. Despite the fact that some of these movies have been dramatized for Hollywood, Buddiga believes they do get one thing correct.

“Those movies are definitely exaggerated for Hollywood, but one thing they usually get right is the amount of pressure on these kids to do well,” he explained. “Even when I was in college, I don’t remember working as hard as I did in those two months after winning state leading up to nationals. I was putting in 11-hour study sessions at a time. It’s incredibly intense.”

After winning, Buddiga was featured on The Today Show, American Morning with Paula Zahn, and a few other morning shows. He even got to meet President George W. Bush. But his favorite experience was getting invited to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live for a comedy segment the show aired about a rapper spelling bee, where he met Snoop Dogg.

“I never really got tired of being known as the kid who won the spelling bee,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d ever want to push my child into something like that, but, as for me, I certainly can’t complain. It was an incredibly valuable experience that keeps paying off even today. No matter what happens the rest of my life, that win will be on my resume and will be a talking point of interest to a lot of people. The last time I was in Macau, Gus Hansen, one of the first poker players I ever saw on television, even broke the ice by asking about the spelling bee.”

Poker Beginnings

After conquering the spelling world, Buddiga spent the rest of his youth continuing his various academic pursuits. It wasn’t until college that he began to take poker seriously.

“I started playing a little bit in high school after watching the World Series of Poker on television,” he recalled. “I just played for fun at first, then I went to Duke University. I had no problems coasting in high school with my classes, but Duke was a different story. For the first two and a half years, I didn’t play any poker just because I was focused on school. Then, the second half of my junior year, I had an easier schedule and started to play some $10 to $20 multi-table tournaments online. Towards the end of college, I was playing bigger, taking shots at $100 tournaments.”

Just over a month before graduating, the poker world was stricken with the effects of Black Friday. Buddiga certainly had other options, but he had already committed to renting a house for the summer in Las Vegas along with some other poker players. Even though the poker landscape had changed dramatically, he figured he would take a chance.

“Just two days before Black Friday, a group of us that included Pius Heinz, Daniel Strelitz, Michael Gagliano, Dave D’Alessandro, and some others booked a house for the WSOP. I had a decent run and cashed a few times, which was a great learning experience for me. Then we topped off the summer with Pius making the November Nine and eventually winning the main event. After that, I really couldn’t envision doing anything else, so I moved out of the country to Malta, and then later Toronto in order to continue playing online and really give poker a shot.”

Poker Tournament Success

Buddiga racked up numerous cashes in his first year on the tournament circuit, including a final table appearance at the European Poker Tour Berlin main event and another deep run at the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo.

Then, in June of 2013, Buddiga traveled to Macau for the Asia Millions super high roller event that had a converted buy-in of $128,833. He took eighth place for $772,870. In February of 2014, he went to Niagara Falls for the Fallsview Poker Classic, which he won for $219,343.

This summer, he finished tenth in the Summer High Roller Series at Bellagio for another $172,260 and then in August he placed fourth in an EPT Barcelona side event for $127,166. Most recently, Buddiga went back to Macau for the Asia Pacific Poker Tour ACOP high roller, where he banked his largest score to date, $844,660 for third place.

Although he won more money playing in high roller events, Buddiga is most proud of his win in Niagara Falls.

“Unless you win a tournament, you are never really happy,” he said. “In fact, one of my biggest scores, where I finished fourth in Barcelona, was one of the most disappointing moments of my career. That’s why the Fallsview tournament was so satisfying for me, because I want to win so badly.”

Moving Forward

Buddiga spent his early years striving to be the best in the spelling world, but he doesn’t have the same ambition when it comes to poker.

“As a tournament player, I recognize that there is a cap on how good I can be as a poker pro,” he admitted. “No matter how good I get at tournaments, I’ll never be better at poker than the best cash game players, guys like Doug Polk, for example. A lot of tournament players don’t understand just how much better these cash guys are. They make the transition to tournaments way easier than we do to cash games, so I’m definitely not under any illusion that I’ll be one of the top poker players in the world. That being said, cash games, at least at the highest levels, are really dying out. The top players can’t even find consistent action. Tournaments are where the money is at these days.”

Buddiga is content to avoid high-stakes cash games and keep grinding tournaments for the time being, but no one can accuse him of taking it easy. He still shows the same kind of dedication to improving as a poker player as he did all those years ago while tearing through the dictionary.

“I probably spend more days studying poker than playing poker. That’s the benefit of all those hours I put into spelling as a kid. Now, I have no problem putting in the work. I’m confident I’ll be able to continue putting up results and growing as a player.” ♠