EPT11 Prague: How hard work saved Mukul Pahuja from George Costanza's fate

The Super High Roller tournament is up to 41 players, which has exceeded early expectations for the event. The number that had been floated around as a potential field size was 35, so things are looking very good.

As ever, there is a good smattering of familiar faces -- Ole Schemion, Tobias Reinkemeier, Vladimir Troyanovskiy, Timothy Adams, etc. -- but there are a number of first timers too. In addition to Igor Pihela, as mentioned earlier, I think it's a first time in one of these big dances for Mikita Badziakouski, Dmitry Gromov and Mike Leah too.

Another name appeared on the earliest player list today that may well be unfamiliar to European poker watchers. Mukul Pahuja has only played on the EPT once before now, a couple of months ago in London, plus one PCA, but switch that "E" for a "W" and he's a household name.

In the past 13 months in main events on the World Poker Tour, Pahuja has finished second, (in Montreal, for $362,430), eighth (at Coconut Creek, for $36,147), fourth (in San Jose, for $320,800), second (in Hollywood, Florida, for $691,965) and third (back in Montreal, for $178,175). That extraordinary run made him WPT Player of the Year for Season 12 and he amassed more POY points than any other player has ever managed in a single season.

"I've just increased the volume a lot over the past two years and it's gone extremely well," Pahuja says. "I've been very fortunate."


Mukul Pahuja: A rare appearance on the EPT

The irony behind Pahuja's extraordinary run is that it began with a quite spectacular moment of bad timing. Pahuja first started playing poker in the north east of the United States, in his native New York, and in 2010, decided that it was going well enough that he and his then girlfriend Alexis would leave their jobs and move to Florida, where Pahuja would play poker professionally. The plan was the play tournaments online and cash games in the bricks and mortar casinos, which were booming at the time. After planning the move for more than six months, they hit the road south on April 12, 2011 -- three days before poker's Black Friday.

In almost all other cases, this happy story would end right there. With online poker now shuttered to American players, the U-Haul would be turned around again, the keys to old New York apartment never sent back and Pahuja would be reduced to the George Constanza role, going back to work as if he had never quit in the first place. But things in the real world don't quite follow sitcom scripts, and Pahuja, having made his bed in Florida, had no choice but to lie in it.

"I just transitioned into live tournaments," he says now, as if it was the easiest thing. "It wasn't the plan to play a lot of live tournaments, but that's just how it worked out, what was available to me. And it's worked out well."

Since then, Pahuja has won the vast majority of his $3,228,240 career tournament cashes -- and Alexis has also become his wife. Now, with the bankroll to choose which events to play, he and Alexis have decided to add world travel to their list of hobbies. They figured Prague before Christmas, in the window between the two big American holiday seasons, ticked a lot of boxes.

"Me and my wife wanted to travel to Europe a bit, experience some new cities, just get some travel in," Pahuja says. "If there's a city where we really want to go, and there's some good poker, then we'll make the trip. This is just perfect. The city is amazing."

Much like a decent tourist always scours the city guidebooks before embarking on an overseas adventure, Pahuja has also done his homework into some of the European poker players he knew he would be facing in this event. Today he has been sitting alongside Christoph Vogelsang, Stephen Chidwick and, most intriguing of all, Schemion, who did to the EPT last season what Pahuja did to the WPT.

"I try to do as much research as possible, I try to pay attention to what's going on," Pahuja says. "These names in this tournament, you can't not know about them. If you're in the €50K, you should know about these guys...I haven't played a lot in Europe, but these guys have played some of the bigger tournaments all around. I'm well aware of these players. I've played with pretty much everyone at my table right now."

Pahuja says that there are excellent players at every level in the contemporary poker world, and that he has run into some of the best international talents in the deep stages of the WPT events he has played. He is also a great advocate of talking strategy with other top-level minds, to plunder their poker knowledge even about hands he wasn't in himself. "I might not play online, and get as many hands in as some of these other guys, but I talk hands incessantly with people that are getting the hands in," he says.

Those players include his brother, Vinny, who has tournament cashes of close to $2m, and Jason Mercier, the Team PokerStars Pro, who lives close by in Florida and has become a basketball buddy of Pahuja. He also railed his friend Jake Schindler to victory in the $25,000 High Roller event at the PCA in January, when Schindler out-lasted a final table line-up that also featured Schemion. It all gets passed off as research.

Indeed, Pahuja is one of the new breed of players for whom poker is to be treated very much as a job: you put the hours in, you keep learning, and good "luck" has the best chance of following.

"A lot of people just assume you can become a poker pro and live whatever lifestyle you want right away," he says. "There's a lot of work involved, succeeding and trying to make a good life for yourself. But for those who are fortunate enough, or work hard enough, however you want to look at it, the end result can be good. I love to travel, I love to experience new things, so it's the best of both worlds. I can work hard and can enjoy myself at the same time. A trip like this is once in a lifetime for a lot of people, so I cherish it for sure."

Full coverage of the EPT Prague Poker Festival is on the main EPT Prague page. Super High Roller coverage, including blow-by-blow updates in the panel at the top, is on the Super High Roller page. And the Eureka main event is into the money and playing on. That's on the Eureka Prague page.

Howard Swains
@howardswains in Super High Roller