With nearly $1m in winnings for 2009, racked up through a string of final table appearances, Praz Bansi is our UK Player of the Year. But, as we find out, he’s still not satisfied…
Deuce!’ roars the crowd… ‘Deuce! Deuce!’ The word rings out across three packed levels of the Empire casino in Leicester Square. It’s approaching midnight on Thursday, October 1 and just three players remain in the WSOPE Main Event.
All eyes are now on one man – Londoner Praz Bansi, the home fans’ favourite – but for the first time this evening he cuts a forlorn figure at the poker table. Short-stacked he’s pushed all-in with Qh-2h and Daniel Negreanu has called with As-Qd leaving Bansi praying for a miracle.
Fellow Hit Squad members James Akenhead, Karl Mahrenholz, Sunny and Chaz Chattha lean as far across the rail as they’re physically able, the desperation for the deck’s smallest card etched on their faces. Bansi pulls his familiar plain dark blue cap lower down his forehead. The flop is a disappointing 4d-8s-4c. The cries for a deuce continue to bellow out. If one of his three outs arrives, Bansi will be right back in the hunt for one of poker’s most prestigious titles.
If not, he will still be $500k better off and have recorded one of the most stunning performances of his career. Whatever happens, he’s already our UK Player of the Year by a country mile, having accumulated 2,000 points more than his closest rival. Bansi scratches his cheek, pulls a closed fist to his mouth, crosses his arms and waits…
A Winter Of Discontent
It’s the first week of December and I sit opposite Bansi on the roof of PokerPlayer HQ, the Gherkin and London Eye on the horizon. Considering how the last 12 months have gone, he should be grinning from ear to ear but his mood is more one of quiet discontent. ‘Being Player of the Year is amazing but I don’t actually feel I’ve had an amazing year,’ he says, his west London twang as strong as ever. ‘Even when I went to play a tournament at the Vic the other day, people were coming up to me and saying, “You’ve had an amazing year.” But I don’t feel it. I feel like I could do a lot, lot more.’
Most would disagree. From March 13 to April 14 he made five final tables in Las Vegas, culminating with victory in a $5,000 no-limit Hold’em event. He outplayed the likes of Justin Bonomo, Theo Tran and former November Niner Scott Montgomery to take the $133,000 first prize.
The run even surpassed his four consecutive final tables at the Five Diamond Classic in December 2006, but the best that Bansi can muster is a shrug. ‘Yeah, the day I won that $5k event I felt really good, but after a couple of days I just forgot about it.’
Nowadays it takes a lot to get him going. ‘When you play bigger tournaments, you only feel excited when you’re playing big. I played a tournament at the Vic recently – a £200 rebuy with £20,000 for the winner. I found the whole thing a painful experience, a real grind. Because I’m quite a lazy person naturally, when I do something it has to give me some sort of buzz.’
A Series Man
One event he’s never lost enthusiasm for is the World Series – not just the Main Event but the entire calendar of 50-plus events. ‘Just playing in America generally suits me better than Europe. I always feel good for the Series. As soon as we get to the Rio, it just feels like we’ve come home. You know there’s so much money to be made.’
His confidence going in was aided by the fact that, with three previous WSOPs under his belt, he knew how to create optimum playing conditions. Instead of a hotel, the Hit Squad booked themselves into several apartments. ‘You need to surround yourself with people you like and trust. Vegas is a gruelling place and if things don’t go well, it can be a tough environment to be in,’ he says. ‘You need to spend time away from the casinos when you’re not playing poker.’
Bansi roomed with Akenhead and it proved to be a masterstroke of decision-making – a vital meeting of like minds. ‘We’ve learnt the game together,’ he says. ‘You know the little things in poker that most people wouldn’t talk about? We always tell each other those kinds of things. Sometimes he decides to try something different, he tells me and I’ll try it as well.’
For the first half of the Series, Bansi would be the main beneficiary of this relationship.
Over 1,400 players rocked up to play in the six-handed $1,500 no-limit Hold’em event and straight away Bansi started doing what he does best: hoovering up chips. I read one early web update back to him: ‘Praz Bansi is playing table captain right now to the frustration of his table-mates, especially the player to his right. Praz has made him fold many seemingly marginal hands…’
Bansi’s gaze flicks skywards and a slow smile crosses his face as he pictures the scene. He’s always known that his strength is short-handed. ‘I think that applies to all of us [the Hit Squad],’ he says. ‘In nine-handed [games] you have to sit back and wait for hands and that’s my weakness in poker. Six-handed you can play more hands, open more pots, put the pressure on people.
You use feel and instinct and gamble and the fact that they don’t have it. Floating, bluff-raising rivers – that kind of thing works a lot better when you’re short-handed.’ A second web excerpt demonstrates Bansi’s ability to confound and frustrate: ‘Another player who lost the very next pot to Praz said, “God I want to play back at you.” “Why do you want to play back at someone who’s always got it?” was the reply.’
Praz chuckles at his own chutzpah, confessing that for most of the tournament he actually struggled with cards. Chip accumulation came through being able to push opponents to breaking point – a skill also shared by Akenhead. ‘That’s what we’re good at doing: pushing them, pushing them, pushing them, watching them explode and donate their stack. You see the look in their eyes that they’re going nuts inside their head. In tournaments you want people to make really bad decisions in big situations.’
Ironically Bansi’s exit from the event was itself a forced error. He managed to limp into the final seven as the short stack (having been coolered when he had Kings against Aces) but was determined to make a stand against a guy ‘just waiting to make a move’ on him.
‘He three-bet me a couple of times and gave me a bit of verbal. So Ac-Tc on the button against whatever junk he’s got is really massive,’ he says. ‘I thought it was a big hand against whatever range he’s holding. But something didn’t feel right about the situation and I went against that. If I was playing my best I would have let that one pass.’
His opponent had A-J. ‘If I’d won that pot I’m sure I’d have gone to the final as chip leader. When I looked at my face when I watched it back, the decision annoyed me. Whenever I take that long to decide to do something there’s a reason.’
After deftly sidestepping the ESPN bust-out interview with a sly ‘back in a minute’, Bansi went off to lick his wounds. ‘I don’t like people seeing it when I’m feeling a bit down,’ says Bansi. ‘You’re in the phase where you’re inconsolable and I just don’t want to say something silly.’
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long until he was carving up another mammoth field. This time 2,095 runners sat down for a $1,500 no-limit Hold’em event and Bansi survived to the last 19. ‘They screwed me in that as well,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘Since it’s so hard to go deep in two big no-limit Hold’em fields, I thought maybe that would be my day. You start thinking that maybe the reason you didn’t win the last one was because you’re meant to win this one. And then, bang! You’re out.’
Bansi acknowledges that if he ever wants to notch up a multiple bracelet haul like Phil Ivey or Jeff Lisandro, he will have to branch out into other games. ‘A lot of the bracelets that people are winning are in smaller fields aren’t they? One or two hundred players. I haven’t got a clue how games like Triple Draw and Seven Card Stud work. To win two Hold’em bracelets in these big fields in the same year is really tough.’
Railbirds Are Go
Bansi’s series fizzled out with an early departure from the WSOP Main Event, but his work in Vegas was far from done. Mahrenholz and Akenhead made it to Day 2 with chips, so his responsibilities lay with sweating his mates on the rail. It’s a task he approaches with almost as much focus as playing.
‘Instead of thinking, “I wish that was me,” I’m just rooting for [them] to do well. I know that we’ll all get our time to do that,’ he says. ‘I was watching an internet player in the $40k [Anniversary Hold’em] event and he doubled-up. He had loads of friends on the rail, all internet kids. I looked over at the rail and they were clapping but they didn’t look that happy for him.
We’re not like that. We get behind them and make sure that there’s nothing to distract them from the way they’re playing.’ This genuine camaraderie might explain why the Hit Squad have all done well in 2009. In February Sunny Chattha won the Walsall GUKPT and one month later his brother made a GUKPT final table. Mahrenholz took down the Cardiff leg of the tour, and then there’s James Akenhead’s two WSOP Main Event final tables and Poker Million win.
The game’s short but dense history has shown that talented players who join forces end up ahead of the curve.’ I think it was only a matter of time until we all started doing well,’ he says. ‘The majority of our conversations are not based around poker.’
‘But when one of us does something different at the table or a big bluff or a big fold, then we’ll discuss it in so much depth. Maybe we’re becoming better players just hanging around with each other. Two years ago I thought I was great. I thought I could easily win as many bracelets as Doyle Brunson. Now, I’m so much better. I can’t explain how or why.’
Back to that fateful night at the Empire and the WSOPE… Bansi can barely bring himself to look at the felt. He has three outs. The turn card appears in slow motion. It’s the J…. The crowd lets out a very audible dull groan. Still three outs. The dealer waits a beat and knocks the table twice. He peels back red, a diamond, a… six. The dream is over but the fans applaud their hero loudly, eager to show their appreciation for the Brit’s courageous performance. Negreanu pats Bansi on the back and passes a congratulatory word into his ear.
Bansi can only stand and stare ahead. ‘At the time I just wanted the ground to swallow me up,’ he says in a rare melodramatic flourish. ‘There aren’t that many times nowadays – especially for players who’ve been playing for a few years – that you feel really great or really down. But I did feel pretty shit that night.’
If this had happened when he first turned pro, Bansi might have had to deal with the emotional fallout on his own. Back in 2006 poker was akin to a swear word in the family home. Three years on things are quite different. ‘My dad’s cool now,’ he divulges. ‘He watches poker on TV and asks me about certain situations. So we now discuss poker and I never thought in a million years that would happen.’
Bansi shakes his head in sheer disbelief at the reversal. ‘I never thought he’d wish me luck before a tournament,’ he continues. ‘It’s good to have the support of your family. If they understand that’s what I’m good at and what I want to do, it’s good not to have to hide that. I’m quite happy about how things are on that front.’ Nevertheless, being within touching distance of a spot in the history books clearly still smarts. His rate of fidgeting and jacket-fussing has increased since the conversation switched to the WSOPE. He can’t seem to find a sweet spot in the chair.
‘Even though I won a lot of money, I just wanted to win badly,’ he frowns. ‘What went through my head was: “Am I ever going to get that close again?” I know I’m a good player but there are times when I doubt my ability. I think to myself that maybe I’ve just been lucky and things have worked out for me.’
No Kidding Around
Bansi’s performances across the entire year demonstrate just how absurd that notion is. Every player at the WSOPE was ‘a good solid player’, there were ‘no easy chips’ and he knew ‘no one was going to make a bad bluff or call against him’. And yet he bounced towards the front of the pack on Day 1 after completely flummoxing Swedish internet whiz Erik ‘Erik123’ Sagstrom with a passively played pair of Kings.
His stack kept growing until Day 5 when he joined Akenhead on the final table. That it is arguably the toughest no-limit Hold’em tournament of the year worked in his favour. ‘I read good players better. It sounds stupid because you should be able to play well against bad players, but when a bad player doesn’t know what he’s doing himself, it makes it difficult.
Against good players who understand what they’re trying to do, it’s easier to think one step ahead of them.’ It’s the kind of reasoning that Daniel Negreanu has often employed and is hard to argue against considering the PokerStars pro ended up making his second consecutive WSOPE final table. In fact ‘Kid Poker’ was the one player that Bansi had trouble with.
‘I’ll be honest, I found it really difficult to play against him,’ he says. ‘I think he’s one of the best players out there.’ Such an admission from Bansi is a rarity. His opinion of WPT World Championship and WCOOP main event winner Yevgeniy Timoshenko (who joined his table on Day 4) was particularly understated: ‘He’s all right, yeah. More of an internet player. I don’t know if he’s that good at postflop play and assessing where he is during the hand. I bluffed him out of quite a few pots.’
Negreanu, on the other hand, was a constant thorn in his side. ‘A lot of the times that I was playing with him I didn’t know what I should be doing!’ he says. ‘And people don’t make me feel like that at the poker table nowadays. He’s really tricky to play against – you try to look at him to get a read off him and it’s very difficult.’
Bansi may have ended up being one of Negreanu’s scalps but a strong mutual respect was forged. In the days following the tournament the two divulged key hands to each other on Facebook. ‘In a recent interview Negreanu was vocal for in his admiration for Bansi, saying, ‘[Praz] was tough to play against. He made me guess a lot – which is the sign of a good player.’
The importance of validation from one of the most successful players of the modern game is not lost on Bansi, but he is adamant that the best is yet to come. ‘People might think I’m not capable of doing that sort of thing but I genuinely think I can win another bracelet or two. I don’t think I’ve gone on a massive heater or got really lucky this year. A lot of the stuff I’ve done I’ve made happen. When I run really good for six months, I’ll do big things.’
One thing that’s sure to help him in that quest is his (and Akenhead’s) recent Full Tilt sponsorship deal. ‘With Full Tilt you get a regular wage, which is good because you know you’re being backed into a lot of the tournaments by a big company,’ he says.
‘I hope that eventually all of [the Hit Squad] get a sponsorship deal because it takes some of the pressure off.’ Going forward Bansi is particularly keen to make an impression on the European Poker Tour, where, incredibly, he is still yet to break his duck. ‘I don’t know how many I’ve played but I just can’t catch a break. I’m convinced that I’m jinxed, it’s ridiculous.
On my Facebook status I always write, “The curse of the EPT…”. I think I need to try to treat playing more like a job, which I find difficult,’ he says. ‘When we go to the EPT, it would be good to play all the side events, not just the main event, because that’s where a lot of the value is. I’m just so lazy that after the main event I just want to go out and enjoy myself or fly home. But there’s a lot of money to be made in poker at the moment, so I really shouldn’t let that go by.’
If the next year is anything like the last, it really shouldn’t be a problem for him.
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