Is Surinder Sunar the most underrated British poker player of all time? We caught up with him to find out
Renowned as a master of composure and calmness at the table, Surinder Sunar can appear almost invisible. Even Aussie pro Tony G’s vitriolic heckling couldn’t throw him off track in their tense heads-up at the World Poker Tour Grand Prix de Paris in 2004. In fact, it only seemed to strengthen Sunar’s resolve. Ask anyone if they can remember a time when the European Hall of Fame entrant has lost his rag at the table, and they’re likely to be left scratching their heads.
Perhaps this explains in part why, despite being one of the most successful British players of the last 20 years, he has enjoyed such success while remaining in relative anonymity. Even though he has accumulated nearly $3 million in tournament wins and countless WPT and World Series finishes, rarely will you see him in a high-profile interview or glossy photoshoot, while sponsorship deals continue to be conspicuous by their absence. A respected pillar of the British poker scene, the man they call the ‘Cobra’ is an elusive, enigmatic figure, but InsideEdge managed to coax him out from the shadows.
Why the low profile?
I don’t want to be known too much. I’m just there to win the money. I don’t even enjoy the game that much. I only enjoy it when I get to the final table – when the real money comes into action.
A good year so far?
Not really. I cashed in the WPT Paris Grand Prix, the World Championship at the Bellagio and [the Borgata Winter Open in January]. I would have liked to have placed on one of the final tables.
Do you judge success by final tables?
I try to play the game correctly. It’s not an easy game to win at. Only about one in 500 players can be a winner. The rest are losers.
You just played cash games for a while. Why?
Before the WPT, cash games were where the real money was. I’ve always preferred cash games because you can walk away any time. We used to play every Friday in the Grosvenor Victoria, London – £2,000 or £3,000 buy-in. We’d play from two in the afternoon till midnight.
And do you still play?
The cash games have died since the internet came about.
Is your game still improving?
All the time. But with all these internet players coming in, you have to be more careful. Most don’t care because they’ve won the seat with $50.
Has online play improved your live game?
No, it’s a different game. I like to see who I’m playing against because you can tell a lot from body language. Internet players play the odds – it’s not real, real poker.
How does cash and tournament play differ?
Cash games are where the real poker talent is. If you’ve got a big stack in front of you, say five or six grand, and someone puts you under pressure to put all that money in with the second-best hand, you’ll really think twice before you call. But it also means you can take advantage of players if you know their financial circumstances. If you know the guy has low funds, you can bluff him more because he’s going to play tighter.
Do you play in the Bellagio’s Big Game and is it a real test of skill?
It’s a bit too big for me. Plus, it’s a limit game, they don’t play pot limit or no limit. I’ve never really studied that game, so I wouldn’t really be a winner against the good players. The Big Game’s for players who have a lot of money, that’s all. Obviously, some of the best players – Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese –– play there, but they’re used to that sort of game.
Do you see yourself as one of the top British players?
I don’t rank myself at all. If other people want to rank me, that’s fine, but I don’t really want to say anything about myself that way.
You’ve played with some of the world’s best players – who impressed you the most?
In cash games, Sammy Farha. He’s a terrific cash game player. He can put people on a hand and then put pressure on them. A lot of times, they’ll throw the best hands away. You need to have a certain flair to do that; you can’t just raise whenever you want. You have to pick the right times. That’s where reading players comes into action.
What about tournaments – who do you rate and why?
I played Phil Ivey on the final table in the Pot Limit Omaha event [Ivey won] at the WSOP last year. He really impressed me. People sometimes sit on their chips when they get them. He doesn’t – he uses them. He doesn’t wait for hands.
Was the WPT Championship in Paris in 2004 your best win? Was it all the more satisfying because of Tony G’s trash-talk?
It was my best win but Tony G didn’t really affect me at all. I just locked him out.
You had a lucky owl with you. Are you superstitious?
A little. It’s a bit complicated. Some people give me lucky charms – a coin or a stone, a statue. I had a little Buddha and a little wooden owl during WPT events. I bought the owl from India and because it used to bring me luck in cash games, I thought it might work. And it did – but only for the WPT!
You once went seven hours with Phil Hellmuth in the World Heads-up Championship. How come it lasted so long?
He was playing very well. When you’re playing against a good heads-up player, no-one’s ever going to give anything away. You have to take it hand for hand. It was very tiring. We’d both got off the plane that same day. At the end, the blinds got big and then we just started gambling. He beat me at the end. If the blinds hadn’t gone up so fast, it could have lasted another six hours.
How do you maintain concentration for long periods?
You have to be fresh in your mind. These youngsters can sit there for days. I’ve played in live games in Vegas for three days without sleep.
Is poker a young man’s game?
I’d say so. You need a lot of stamina. Nowadays, there are so many players that the tournaments are so long. Before, there’d be 50 or 100 players and you’d finish in seven hours. Now every tournament is three or four days minimum.
Any stamina tips?
I go to the gym regularly and that does help me. I used to practise karate as well – that has many similarities to poker because you have to use a lot of your mind. Now I do yoga. It stops me steaming. A lot of people when they get a bad beat want to throw all their chips away. When they’ve got a low stack, they think that they’ve finished. Even if I’ve got one chip left I never throw it away. I fight for the last chip. I’ve won quite a few tournaments when I’ve only had one big blind left.
What ambitions do you still have in poker?
I’ve come second three or four times in the smaller World Series events, so I would like to win a bracelet in any of those events. Winning the main event would be the icing on the cake, but it’s impossible. You have got to be bang on form.
You came 20th in the Big One in 1992 but pocketed less than $8,000, while if you’d made it that far last year you’d have come home with $300,000 – does that amaze or annoy you?
What’s most amazing is that coming 20th before only took about two days – now it takes two weeks! It doesn’t annoy me that the prize money is so great now, it just makes me realise that poker took off at the wrong time for me. I won a lot of tournaments in my early days but the prize money was just nothing.
So is the clock counting down on your playing days?
I’ll play poker till my brain goes dead! Another five years maybe and then I’ll retire and relax. Poker can be very stressful sometimes.
Then what – maybe teaching other people to play?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t want anybody getting bad habits because of me!
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