Nik Persaud: So Solid
01 July 2008
“Can you believe they had Doyle Brunson on the front cover last month, and this month it’s… me?” marvels Nik Persaud over drinks-on-the-job in Shoreditch. “My mum will be thrilled!”
Nik then humbly reels off a list of people supposedly worthier than him of cover status, which ranges from young new UK internet players, like Tom Bentham, right through to the venerable ‘get-it quietly’ crowd at the Vic, like Jeff Duval. It’s like an Oscar acceptance speech.
Right, Nik. Stop you there. You’re number one in the European Rankings; you made three final tables in the four GUKPT’s you played this year; and, in the opinion of this hugely influential poker rag, you’re a poster boy for the young, dedicated and successful British internet poker player. You are the ultra-relevant man of the moment. And if we’d wanted humble we’d have put St Thomas E-frickin’-quinus on the cover. So shut it!
Here’s our thoroughly deserved cover star on life, poker and the increasing possibility that he may have to arrive at the WSOPE dressed as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
For once, let’s start at the beginning. How did you discover this extraordinary poker thing?
I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do in life, so kind of fell into IT recruitment in the late Nineties through a friend. Fortunately for me, it was ‘booming’, and for the next three years I earned a lot of money for someone who was only 26. I partied lots and had fun, but everything has its cost and I felt really burnt-out. When the market slumped in 2001 I left my company. The next few years were a bit of a joke as I didn't really know what I wanted to do, so I ended up living off of previous earnings, sitting at home watching SKY and sportsbetting a lot. Then all the money ran out and I was back to square one. Luckily, and old client rang me up and gave me enough business to work for myself and get myself back on my feet.
This happened to coincide with catching Late Night Poker in early 2003. So I was working for myself now and starting to play online. I’ve always had an addictive personality and poker had me hooked. I would make calls and send e-mails while working from home with a $100 sit-n-go going along in the background. Looking back, it was a tough school with the likes of Paul 'Actionjack' Jackson and other Ladbrokes regulars grinding it out.
I was playing well enough to be a break-even player; not really making any real money. Then I found cash games. In the early days, all the sites used to spread small PLO action – maximum stakes $3/6 – but this quickly moved on to higher and higher stakes. This wasn't a good thing for me; as a small loser at $3/6, I was getting destroyed at $5/10 and above. But I had money from the company coming in to subsidise it all. I just had the urge to gamble and the rush of winning big pots every now and then. However, like before, the money ran out. In the words of Neil Channing, 'I had done my bollocks!'
I felt that I could still progress in the game, but just trying to figure it all out myself wasn't sufficient. I then looked to where all the successful players at the time were discussing strategy and so I found the 2+2 forums. This was a goldmine for me as a new player – to get insight into how better players thought about the game. I felt confident that I would get better as a player if I read up as much I could and get a lot of hands in on the internet.
I had barely played live up to this point and so I started at a famous home game, run by my friends Alex and Jo in Tooting, which was tenner rebuys. I liked the game so much that I moved in. I used to bore these poor people to death with hands and analysis, and so on, even though they were keen enthusiasts themselves, and then, of course, I found The Gutshot.
The next couple of years – pretty much up until December 2007 – went well. I hadn't had any other source of income apart from poker. I’d travelled to nice places around the world, played some big comps and enjoyed life. However, I had used up a significant part of my ’roll doing this and wasn't ever too far from what gamblers call 'ruin'.
You recently had a bit of an epiphany, though, didn’t you?
Yes. After the WSOP 2007, where I had had a pretty average trip, I decided to just grind it out again. However, from August 2007, I went on a pretty big downswing. I was playing online trying to rebuild the roll, but I just couldn't win. I must have lost close to $100k in that period.
For me this was a time for reflection. I knew that I was a good player – a winning player – but now my tank was near empty. It was a time to stop and look at everything that had happened over the last two years as a pro.
It seemed that even though I was running well below expectation, my game had gone stale and I found that I could only beat certain games: mid-limit cash games online and mid-stakes tournaments. If I wanted to progress, something had to change.
I realised I had to concentrate on being a good poker player now, rather than adopting the cavalier attitude of “everything is going to be alright; I'll win eventually and it’s just bad luck”.
So in January this year, I decided to go back to basics. I wanted to learn about Hold’em more so I decided to play more cash, because I really only played cash PLO seriously. I also subscribed to Cardrunners to see what other people were thinking.
Maybe I had some flaws and leaks that I needed to remedy. And did I ever! I had so, so many fundamental flaws in the way I thought about the game and this showed me why I wasn't winning anymore.
Yes, the variance was getting to me but I was just doing too many things wrong to move to the next level. But I was honest with myself. I resorted to playing heads-up NL Hold’em at relatively smaller stakes, which allowed me to break the game into smaller more manageable pieces. I’ve found that much of what happens at the poker table is reliant upon your opponents’ tendencies. The fact that the way your opponent plays his hand allows you to see how he thinks about the game.
Moving on from that, you’re able to develop counter-strategies to exploit your opponent and engineer profitable situations in the long run. Now, even when I’m at a nine-handed table during a tournament, I’m treating each individual differently. I also look at each hand situationally to come up with what I think is the best play. I try and imagine that I can see my opponents’ cards and then think what the best line is.
Ultimately, I’m done blaming luck and now just really hungry to get better. How long this hunger will last, I don't know, but I am having fun in the meantime.
Considering the variance involved in tournament poker, how have you managed to be so damn solid recently?
Well, last year in the GUKPT I came tenth, tenth and sixteenth. I never made a final table. Once, I was chip leader with ten left and I went out tenth. This year I’ve gone a little further and, although I feel I’ve improved my game – and without sounding too self-deprecating – the fact is I’ve run good. Anyone who has played with me will realise that in the late stages of the GUKPTs my A-K has beaten tens, my A-Q has beaten A-K and my tens have beaten kings. You need that bit of luck when it matters – however, I’ve been confident going into the GUKPTs that I’ve a solid enough game to be competitive while building a stack at the same time.
Tournaments and cash games are different. You look to push your EV all the time in cash games – if you think you’re a slight favourite you push it to the max. I do that a lot in tournaments, and sometimes I will bust out quite early, but I think in the GUKPTs I have a solid enough game to keep going deep. If you win a race with three tables left you could have the chiplead or you could be out. I went into the Manchester and Walsall final tables second in chips, but that’s purely because I won some big flips with two tables left. I’ve come sixth, fourth and second this year, but I could have quite easily come fourteenth, sixteenth and eighteenth and I wouldn’t be speaking to you now. You’d be like, “Well, Nik does well in tournaments but he must be one of those players who are doing something wrong. Always the bridesmaid…” But often it comes down to a coin-flip.
Does the luck aspect of the game make it difficult to evaluate your true abilities?
It does make it really difficult. When I sit in a tournament, there are some people who make so many fundamental mistakes and their thought processes are so flawed, you think to yourself, “You may have just doubled up, but you can’t win.” At the WSOP, you often see these guys on Day 1 or Day 2 with huge stacks and you see them playing their hands really badly. They get it all-in with A-J when the stacks are super-deep and they crack kings. But that player is still very dangerous and you have to show him respect because you don’t really know what he’s doing. Then there are other players who play very good, solid poker, and maybe their weakness is that they play too solidly.
A tournament should be a very balanced proposition. You play solidly in Phase A and then in Phase B, when the blinds go up, you have to be more aggressive, and use your image. People think, “That guy hasn’t played a hand for an hour.” Now it’s time to get bluffy. The difference is that you’ve spotted an inflection point in the tournament and they haven’t.
I think, particularly with the GUKPT, I understand the inflection points. I understand when to be solid and when it’s not worth taking risks, and I understand when you have to take big risks and evaluate the risk/reward situation. When the blinds get big and I flop a decent draw, I’m probably not going to lay it down; otherwise I shouldn’t really be in the hand in the first place. If I call a raise with 7d5d and flop a gutshot and a flush draw, and I have 35 big blinds, I’m going to play it – otherwise I shouldn’t be in the hand with 7d5d at all.
It’s hard to structure a tournament so it’s completely mathematically smooth. What tends to happen is that the structure’s a bit flat and then all of a sudden it goes high. I’ve played a lot of GUKPTs now and I think I’ve got a good idea of when to start hammering.
What else are you looking for during a tournament?
For a lot of the tournament you’re looking for good spots to bluff. If you defend from the big blind and the board comes A-8-3, check-raise. It’s the perfect spot. Your opponent’s going to bet because he’s the pre-flop raiser. Most of the time, he can’t continue with most of his range, unless he has the ace or a set. If the ace is out there, it makes it slightly less likely that he’s holding one. What is he going to do with his K-Q now? He either has to re-reraise and put his whole tournament on the line, or fold.
There are other subtle things – when I see someone going for pot control, I know they’re kind of happy with their hand and I know they’re not bluffing, but I might try and hammer them on the turn and river with, say, a gutshot, because I know that they can’t take much heat on the turn, and I know they’ll very likely check the river.
But I don’t bluff as much in tournaments as people think. What I try to concentrate on is playing my hands well. For instance, I feel people should be calling in certain situations when they’re raising. If they flop top pair, the mentality is that they have to “raise to see where they are”. With position, calling is better in some spots, because it disguises your hand. Also, raising drives out all worse hands. Say you’ve got K-Q on a K-8-3 dead flop, you can fold out hands like A-8, K-10 and K-J. But when you raise here, and get called or re-raised, you’re probably now up against a better hand and you’ve wasted chips.
So calling is often a better option. It sounds quite passive, but, in a tournament, by raising you could be committing yourself to being all in by the turn or the river, and you might not want to do that. Plus, people will let you know how they want to proceed with the hand when you’ve called them on the flop anyway.
You’re on your way to WSOP. How many events are you playing this year?
I’ll play some of the big stack events at the Venetian and a few of the bracelet events. But I’m really going out there to play the Main Event because that’s what it’s all about – walking into the Amazon Room with that buzz going around, and I really want to get deep in that thing because it gets so exciting when it’s down to the last players. I just hope I have what it takes. But I’m certainly not going to put up 10,000 of my hard-earned dollars to be uncompetitive.
What next for Nik?
I'm trying to figure out where I will be in three to five years. If I’m just going to be grinding online, I’d be disappointed. I want to be flexible and make constant adjustments to keep in tune with things. I always want to know what the players the level above me are doing and what they are thinking. I think this applies to every level even if you are just playing $1-2 NL.
To me, playing poker for a living is about a lot more than knowing how to play A-K under the gun. It's about discipline, money management, balance, and enjoying everything outside of poker. I don't think the most successful poker player is the one that makes the most money. I go for the quality of life it will give me if I get the basics right.
I’m wearing the Full Tilt logo now, and obviously I’m interested in pursuing that relationship, but I’m also looking forward to working more with PokerVerdict.com. This is a portal that gives you a real insight into what’s happening in the online world. Being an online player, I’m really into the site and I’m really happy to be associated with it.
You’ve described Neil Channing as your mentor. Tell us about that relationship.
Having been in business and having run my own business, I know that if you want to progress you need a mentor. You need someone who knows more than you do and you need someone to discuss your mistakes with. I think I’m a good player, but I don’t think I’m an excellent player, and I do have the ambition to be an excellent player. What is Phil Ivey or Patrik Antonius doing with the two cards they get dealt that I’m not? How can I tap into their mindsets?
Luckily there are a lot of online avenues you can go down where you can read about the best players in the world talking about their hands and I’m really eating that up at the moment. Neil’s mentorship is more as an all round approach to the game. He’s just a really smart guy and a great ambassador for English poker. He’s mentored me in how you should conduct yourself as a professional poker player. He knows it’s not going to happen overnight; it’s taken him years to get where he is. It’s weird; we very, very rarely talk about hands. It’s just he’s been gambling his whole life and he’s had his highs and his lows and he’s very wise because of that.
We understand you want to lay down a specific challenge to Mr Channing. Do you wish to do this in print?
Yeah, why not? He was giving me a bit of a ribbing last month because he was top of the European Rankings and I was number two. He was just 20 points ahead of me – which is nothing – although, hopefully, by the time this goes to print and the new rankings come out, I’ll be ahead of him because I just won an Omaha comp at The Gutshot and he’s gone off to Vegas. So, I say we play a heads-up match online – $25-$50 blinds, best of three. If I win, I want him to wear his boxing gear at the WSOPE, like he did in the May issue of Bluff, and if he wins, he can put me in a fairy’s outfit, or whatever.
Fairy’s outfit it is, then. Although it’s not much of a forfeit for Neil – he LOVES wearing that boxer’s outfit…
(Laughs) I think I’ve got an edge over him in a heads up online match, so I think he’ll try and negotiate that we play half of the match in a live environment with deep stacks.
It’s because he’s scared, basically – not that we’re stirring or anything…
Yeah, he’s trying to move the goalposts... He’s a formidable player, but I just think it will be fun to see him at the Empire with his belly hanging out, trying to put his chips in with his boxing gloves on. (The table erupts in hysterics)