OUSC Exclusive Interview: Ankush Khandelwal Heads Up Limit Omaha Pro
Ankush Khandelwal is a Heads Up Pot Limit Omaha (HUPLO) professional poker player in online high stakes games with a win rate of 28bb/100. This Statistics major quit his job as a derivates trader because it wasn’t challenging enough. Ankush’s latest victory was the 2020 Pentamind championship, the Mind Sports Olympiad’s main event, which unites the very best of the board and card game masters from around the world.
Ankush has won the Pentamind in 2018, 2019, and 2020; celebrating back-to-back victories. He scored a silver finish in 2017. To qualify for the Pentamind, players had to earn scores in five different games. For 2020, 130 players qualified, but it was Ankush who achieved the highest combined score.
OnlineUnitedStatesCasinos had an exclusive interview with the champ, in 2019, to get a better insight into online Omaha poker.
You were born in India and grew up in England, at some point you became a mathematical genius, what was that big influence that made you a game theory specialist?
I grew up playing chess competitively and was curious as to why I loved this game and future games I learned so much. I came across the concept of game theory while studying Economics and became fascinated with the subject.
How does a chess mindset help you win at poker? It’s quite the paradox between the games, as one has no luck in the traditional sense and the other has highly varied outcomes?
It is true that chess is a game of complete information whereas poker has a stochastic element. The similarity lies in the highly strategical nature of both games, especially in Heads Up Poker, where you have to carefully identify what your opponent is trying to do and counter them most effectively which very much feels like a chess game to me.
You worked for a while in the stock exchange and then pursued online poker for a living. What made you change those plans?
I worked as a derivatives trader, but my passion for playing strategy games was too big and I felt I was wasting my time in a career where I had no interest in financial markets. For me, it is really important to love what I do and work on the most intellectually challenging problems of the kind I like.
How beneficial was your background in math and statistics when it came to learning poker?
I would say my strong understanding of probability at an intuitive level has been immensely important for my progress in poker. This combined with my background in competitive gaming in Chess and Bridge were very useful transferable skills.
Why Omaha Poker?
I started off playing Hold’em but I have always had a good intuitive grasp of Pot Limit Omaha (PLO). When I think in terms of frequencies in PLO it makes sense to me whereas in No-Limit Hold’em (NLH) I find it more confusing.
It is also because you found the PLO games much softer in terms of competition? Hold’em Poker seems like the far more efficient game now when it comes to the overall player pool.
PLO is a less well-understood game, and it’s harder to model mathematically because the game tree is much larger. I found it easier to move up from micro stakes PLO but I know many players who did well at NLH too.
How would you compare the game quality of PLO versus NL Texas Hold’em?
PLO is a lot more exciting with less folding involved, much more action as equities run closer, and overall a much better game.
Did you initially start playing PLO or Texas Hold’em? If Hold’em, how hard was the transition?
I think almost everyone starts with NLH – the transition is tough at first but after some mistakes and a lot of volume you can get a good feel for the game.
We read a bit about Nash Equilibrium in poker, “When player’s ranges are in equilibrium with each other, or in other words when opponents are playing an “optimal” game against one another whereby they both cannot gain anything by deviating from equilibrium strategy.” Can you explain a bit of how this might be used by a poker player?
Sure, in situations where you don’t know what strategy your opponent is playing then a good idea might be to play the equilibrium strategy – although it’s not trivial to know what this is in many situations in poker. This way no matter what strategy your opponent plays you will at least break even against them rather than playing a dangerous guessing game where you could lose. If you know certain tendencies about your opponent, then you might choose a more exploitative strategy to beat your opponent maximally.
What is the biggest difference between playing Heads Up compared to Full Ring or 6 Max?
In Heads Up you have to focus deeply on your opponent’s strategy and deconstruct and exploit his ranges; a truly fascinating challenge. Whereas in 6m/FR it’s more so about trying to make default plays and exploit the weaker players at the table.
How would you say the Heads Up action is these days? Do you “bum-hunt” online or do you take on all comers? What is your preferred game format?
I am a HUPLO specialist; I like to challenge myself by taking on the tough opposition as I enjoy the mental battle, but an important part of being a professional is a good game selection.
Do you find that most people don’t understand the variance associated with gambling?
I would say the average person who hasn’t studied statistics at a reasonable level understandably is a bit clueless with the concept of standard deviation. If they intend to take a game like poker seriously I would suggest that they educate themselves a little on this subject.
They’re totally clueless! What is one of the worst runs you’ve had when it comes to playing poker and how did you keep yourself from tilting? In general, how do you stay on your game when the results aren’t panning out?
The biggest downswing I’ve been on is roughly 15-20 buy-ins. I really dislike losing so usually play a few tables, focus heavily, and try and maximize my win rate rather than my current hourly. In this manner, my play will be more deliberate which is ideal if I want to improve, and the benefit of having a higher win rate is a severely reduced frequency of encountering negative variance.
How long did it take you to progress to high stakes Heads Up play from lower stakes?
I started playing 1c/2c in 2012 in my 3rd year of university and turned pro in 2014 and quickly progressed from 1/2 to 5/10. After that my focus shifted to various other games but now I’m fully focused on poker playing up to 50/100.
Your list of medals for MSO is impressive ever since 2002. What is your story with this event? How did you come to participate for the very first time?
The first MSO I went to I only played chess, however, I was exposed to many different games which I had never heard of before but each had their own nuances and intricacies. I quickly became addicted to the challenge of learning and mastering new games. I think if you like one game, say Chess, there’s a good chance you will like others too that you may never have come across.
Which is your preferred board game?
My favorite board game has to be Chess, but I really like Eurogames such as Agricola, Terra Mystica and Acquire too. Bridge is my favorite card game closely followed by Poker. The best game I have ever played is called Prismata – if you’re a competitive gamer you need to check this out! It combines elements of Magic, Chess, Dominion, and Starcraft into a truly incredible game.