Ankush Mandavia has been back on the live tournament circuit for just a short while following a year-long hiatus caused by the COVID-19 shutdown. The total shutdown of the live tournament circuit during the spring of 2020 led him back online, where he racked up 23 cashes in online events that released real-name results during the shutdown. While none of those scores were particularly large by his standards, the action allowed Mandavia to stay sharp against tough competition during the layoff, which paid off handsomely once live poker returned.
He managed to win the very first tournament that he entered, outlasting a field of 652 entries in the 2021 Card Player Poker Tour Venetian $2,500 buy-in main event to win $260,000 and his ninth live tournament title.
“It’s amazing. This is actually my first tournament back,” said Mandavia after coming out on top. “When I went to register and got a player’s card they told me it had been exactly one year since I last played here. That’s kind of crazy, but it feels good.”
In his short time back on the live grind, Mandavia has already managed three deep runs in major live events for a total of $342,615 in earnings.
The 33-year-old backed up his victory at Venetian with two strong showings in marquee events at the Wynn Spring Classic, finishing sixth in the $10,500 buy-in high roller event and 10th in the $3,500 buy-in championship event for $49,800 and $32,815 paydays, respectively. Mandavia’s successful return to the live arena has resulted in him flying up the Card Player Player of the Year race leaderboard. He currently sits in sixth place with 1,420 points, and is well-positioned for a run at surpassing his previous best year-end POY race ranking of 12th place set in 2016.
The Michigan native and University of Georgia graduate has now been playing poker professionally for more than decade, and currently resides in Las Vegas. He got his start playing online but had transitioned to focusing on the live circuit by 2015. Mandavia has accrued just shy of $5.5 million in recorded tournament earnings throughout his career, including winning the 2016 World Series of Poker $5,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em turbo event for $548,139 and his first bracelet.
Card Player recently caught up with Mandavia to discuss his return to the live tournament scene, his title run in the CPPT Venetian main event, the pent-up demand for live poker that has spurred huge turnouts at recent tournaments, and more.
Erik Fast: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience during the live tournament shutdown last year? What was your initial reaction to the news of COVID-19?
Ankush Mandavia: I went to one of the last series held before the shutdown, which was the LA Poker Classic. We knew a little bit about what was going on when things with the pandemic were starting [to ramp up]. But when everything hit the fan, we knew live poker was just going to shut down, and I figured it was going to be for a while.
I wasn’t playing too much poker actually at that point, but when I was playing, I was playing live. Surprisingly, the pandemic caused me to play a little bit more poker because there was really not much else to do.
EF: What other interests were you pursuing at the time?
AM: I was just spending some time trying to learn other industries, mostly about real estate and a few other things. I had only been part-time for maybe six months or so, but I was figuring out what I might do next.
EF: So you ended up returning to playing more poker during the shutdown, returning to your roots as an online player. Did you feel comfortable transitioning back to playing exclusively on the internet after having been focused on live play in recent years?
AM: It was definitely weird, and I felt very behind the times when I first started. It felt like all the good players have gotten a lot better working with the tools that were available, and I was just caught up playing live poker where I didn’t really need to use those. I mean, those tools would’ve helped me also, but regardless, people were definitely way ahead of me when I first resumed playing online last year.
I felt lost. I had a few months where I was making some deep runs and making a lot of mistakes late in tournaments. And I felt I was in this combination of running bad and being behind the times as well. But then, playing over and over and over for all of those months, I felt I got a lot better than I was previously. It was definitely weird how it worked out, because I wasn’t planning on playing that much poker, and then the pandemic hit, and I started playing basically full-time again.
EF: After several months of a full-on shutdown, the live poker tournament scene began to return in the latter half of 2020. What was your thought process when you considered your own return?
AM: I was undecided for a while. I decided against playing when the rooms first opened up again. When these tournaments started going off successfully, I just decided that if there weren’t any outbreaks as a result, that I would start to play again. I waited quite a bit, [compared to some others.] I mean my first tournament was the CPPT $2,500 buy-in main event at Venetian [in late February]. So that was a few big series into the year. I skipped the World Poker Tour series in Florida and a few others, so I just waited a bit to see how it would play out and then finally decided to jump into it.
EF: There have been a lot of huge turnouts for poker tournaments in recent months, which seems to indicate some pent-up demand. What are your thoughts on the mini-boom that seems to be happening on the live circuit?
AM: I think it’s a combination of factors that have led to all the huge turnouts, including that the [stock] markets have been doing well over the past year. People not being able to play has made them more excited, and it’s a different atmosphere at the table. I feel like people are happy to be there now. They have more of an appreciation for being able to play and are not taking it for granted, pros and recreational players alike. I think both groups are just more excited to be able to play the game.
EF: Do you see this post-shutdown boom continuing?
AM: I think it’s going to continue. I think people are wanting to play live and participate in these big series. I mean, even before the pandemic, I think the live circuit generally seemed to be seeing increases in turnout. But now people are just especially ready to get out and play. I think whenever the World Series of Poker runs, it will be pretty big. I think tournaments will continue to grow for a while moving forward.
EF: As you’ve mentioned, the first live tournament you played was the CPPT Venetian main event, which you ended up winning for $260,000. What was the experience of sitting back down at the table for the first time after a long layoff like?
AM: It was definitely a little weird at first, with the plexiglass table dividers, and the mask, and having to sanitize your hands. It felt like a new experience, but then when the cards came out and I started playing, it quickly felt very comfortable, even if there are a few things that are harder now.
You’re not able to see people’s chips very well, and announcing bets can be tough because you’re announcing through a mask to a dealer who also has a mask on. So, there are just a few small things like that that are different and were sometimes difficult to deal with. But overall, it was very similar. I was texting my friends during the tournament, even when I was down to half of the starting stack in that event, saying, ‘I’m actually having fun doing this, it’s just fun to be here.’
EF: You ended up bagging up more than three times the starting stack by the end of the day one. Were there any particular hands of note, or was it just a steady day of grinding and getting used to being back in the saddle?
AM: I don’t remember anything special about what happened on day 1, outside of getting used to playing live again. I think I mostly just won some normal pots, there weren’t any big all-ins or anything like that. In order to bag up a stack on any day 1 you have to run pretty well, though, so I obviously did that and ended up with a decent stack.
EF: By the end of day two, there were only 27 left and you were in 18th chip position. What’s your mindset at that point?
AM: I didn’t have too high of expectations, given my chip position, but I was like, ‘Well, it’s a good spot to be in. If I get lucky enough to run it up, then there’ll be an opportunity.’ But, going into the day, I was just happy to have a deep run, and if I ended up busting in 25th place, I wasn’t going to be upset about it. The field was pretty good, there were some tough players remaining, but I thought that if I ran up a stack I’d have a good shot.
EF: Just a few eliminations away from the final table you ran pocket kings into pocket aces, but managed to make a full house to surge up the leaderboard. Did you start putting any pressure on yourself, having not been in the live arena for a while, to convert this opportunity into a podium finish or a big score?
AM: Yeah, when that happened and I got the chips, I just felt like it was back to pre-COVID. I was just in the mindset of, ‘I’ve been in this spot a hundred times, or thousands if you include online play, so I know how to proceed from here.’ I just reverted back to the strategy that I’ve learned over the years, including what I’d learned over the past year playing online. There were a lot of good players like [three-time WSOP bracelet winner] Kristen Bicknell and [World Poker Tour champion] Alex Foxen, and a bunch of other players that were still in. So I couldn’t just run everyone over, but luckily the cards just kept coming and I was able to do pretty well.
EF: You ended up outlasting those tough players and made a deal heads-up for $260,000 and the title. Just a few weeks later you made another big final table, finishing sixth in the $10,000 buy-in high roller at the Wynn Spring Classic. How did it feel jumping right back into the high-stakes tournaments?
AM: I was a lot more comfortable in that tournament, probably somewhat due to having just done well in the CPPT Venetian. But, then again, it was also just like reverting back to what I had already done and what I already knew about playing poker. Everything already felt natural and normal again. I thought I actually played a lot better in that tournament, as well as in the Wynn Spring Classic $3,500 main event, which I finished tenth in, than I did in the tournament I actually won. That’s just how it works sometimes, that I ended up with sixth and tenth place finishes instead of a title even though I played better.
EF: As a result of your two final-table finishes already this year, you currently sit just outside of the top five in the 2021 Card Player Player of the Year race. What would it mean to you to win an award like POY, which seeks to reward consistency over the span of 12 months?
AM: I think it would be cool to win. I would be honored to earn an award like that. I think, when I get older, having these trophies and awards and things that I can show my family and friends in 20 or 30 years would be cool. Winning the POY award requires playing a lot, so I’m not sure how much I’m willing to travel in order to follow the circuit this year. There are so many good players out there that are willing to go to every stop and grind a lot more than I am, so I think they have definitely a big advantage over me in terms of winning the POY, but I would love to win it. It would be great.
EF: What are your current plans for the rest of the year?
AM: They have a lot of tournaments that are going to be coming through Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and a few other places I might go to like Florida. I’m just going to continue playing, maybe on a somewhat lighter schedule. I believe I do better when I feel like playing instead of forcing myself to play, and right now, I definitely feel like playing.
*Photo credit World Poker Tour