Poker Faces in the Crowd: Sanket Desai

Ben Saxton
Mar 24, 2017 · 7 min read

A man can deliver pizza for only so long. Tired of working at Dominos and Papa Johns and unmotivated to finish college, Sanket Desai decided to play full-time poker. He returned home to Philadelphia and started a Two Plus Two goals thread “From Sprinklin’ Cheese to Stackin’ Cheddar; a Pizzaman’s Poker Journey.” “I’m not sure where this poker journey will lead,” he wrote in fall of 2013, “but I have decided to approach this with absolutely no expectations and no ego. Whether I go busto or find myself grow into a good poker player, I will be happy with the result and play because I love the game.”

This interview took place at Talking Stick Casino in October 2014, where the twenty-three-year-old regularly plays 3/5 spread limit hold ’em. We recently spoke again — in New Orleans and over email — and Sanket updated me on his poker journey. Topics include travel, pizza delivery, playing within your range, and battling Sacramento Kings guard Seth Curry.

Walk me through your transition from college to pizza delivery to poker.

I didn’t do too well academically at Temple. I had a lack of interest and motivation. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I just went because college is supposed to be the next step after highschool.

Did you drop out after one semester?

I took an internship in Orlando at Disneyworld during the spring semester of 2012. I did that because I wanted to refresh, regroup, and relax before I made a decision about continuing school. And that — that’s not something that you can say to my parents.

“I don’t want to continue with school.”

Exactly. It would be equivalent to telling them you’re pregnant as a teenager.

So what did you say to them?

We had the conversation over the phone. I told them that I was going to stay in Orlando. I guess I kind of ran from the problem. I had some friends in Lake Charles [Louisiana] and decided to go there. Things didn’t really work out. I had no money, so I moved into the Salvation Army homeless shelter, started working at Dominos, and got back into poker. During afternoons I played online sit-and-gos at McDonalds, which has free wifi, and delivered pizza at night. At the time — this is really unhealthy — poker was just a way for me to get out of my situation.

Eventually, after moving to Florida, back to Philly, and briefly attending community college, you devoted yourself to live poker and settled in Phoenix, where you’re living now. Tell me about how your game has evolved.

I’m doing less.

Doing less.

I’m not trying to be a hero anymore. I’m not worried about being the sickest player. I’ve had two “lightbulb” moments recently. Number one: I’ve been sizing my bluffs smaller. In the games that I play, people don’t fold top pair and they probably won’t even fold middle pair, so you should bluff with the intention of getting them off bottom pair. I’ve been sizing my bluffs smaller because you don’t need big bluffs to get them off those hands.

Let’s talk concretely. Say the pot’s five hundred on the river. What size are you using as a bluff?

In the past, I would bet four-fifty to get them off top pair. Now I’d bet two hundred to get them off third pair. It’s the concept of being able to give up. I’m conceding that if I bet two hundred and they have top pair, they’ll snap me off. Just being able to concede that is significant.

What was the second “lightbulb” moment?

To always play within your range. Let’s say I raise preflop, c-bet a dry flop, and get called. The turn is a brick. In the past I might have double-barreled because I’d think, “This guy calls with bottom pair all the time. I’m just going to barrel with no equity.” Now, in thinking about my whole range, I ask myself: “on this runout, what hands do I want to be barreling with?” The answer would include flush draws, straight draws, two overcards, and value hands. Then I ask: “is the two cards I’m holding in that range?” If the answer’s yes, I bet. If the answer’s no, I check. This thought process is a kind of security measure that keeps me from spewing.

Can you think of any specific examples?

In the Live Low-Stakes Chat Thread, people had a running joke about me squeezing with ten-two offsuit, flopping bottom pair, getting called by a monster draw, and winning. Here’s the hand: my opponent’s under the gun, he opens to twenty, three people call, and I’m in the big blind with ten-two off. He’d previously made it twenty-five with ace-queen and he’s only making it twenty now, so I think that he can have king-ten, king-queen, or a similar kind of hand. And I figure I can get him to fold with a big three-bet.

How deep are you?

Five hundred deep. Which makes my play even worse. I should just fold. But the concept is this: ten-two off should not be in my range in this spot. The hands that I should be bluffing with are those that aren’t quite good enough to call with.

But not so weak that you have no weapons.

Right. This is actually a decent spot to squeeze. But I want a hand like ace-three off, king-four suited. If your range includes ten-two off, then you also have nine-six off, ten-four off — your bluffing range is too big and your value range is too small, so you’re very, very exploitable.

As played, you reraised from twenty to, what, one hundred?

I made it one-fifty, he snap-calls, everyone else folds. Flop comes queen, nine, two with two clubs, I shove three-fifty and he snap-calls with king-jack of clubs. He’s a huge favorite against me with two overcards, a flush draw, and a straight draw. Turn and river: brick, brick!

Ha! That must have been a great moment when you turned that hand over and won with a measly pair of twos.

Yeah. I was first to show, but he showed his hand first! I don’t know why. He just flipped over king-jack of clubs for king-high.

Would you have mucked if he got there?

Yeah, I would have mucked. Nowadays [October 2014] I would have probably showed, because I bluff so rarely that I think showing bluffs makes sense.

A lot has happened in 2015. You have a girlfriend, a dog, and you’ve done well at the tables. Why do you think you’ve been able to succeed in poker when so many others have failed?

I think I’ve just been lucky enough to not have any major responsibilities, big expenses, or any other real-world hurdles come up. Some of these big conflicts in your real life can hurt your poker game tremendously because your mental state needs to be solid in order to play profitably. Not having this come up has allowed me to work much harder and smarter than my opponents, put in a lot of volume at the tables, and be more flexible with my bankroll — meaning that I can make the final decision on what stakes to play rather than my real-life needs and circumstances. I also think it helps that I got into poker at such a young age. I tend to think it’s a lot easier to learn new things, break long-standing bad habits, and keep an open mind about different and non-standard strategies when you’re younger.

Tell me about Snoopy.

He’s a really good dog and I got super lucky with him. He’s quiet, well-behaved, listens to me, and he always wants to play. Also, I think it was his good looks rather than mine that caused my now-girlfriend to agree to go on a date with me when I first met her!

I wanted to ask you about the volume bet that you made when you were living on the East Coast. The terms were that you had to play 450 hours at Parx Casino in the month of September and show a profit. Do you regret that challenge? Do you think it’s helped you to grow as a player?

I don’t regret the challenge because even though I didn’t accomplish it and basically worked myself into the ground, I made a lot of money that month — around $7,500 — which at the time was a pretty solid month for me, and that definitely helped ease my move to Phoenix which happened the very next month.

I do think I was quite naive to think I could achieve that goal (and I wasn’t the only one, because if I remember, there were a few people trying to bet on me winning — granted, of course, most of the money was on me to lose, and rightfully so). My girlfriend and dog would never allow me to try something like that right now, but if I did, I’d probably want better than 15:1 odds.

You recently got the best of Sacramento Kings guard Seth Curry in a poker game. What happened?

He plays somewhat okay but made a pretty big mistake against me. He opens to twenty, a bunch of people call, I call with queen-ten offsuit. The flop is king, three, two, and everyone checks. On the turn, the jack of spades, I check, Seth bets fifty into one hundred, the button calls, and I call. The river is an ace, giving me a straight. I check, Seth bets one-twenty, the button calls, I make it four-fifty, both of them call and I’m obviously good. So he probably had something like ace-jack, ace-three, ace-two, or maybe as low as ace-queen or ace-ten because he did say “I thought he was bluffing” after the hand.

What are your plans moving forward? Will you be staying in Phoenix?

I’m actually not going to reveal that in the future because too many people in Phoenix found my blog, figured out who I was, and that can be dangerous for me if someone uses that knowledge against me at the table. However, I am planning on staying immersed in the poker world for a long time. I’ve been doing well online as well as at the casino. I’d like to check out some international spots for poker as well at some point.

*originally published in the November 2015 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine

Ben Saxton

Written by

reading, writing, teaching, pokering @McGovernCenter

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