Duke alum Pratyush Buddiga, Trinity ’11, is no stranger to championship culture. As an Economics major, former professional poker player and the 2002 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion, Buddiga might just call competition his drug of choice.
Although Scripps National Spelling Bee is known to be a collaborative competition, (students are competing against the dictionary and not each other) that definitely did not ring true in Buddiga’s experience. He always fought to come out on top and claimed that he is “pretty sure” that his fellow competitors felt the same way. The Spelling Bee was, without a doubt, an introduction to his journey as a competitor.
Fast forward eight years, Buddiga became a poker player competing in high-stakes professional tournaments. He played in several major tournaments including the European Poker Tour, Fallsview Poker Classic and the Super High Roller Bowl, winning millions of dollars before retiring in the summer of 2017. Since then, he has delved into entrepreneurship, innovating in everything ranging from cryptocurrency to gaming.
Buddiga’s thirst for achievement and adventure have inspired him to take on careers in the startup world all around the globe. Currently, he is Chief of Staff at Volley, a recent Y Combinator batch company, making entertainment for Alexa and Google Home. Volley has the No.1 game on Alexa, as well as seven of the top 20 (over one million monthly users and growing). As that technology reaches cars, televisions and AT, Its goal is to be the top voice-powered entertainment company. The Chronicle interviewed Buddiga about his Duke experience, career path and how his freedom from perfectionism has evolved over the years.
The Chronicle: What were some of your goals as a freshman? Where exactly did you see yourself back then?
Pratyush Buddiga: I was actually in the Pratt School of Engineering, which I ended up transferring out of my sophomore year. To be honest, I didn’t really have a specific plan in mind. We had a great biomedical engineering program, so I thought I could work in biotech at some point. But it wasn’t a passion or anything. I thought college would be where I could figure that all out!
TC: What is your favorite spot on campus? Somewhere you’d return to today to simply relax and revel in the past?
PB: Shooter’s. Just kidding. I think my favorite place at Duke has to be Cameron Indoor, honestly. It’s cliché, but that was my favorite part of the entire Duke experience and what really set it apart from just going to another elite university. You have the best basketball program in the country and a history that’s unparalleled. It didn’t hurt that we won a national title my junior year!
TC: Describe the moment when you discovered poker as an undergraduate. Is there a singular special ‘word’ you can use to describe it?
PB: Serendipity. I’d played a bit before in high school, but it was really while doing the Duke in New York program that I really got into poker. We had a lot of free time during that semester which left a lot of time to play. I don’t think I would’ve gotten as into it if I was taking the normal course load. It also solidified that I didn’t want to work on Wall Street or live in New York. If I’d stayed on campus, I might not have felt the same way. I was lucky that it all came together. Right place, right time.
TC: A campus theme at Duke that many publications and creative outlets are tackling is the idea of ‘effortless perfection’ and how it is the biggest lie in getting anywhere. How did you deal with this in your Duke career? In your professional career?
PB: Perfectionism is definitely something I’ve struggled to deal with for a long time, though I never felt it was effortless. I always worked very hard to be perfect. I actually wrote a blog about perfectionism and my struggles a few years ago, which may give you some insights into how I struggled with it at Duke and in poker. Duke especially was a huge challenge because I went from being someone who basically never failed at anything and then was thrown into an environment where there were tons of kids around me who were just as smart and just as hard-working. I’ve grown a ton since that blog and mostly conquered that anxiety. But it was a long journey, one that’s still ongoing every day.
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TC: In your experience, was Duke a more collaborative or competitive atmosphere? Did the Blue Devil experience prepare you for the real world? If so, how?
PB: Duke actually felt very collaborative. People always wanted to study together and help each other out. As long as my GPA was good enough, I was happy with my results, whereas in high school it felt like every position down or up the class rankings mattered. I bet most people have zero idea who the Duke valedictorian was from their class, yet could probably name the top 3 from their high school. Nobody felt like they were directly antagonistic to one another in the same way or competing for the same ‘future slot.’ The biggest thing about the Duke experience that prepared me for the real world was that it was a big wake-up call about how many brilliant people there are out there. If you want to be world-class in something, you really have to work hard and not rest on your laurels because there are 25 other kids who are just as smart as you.
TC: What was your favorite class at Duke (something that you remember and cherish to this day)? Why was it your favorite?
PB: Markets and Management Studies 190 Capstone with Ken Spenner. He's an incredible teacher and really helped show the spirit of entrepreneurship. I took a sociology class with him as well, and he was the best professor I had at Duke by a mile. Working on a business plan with my classmates was really fun, but, I'll always remember Professor Spenner's kindness and thoughtfulness. He even had us over to his house for our presentations, which was a really fun experience. He's the epitome of everything you want or imagine in a college professor.