When Pratyush Buddiga won the Scripps National Spelling Bee back in 2002, he got much more than a $12,000 prize and a slightly awkward photo op with then-President George W. Bush. He walked away with a crash course in competitive skills and a lasting addiction to being No. 1.
Over the past 16 years, Buddiga’s career path has diverged from those of his fellow spellebrities (that’s what they’re actually called). Now 29, he’s well-known for being a poker player. He retired last summer with millions of dollars in wins under his belt, and he’s now pursuing a career in cryptocurrency.
In a way, Buddiga’s path to success all started with the 2002 bee, when he was just a brace-faced 13-year-old wearing a too-big polo shirt and trying to spell prospicience.
“Everything I’ve done since then has stemmed from that,” he tells MONEY. “It was such a seminal moment in the sense that I’ve always had that to look back on and be like, ‘OK, well, you can do this.'”
Understanding the Buzz
Buddiga’s bee origin story is simple. As an elementary schooler with a competitive streak, one day he caught the bee airing on ESPN and decided he wanted to win it.
By seventh grade, he was putting everything he had into spelling. For hours a day, Buddiga’s mom would quiz him directly from the dictionary, asking every word on every page and marking the ones he got wrong. He memorized the Paideia list of practice words; he dove into Greek and Latin.
By 2002, Buddiga had worked his way to the national championship in Washington, D.C. Up against 249 other students, he breezed through words like grobian (“a slovenly crude often buffoonish individual,” according to Merriam-Webster), oubliette (“a dungeon with an opening only at the top”) and thremmatology (“the science of breeding animals and plants under domestication”).
Prospicience, or “the act of looking forward,” nabbed him the championship. Victory was sweet: “It’s probably still one of the best moments of my life,” he says.
Scripps awarded him with $12,000, which Buddiga told reporters he planned to spend on Star Wars books. But he also remembers one of the coolest perks was that Domino’s later delivered free pizza to his classroom.
“For the rest of middle school and high school, everyone just sort of knows you as the kid who won the spelling bee,” he says.
Putting on His Poker Face
Next, Buddiga won the geography-themed AAA Travel Challenge as a sophomore. He then went on to Duke University to study economics, which quickly proved to be a humbling experience.
“I went from being a big fish in small pond to realizing, ‘Hey, there are a lot of smart kids out there and you have to work really hard to just keep up,'” he says. (Buddiga has also written about the pressure of being perfect.)
It was there where Buddiga picked up poker. Well, actually, it was in New York — he was there for a school-sponsored finance program but found he didn’t like it, so he started playing cards. He got really good, really fast, and went pro after he graduated college in 2011.
The change was welcome.
“The one thing I sort of missed after the geography competition ended was a competition where there are winners and losers at the end,” he says. “For a lot of people, they have the gambling instinct or [like] the prestige or the glamour. But for me, it was just like, ‘OK, this is a competition.'”
Buddiga doesn’t like to discuss the specifics of how much he earned as a poker player, warning that “the prize money looks a lot more impressive than it really is.” But there are clues online about how much he likely earned. In 2013, ESPN reporter Darren Rovell tweeted that Buddiga had “made $300K in his career and $34K so far this year.” Card Player puts his lifetime winnings at $6.4 million; he’s still No. 76 on the U.S. all-time money list.
From Bee to Bitcoin
These days, Buddiga has gone from raking in the cash to trying to figure out how to invest it. He lives in Seattle, but recently traveled back to New York City for Blockchain Week, a cryptocurrency-focused conference.
Understanding cryptocurrency has presented yet another challenge for Buddiga. He says he loves learning about new topics — the arduous process of going from “the 20th percentile in something to the 99th percentile,” just like he did with spelling all those years ago.
Buddiga’s long-term goal is to work for a fund or start his own. And even though finance may be totally different from spelling — or poker, for that matter — he can’t shake the impact his 2002 victory had on him.
“When I face down times in poker or in investing or whatever it is, I always have this feeling that ultimately I can get through it because I have before,” he says. “This is important proof that with hard work and dedicating myself to something, I can do it.”