Is Nik Airball poker's new super-villain?

Mo Afdhal
Posted on: March 13, 2023 07:27 PDT

It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Nikhil 'Nik Airball' Arcot didn't make a lot of noise.

Arcot arrived on the poker live stream scene in a relatively quiet fashion. His first few appearances on Hustler Casino Live were, for the most part, unremarkable. There were few people that could have predicted Arcot's transition into a trash-talking table crusher. Indeed, it would take Arcot a few weeks' worth of sessions to truly get comfortable enough at the table to open up his gameplay.

Arcot first drew serious audience attention not by running a big bluff, but instead making a big lay-down on the river against Ethan 'Rampage' Yau. At the time, some viewers could have been forgiven for believing Arcot was a tight, cagey player, only willing to put the money in when he knew he had the best of it.

As it turns out, that would have been a bad read.

As Arcot's appearances on HCL continued, it became quickly apparent that there was no timidness in his play style. Initially, Arcot appeared on the show as 'Nik A', but this moniker -- much like his initial ABC-style of play at the time -- did not last long. The 'Nik Airball' persona appeared to take over as Arcot's strategy adapted to the HCL player pool and, perhaps, the expectations of the livestream audience.

That new persona might as well have tattooed his creed on his own forehead:

No more folding full houses.

Be the pre-flop bully.

Have the most money on the table at all times.

The villainous turn

Fast forward a few months down the line.

Nik Airball is now a regular feature in the live-streamed high-stakes cash game arena. The Hustler has become Airball's church and the live-stream set is his pulpit. Garrett Adelstein's departure from the show (and the poker world in general) left a void just big enough for an Airball-sized personality.

Airball, not one to shy away from the spotlight, jumped at the opportunity.

Notably, in the early morning hours just before the J-4 off-suit hand shocked millions, Airball took to the Twitter streets and proclaimed himself "King of LA Poker".

Since then, Airball has been relentless on the felt. Needles, slow-rolls, massive bluffs. It's all there.

Take this hand that Airball played against the Finnish online phenom Henri "buttonclickr" Puustinen:

Airball three-bet 5♣️4♣️ pre-flop and--lo and behold!--flopped the stone-cold nuts: 3♦️️7♠️6♣️. Puustinen, meanwhile, is sat there with 7❤️7♦️️.

Airball and Puustinen got nearly $900,000 in by the turn, and while they agreed to run the river twice, Airball held on both run-outs and felted Puustinen in spectacular fashion.

Before the dealer put out the second board, Airball started poking at Puustinen, going as far to ask about whether Puustinen had been bluffing on a prior hand. It was enough to turn Puustinen into a modern poker version of the blinking guy meme.

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Puustinen was left with nothing more than empty pockets and quit the game.

Airball's needles follow him on his way out of the casino. If you watch the rest of that stream, Airball continues to needle Puustinen even after he's left the table.


Feud with Ben "blankcheckben" Lee

Now, jump forward in time once more, to early 2023 when Airball took aim at one of the other HCL regulars, Benjamin 'blankcheckben' Lee.

Once again proclaiming himself "King of LA", Airball taunted Lee into extending his time in Los Angeles so the two of them could battle it out on the felt. After some back and forth on Twitter between the two, the initial call-out blossomed into a full-fledged feud. That Friday night, Airball and Lee danced around one another while the stream was live. It wasn't until after the cameras went dark, however, that the blood spilled. And this time it was Airball on the wrong end of the cooler.

It's unclear when exactly the next installment of the Airball vs. blankcheckben heavyweight contest will be. It's safe to assume that, when it comes, the second showdown will not disappoint.

Airball in Austin

The very next day, Airball brought his bankroll, talent, and antics to The Lodge in Austin, Texas.

Again, Airball issued the challenge, this time to Lodge co-owner Doug Polk.

If anyone expected Airball to show up in Texas and play a tad more conservatively following a big loss, that would have been a bad read.

It didn't take long for Airball to get back to his antagonistic ways.

The true villainy from Airball ended up directed not at Polk but at Dan 'Jungleman' Cates. The fiery exchanges didn't seem as pre-planned as some of the other villainy. Instead, this fresh rivalry felt organic, an unexpected amalgamation of table dynamics, ego, piles of money in play, and a little bit of history.

There were two hands of note between Airball and Jungleman, with the former getting the better of the latter on both occasions.

Airball's comments to Jungleman during and after the hand were incendiary at best. Jungleman, maybe frustrated, maybe somewhat embarrassed, maybe playing up his cowboy machismo responded like this.

Airball the Artist

Airball's most recent victim is Art Papazyan, a two-time WPT Champion and known end boss of the Los Angeles live poker arena.

Papazyan's return to Hustler Casino Live came this past Wednesday, and Airball welcomed him back to the show in the only way he knows how: stacking him.

The hand saw five bets go in on a rainbow flop of 7♣️7❤️3♠️. Airball impressively induced Papazyan into overplaying his A♦️️Q♣️ and got all the money in the middle against a hand that was, essentially, drawing dead. Airball, unsurprisingly, offered no mercy later that night on Twitter.

If the devil horns fit...

Whether it's a schtick or true Airball, something is working.

According to the Tracking Poker website, over the course of sixty-one streamed sessions at HCL, Airball has won more than $1.1 million. That profit makes him the second-most winning player in the show's history, behind the one-and-only Garrett Adelstein. It's worth noting, however, that this data set only takes into account hands played while the cameras are rolling. There is no tracking of pots played off-stream, so the numbers can't be completely accurate, and wouldn't include big hands like the one with blankcheckben mentioned above.

Like villains of the past (see: Hellmuth, Matusow, Kassouf, ad nauseum) Airball's persona is polarizing. You love him or you hate him. He's no doubt good for the Hustler stream. He's perhaps not so good for folks who are fans of poker gentlemen. Good or bad for the game...

Are you not entertained?