Going professional in the Indian poker scene
Casino gambling attracts huge numbers of people hoping to win big but who usually continue to lose small. It is loaded in favour of the ‘house’. Probability ensures that. As Sam Rothstein, the casino boss in the movie Casino said: “The cardinal rule is to keep them playing, and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all… It’s all been arranged to get. your. Money.”
Many casinos offer poker along with gambling like roulette and slots, which makes people associate poker with gambling. In India, particularly, poker is seen as most similar to Teen Patti, and everyone ‘knows’ that Teen Patti is nothing but Diwali-time gambling, right?
That’s how most Indian conservative families see it. Kunal Patni, who left a banking job to become a poker professional, says that he was lucky to face no familial opposition. “There wasn’t any stigma for me. I can understand that for a lot of orthodox families just the idea of playing cards is wrong, but my dad is pretty open-minded. My dad told me he wouldn’t approve if I was going to be a Teen Patti or a blackjack player, but he knew there was more to poker and that I was good at it, so why not give it a chance?” Women have an even more difficult time. Simrit Tiwania, one of India’s top poker players says, “In the Indian mindset, cards are associated with gambling. Everyone thinks of fat, drunk, uncles throwing gold rings or cars keys on the table. Indian parents are very protective. But things are changing now and so many professionals in India are joining the game. Today I don’t feel ashamed to tell people about what I do.”
Poker is attracting a lot of Indians professionally. As Aditya Agarwal, India’s most internationally famous poker player, says, “You can play roulette non-stop for ten years and you’ll always lose. The math[s] just works that way. But the more I play, the more the luck factor evens out.” Agarwal, associated with online giant PokerStars, is a poker player who went professional after consistently winning in college level games, and realising it was more fun than a 9-to-5 job. Many poker professionals consider it to be just another career choice, not even a game of luck and skill. Agrawal says about it: “Poker’s the only game in the casino where the house has no edge. Otherwise it wouldn’t be how I make my living. You can win and lose big amounts every day, but at the end of the year you’re only going to make so much money, considering all the variables. But I still make more than I would at a 9-to-5 job.”
Indian professionals’ major difficulty is that there are very few tournaments in India. Most of these tournaments have been held in the casinos on the rivers of Goa, but the political parties fighting the elections there in early 2017 have promised to close them down. The India Poker Championship is held at the Deltin Royale in Goa and has affordable buy-ins of Rs 5,000, but they can go up to 30,000. Additionally, the tax rates being quite high, tournaments in India haven’t had that much traction in the past.
Poker players who want to make serious money have had to go to the USA (Agarwal won big at the World Series of Poker in 2015, US$ 96,445) or Macau, where the games are possibly even bigger than in the USA.
Macau attracts poker players from all over the world, since it is insulated from China by the “one country – two systems” policy of the Chinese government. The city has more than seven times the turnover of its more famous cousin in the USA, Las Vegas. Since 2004, Macau has been open to investment, and the largest casino chains in the USA have invested lavishly. The big games like the Asia Championship of Poker have huge payouts, up to HK$ 116 million – about 100 crore rupees. However, the buy-in starts at a whopping HK$ 100,000 (Rs 8.6 lakh), so this is not for everyone! Kunal Patni is one of them, though: “I actually won my first tournament at the Deltin in Goa, which made me want to play more, but then there weren’t any tournaments in India because of all the tax issues. So Macau is really important.”
Is poker likely to take off in India? It is difficult to get regulatory permissions for live casinos, and potential professionals may find it expensive to go from Goa to Bengaluru and other possible locations. Hence, India’s big poker is most likely going to be online, and some companies have already started.
Online, professionals don’t worry so much about hiding their physical ‘tells’ while bluffing, like having to use scarves to hide gulping, dark glasses to hide their eyes, etc. Pokermagnet.online, one of the most trusted online gaming companies in India, will also promote live poker tournaments for the best and biggest players in India. This will be a delight for poker fans, who can see the major stars compete live with streaming and TV coverage as well. As Agarwal once said: “Every kid can be a poker player, has a chance to get on ESPN and play with the best.”
Online poker worldwide suddenly attracted more attention in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker of USA (yes, it’s his real name) won the World Series of Poker after playing a satellite tournament on PokerStars and getting a ‘ticket’ into the main tournament. He’d started with US$ 39 on PokerStars, and finished with a US$ 25 lakh win! Pokermagnet.online will also offer such chances, running satellite tournaments and main tournaments online as well as live.
Yet, like all players, poker professionals have to stay in practice. Ronaldo, once famous as a football player, is now a poker professional. “I’m too old to play football, but I’m still young enough to play poker.” However, his fame attracts aggressive players, which made him remark, “Whenever I sit down, everybody wants to prove a point by beating me.” Aditya Agarwal practices regularly so that he has the skill and stamina to take on long marathon sit-downs of more than 10 hours straight. “This is my profession. It’s just like athletics, man. If I don’t play for three weeks it’s a problem. You can’t just take months off. You can’t go play a big tournament for ten hours a day if you haven’t been practising. You have to be very, very indifferent to your emotions. I am a professional, but a lot of people are still very passionate.”
You have to keep a really cool head. Tiwania, for example, follows a few simple rules when she plays. Her poker money is kept separate from her money for spending. She doesn’t play for high stakes, although many players do. She does not make rash decisions at the table. “Stakes can go very high, so, if you are a rash player, you’ll lose everything soon. There’s serious money involved.” And you should not be in it for glamour or fame, but for being totally professional and focused on the final win. “If you think poker is glamorous, you are being short-sighted. What’s the point if you lose money?” asks Tiwania.
Is it addictive? Yes, like most sports and games where the big win is attractive. As well, the prize you win depends on you and how much you are willing to lose or gain. Agarwal says, “People do have control issues, yes, there’s a downside to it. In an ideal world, people would know their limits, know when to quit.” Pokermagnet.online is one of the few online sites to recognise that a player may want a cooling off from time to time, and offers a “lock me out temporarily” feature, the only one in India.