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Cards on the table

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on February 15, 2019 Published on February 15, 2019

Read the card: An installation at the Deltin Poker Tournament, which offers a prize-pool of ₹1 crore

Indians are in the grip of a poker frenzy. A host of websites dedicated to the card game and gala tournaments have upped the ante

“A hand with kings and yet you folded?” After the showdown, an incredulous Vikas Bhalla asks the woman sitting next to him. “I figured out that you had aces,” she responds.

It’s 11.30 on a Saturday night, and an intense postmortem is taking place among players at the Deltin Poker Tournament (DPT) aboard a five-storey luxurious casino ship anchored on the Mandovi river in Goa.

The stakes are high and more than 500 people are playing for a prize pool of ₹1 crore at the five-day poker tournament held between February 7 and 11, organised by Adda52, one of India’s largest online poker sites. The play has just been halted for the night, and will resume the next day post lunch.

Many of the players are regular nine-to-fivers who have taken time off from their jobs to take part in the tournament. The ₹35,000 they have to pump in to enter the main event is clearly no bar — but then if they play their cards right they could walk away with bulging wallets.

Bhalla is a media executive in Mumbai, while Shikha, the woman he is quizzing, works in Bengaluru. The two are regulars on online poker sites. Bhalla says that he is also hooked to live DPT events, while Shikha is a first-timer. Despite her lack of live playing experience, her poker face is pretty good.

The DPT started in 2016 and is conducted thrice a year. The World Poker Tour has also added a stop in India and is hosted at the same venue — The Deltin Royale Casino.

Pokerheads galore

Many of the players at the tournament are amateurs. But you can spot professionals at the tables, too. Nikita Luther, the young Adda52 pro, fresh from winning a gold bracelet and $88,000 (pre-tax) prize money at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Tournament in Las Vegas, is a participant and closes day three as the chip leader on her table.

Luther was in college when she discovered poker on Zynga, a games site, and started spending four to five hours a day playing the game. At a friend’s birthday party, she played it offline for the first time and ended up cleaning out the table. That’s when somebody suggested she start playing tournaments, and Luther turned pro two years ago.

Then there’s Kunal Patni, a banker who chucked his job to turn poker pro in 2014. Patni says he makes enough money on a monthly basis to be able to support his lifestyle. Actor Minissha Lamba is another poker enthusiast and a celebrity endorser for Adda52. “I am the professional actress but the others at the table are better actors,” she complains, though the high stack of chips by her side shows she is doing pretty well.

A good hand: A jubilant Minissha Lamba at the tournament; she works her theatre and film schedules around the Deltin Poker events

Lamba says she works her theatre and film schedules around the Deltin Poker Tournament events. “Those dates are frozen. I have to be in Goa for the tournament,” she says.

Luther, Patni and Lamba have chosen to take part in the ₹35,000-entry fee main event. But there are others such as Abhishek Goindi, one of the earliest pros in India, who are playing for higher stakes. He has entered the high rollers event, where the buy-in is ₹65,000. Naturally the action at that table is more intense, and the crowd around it equally huge.

At the DPT, you get a glimpse of the poker frenzy that is beginning to grip India, mostly fuelled by online platforms such as Adda52. According to estimates, there are nearly 5,00,000 players registered on poker sites Adda52, Poker Raj (promoted by actor Shilpa Shetty and her husband Raj Kundra), Poker Baazi, Real Poker India and other such platforms. Also, it’s becoming increasingly common to see people gathering for poker nights in Bengaluru and Chennai — much like in the UK. And interestingly, a growing number of women are taking to the tables — as Luther says mischievously, women are smarter at it.

Adda52’s furious promotions of the game — it roped in cricketer Chris Gayle as its ambassador last year — as well as playing a hand in starting the Poker Sports League (PSL) have also stacked the deck higher for the game. PSL was started by Adda52 co-founder Anuj Gupta, along with Amit Burman of Dabur and Pranav Bagai, CEO of Shark, a company involved in poker products.

In its second edition last year, PSL saw its prize pool rising to ₹4.5 crore. Over the next four to five years, PSL will see an investment of ₹100 crore. With the likes of chess maestro Viswanathan Anand endorsing PSL, serious efforts are on to equate poker with mind sports and eliminate the association the game has with gambling.

Dealt a good hand

It was in 2011 that Mohit Agarwal and Anuj Gupta started Adda52, egged on by the fact that their seniors in IIT-Delhi had founded a poker venture in the US which was doing well.

Game on: (Left) Roland Landers, CEO of All India Gaming Federation and Mohit Agarwal, founder of Adda52, one of India’s major online poker sites

“In 2008-09 poker was just beginning to take off in India with many hooked to Zynga,” says Agarwal. Over the next few years, internet connectivity shot up and the online payment systems got better (two-factor authentication was a major boon as many were wary of using payment cards online until then), facilitating the growth of real money games (RMG) — which, as the name indicates, are games where you play for money.

At some point, Adda52 felt that while the online option was great, players in India needed to get a full experience of the game. It approached Delta Corp — the Indian outfit that runs the Deltin Royale and Deltin Jaqk casino ships — to host a live tournament. Eventually Delta Corp, which is India’s only listed gaming and hospitality company, acquired Adda52 and the infusion of funds helped the online poker site promote the game better.

“We got the right amount of cultural capital by doing live events,” says Agarwal, who points out that while online is a great place for new entrants as the stakes are lower, the thrill of live experiences is unmatched.

According to Roland Landers, CEO of the All India Gaming Federation (AIGF), which has done sizeable work on policy and regulation of online skill gaming, the size of the RMG online market is estimated to be ₹2,200 crore and is growing at 30 per cent annually. Within the RMG segment, rummy commands the largest share, followed by poker and fantasy sports.

Landers points out that since not much is known about skill gaming, the AIGF has taken upon itself the task of conducting master-classes and other initiatives.

Like all entertainment forms in India, online gaming is a state subject. A few states such as Telangana have banned it, but Agarwal says that most other states have a “laissez faire” approach to it, and the sector is growing well.

Going global

Not only are the poker stakes getting bigger in India, the level of play is going up as well. Many are also travelling abroad to stake a claim to international prizes.

“I have seen a big transition,” says Luther, pointing out how earlier barely five players from India would be seen at tournaments abroad. “Last year there were 70 players from India at Vegas,” she says. Many Indians play in the Asian circuit, taking part in tournaments in Macau and the Philippines.

While Adda52 holds contests and sponsors a few winners to Vegas, Luther says there are enough players who are bankrolling their own trips. “I attribute that entirely to the online poker space,” she says, adding that many have earned well on the sites.

Indian players are posing tough competition globally, Patni agrees. “Europeans find it difficult when there are Indians on the table,” he says. In the next few years, he believes Indians will be splitting the pot big time. Clearly, they are acing the game.

(The author travelled to Goa to witness the Deltin Poker Tournament at the invitation of Adda52)

Playing it right
  • There is a popular saying about poker that it takes 20 minutes to learn the game but a lifetime to master it, says poker pro Kunal Patni. When he won a championship event in Macau after studying a few books on poker, he thought he had it all figured. But it hit home soon how little he knew — and how much he still had to learn.
  • Both Patni and Nikita Luther, another pro, point out that to be a good poker player, you have to keep studying and training hard for the games. “The more you play, the better you get — so I practise a lot,” says Luther. She also meditates and practises yoga to stay focused.
  • Actor Minissha Lamba, another avid player, however warns that the pressure can get to you. “There is something called Tilt in poker, where your fuse just goes off, and you lose decision-making capability. That’s why meditation is important,” she says.
  • A good player’s strategy lies in the amounts they stake, and in reading their opponents right. They guess their cards — not through giveaway twitches or smiles, but by studying their betting patterns. And by knowing the odds.

Published on February 15, 2019
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