The way Imran Hassan describes it, Indians have all the makings of world poker champions. “We, as a community, have a good chance to succeed at it,” he says, speaking in a clipped accent from London. “We have these amazing base qualities—we’re good at mathematics and we have this ability to read people, which is a truly Indian quality.”
Hassan has every reason to be optimistic. As one of poker’s biggest proponents in India— through his UK-based business consultancy One Venture, he helped organize the Asian Poker Classic (APC) in Goa last year and will soon launch the India Poker Tour (IPT)—he is convinced that the game, riding on a wave of global popularity, will similarly enchant India’s masses.
Photo: JupiterImages India
In a sense, the enchantment has already begun. Last year’s Asian Poker Classic, held in March, attracted 150 players from around the world; 12 of them were Indians—of them, Pranav Bathija, a 32-year-old Mumbai-based novice, managed to finish third to win about $100,000 (around Rs48 lakh) of a $1 million pot. Last month, Zee Sports, for the first time, began broadcasting the World Poker Tour. Around the country, masses of people are beginning to form poker groups, indulging in a “game” that many now consider a legitimate sport.
“It’s a thinking man’s game,” says Bathija, who has participated in the European Poker Tour in London and the World Poker Series in Las Vegas since his win. Though he didn’t make it very far in either, Bathija’s attitude reflects a wider shift in perception. “Teenpatti is a one-dimensional game, poker is a multidimensional game,” he notes, comparing it to a popular Indian card game similar to poker. “Teenpatti is a raw form of gambling. Poker could be turned into a sport.”
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About a decade ago, poker was still considered a game for the degenerate; a seedy parlour game played under a haze of smoke, with blood-shot addicts, who gambled away their life savings on a game often dismissed as determined by luck. With the advent of online poker sites such as PartyPoker.com (started by PartyGaming owner Anurag Dikshit), however, the game became more accessible, with younger generations flocking by the millions to play against neophytes and professionals alike. With an estimated 200 million players worldwide, and online revenues set to increase to nearly $6 billion this year, it wasn’t long before TV channels jumped into the fray. About five years ago, major network in the US and UK began broadcasting poker tournaments, hooking up miniature cameras that allowed viewers at home to see each player’s hand.
Today, poker is the third most watched sport in the US, with a celebrity fan following that includes actors Tobey Maguire and Ben Affleck.
The trickle-down effect to India has been spurred, in part, by Indians who got hooked on the game during their stay in the West. Many of the players interviewed for this story said they first picked it up, or became interested in the game, abroad. Karan (name changed on request), a lawyer from Mumbai who learnt the game as a student in London and participated in the cash games following the APC tournament in Goa, says he has noticed a massive interest in poker since he returned home a few years ago. “Everybody seems to have given up teenpatti for poker,” he says, adding that his group of about nine people, mostly men, usually plays about two to three times a month.
Open hand: Actor Gulshan Grover at the Asian Poker Classic held in Goa last year.
Unlike teenpatti, poker is considered more a game of skill and less of luck, requiring an ability to not only “read” people at the table but to calculate probabilities, while also possessing a knack for bluffing. “I think it’s largely because you’re able to use your mind and calculate odds and all that stuff, and that you can out-think someone else,” says Ravi Singhvi, who works in private equity at Citibank.
For others, it’s the sociable aspect of the game that appeals. “It does bring people together, giving them a reason to meet up and spend a couple of hours together,” Bathija says. “You talk about all kinds of things at (the) poker table.”
For Hassan and other promoters, the surge in interest has come bundled with its unique share of opportunities and hassles. For one, gambling is still largely illegal in most parts of India, though according to The Public Gaming Act of 1867, playing poker at a private residence for recreation is permitted. And while informal tournaments organized in public spaces are considered offences, licences can be obtained for organized events, such as the IPT.
“India is still behind on poker,” says Hassan, who complied with restrictions by finding sponsorships for the 12 Indian players who were invited to last year’s APC. For the IPT, Hassan says he will consider dropping the entry fee “at cost to our organization”.
As part of an aggressive marketing push, he will host CEO invitational poker parties, set up a poker school, and take the IPT on a tour to Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Goa. His advice to aspiring poker players? “When you’re catching up with friends, why not say let’s play poker?” he says. “It’s inevitable that someone in the crowd will play poker.”