Ratan Rao* describes his underground poker games as the most frequent, best attended and, dare he say it, the classiest in Mumbai. He is in a profession that feeds on “fishes", or unseasoned poker players, often wealthy businessmen, doctors, engineers and lawyers with money to burn. “There is poker everywhere in this country, just not as much as in Bombay. It’s a game that depends on disposable income, and Bombay is a place where there is a huge amount of disposable income," says Rao. “Inexperienced players are the bread and butter of the regular poker player."

Through his vast poker network, Rao, 29, is one of the most connected men in Mumbai’s suburbs, having come into contact with show business celebrities, hedge fund managers, students, aspiring models and the occasional shady operator with underworld ties. An unassuming young man in baggy jeans, T-shirt and hooded sweatshirt, with an overactive BlackBerry and a long weekend’s worth of stubble, Rao’s rumpled appearance and relaxed demeanour don’t immediately call to mind the budding casino magnate that he is.

Like many Indians, Rao was introduced to cards through teen patti or flush, a simple three-card poker game favoured at Diwali and weddings which takes more guts than guile. Rao fell in love with poker—specifically, Texas Hold’em, a seven-card game in which players share five common cards—on his honeymoon in Macau, the former Portuguese colony-cum-Chinese gambling mecca. The idea of promoting his own games came on a trip to New York City, when he and a friend planned to travel to Atlantic City to play poker. When a friend overheard them moaning about the 2-hour commute, he invited them to one of the many underground games in the city, Rao says in an interview at a coffee shop in Mumbai’s western suburbs.

Ante up: The Casino Royale Goa, India’s largest floating casino. Rakesh Mundye/Mint

Their overhead was expensive, and at first, they lost money. But as poker boomed, so did their business, and new poker rooms launched in April and August last year in the suburbs. In December, they opened a high-stakes game in a tony south Mumbai neighbourhood. “We have to expand our business to match the pace of the increase in the poker sector, which is growing at such a fast pace. If we don’t match that pace, someone else will step in," says Rao, playing with an unlit cigarette.

Rao says his family and friends are “cool" with the fact that he is, technically, an organized criminal. Poker is accepted in society, he says, and it’s not like he’s killing anyone. “Just show me a way to pay taxes and we’ll pay taxes," he says.

The high stakes

Televised international poker tournaments led to increased promotion through social media and a plethora of Internet poker sites—especially the popular Poker by Zynga app available on Facebook. India is experiencing a poker boom, its young professional class drawn to the game’s reliance on strategy and mathematics, as well as its luxe associations. But with betting on poker illegal in all but a few isolated pockets within the country, specifically Sikkim and Goa, new devotees have few options. Stepping into that void are black market entrepreneurs like Rao, who will open a fifth game in Navi Mumbai in April, and has plans to expand to metros such as Pune, Kolkata and New Delhi.

According to Jay Sayta, a lawyer who writes a blog, Gaming Laws in India, on Indian gambling laws, playing poker in home games where a promoter makes a profit is illegal. Though guidelines differ from state to state, a typical punishment could be a fine or up to a few months in jail. Punishment for the promoter is likely to be higher, Sayta says.

One must be a friend of a player to be invited to one of Rao’s games, which rotate every two-three months to keep a step ahead of the police. Games are held in members’ homes, usually nondescript flats of students or Bollywood aspirants, which Rao rents for 8,000-15,000 a day. The three suburban games run Thursday-Sunday, but the high-stakes game in south Mumbai is a daily affair. Rao adds at least 10 new names to his database each week and sends a weekly SMS invite to around 1,500 gamblers. From the rake, Rao pays for rent, security, food, alcohol and drivers, who deliver large cash winnings and ferry home drunk patrons. After expenses, Rao says, the house earns about 20,000 per night per low-stakes game.

Until early February, Rao says he was the “head of marketing for a corporate", but promoting poker paid him much better, he says. His day job was just a public “face", giving his lifestyle a whiff of legitimacy, and he applies the same principles he used on that job to his poker business, such as promotion through social networking. Now with poker monopolizing most of his time, he often doesn’t rise till the afternoon. Rao’s partner, he says, works in his family’s construction business in Mumbai, from which he was already “decently wealthy". While Rao favours understatement, his partner is flashier. “He likes to show it off, to drive expensive cars," says Rao. “I like to keep a low profile. I don’t want my customers to feel ripped off."

Not ready for a close-up?

Craig Wildman, manager of the Casino Royale Card Room. Rakesh Mundye/Mint

Indian law prohibits foreign investment of any kind in the gambling sector, but many international poker promoters are eager to get in, should the laws change. “India is an enormous market," says Steve Heller, CEO of World Poker Tour (WPT), a series of international poker tournaments, in an email interview. “While we have not currently announced any WPT events in India, we recognize the size of the market and could envision an event there in the future," he says.

Still, many gamblers and poker players feel Goa is not quite ready for its close-up. “Goa has never pushed itself into the mainstream, never promoted itself as a gambling destination because of moral and societal concerns. Goa has a lot to offer, but the infrastructure really needs to improve, as do the frequency of flights from (the metros)," says Peter Abraham, a director of marketing of the Indian Poker Championship, a Mumbai-based company that promotes poker tournaments at casinos in Goa.

Abraham, who is a voice-over artiste by day, says that because the game is so new to India, many players in Goa don’t observe the proper etiquette at the table, and that standing on a jetty waiting for a skiff to ferry you to a ship where steep entry fees are charged doesn’t make one feel like a high-roller. “You need to feel like you’re worth a million dollars, even if you’re a small-stakes player. Las Vegas succeeds tremendously at that. India doesn’t even rank."

However, Manik*, a player of some renown on the Mumbai circuit, sees amateurism in India as a boon, rather than a problem. “India has the softest games in the world compared with any other place where poker is a developed game," says Manik, who plays in illegal rake games. “People here are just learning the game. They’ve come from teen patti and have that gambling mentality. If you are a pro, it’s the best possible place to play," he says, adding with some regret that the casinos in Goa have become “infested" with seasoned players of late.

Licences for land-based casinos attached to five-star hotels are allowed in remote Sikkim. In June, Casino Mahjong, a tidy little establishment attached to the Mayfair Spa Resort and tucked into a mountainside, opened. On a recent visit, there were more people playing marriage—the rummy-like Nepalese card game popular among aunties—than poker. Manik says the casino thrives by organizing high-stakes cash games and flying in rich businessmen from Kolkata and pros from Goa. At the cash games in Sikkim, says Manik, there is typically a 1 lakh buy in, “but players sit much deeper than that. Once guys have been at the table for 5 hours, there could be as much as 50 lakh to 1 crore on the table at any given time," he says.

A land-based casino in Daman, operated in partnership with Delta Corp. Ltd, the parent company of Casino Royale, is set to open soon, though no date has been finalized, but flights to nearby Diu are relatively infrequent.

An attractive alternative for India, says Abraham, would be following the example of the Philippines, which has legal poker rooms. Such a system could work in India’s metros, he says. “The government controls these rooms strictly, but there is a lot of structure and things are done the right way. You can see the cards properly, you can get food and drinks, and it’s safe," he says. Until then, the best option for an increasing number of serious players is underground games.

Out of the shadows

Bangalore’s IT professionals and university students were early adopters of poker, says Nitin Sood, a founder of the non-profit Indian Poker Federation (IPF), which is campaigning to legalize poker in Karnataka. Sood says home games in Bangalore are less formal than Rao’s Mumbai games, and there is no rake for the house. “There is a huge circuit here. There are 50 or 60 home games every weekend, easy," he says.

An increasing number of poker players at the Casino Royale Card Room are pros who have relocated to Goa. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

The IPF’s solution is to take poker out of the shadows by classifying it as a game of skill—much like rummy has been—and, therefore, legalized. To that end, the IPF has submitted an application for a permit for a poker tournament which, Sood says, is the purest format for the game. If the application is denied, as they expect it to be, they plan to sue the state of Karnataka on the grounds that poker is a game of skill, not chance. “Poker should be played in a sober, controlled environment. It’s a game that needs to be played in public," says Sood.

Because there is no limit to how much a player can win or lose in a cash game, says Sood, Bangalore’s home games are beginning to drift into the realm of base gambling. Since players in home games can continue to buy more chips as they continue to lose or even take on debt to keep playing, irrational betting has become rampant. The result, says Sood, is huge debts and hurt feelings over big losses. The solution, he says, are legal tournaments, in which players buy in and can thus win or lose a finite amount, reducing emotional betting.

A website in West Bengal, www.adda52.com, is also challenging the status quo on the grounds that poker is a game of skill, not chance, according to Sayta. In Bengal, poker is exempt from the definition of gambling as defined by the West Bengal Prize Competition and Gambling Act, 1957, and is thus legal to bet on, Sayta says. But since it’s not classified as a game of skill anywhere else in the country, it’s unclear whether gambling on the site from other states is legal. Should various other states decide to pursue it, they could embargo players’ ability to gamble from those states, Sayta says. “Adda52.com is taking a risk and the law will be tested if this matter goes to the courts," he says.

Managing their way

Many poker enthusiasts say the poker boom started in earnest in 2003 when an accountant, Chris Moneymaker, won $2.5 million (around 12.25 crore now) in the World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas, the game’s premier event, after qualifying through an online poker site. Moneymaker’s success, along with the rise of Internet poker, has democratized the game globally. This year, a contingent of more than 20 players from India will attend the World Series of Poker in September in Las Vegas, according to Rao. Before that, their skills will be sharpened in underground home games and rake games—there are around 10 each of these in Mumbai alone on any given weekend, according to Rao.

Fair deal: The Casino Royale Card Room (above) is one of the few places in India where high-stakes betting on poker is legal. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Manik says that after two rake games in the suburbs were raided by the police about six months ago, the frequency of rake games has gone down. He says, “A lot of the Bombay regulars I used to play with became pros and shifted to Goa."

Rao was dismissive about the threat from the police, saying the raids were the result of a dispute over territory between rival promoters, who tipped off the police to the other’s game, rather than the result of a law enforcement initiative. “It was a blessing in disguise for us because we got their market share," says Rao. “Now, they cannot reopen. The cops know about it. Nobody will give them places to rent because people know they have been busted. Players still rent us their houses because they know we’re clean," he says.

Neither does Sayta. The gaming law expert believes there is not much police interest in gambling. “There are card games going on on a huge scale, but the police are not keen to enforce gambling activity because the punishment is relatively low and the cases can take a long time to prosecute," he says.

Likewise, Nisar Tamboli, Mumbai’s deputy commissioner of police, told Lounge that his division only investigates “real crimes", not gambling.

Peter Abraham (left) and Sameer Rattonsey promote tournaments through their Indian Poker Championship brand at Casino Royale Goa. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Still, Rao and his partner are thinking about making at least a part of their business legitimate. They recently made a trip to Malaysia to discuss investing in a poker room at a casino in the Genting Highlands hill station and have plans for a “full-service poker consultancy" that provides dealers, chips and instructors at weddings, parties and Diwali celebrations, where poker is increasingly edging out teen patti. They’d also like to use their money to bankroll talented players at high-profile international tournaments. The pair has invested in legal businesses such as ice-cream franchises. “Places where we can do money laundering," Rao says.

Rao plays poker most nights, but while the games go into the small hours of the morning, he tends to retire by 11pm in order to not gamble away his profits. As a poker player, Rao says, he has a lot of improving to do before he is an elite player. But he doesn’t need to gamble to win. On a recent night at one of his games, a player lost 42 lakh in one evening. Another, he says, won 28 lakh. Rao had a piece of it all.

MAKE A TURNAROUND

By David Sheftel

A beginner’s guide to playing poker

Texas Hold’em is the most popular form of poker in the world. As such, it is the game of choice at Ratan Rao’s games.

In a hand of Texas Hold’em, each player is dealt two cards, face down. Then three community cards—called the “flop"—are dealt face up, followed by another (the “turn" or “fourth street") and another (the “river" or “fifth street"). A player’s hand consists of the five best cards among his or her two private cards and the five community cards.

At each stage of a hand, a player can match other players’ bets or raise them, depending on how their hand comes together. Or if a good hand doesn’t materialize, they may bluff, betting as though they have a great hand in the hope of scaring off other players.

A common format of play-at-home games is “No Limit" Texas Hold’em, in which there is no limit to how much a player can bet on a particular hand. In tournament play, players buy in with a specific amount and thus there is a finite amount which players can win or lose.

*Names have been changed on request.

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