Deltin Royale.
Deltin Royale.

It’s a big deal: Poker gets into a league of its own

The Poker Sports League may just herald a new era for the card game in India

For 108 players—and many other stakeholders—May 2017 will be a significant “coming out of the shadows" month. 

The Poker Sports League (PSL), a first of its kind in India, will follow in the footsteps of many other sports in the country that have received a leg-up since a league brought them into the limelight and made them the subject of dinner-table conversations. 

However, unlike cricket, football, badminton or even kabaddi, the card game remains on the fringes, still fighting perceptions that prevent it from being considered a mind sport—like chess—and keenly trying to break free of its associations with gambling. 

The PSL will have 12 city-named teams, with nine players each. Besides a captain/mentor, a team will have two professional players, two members who get through the live qualifiers, two members who get through the online qualifiers and two wild card entries. 

The online qualifiers will end on 23 April on the gaming website Adda52.com, while the live qualifiers ended on Saturday. 

The team owners will make the final team selections on 6 May. 

The qualifying rounds received a combined 20,000-25,000 entries, mostly from people in their mid- to late 20s, according to Pranav Bagai, co-founder and chief operating officer of the PSL. The main event will be held during 22-28 May at the Deltin Royale off the coast of Panjim in Goa. 

The teams were sold within three days of the league’s announcement in December, says Amit Burman, vice-chairman of Dabur India Ltd and founder of the PSL, as the word spread rapidly within the community. 

The league contract is only for one year at the moment—its success and ability to generate revenue will decide its future. Teams were sold at Rs35 lakh each. Next year, if they get TV rights and sponsorship muscle, the cost of the teams would go up as well, adds Burman. The PSL owners expect the first four teams to break even in the first season itself. 

Most team owners are keen—weekend or otherwise—players themselves, and some perhaps fancy getting their hands on the table as wild cards. Some teams are looking at including glamorous figures as wild cards—like cricketers (and poker enthusiasts) Shane Warne and Chris Gayle, or international poker stars—to bring further attention to the league. 

Though this event would not be televised, the league will be streamed live for an average of six hours each day on the web and audiences would be able to attend the games at the venue in Goa. There are suggestions of converting it into a television reality show as well in the future. 

Each of the teams has already signed on its “mentor", pro players who will guide their less experienced teammates. 

Big boys play at night 

Kunal Patni belongs to a small, rare breed of professionals who gave up a lucrative job and career to become a full-time poker player some two years ago. People he meets are often surprised and delighted to find out that he deals cards for a living. 

The league has given Patni a chance to reconnect with his former employers—he is the mentor for Hyderabad Kings, owned by Amit Shah, Karan Bhagat and Yatin Shah, founders of IIFL Wealth Management. Patni was a senior vice-president at the company and had spent over a decade in sales positions in the banking industry. 

For the past two years though, he has been travelling with a small band of like-minded pros, playing poker tournaments in places like Macau and Manila, giving a James-Bondesque impression of daring and suave. However, he warns, it’s anything but. 

Pro poker players, rather, conform to the stereotypes of “gamers"—a random search online shows pictures of shaggy men, wearing hoodies and dark glasses, which is sometimes a shield from opponents trying to read their eyes or a cover while trying to read others’. 

“This (poker) allows me to work on my own time and pace," says Patni, “but it’s not as easy as it sounds to make a living doing this. It might look glamorous with all the partying and travelling, but you have to be disciplined." 

“People say I wish I had your life," adds Dhaval Mudgal, mentor of the team Goan Nuts, laughing as he speaks over the phone. “I tell them that most times I am reading books on poker or studying videos, spending 260 days in a year outside home, playing through nights and sleeping through days…" 

Mudgal’s career switch was less dramatic than Patni’s. He used to be a musician, playing in a band. “This definitely pays better," he says. 

He has known the Goan Nuts’ owner Gaurav Mohan, of event management company Eventwala, since they were in school, which eventually led to him mentoring the team. Patni too played his part in introducing the League owners to IIFL’s Bhagat—and therefore his association with this League runs deep. He says the PSL is the best thing to have happened to the sport if it gets the kind of success they hope. 

“This league will be fantastic for growth," says Mudgal. “It will not be the IPL (Indian Premier League), but even if it gets 5% of the response, that will be great." 

Patni explains what makes poker interesting for him: “The same hand could be played different ways against different opponents. Even if I had the same hand on different occasions, I would not play the same each time. It’s just dynamic."

Indian poker players are not ranked among the best internationally, but that could be because of they have been late adopters. The Global Poker Index, a ranking system, lists 475 players of which 138 are ranked. 

It has Nipun Java (world No. 125) as the highest ranked Indian, though he does not live in the country. Raghav Bansal, the second highest Indian at No. 274, is the mentor for Bengaluru Jokers and won a high-roller event in Macau in February. 

“You can look at the GPI data but that’s not the entire story," says Anuj Gupta, co-founder of Gaussian Networks Pvt. Ltd (which owns Adda52.com) and co-founder of PSL. “The larger number of tournaments you play, the more you are likely to win. Indians are simply late to the scene." 

The rankings are also skewed towards those who can afford to play high-buying games, adds Bagai, though it’s the best available index. 

What the league will achieve 

When Ankkit Bahadur heard about the league, the once-a-year casual player decided to jump in. There were several factors in favour of PSL—Burman’s involvement, poker’s growing popularity and the novelty of it all. 

“My first foray into the world of sport should have ideally been cricket or football, but I just can’t afford it," says Bahadur, laughing. 

The managing director of Playboy India (North), who co-owns the Kolkata Royals team with Taarun V. Jain, endorses his decision by saying, “we cannot gauge the pulse of this nation. The kabaddi league’s success is an example; if that can have the kind of impact it did…" 

Bahadur, whose company runs the Playboy Café in Gurgaon, is already working on getting sponsors, planning practice kits, jerseys, sunglasses and even headphones—all of which add to a player’s looks. 

Poker’s popularity in India is not a new story—various stakes are played over weekends in major cities and not just during Diwali. This trend has been on the rise for some years now among the urban affluent, but more at an amateur level. 

Adda52.com, one of the few gaming websites of its kind in the country, has over a million registered users—irrespective of whether the users play or not, they do follow games online. There is a large community of online players, whose numbers are difficult to ascertain. 

Though there has often been confusion over legislation—gambling is considered illegal in India—a lot of it is left to the states to decide. States such as Goa, Karnataka, West Bengal and Nagaland consider poker a game of skill (hence not a gamble or a game of chance) and Sikkim was the first state to legitimize online games of skill. A Supreme Court decree in August 2015 also put online card games out of legal scrutiny. 

Last year, Delta Corp. Ltd, which runs the Deltin chain of casinos in Goa and Daman, acquired Gaussian Networks for $27 million (approximately Rs180 crore), giving a further fillip to online poker. 

Some of the PSL stakeholders echo a few common sentiments. They all use the cliché that poker is easy to learn and difficult to master, but are clear about what PSL may achieve. 

One of the things the Rs3.36 crore-prize-money league will accomplish is “sportify" poker, convincing everyone that it’s a multidimensional game—of logic, math, game theory, psychology, probability—and not just a gamble. There is an element of luck, “a higher element" that plays a 15-20% part in it, but that’s common to all sports. 

“When a company like Dabur gets involved in poker, it validates the sport, removes doubts," says Sumit Asrani, mentor for Gujarat Acers. 

It will bring these players into the limelight. Qualifiers will get access to information and help from mentors. If the teams do manage to get in marquee names from the circuit, there will be much to learn from, especially for the qualifiers. 

Already, Bahadur expects the prize money to go up to Rs7 crore in the second edition, and team valuations to rise as well. 

“A lot of people feel I gamble for a living," says Mudgal. “This (PSL) would give it legitimacy." The 32-year-old, who feels he is anyway too old for poker, will get better from the experience and perhaps get access to bigger events. 

“In a bigger scheme of things, I hope it’s played by many more people, considered a mind sport and becomes an event people can enjoy," says Burman. 

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