Over the past century, the popularity of poker spiked to such levels across the Western world that many poker enthusiasts wanted the game re-categorised as a bona fide sport. In the United States, poker is already known as the “national card game”, with its language and symbolism an integral part of the country’s cultural discourse. Compared to these standards, one would imagine that the poker scene in India is relatively modest, almost in its infancy. But that is not what you’d call an entirely accurate summation.
In most Indian cities, gambling of any kind is strictly illegal. There are no casinos or poker centres to speak of, say, in Delhi or Mumbai. But this is not to say that these cities aren’t already teeming with thousands of poker fans who spend hours every day on the internet, playing this game of fortune on the dozens of poker sites that can been accessed from anywhere. Indian poker players also have the option of travelling to Goa, Daman or Sikkim, the three states where it’s legal to set up casinos.
Peter Abraham is the co-founder of Indian Poker Championship (IPC) — one of the oldest and biggest poker tourneys in the country, held regularly in Goa. “IPC is one of the oldest live tournament poker brands in the country. We’ve been in existence since March 2010 and most of our tournaments are organised in Goa as it’s one of the states where casinos are legal. But we’ve also done one international event in 2013, in Colombo, Sri Lanka,” he tells Guardian 20.
“Indian Poker Championship is one of the oldest live tournament poker brands in the country. We’ve been in existence since March 2010 and most of our tournaments are organised in Goa as it’s one of the states where casinos are legal.”
To widen its reach, Abraham’s firm has also tied up with an online poker site, where he runs the qualifying rounds for the IPC. He says: “We have collaborated on an online poker tournament with spartanpoker.com, which is a website where people can log in and play for real money.”
The law against gambling in India is a much-debated and contentious one. For one thing, it hails from the 19th century and many argue against it by calling it outdated. “A quick online search will tell you that the law governing gambling in India is the Public Gambling Act, 1867,” says Shashaank Bhansali, a Delhi-based lawyer. “But states have regulatory control over gambling laws, meaning that states have the power to make and enforce these laws. Thus Goa has legalised the functioning of casinos, and Sikkim permits gambling, as per the regulations by the government, whereas states like Assam and Odisha have prohibited any form of betting or gambling. The Public Gambling Act predates the era of the internet, thus there is nothing illegal about these websites,” says Bhansali.
So how does online poker actually work? Does real money change hands? And how safe is it, financially speaking? “You make a deposit through your debit card or credit card or through net banking, like any other online shopping transaction on sites like Flipkart or SnapDeal,” explains Avneet Rana, co-founder of PokerBazi.com, an online poker room based out of Kolkata. “After this, you select the table you wish to play at — there are various tables based on the stakes starting from Rs 1 to Rs 5,500. Along with that, our website has a 24x7 cash-out option. So you just send your PAN number and we transfer the proceeds into your account after deducting the 30% tax in case the proceeds are above Rs 10,000.”
Referring to the current state of poker in India, Rana adds, “There are a lot more people registering to online poker rooms today. The footfall is increasing, 10 times more registrations are happening now, compared to when the whole thing had first started. I think all poker sites should work collectively to promote the game. We’ve been in the industry for two years and we are trying to promote it as a game of skill.”
“The poker community is definitely growing now. The games are not as easy as they used to be, since more people have started playing. Everyone is getting coached. Professional players are working on their mental and physical fitness: they study the game all the time. It’s like a sport.”
The current poker boom, according to experts, will go on for at least another couple of years. Devvrat Himatsingka, director of public relations and customer support at StarPoker.com, says, “Our poker scene is not that big yet. We’re at the place where Europe was in 2004-5. So it’s basically riding the boom. It will be much more prominent in the next couple of years as traffic has been picking up on sites. So we can say that the industry is headed for a good time ahead.”
Moreover, as the online poker circuit in India becomes more active than ever before, the need for proper checks and balances and for regulatory bodies has also increased. “Online,” Himatsingka continues, “is the way to go for the game. But it remains a grey area for the time being. The state of West Bengal has legalised it, so most operators are based here. And in Karnataka, there are a lot of servers too. However, many sites will likely go bust in the future, as most of them operate on the cash model, and this will not be sustainable. Members deposit money using credit cards, or bank transfers. If smaller amounts like around Rs 10-15k are involved, a few sites deal in cash. Hence, regulations are necessary. The market is moving towards being a regulated market. But once that happens, it’ll get difficult for the smaller players. And it’ll become a game for people with deep pockets. Online poker would do better once it is regulated by the government. That will also be a desirable situation because then everyone would be able to play without any stress. In Nagaland, it is being regulated and one needs a license to operate a poker site. That should happen everywhere.”
Poker players in Indian cities come from all walks of life. But only a handful can by rights call themselves professional poker players. Vikram Kumar, a resident of Kolkata, is one such personality. He stood third in the Asian Poker Tour, which was held in Manila, Philippines last month, and this was only one of the many feathers in his poker-playing hat. “Poker, like any other business, requires money, hard work and commitment,” Kumar tells Guardian 20. “A player needs to have money to bankroll himself and go forward with a good selection of games and so on. But contrary to popular belief, poker is not based on luck. The outcome of a game rather depends the player’s skill and on his mathematical acumen. Luck just plays 10% of its part. So yes, if one has got it all, playing poker can become a very lucrative career option.”
Kumar is currently in Macau, participating in another poker tournament. He adds: “Online poker rooms have not only created higher awareness of the game but also helped popularise it further.”
Another pro poker player and Kolkata resident, Jasven Saigal is also similarly enthused by India’s growing online poker community. “I’ve been a professional poker player for about eight years now and I can say that I’ve hardly ever had a loss-making month,” Saigal says. “Besides, I’m also involved with PokerBazi.com, the online poker room. So when I say that poker is really lucrative I’m not just saying it — it actually is. And it’s not just gambling. A lot of skills are involved. Also, the community is definitely growing now, the games are not as easy as they used to be, since more people have started playing. Everyone is getting coached. Professional players are working on their mental and physical fitness: they study the game all the time. It’s like a sport. And the games are a lot tougher now.”