The contentious game is seeing a paradigm shift in the country. And it is the youngsters who are bringing about the change.
It has the feel of a sport but one doesn’t really sweat playing it; it is studied at universities, but is illegal in some states.
The contentious game of poker is seeing a paradigm shift in the country and many youngsters are involved in bringing about the change.
Take for instance 26-year-old Siddharth Karia. He has an MBA from Babson College USA and earned Rs 75 lakh in the year gone by. No, this isn’t his annual package at a corporate house. This is the money he made playing poker online.
Karia doesn’t think he just got lucky. For him it is his hard work and thorough research that paid off.
“I made a 140-page word document to study the game and how it is played all over the world. I didn’t put in so much for my MBA too. Poker challenges the brain and that is what attracts me to it,” said the young millionaire from Ahmedabad.
Karia, who helps his father in their family business, plays poker three days a week and it is serious business for him.
Like Karia, many millennials are riding the poker bandwagon.
Kshitij Kucheria is a final-year engineering student specialising in Information Technology from Pune University. In mid-May, he traveled thrice to Goa, despite his exams approaching.
Kucheria participated in the Poker Sports League in Goa, which is the first professional league in India that gives an opportunity to state-level teams and poker lovers to showcase their skills. Around 20,000 players participated in the league from across India.
“My father drove me to and from Goa because he knows how important the game is for me. Parents are slowly getting rid of the inhibitions they have around poker. They are supporting me the way they would if I were playing any other sport,” the 21-year-old said.
However, Kucheria now has second thoughts about seeking admission at the Indian Institute of Management. “While getting through is tough, everyone comes out as an MBA and do the same kind of job I don’t know whether I fit the bill. Poker gives me new challenges every time I am sitting on the table. I already understand creative strategy, risk management and asset building through the game. Isn’t that what MBA is all about?” said Kucheria.
For those who are not as enlightened as Kucheria and have already taken up seats at IIMs, the top management institute is now opening up to learning poker. Where? At the institute itself.
IIM Kozhikode has a courses called CSP Competitive Strategy: the Game of Poker, which was introduced in the 2014-15 academic year.
“Poker has been of interest for a long time, for academicians, researchers and practitioners in a wide variety of domains – behavioural economics, math and statistics, psychology, AI, management, pedagogy, big-data, and so on,” said assistant professor Deepak Dhayanithy.
The course has generated an overwhelming response from students.
“We follow a trimester system and the 6th trimester (the concluding one) is when students find themselves in the transition between a student and young management professional.
"In 2013-’14, it felt pretty logical to develop and offer poker-based elective course to our MBA students. As it turns out again, the youth is a few miles ahead, and have chosen this elective from a pretty rich palette of courses. We went from 60 to 180 students pretty quickly; with 180 being the maximum subscription allowed for an elective,” Dhayanithy added.
It is not just millennials who are backing poker. The whole community is working towards establishing the sport as a mind game. In fact, grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand who is the brand ambassador for one of the biggest poker leagues in the country, was seen playing a friendly poker game at Goa recently. Anand believes the game is much like chess as it encompasses calculations, permutations and combinations.
“In the last couple of years, we have seen a pattern in the shift of people's mindset for poker as a sport. A lot of professionals are taking up the game and that has been beneficial to promote poker as a mind game. I would like to convey that it is a gripping game to watch, a very nice game to play and it is intellectually very challenging,” said Anand.
Making a business
Quick to identify entrepreneurial opportunities in the game, a lot of corporates are building a mini-industry out of poker.
Raj Kundra for instance has taken to the sport. Kundra’s Viaan Industries, which launched the ‘Match Indian Poker League’ in collaboration with the International Federation of Match Poker (IFMP) last year, is taking the game online this season. Kundra has established partnerships in the US, UK and Israel and is in the process of getting more countries on board for the league.
There would be 30 participating teams and the league would have an annual prize pool of Rs 5 crore. Each of these 30 participating teams will have six players who will be seated on separate online tables with 50,000 virtual chips.
The concept of virtual chips is make the game different from gambling as players compete for a prize pool and there is no money bet on the table.
Another entrepreneur to identify the opportunity is Anuj Gupta, founder of Adda52, a subsidiary of Delta Corp. An IIT (Delhi) alumnus, Gupta joined Amit Burman of Dabur, Pranav Bagai, CEO at The Shark (a company involved in poker products) to start the Poker Sports League, a franchise based poker league with a prize pool of Rs 4.5 crore.
The prize pool is not easy to win though. The league matches in Goa would go on for 12 hours each day and sometimes continue to the wee hours. Yet, players don't lose focus. They stay calm and face opponents with immense skills. They sport shades and hoods to hide their expressions from rivals, who can get an idea about the hand their opponent has.
With sponsors like OYO Rooms, John Jacobs, Deltin Hotel and DSport on board, Burman is confident that the appetite for the game is growing. “It is almost a Rs1000 crore industry and with youngsters and corporates seeing a future it in we see it only growing. We want to take our own league global and make it much bigger that is presently. The encouraging growth of the league from the first season is motivation enough for us to invest more into it,” said Burman.
Removing the stigma
Burman and his peers who are part of the project are working to get rid of stigmas surrounding the game. While getting Anand has added a lot of credibility to their league, they are running campaigns and training sessions that explain how luck is not the only factor that can help one stay afloat in poker. The community is also focussing on getting the card game a "mind sport" tag.
The game isn’t about holding good cards it is about playing a poor hand well. And Anand said, “While an individual hand can be a matter of chance, over a large number of hands, the skill takes over.”Nonetheless, PSL is not the only league in the country. PokerStars India Pro recently announced the official launch of the Global Poker League India (GPL India). Launched in collaboration with PokerStars.IN, operated by Sachiko Gaming in India, the league will feature six region-specific teams, each with a team manager. GPL India will kick-off with weekly qualifiers on June 25 on PokerStars.IN. All six team rosters will be finalised by September 9. From there, teams will compete for the Season 1 Championship and the winner would go on to play at the PokerStars Players NL Hold'em Championship, in the Bahamas in January 2019 for a prize pool of Rs 1 crore.