People from varied backgrounds leading the evolution of poker in India

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Over the years, there has been an acceptance of ‘poker’ as a skill-based game, which resulted in its unprecedented growth and, interestingly, people from different backgrounds are leading the evolution of card games in India.

Poker is not new to the Indian community and has been played since ages in different parts of the country. But, today, the mode and meaning of the game is witnessing a drastic change. Earlier, people used to play poker as part of their entertainment but now it has become a serious profession for people to make money by using their mind skills.

People have started seeing it as a competitive sport that tests the skills of the mind, and cheap internet, multiple online-gaming platforms, the security and ease in making digital payments are contributing immensely in giving poker a big push.

The developers of online poker are also integrating innovative formats to make the game interactive for players.

Unlike other games or sports where only a certain kind of player or a section of people can excel, poker in India is bringing competitors from different backgrounds. IANS got the opportunity to interact with some of the top professional poker players — who belong to diverse environments and backgrounds — on the sidelines of National Poker Series 2022 in Goa.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

Different backgrounds:

In India, people from IITs and IIMs — considered the sharpest minds of the country — are known for creating their own business or doing jobs in some of the biggest companies in the world. However, over the last few years, these brilliant minds are finding an unorthodox way to lead their professional lives through ‘Poker’.

Rohit Begwani, whose family is one of the largest manufacturers of thermocol in southern India, said that he had a well-settled and secure life but he wanted to challenge his brain, and poker gave him that opportunity.

“We are the largest manufacturers of thermocol in south India. We have brilliant sales. But, there was no excitement in that work for me. Since everything is streamlined, I used to get a feeling that I am doing ‘chowkidari’ since nothing new was happening.

“My maths is quite good. I even got a call from IIM Ahmedabad and Kolkata but I had my family business to run. Poker requires a lot of calculations and math. It is a general tendency among people who are good in maths and quants to want something that challenges their mind. Poker requires a lot of number crunching. Hence, such people naturally get attracted to poker. It was the case with me as well,” said Begwani who is 36 and has two daughters.

Among the most interesting players at the NPS finals was 21-year-old Riteish Kumar from Gumla (near Ranchi in Jharkhand), who was preparing for CAT when his friend introduced him to poker. But after getting relative success in his competitions, he is now serious about a career in poker.

“It took a good amount of time to make a decision to make poker a permanent career decision. I started playing poker around May, 2020 and I was focusing on CAT at that time as I had to give my exams. But, in June 2021, I decided that I have to play poker and excel in it. It took me around 12 months to understand the seriousness of poker,” said Riteish.

Incidentally, Varun Ganjoo — Marketing director and Co-Founder of PokerBaazi, which is one of India’s biggest poker platforms –, is also from the engineering background.

Challenges faced by poker or poker players:

The most common challenge among poker players is to convince their parents and relatives about their career in the game. Secondly, many people believed and still feel that if there are cards involved then its gambling, not a skill-based game.

“There were two key things when we started in 2013-14. One was the perception about Poker. People didn’t know about the game. If there is a new game and there are cards involved then it would mean gambling and they would not differentiate between skills. So we took those steps of educating, doing a lot of sessions, webinars with our pro-gamers. We also went to colleges and covered all IITs, ISBs. And the game also started being taught at IIMs. So, these few steps helped us change the perception to a certain extent,” says the co-Founder of PokerBaazi.

It was difficult for Chirag Sodha, who clinched gold in the “NPS Main Event” in Goa, to reveal about playing poker to his parents, but it became a bit easier for him after he started doing well.

“So, for this point, the media and the people who put Poker in the spotlight had a big part to play because how else are our folks going to know what we’re doing is legit or legal. Because in India, cards and money equals gambling. But the taboo’s changing,” said Sodha.

“In India, Poker isn’t recognised as a profession but abroad it is. We have some way to go. As far as my family is concerned, it was tough for a while and a lot of newcomers speak to me asking my advice on how to break it to their family, but, unfortunately, the honest truth is that only if and when you start doing well, when you’ve got a good bank balance, that’s when they start trusting you for what you’re doing,” he added.

Future of Poker in India:

Not only players but poker tournament organisers and online platform providers are also optimistic about the growth of the game in India in the upcoming future.

“…like I said before, the change of perception is constantly happening. We have reached a stage where there has been a big change already. People have started to differentiate between skill games like Poker, Rummy, and pure games of luck which is gambling.

“A lot of people have shifted to Poker professionally so it’s not only about the person who has shifted but also the family support behind him. If such stories are out in the open, it would definitely help the younger generation to convince their families. So that change is happening and for us, it’s a continuous process,” says Varun Ganjoo.

Online Poker has also got a thumbs up from policymakers and authorities in india.

“…we have also had very good success. And it happened back-to-back. First, it was the Madras High Court and then the Karnataka High Court. So the good thing is that when big institutions, legal institutions see positive things and give their green signal to Poker and other skill gaming, it automatically adds a boost to it. Watching them, the other institutions will also see the positive side of it. And we believe that soon we will have a central regulation and policies,” Ganjoo added.

On the other hand, Sodha also believes that poker can find its space in mainstream sports in the future.

“Yeah, I think it can to an extent, there is already stuff which is happening. There are leagues like in cricket, like the IPL, we have Poker leagues, multiple of them, which have, in fact, been streamed on OTTs as well. It’s going in that direction. And these leagues are not where the Poker players put up ‘X’ money to play and they might lose. It’s the same format (similar format to the IPL) where there are players options and team owners,” he said.

“So they’re promoting the sport. And it’s a little different because in this format it’s more like a team sport. It seems like that but at the end of the day, Poker’s not a team sport, it’s an individual sport. Each person for themselves. But yeah, I think it can get there for sure. I think it’s on the way there already,” he added.

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