Poker in India: Action-packed, not ready to go pro

Poker in India: Action-packed, not ready to go pro

Taking stock of the homegrown Texas Hold'em trend in the subcontinent
poker in india
Built aboard MV the Pride of Goa, and berthed on the river Mandovi, the three-deck Casino Pride is one of Goa’s most popular offshore casinos.

Ask any Mumbaikar between the ages of 25 and 40 if he plays poker in India and you’ll be on the receiving end of a proud smile.

He’ll talk about his regular game, his high-stakes game and the tournaments he’s won. You’ll be convinced that the Indian poker boom has arrived. But has it?

While home games (poker played by a group of friends at someone’s home) have been a regular feature of the social scene in India for the past five years, country-wide casino poker is still years away.

To truly say that India is a booming poker nation, casino poker must become bigger. And of course there are restrictions.

Currently, to run live gambling tables (games with live dealers and players) in India, a casino still needs to be offshore. On land, casinos can only run electronic machines, which to the avid gambler are as interesting as watching Harbhajan Singh bowl; there just isn’t enough action.

Most casinos in India are therefore offshore, primarily in Goa, with Casino Royale and Casino Pride being the big players at the moment.

Poker still only accounts for a small percentage of these casinos' earnings but things are slowly changing.

“We are seeing a rise in the number of players turning to poker,” says Madhav Gupta, whose company Piranha Creek, runs the poker room for Casino Pride.

“Beyond just the 18-25 year olds we are also seeing players over the age of 40 who are moving from flush (teen patti) to poker."

The stakes in the game range from Rs 100-200 blinds right up to Rs 10,000–Rs 20,000 blinds. The buy-ins for some games can even go up to Rs 10 lakhs.

The casino makes money from live cash games by taking a percentage from every hand that is played. This ranges from three to five percent of the total pot with a cap of around Rs 5,000. The more hands played, the more the casino rakes in.

Most poker rooms in India are still small, containing eight tables at the most. Compared to the United States -- which has more than 30 poker tables in just one hotel in Vegas, The Bellagio -- the size of the game in India is minuscule.

Turning to tournament style

So what are the casinos doing to attract more punters?

“We are encouraging a lot of players to become poker tournament organizers,” says Gupta. “Tournament organizers get a chance to take home some guaranteed money and it brings a lot of players to our casino. Once eliminated from the tournament, most players sit down and play a cash game. This is when the casino starts making money.”

Tournament poker is what started the worldwide boom in the sport. Chris Moneymaker, an accountant and amateur poker player, won a US$39 satellite to qualify for the World Series of Poker, which he eventually won, taking home US$2.5 million. It is known in the poker world as The Moneymaker Effect.

Casinos in Goa are hosting tournaments organized by various players, groups and companies. The Shark, a New Delh- based company, organizes two to three tournaments a year.

“About a year ago whenever anyone would organize a tournament they would get about 25-30 players who would sign up,” says Pranav Bagai of The Shark.

“Today they get over a 100. While the number is still small it shows that people are willing to travel all the way to Goa to play in a tournament.”

What are the challenges for poker in India?

 “It is a challenge to get people to fly down to Goa every weekend when they can play a home game in their city,” says Gupta. “But casinos offer a lot of advantages. There is no credit issue and you can play with different players in a great atmosphere.”

But for the game to really take off, casino and gambling legislation is going to need a huge overhaul.

Future of poker in India

“We are very positive,” says Gupta. “Right now the majority of players come from Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, with Bangalore being the biggest market. As exposure to the game increases we expect it to move beyond these cities.”

Both Gupta and Bagai mentioned the impact of Facebook on the growth of the game. Zynga’s Texas Hold’em app on Facebook brings a number of newcomers to the game, playing online with their friends.

This has sparked interest in real-life poker.

“Five percent of our crowd in the casino are playing live poker for the first time -- Facebook has been great for us,” says Gupta.

The key factor that changed poker around the world post Moneymaker’s victory is that people believed that playing poker professionally could be their primary source of income. In a country that is stuck in the traditional careers of engineering and medicine, this mind-set shift will take some time.

But Gupta believes that the change has begun.

“We have a regular in Goa who dropped out of the Indian Institutes of Technology to become a professional poker player. It is going to happen slowly, but it will happen.”  

The poker boom in India is still four to five years away and will require dramatic legal changes and the mind-set shift of a generation. I suspect the latter may happen sooner than the former.

Poker in India: Some upcoming tournaments

Aces Unlimited tournament at Casino Pride on August 25 2011.

PokerGuru tournament at Casino Pride from September 2-4 2011.

 

Pranav Gandhi is an education entrepreneur by day and sports fanatic for life.

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