Urban Indians are hooked to poker and are playing it everywhere—on trains, in business schools, on movie shoots and in farmhouses.
Delhi seems to suddenly close shop on weekends. Even the phone doesn’t ring often, and when it does, I am usually asked, “You don’t play poker, right? Good. Let’s do something else!”
Poker, the saying goes, takes a day to learn and a lifetime to master. Urban India seems to be spending its lifetime mastering this game. My friend Dhaval Mudgal, 25, lead singer of the popular Delhi band, Half Step Down, arranged to teach me the game at his small flat. “Some games are pretty serious and they wouldn’t want a stranger—or a non-player there,” he said.
His friends were settled around a small table, shuffling cards when I arrived. Guitars and mini bongo drums were in a corner in the bright orange living room. Coronas were being passed around, and IPL cricket was being played on TV. The day’s “buy in” was Rs 3,000 (players buy chips worth a certain amount and play with that; like traditional card games, you have to make your card sequences but poker has the added kick of betting on your hand—and your opponents’). Most of the players had come after work, still in their office clothes, and would go home just in time to wash up and sleep. A poker game lasts for at least four hours. Simrit Tiwana, a fashion designer seated at the table, recounted how she lost a great hand in a dramatic play amidst peals of laughter. So was she playing with only Rs 3,000 tonight? Laughing, she said, “That’s an eyewash. If the game is good, you can end up buying in four times, and then you’re gambling with Rs 12,000.”
In upwardly mobile India, this American game that involves playing with your mind—and money—has struck the perfect chord. That Indians love to gamble is no secret. We’ve been seeing it from the time Yudhishtir gambled away his wife and brothers in the Mahabharata. Today, poker is just exclusive enough and accessible enough to be the game of choice—on movie sets, in overnight trains, in farmhouses and in business schools. Chances are there will be a game at your neighbours’ tonight. And if you are a “shark”, a good player “who really understands the game,” you’ll have a social standing.
In Delhi, on any given night, some12 to 13 poker games are on. “Wherever poker has started, it has stayed,” says 29-year-old Pranav Bagai, an entrepreneur who has started Shark, a design label devoted exclusively to poker products. By Diwali, Shark will have poker tables, and chips, even customised tables, sets and other accessories. A poker table costs around Rs 25,000-Rs 30,000 and the chips Rs 5,000-Rs 10,000.
In Mumbai, poker tournaments are becoming popular. Since gambling is not technically allowed, organisers collect money on entry and then players play for prizes like laptops and flat-screen TVs. Weekend trips to Alibaug normally involve poker sets. People have started putting disclaimers in party invites saying that “this is not a poker party” to keep it light and breezy.
So what is the pull? Sakshi Salve, a 27-year-old scriptwriter who “was curious about the game since everyone was playing it”, says poker “tells you a lot about people”. “When you play with them, bluff, bet, win, lose… you see a person’s character. I know so much more about my friends now,” she says. Salve has been hosting a poker evening at her house every few weeks for the past couple of months. Bottles of wine are cooled for the occasion as are crib notes. Her poker gang consists of young, fashionable women, and in her Delhi house, Jimmy Choos, Blackberrys and poker chips go hand-in-hand. Salve feels it’s a good way to spend an evening without going out. “I only gamble as much as I’d spend on a night out,” she says, “so, not more than a few thousand rupees.”
For others, it’s a way to de-stress. Akshat Kretrapal, a student of the prestigious Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, arranges poker games for students. During orientation, about 50 students turned up at poker night to learn the game. Even the professors play with students, “a good way to relieve the stress from a hectic study schedule,” he tells us. Bollywood too is catching up. Producer Vicky Bahri started playing the game three years ago while on location for a movie. A crew member, who had returned from Hollywood, taught them the game. They played daily for 20 days and were hooked. “Now we play every Friday,” he says, “and people often ask me to call them for the next game. We always have new people at our table!” His group enjoys it so much that instead of flying down to Delhi for a trip, they chose to travel by train , making the overnight trip a poker night. He adds, “If you play it with the right spirit, it is a great way of catching up with friends and de-stressing.”
Delhi-based businessman Anirudh Khaitan likes the skill involved in the game. “It’s all math,” says the 32-year-old. “You calculate your chances of winning a hand and then you can decide if you should bet. Say, Rs 50,000 is lying on the table, and you have a chance to put in Rs 30,000—this is your decision: should you put in Rs 30,000 to win Rs 50,000? It would be made much easier if you only have to put in Rs 10,000 for the Rs 50,000 – because your return is higher,”says Anirudh whose farmhouse, many say, has seen legendary poker games. Some months ago, a game that began at midnight ended only at around 2 pm.
Riding on the wave, Powerplay, a Gurgaon-based sports company, is launching the IPRT (Indian Poker Ranking Tournament) on a large scale, starting in Goa and expanding to Sri Lanka and Nepal. This is a platform for Indian players to get ranked so they can play at an international level. And while it is arranging to form a poker team which will have payouts like trips to Vegas and Macau, it also mentions that it is not promoting gambling because poker is not a game of chance, but one of skill.
Players want poker to be removed from the gambling law because they believe luck is but one component. When talking about other players, phrases like “he really understands the game” crop up a lot. There are books, videos, journals and articles that discuss poker plays and what to do when faced with certain set of cards.
Former poker player and author James McManus says, “Sometimes…the game is much more than just a game.” In the 1800s, when poker started gaining momentum, it suited the mood of the American Wild West. McManus writes that poker was a game “whose rules favored a frontiersman’s initiative and cunning, an entrepreneur’s creative sense of risk, and a democratic openness to every class of player.” Poker was tied up with images of gunfire and manliness, but always, a game of winnings. McManus claims to be surprised by “the extent to which poker logic was deployed by the leaders of countries with nuclear weapons to help them figure out when and how to bluff, as well as which adversaries are or aren’t bluffing: from the war between the US and Japan, through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, to the standoffs today with Iran and North Korea.”
Young, urban Indians probably wouldn’t care about world politics, as they comfortably shuffle cards in their living rooms or on train coaches. Seems they are right after Mark Twain’s heart, who might have one of the best quotes about poker: “There are few things that are so unpardonably neglected in our country as poker…It is enough to make one ashamed of the species.”