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A Full House

At the floating casinos in Goa,the competition heats up and the stakes get higher,as poker turns from hobby to sport

Written by Sharon Fernandes | New Delhi |
June 5, 2011 10:00:29 pm

At the floating casinos in Goa,the competition heats up and the stakes get higher,as poker turns from hobby to sport

A stiff breeze hits your face as you stand on the banks of the Mandovi river on an evening in Panjim. Bobbing on the river are large white boats,the famous floating casinos of Goa,one of two places in India where live gambling is legal. Breathe in,and you can even smell the money.

A boat takes us to the Casino Carnival,one of three off-shore casinos that make up this tiny Las Vegas on choppy waters. Inside,the slot machines are silent,the roulette wheels still and the black-jack tables near empty. All the action is upstairs. At the Clubs Card Room,where a poker tournament is in progress,and over 70 participants sit around,waiting for the perfect hand.

The sound of chips being stacked is like that of insects buzzing,dealers swiftly hand out cards,and players sit with “poker faces”,some choosing to make themselves more inscrutable by hiding behind dark glasses and hoods. As any poker player will tell you,it’s a game where you don’t just play cards,you also play the people.

Over the last two years,poker’s popularity in Goa has grown sharply,a reflection of the growing interest in the game in India — whether it is on online poker sites like Zynga,Full Tilt and PokerStars,or the house games that people come together to play in metros across the country. “Poker is taking off in a big way,I have seen it grow in the last three years that I have been handling operations on this boat,” says Alistair Stephenson,director of gaming operations at Casino Carnival. “Roulette and black jack have their regular fans,those are games of pure luck,which will always be popular. But we soon realised that we needed to train more staff for the poker tables,” he says. In India,it’s only in these river casinos that it is legal to play poker cash games.

In the neighbouring boats like Casino Royale and Casino Pride,too,the excitement is about No-Limit Texas Hold‘Em,the Cadillac of all poker games. Every month,at least a tournament or two is held in the casinos,where the prize pool varies from Rs 30,000 to Rs 30 lakh. Players come from across the country,from nearby Mumbai as well as distant Delhi. “We see a lot of women players,because people no longer think of a casino as a shady place,” says Stephenson. While poker cash games have always been played at the casinos,it’s the tournaments that are drawing in the crowds — the eager young professionals as well as moneyed businessmen. At these dimly-lit rooms,where young men and women spend weekends and earn fortunes,gently swayed by the river’s movement,one sees an American game that has come home to stay.

Padmashree Bhakta is hard to miss,with her bright pink salwar kameez standing out in the red glow of the card room at Carnival. She gives us an easy smile,as she reaches across the red felt top of the card table to collect her winning “pot”. Before we can ask the 36-year-old businesswoman how she got into this game,she tells us of the hand she lost the previous night — when she raised the stakes,convinced that with pocket aces,she could not lose. “But the card on the flop was a king,and my opponent had two kings. It was a perfect hand,” she says,and adds,“You always remember the hands you lost.”

For a poker player,the thrill of a good hand won is also just as memorable,like a shot of the best drug in the world. You are always back for your fix. Bhakta spends her time between Andhra Pradesh and Goa,where her family has business interests in alcohol manufacturing and mining. She comes back to the casinos for her fix every alternate month. “Every time I come here,I play with Rs 1-2 lakh. I might win or lose it all. But I have to play,” she says.

Bhakta has been playing poker for over six years,and is a regular at poker tournaments held here,including the India Poker Open that was held last month. “We don’t take any holidays from poker. We work through the week,and are here on the weekends,” she says. She even gets her six-year-old son along,though he is left in the playroom at the casino.

Sonam K is a 22-year-old based in Chennai,who works with an event management company. She can be seen counting her chips at the card room every weekend. In the last year,the routine has been simple,she says. “I spend five days in Chennai working and then two days in Goa,” she says. It was her eighteenth birthday party held at the casino that got her hooked. “That was the first night I played poker at the casino. A bunch of my friends and I did play it in Chennai before. But that night I won Rs 25,000,” she says.

What draws such a diverse bunch to this game? It’s not just the money. Poker involves more skill than teen patti,which is all about luck,and favours whoever has deep pockets. “I find it a far more demanding sport to master,” says 37-year-old author Amit Varma,who is an avid player. “It is not like roulette,where you only depend on luck,” he says. Agrees Sonam: “It’s about mind games and skill. You have to be able to read other players to see who is bluffing. You use probability to know who has what cards. How else do you explain that the top poker players are the same people,every year? How can they always be lucky?”

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The Indian Poker Ranking Tour (IPRT) was started three years ago by Jim Ramchand,a poker player,and former gemstone businessman,based in Goa. “When I got back to India from Myanmar three years ago,I saw that there was hardly any action on the poker tables. The game was popular at house games in every city but cash tables at the casinos had only a couple of players. In 2008,IPRT held its first tournament at Casino Pride and got only 30 players,” he says. The interest,he says,has multiplied manifold. “Now there are over 10 Texas Hold’Em poker tournaments held in a year on the river,” he says.

Texas Hold‘em,as its name suggests,originated in Robstown,Texas,in the early 1900s. It was introduced in Las Vegas in 1967. The interest in the game rose phenomenally in the 2000s with the introduction of online poker and the TV broadcast of tournaments like World Series of Poker (WSOP),and the Macau Poker Cup. It’s an American sport,and among its fans are US president Barack Obama. In India,its popularity has grown in the last decade,again thanks to online games. The interest prompted Rajat Agarwal from Kolkata,along with a group of poker players from the city,to start pokerguru.in last year,a website that beams live coverage of poker tournaments from the Goa casinos. “On months when there are many tournaments,we get around 15,000 unique hits a month,” he says.

Most of the tournaments have a fixed amount of buy-in (the money with which a game starts; and each player has the same amount). It can start at Rs 5,000 and go up to Rs 1lakh on the higher tables. The prize money at a tournament depends on the number of players. For example,at a tournament with a buy-in of Rs 1 lakh and 30 players,the prize money,after the casino’s 3 to 5 per cent commission is deducted,comes to around Rs 27 lakh. “But most tournaments are held at the Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000 buy-ins,” says Ramchand,who is hosting the

Indian Poker Dream tournament from

June 17 at Casino Carnival with the buy-ins ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000.

“Eight years ago,only 20-25 people in a city like Delhi knew about the game. They thought it was a variation of Flash,another card game,which is purely about gambling. But poker is nothing like that,” says Madhav Gupta,who runs the Sol Poker Room on Casino Pride. He tells us about a game played a couple of months ago by 12 people which went on for 53 hours. Four players did not leave the table even once. Poker players point to such enthusiasm as proof that the game is not about luck,but skill. “To be a good poker player,you have to be good at mathematics,” says Gupta.

Tournament regulars like Vedant Thadani from Delhi,who comes to Goa at least once a month,won Rs 2 lakh in the last event. He says the “circuit” has its own set of followers. He comes to play with his group of friends,which includes businessmen and fashion store owners. “I was first introduced to the game when I was studying in the UK. When I got back,I found a group of friends in Delhi who loved playing the game as well,” says the 24-year-old.

Many of the youngsters are at the tables from dusk to dawn. Pakhi Singh,24,played for 40 hours straight,moving from the tournament tables at Carnival to the cash tables. “The game does suck you in. It requires high levels of concentration.” And though she has won big,on occasion even up to Rs 2 lakh,it remains a “hobby”.

Losses,though,are an equal part of being a poker player. “Sometime you get dealt the most awful cards. For a whole year,I kept losing. It is like you are paying your dues to the ‘poker gods’,” says Thadani.

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Poker has its admirers around the world but it may be a while before dedicated players can call themselves “pros”,and play the game legally. Conversations at the tables between “poker friends” sometimes revolve on the hope of the game being legalised on the mainland. There are passionate defenders against the misconception that it is a form of gambling. “This game is easiest to learn but the hardest to master. Once you learn how to play skillfully,you keep your bank-roll in mind,you don’t play impatiently,you learn how to read tells (signs that tell if a person has a good or a bad hand),fake tells and spot betting patterns in players. It is a lot of work,you have to know the strategies you can use,” says Amit Varma.

At Casino Carnival,one man at a table has just won a modest Rs 6,000. You may think he is just another tourist here to try his luck. But Jeff man,CEO of Asian Poker Tournament (APT),is here for a reason. “It is a booming market. I came here for two things. I came to see if we could get Indian players to our event in Manila in August. And to see if the APT could come to India in the future. India is an interesting market. It looks promising,” he says.

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