The Grinders and the ATMs

An American card game is drawing Indians of a certain disposition to casino boats in Goa: whizkids who insist that it’s a game almost entirely of skill
poker
Each poker player has his/her own style of play; some think hard before each bet (above), others often play like an ATM—dispensing cash to others
Chips arranged neatly before a poker tournament in Goa; each contestant starts with the same amount. If you lose all your chips, you’re out
Amit Jain, winner of  the 10K tournament, pumps his fist as IPC organiser Sameer Rattonsey looks on
Mubina Rattonsey, who won the June edition of IPC’s 20K tournament

The secret to survivin’ / Is knowin’ what to throw away / And knowin’ what to keep / ‘Cause every hand’s a winner / And every hand’s a loser… / You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run

—Kenny Rogers

A violent storm brewed in Goa’s coastal city of Panaji as pre-monsoon rains pelted the casino boats anchored in the middle of River Mandovi. This was early June, and Goa was shut for the day to protest government aid to English-medium schools. Even the half-shuttered liquor shops on Avenida Dom Joao Castro Road seemed abandoned, and the street itself, named after a legendary 16th-century Portuguese naval commander, was deserted. On the river, though, small ferries plied nonchalantly at regular intervals to the casinos anchored offshore.

On board one of the ferries, 23-year-old maths wiz Nikhil Jain sat fidgeting with his cellphone. In contrast with his casually attired fellow passengers, who were mostly in baseball caps, sweatshirts, jeans and dark glasses, his dark grey shirt on blue denims and black leather shoes seemed overdone. They were poker-playing patrons of Casino Royale, and unlike this floating casino’s other regulars, were allowed to bypass the Rs 3,000 gate fee and ignore the formal dress code for entry. Jain, a futures and derivatives trader from Gurgaon, had graduated from IIT Roorkee in 2009 to join a financial company. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the cards game of Texas Hold’em poker on the internet.

Infected by the popularity of the game among friends, and driven by his innate knack for numbers, Jain fell in love with poker and began moonlighting as a casual player. Occasionally, he played it online and at friendly home games in and around the Indian capital. Then, in March 2010, he made his first visit to Goa to play live poker at a casino table. He bought a seat in the inaugural edition of the India Poker Championship (IPC) for Rs 5,000, like 59 other enthusiasts, and won the tournament—pocketing a neat Rs 96,000. Since that event, Jain has won more than Rs 3 lakh, both at the IPC and India Poker Series (IPS), the two top tournaments of India’s casino capital.

“I don’t remember if I ever got paid for scoring a 100 in mathematics in school. But at a poker table, I apply my maths to calculate pot odds and probabilities of cards yet to show up, and I win. Besides the numbers involved, I also make sure I play the players at the table, not just the rank of my cards,” says the strapping young man with a baby-face, who calmly confesses to bluffing every tenth hand he plays, on average.

Poker, played with the standard pack of 52 cards, is fast becoming a cult phenomenon in India, and Jain is one among many who’ve avidly taken to the game. Unlike other casino games, it does not involve any wheels spun, dice thrown, buttons pushed or breaths withheld for nothing but an extraordinary stroke of luck. Poker is different. Sure, it’s about the hand you’re dealt, but once that’s done, it’s also a game of skill and strategy. It involves reading your rivals’ mind, some mathematical aptitude to gauge the odds of various card hands, a great deal of patience… and a pinch of luck (only a pinch, no kidding; read the accompanying piece ‘How I won Rs 1 lakh in Goa’).

Up to 10 players are seated at a table, and each is dealt two cards that no one else can see. Players assess their early chances and either quit playing (‘fold-em’) or place betting chips on the table (‘Hold’em’) based on what their two cards could possibly score in combination with three other cards yet to be drawn from the rest of the pack; there’s an entire hierarchy by which any five cards can outscore any other five. After the early bets, the three common-use cards are drawn and placed on the table for all to see, and then, as rounds of betting/quitting progress in a prescribed format, another common card is placed, and then another (the fifth and final card is called the ‘river’).

In the version played at Casino Royale, there is no limit to the bets a player can place, which is where the bluffing kicks in. As your stack of chips dwindles, it takes guts and nerve to stay in the game even with a good hand in the face of an opponent who is betting big money.

Amit Varma, blogger and avid poker player at Casino Royale, writes in the India edition of Card Player magazine: ‘Every decision we face in a poker game is a mathematical one at its core, once we account for reads and the psychology of the game. Losing players ignore the math, and go by their feelings. It works for them a few times—but in the long run, they cannot win if they ignore the numbers.’

The version of the game played aboard Goa’s casino ships, No Limit Texas Hold’em, gets its name from the US state where it was born in the early 1900s. Nevada legalised casinos in 1931, and by the 1960s, this version of the game was clattering with chips in Las Vegas. In the 2000s, the emergence of online poker rooms, TV broadcasts of tournaments such as the World Series of Poker (WSoP) and the flourishing of casinos in the UK, Macau and Australia boosted poker’s popularity enormously.

So much so that even Barack Obama told an Associated Press reporter that he considered himself “a pretty good poker player” who played friendly home games in his pre-White House days as a senator in Illinois to woo dissidents. Elsewhere, in a 2005 case study done by Stanford University, Texas Hold’em served as a model for computer scientists who designed databases with the aim of tackling incomplete information.

GOA GETS THE GAME

About two-and-a-half years ago, Philip Sanders, a Briton with nearly 20 years’ experience of operating a gaming business in the UK, visited Casino Royale as a customer. At the time, the ship did not have a poker room. Confounded by this absurdity, Sanders asked the casino floor for a deck of cards and proceeded to demonstrate how Poker is played. The game made its debut there the very next day, says the 52-year-old. Sensing its success, the neighbouring Casino Pride promptly hired Sanders and became the first boat in the country to open a room dedicated to poker.

“Within nine months, we [the poker crowd] outgrew the Pride poker room and moved to Casino Royale,” says Sanders. In the two years since, the game has developed an audience of players who track poker events taking place on the floating casinos of Goa, primarily through indiapokerchampionship.com and pokerguru.in, or on Facebook/Twitter.

Soon after starting the Casino Royale Poker room, Sanders lured his friend, expert and an efficient poker host Craig Wildman from West Midlands, UK, to help organise poker tournaments. Today, it’s Wildman’s booming voice saying “Dealers, shuffle up and deal” that has become the signature hoot to begin all poker tournaments, the IPC, IPS and IPT (India Poker Tour) on the Mandovi.

The IPC, held every two months, attracts the most players. It was the conception of two young poker lovers from Mumbai, Sameer Rattonsey and Peter Abraham, who wanted to launch their own tournament in April 2009. Both have been playing poker for more than 10 years now, mainly through friendly home games. “The World Poker Tour was airing on the Travel & Living channel back in 2004, which was a big reason for my home game players to try it out. Peter was also part of that group, and he was the one who made us try Texas Hold’em. Now we are on the cusp of something big. Right now, the poker scene in India is akin to the scene in Macau three years ago,” says Rattonsey, 32, a champion player who has won two IPC editions himself.

His co-director Abraham, also 32, cannot boast of the same success but he does recount the story of a hand of four 10s, known as ‘quads’, that knocked out filmstar Minissha Lamba from the tournament in April this year. To add insult to injury, he would later knock out her brother has well. “Safe to say, I was not very popular with the Lamba siblings for a short while,” chuckles Abraham.

The IPC boasts of ample glamour and celebrity, but neither counts for much at the table. Nor is the scene quite like what you see in the movies. Instead of being all dressed up, people are almost always in casualwear. Comfort, after all, is crucial to keeping your nerve—not to mention, the proverbial ‘poker face’. Any betrayal of emotion, the slightest flicker of disappointment or hint of a racing pulse can prove devastating once the betting begins. Watching others, of course, is part of the game. ‘Cause every hand’s a winner, if you know how, it is them you must outplay. As Kenny Rogers sang:

I’ve made a life / Out of readin’ people’s faces / Knowin’ what the cards were / By the way they held their eyes

INSCRUTABLE INDIANS

The most serious of the players, the ‘grinders’ in poker parlance, wear sunglasses. Often, they have a set of sleek earphones plugged into their iPods or cellphones, a sort of insulation device.

Most of the men at the poker table, and the contestants are largely men, are wealthy even if they try to appear as if they are looking for a job. A majority of these young men, ranging from 24 to 35, are drawn from groups in Mumbai where they play home games at the dining table. They are a mix of investment bankers, IIT graduates, software engineers and some Bollywood filmmakers and actors. Leave out the filmi types, and much the same description applies to the players from Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai, which also send along some cricketers who hope to be playing the IPL next year.

In such a crowd, the few women at the table stand out. They are usually drawn to the game by the obsession of their husbands. “In fact,” says Sameer’s wife Mubina, 31, who won the Rs 20,000 IPC tournament earlier this month, “I got knocked out in 10th place in the April edition of the IPC’s Rs 20,000 game by Sameer (who went on to win it). But I now have my very own IPC Winner’s Medallion to flaunt.” She points to a big silver coin with ‘20K’ printed on it. Sameer has two of them, ‘10K’ and ‘20K’, from the June 2010 and April 2011 editions, respectively.

Women are at no disadvantage in this largely male setting. In general, says Mubina, they are “fine, controlled players who put up a great fight at the tourneys”, adding that, “Some are phenomenal at cash games, I hear. But, the men are a bit more aggressive in play for sure and have less patience. It’s a good field for us few women who hang on in the tournaments with our starting stacks and then attempt a few quick double-ups [when you bet all your chips, someone else matches it, and you win] within the second hour.”

Tournament play, the T20 and ODI’s of poker, is only one part of the story at Goa’s casinos. At these, you start with a fixed sum of money, and once you lose all your chips, you’re out; and since the sum of the minimum bet to stay in the game keeps rising, round by round, people keep getting knocked out. It is the cash games that are the never-ending Test matches played out day after day. In a cash game, you can buy more chips; and money is accumulated or lost irrespective of any time constraint. At cash tables, you can keep betting. What you are willing to risk is your only limit. 

Tournaments require a player to be more aggressive and accumulate enough money to last everyone out in the game. In the cash game, patience and an assessment of probabilities pay off in the long run, thanks to the non-grinders, aptly termed the table’s ‘fishes’ or ‘ATMs’. There is no shortage of those who turn up at a table irrespective of the game’s format willing to stake big money. On any night at the casinos, there are always a few men who have picked up chips worth several lakh and think nothing of losing it all in less than an hour. But then, these are the men who are always welcome at poker tables, arriving as they do with huge wads of currency notes, only to leave most of it behind for the grinders, typically. Without them, the trade would not exist. For every winner, there’s a loser somewhere.

Tournaments and cash tables have sent the popularity of the game soaring. “Until a few years ago,” says Abraham, “the two major markets for poker yet to be tapped were China and India. With Macau establishing itself as the hotspot for the Chinese and East Asian market, India is now poker’s final frontier—a rapidly growing market still in its infancy.”

Infancy, it is. Not a single Indian player appears on the list of the world’s top 100 poker players put out by Pokerlistings.com, an online poker guide. But this will change soon. What Indian poker players in Goa bring to the table, unlike in the American casinos of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, is a unique form of no-alcohol-by-choice Texas Hold’em (especially in tournaments). Combine this with the ‘quant’ inclinations of most Indians at poker tables, and it is not naïve to expect that some of them will feature on that list within the decade.

Roshan, for example, is an investment analyst in his early thirties based in Hyderabad. His passion for the game, he says, owes much to an ex-girlfriend and has been honed at weekend games where a buy-in (a sort of entry ticket) to play at a table is Rs 50,000. Soon after he started playing, “I realised I had a natural feel for the game,” he says, “I don’t think there is anything else that I have ever done in my life that engages me quite so fully as poker does. I’ve even toyed with the idea of making a living of it.” But he has been careful with the money, using only his poker earnings to fund successive games. He is headed next for the World Series, where the buy-in is Rs 5 lakh, having just picked up Rs 3 lakh at the tournament where he came second, beaten only by Mubina. The defeat still rankles. “You’re not going to mention that, are you?” he asks.

RISING STAKES ALL AROUND

Such passion leaves the casino more than pleased. Of the accumulated sum that participants pay to play in a tournament, the host takes an average 10 per cent cut for services rendered and casino expenses, and the last ten people left in the game pocket the pre-scaled prize money in accordance with their standing in the tournament. For example, in the inaugural game that Nikhil Jain won, 60 people bought a seat each for Rs 5,000, making the prize pool a hefty Rs 3 lakh. The IPC took a cut of Rs 30,000, and the rest was divided into ten scaled prizes, with the biggest amount of Rs 96,000 going to the winner, and the lowest of Rs 10,000 to the tenth placed.  

For the casino, every game yields a profit, since it always gets a certain percentage of the bets that is pre-calculated to be more than its expenses. Casino Royale has free snacks and drinks on the table, and a Chinjabi (Chinese and Punjabi) buffet meal two floors above, where dancers dressed in pink pirouette to loud music. Clearly, waiving the entry fees and dress code are not the only incentives for poker players.

“Legally, there are no issues with holding poker games on offshore ships in India,” claims Sanders. That would technically require these ships to be moored at least 14 nautical miles off the mainland, not exactly the distance between Casino Royale and the Panaji shore, but no one is complaining. Even if anyone were, the true poker aficionado would argue that playing poker is not gambling.

Asked by The New Yorker, Daniel Negreanu, one of the game’s greatest proponents and a champion player from Canada, said, “The stock market is gambling, right? This kid studies and he makes money in the stock market, and this is considered okay by society. A poker player, a kid, sees all these idiots making poor investments on these poker hands, and says, ‘Wow, I could do a better job than they’re doing,’ and he studies, and he makes it. How is that different, realistically, than a stockbroker? I mean, I don’t see the difference.” Eric Lindgren, another legend of the game, qualified that answer somewhat: “Well, there’s more cheating and collusion in the stock market.”