Is the Indian poker boom on the verge of going nuclear?
It seems a distinct possibility after Indian-born pros Nipun Java and Aditya Sushantwon the first-ever gold bracelets for the country in the $1,000 tag-team event at the World Series of Poker this week.
To commemorate the momentous occasion organizers even played the Indian national anthem the day after the win. It’s the first time the anthem has been played in the Rio and the significance was not lost on Java.
“It was definitely an emotional moment,” said Java. “I’m really, really happy, especially for all the people who travel.
"I live in the United States but people who travel here… Well, everyone needs some sort of inspiration to keep coming back. This game wears you down. The bracelet came at the right time. Poker is booming in India.”
Massive Potential in India
There are a number of countries where interest in poker is threatening to explode but very few are as tantalizing as India thanks to its staggering 1.3+ billion population.
Aditya "Sushi" Sushant
“It’s kind of surprising we didn’t have a bracelet already with with the size of the population,” said Java.
Poker is currently going through some growing pains in India. The game is booming but it's mostly happening in underground cash games. Poker is only legal in a handful of cities.
“If a few things go our way legislation-wise — right now India is facing the same challenges that the US is when it comes to online poker, tax issues etc — it will really boom,” said Java.
The WSOP represents a unique challenge, according to Java, because players take a massive hit on their winnings.
“I think there will be a lot more people coming but the problem is that they basically withhold 30% here and it’s really hard to get that money back because of gambling laws back in India, which prohibit any money coming back to India if it’s linked to gambling,” he said.
“That deters a lot of poker players from coming because 30% is a huge amount. It basically makes it -EV to play.”
Agarwal: “Bracelet Will Make a Huge Difference”
Despite the tax issue Indians are still coming to Las Vegas for the WSOP. In fact they are coming in bigger and bigger numbers.
Aditya Sushant and Nipun Java winner photo.
“The Indian contingent has been steadily increasing in numbers,” he said.
“This year we have our biggest group ever. Thanks to the bracelet I think next year will be huge.”
Agarwal, who’s close with Java and Sushant, said it was important not to underestimate the value of Indian players finally winning a bracelet.
“It definitely will make a huge difference for poker in India,” he said. “It was very emotional for me seeing them win.
“People root hard for me so it was amazing to see someone from India win a bracelet. There are a lot of people who follow us and this will just get more and more people excited about playing the WSOP.”
Java is particularly impressed with Indian players like Agarwal and Sushant who make the journey from India to Vegas despite the potential tax ramifications.
“These guys just want to play,” he said. “They are coming for the glory and the fame. They want to prove to society that poker is a skill game.”
Obstacles Remain for Poker in India
Even with the bracelet win, there are still some big challenges ahead for poker in India.
“Poker is definitely booming in India but these roadblocks are not small ones,” Java said. “They are big ones.”
“It’s not the same as it is in Brazil or some of the other Latin American countries for instance.”
Java has gone back to India to play poker several times but he was mostly limited to private games while he was there.
“Only a few places like Bangalore and Goa have tournament rooms,” he said. “There is online poker though. PokerStars is there.”
Online poker operates in a grey area in India as legislatures have yet to classify it as a skill game like Rummy or Chess.
Java is of the belief that online poker helps the game, no matter where you are in the world.
“I feel like not having legalized online poker in some places is hurting the poker economy,” he said.
“I don’t think it favors the brick and mortar casinos when online poker is illegal because in the long run you need an influx of new players.
“Online poker makes it easy for new players to join and play. It’s very intimidating going to a casino to play poker for the first time.”
Similarities Between Chess and Poker Abound
Of course there’s already a skill-based game that’s taken hold of India. The country is a hotbed for the game of chess, which already has considerable poker crossover appeal.
Aditya Agarwal on a heater.
“Viswanathan Anand was world #1 for the longest time and there are a lot of young chess players there who are very, very good,” said Java. “Chess is a very well respected sport in India.”
While there’s a great deal more variance in poker the two games both reward critical thinking and smart decision making.
“There is such a huge population in India and poker kind of suits the intellectual end of it as well,” Java said.
“Most people would want to do something that brings them some kind of fulfillment. Poker matches the Indian mentality and the cultural psyche.
"There are a lot of very good chess players."
Ironically it’s much harder to make money in chess despite the fact it’s more widely-accepted in India.
“Only the elite few can do it,” said Java. “You have a better chance in poker, especially if the system actually supports you playing.”
Big Summer Ahead for Indian Players
It’s been a fast start for Indian players at the WSOP and they’ve already gone from zero bracelets to two in the span of one tournament.
Aditya Sushant one year ago.
In addition Aditya Agarwal added another final table appearance the very next day eventually finishing ninth in a $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em event.
According to Java there’s a reason everything seems to be falling into place for Indian players.
“I’ve noticed a huge difference in their preparation,” said Java of the entire contingent of Indian players.
“I feel that as a culture we lack a little something… like the Germans are ahead of the curve in terms of mental preparation and physical preparation. We’ve got the mental preparation so I’m trying instill that sense of doing the right things away from the table.”
Java has told fellow Indian players to avoid going out all night partying and focus on playing poker.
“I have to give props to my tag-team partner Sushi [Sushant],” he said. “He lost like 40 pounds in a year. He’s so much fitter and the results are showing. He’s playing so much better and he’s so much more focused.”
Java said that if Indian players are able to bring their A+ game then everything else will follow.
“I think it could be the summer of India at the WSOP.”