Since signing on as a member of Team PokerStars Pro in January, Aditya Agarwal has been promoting poker as a professional sport throughout India.
Just a few days ago, poker won a big victory after the Calcutta High Court handed down a decision allowing poker rooms to legally operate in Agarwal’s native state of West Bengal.
But today, Agarwal might have to defend the game in front of two West Bengalis he fears the most: his girlfriend’s parents.
The conservative West Bengali couple owns tea gardens throughout the state and have no clue that their daughter’s new boyfriend is a professional poker player.
Like many people throughout India, Agarwal says they assume poker is just another form of casino gambling.
While Agarwal will fight that battle tonight, a different "Bitti" Agarwal [unrelated] is still celebrating the high court’s decision.
Legalizing Poker in West Bengal
Bitti and his partner, Kizhakke Naduvath Suresh, were behind the poker room and lawsuit that legalized poker throughout West Bengal.
“[Bitti] opened a poker room and it got shut down the same day by the cops,” Agarwal said.
“It was something with the paid license, but then they filed the case and the court gave them permission. It's the biggest news in Indian poker right now.
“So, he's reopening his poker room this week. Everything's in place and I feel like a lot of people will reopen too.
“Calcutta's gonna have tons of live poker rooms, it's going to be really good.”
Prior to the court decision, Bitti had been running poker games throughout West Bengal using the 1957 West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competitions Act --which specifically names and allows Bridge, poker, Rummy and Nap-- as defense.
Despite that, police would constantly shut down games and rooms throughout Calcutta, assuming the games were illegal.
After police shut down their room late last month, Suresh --a high-profile attorney who led the charge in legalizing poker in Bangalore-- took the case to Calcutta’s highest court to end the murky legal territory.
Poker Still Illegal in Majority of India's States
While this legalized live poker in West Bengal, the game is still illegal in the majority of India's states.
Agarwal says that unlike the United States, where states are drafting legislation for or against poker, Indian states are basing their decisions on existing laws.
“Each state law is different and there haven’t been any new laws for a long time,” Agarwal said.
“So they’ve been using these laws from the 20th century [like the 1957 West Bengal Gambling Act] to open these poker rooms.
“Bangalore and West Bengal were two places where the law was favorable but in places like Maharashtra and Bombay, gambling's completely illegal.
“It’s just the way it is, I don’t know how it’s going to shape up in the future.”
Agarwal and other Indian players at the 2014 WSOP
While Agarwal’s uncertain about the game’s future nationwide, he’s doing his part to promote the game as a professional sport.
Poker as a Mind Sport
Along with a few other players, Agarwal is trying to promote poker as a mind sport.
“Varun Goel is very involved with the legalization part of poker in India as a mind sport,” Agarwal said.
“He’s leading the charge there and setting up the Indian Poker Federation structure. He's the one that's going to get poker legal in India through the federation.”
While Agarwal has been using his status to promote the game, he’s also been enjoying the validation that comes with being a Team PokerStars Pro.
“It feels very special man,” Agarwal said. “All these people I’ve played with for so long are coming up to congratulate me. In Asia, people I don’t know will come up to take pictures and ask questions, so that’s cool.”
Even other Indian poker sites were quick to follow PokerStars’ lead after they signed Agarwal.
“After Stars signed me, Indian sites signed a lot of players too,” Agarwal said. One site signed four players, Agarwal said, while another snatched up six.
The PokerStars Shine
There’s only one Team PokerStars Pro India though.
“There are a lot of pros now but being with the PokerStars brand is so special,” Agarwal said. “You get that extra attention, it's nice.”
Agarwal hopes this rising tide of poker in India will also legitimize poker to his girlfriend’s parents. They’ve even saved the graphic comparing Agarwal to Indian cricket legend Shakin Tendulkar to show his girlfriend’s father.
Like most of India’s population Agarwal says his girlfriend’s father is a huge fan of Tendulkar. “It might help us ease him into it,” Agarwal said.
If not, Agarwal hopes that his results and status as an Indian poker star will do the trick. While Agarwal wasn’t even the only poker-playing Aditya Agarwal in his neighborhood a few years ago, he now has a prefix that none of India’s 1.2 billion people have working in his favor.