“Horse racing was brought in by the British and has been legal ever since, but poker, which can easily be proven as a game of skill with mathematical equations, is still not legalised,” laments professional poker player Raghav Bansal.
His woes aren’t unfounded, but India is, indeed, slowly opening up to the card game often associated with gambling. Calcutta High Court, in October 2019, even reiterated its earlier stance that poker is a game of skill. That it’s not plain ol’ gambling.
But the real validation for the game in India could be coming from beyond the walls of courthouses. From universities. Today, one can legitimately study poker as part of their curriculum across colleges and dedicated online courses.
Bansal didn’t have the option in his time. As someone who secured the ninth place at ‘Event 47’ at the international poker tournament World Series of Poker (WSOP) in 2015—the first Indian to have reached the ‘final table’ winning $39,508—Bansal didn’t always think he’d pursue poker professionally. (The winning amount at WSOP is based on the number of players registering for a tournament and their bets.) Taught by a friend, Bansal started by playing small stakes of 2-5 pounds back in university—while studying in the UK in 2006—till he joined the online poker playing bandwagon, winning and increasing his bankroll, honing his poker skills.
Soon after, Bansal cracked an interview for the position of analyst at professional services firm Ernst & Young. He didn’t step into the office, and instead, took up poker professionally.
A bold choice at the age of 21. But a choice that could be less of a gamble for a student today.
Deepak Dhayanithy, Associate Professor of Strategic Management at the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, runs an elective course called ‘Competitive Strategy – the Game of Poker’ (CSP). CSP, taught to second-year MBA students at one of India’s top B-schools, certainly brings some legitimacy to the game. Dhayanithy started the course in 2013-2014 with the aim of helping students develop decision-making and risk management skills.
Dhayanithy’s course has turned out to be a real gamechanger. In the past decade, poker education has come into the mainstream, with lifestyle brand Big Stack also launching India’s first online Poker University in October 2019. In 2020, Spartan Poker—a leading poker operator—is all set to start teaching the strategy game to interested players at the District Sports Club in Mumbai. The All India Gaming Federation (AIGF) helps manage operators and players in India.
Witnessing this growth in poker education, Roland Landers, CEO of AIGF, says, “There is tremendous scope for education and training in poker as the number of online poker players increase. Gamers are also opting for making a career as online professional poker players, and hence, there will be a need for courses that can cater to this user demand.”
According to professional services company KPMG’s report, the online gaming industry in India is estimated to be worth Rs 4,380 crore ($617 million) for the year ended March 2018.