A $175,805 win is big in itself. But 28-year-old Nikita Luther’s success at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) 2018 in Nevada also made her India’s first female poker player to be awarded a WSOP bracelet. That’s akin to an Olympic gold medal in the game, says Mohit Agarwal, co-founder of Adda52, India’s largest poker website, whose professional team includes Luther. Her achievement was no flash in the pan. It’s reflective of a new obsession — online card games — that’s taking over urban India and reshaping attitudes toward a centuries-old tradition.
Card games are entrenched in Indian culture and traceable to Mughal courts of the 1500s. Rummy, which involves building sets, and Teen Patti, similar to the British three-card brag, are staples during festivals such as Diwali. But the games, where players often bet small amounts, also developed an association with gambling and wastefulness. That lack of broad social acceptance meant these games remained largely limited to family gatherings, never growing into regulated and accepted professions or hobbies. Until now.
A rapidly growing set of companies like Adda52 are pulling these games out of the closet, taking them online and injecting professionalism, regulation and money like never before. They’re drawing millions of young players who are looking for alternate forms of entertainment beyond the national passions of cricket and films. India today has at least 18 major online card gaming firms, compared to 10 in 2014, according to consulting firm Deloitte. The country’s online gaming industry is expected to touch Rs. 11,900 crore ($1.8 billion) by 2023, a new report by consulting firm KPMG suggests, nearly three times the $670 million market in 2018. India in 2018 had 250 million gamers, up from 20 million in 2010.
Leading the rummy revolution is Junglee Games, a firm launched by founder Ankush Gera in San Francisco but aimed at the Indian market. It alone commands 20 million Indian players. Its ongoing Rummy Premiere League, with the finale on May 19, has a prize pool of Rs. 1 crore ($153,000). BaaziGames, another firm, launched its rummy site, RummyBaazi, this month, and online poker is also booming. BaaziGames’ poker platform PokerBaazi has grown 70 percent year-over-year since its launch in 2014, says Varun Ganjoo, its director. Adda52 hosted the country’s first national poker championship in April, with a Rs. 2,500 ($38) buy-in and a guaranteed prize of Rs.1 crore ($153,000). Around 4,000 players participated. The website plans to raise tournament stakes to Rs.10 crore ($1.53 million).
They get to play challenging games with some of the best players in the country.
Bharat Bhatia, Junglee Games
Global firms are joining in, as are celebrities, bringing both visibility and credibility. Global Poker League has launched GPL India, the country’s first major poker league, in partnership with PokerStars India — the India operation of international major PokerStars. GPL India Season 1 aired this year on Colors Infinity, a popular television channel. Jamaican cricketer and poker enthusiast Chris Gayle is Adda52’s brand ambassador, while Bollywood star Nawazuddin Siddiqui endorses PokerStars India. And last year, Indian president Ram Nath Kovind felicitated prominent female poker player Muskan Sethi.
“[Online card games are] easy to access, cheaper to play and available online, which works great for younger people,” says Roland Landers, CEO of the All India Gaming Federation (AIGF), the self-regulatory body of the industry in India. “We see 20- to 30-year-olds playing well successfully and winning consistently.”
A booming economy and an unparalleled youth demographic — India’s GDP growth rate of 7 percent and projected average age of 29 by 2020 are both unmatched among billion-dollar economies — are helping fuel this boom. India’s internet penetration is expected to touch 830 million users by 2021, driven by smartphone sales.
“Rummy is passed down generations, and there are thousands of players who want to play regularly, which is only achievable online,” says Bharat Bhatia, vice president of marketing at Junglee Games. “They get to play challenging games with some of the best players in the country.” That math, statistics and probability are strong skills many Indians master early through a rigorous education system also helps, says Ankur Dewani, CEO of Sachiko Gaming, the company licensed to run PokerStars India. “[These are] all valuable skills for poker,” he says.
But a strong, clearly defined regulatory framework and the backing of domestic and international corporate majors and celebrities are proving equally critical in allowing these card games to shed taboos of the past, industry insiders say. Gambling is banned across India, as is sports betting. But the law exempts games of “mere skill” from the ban. And apart from three states — Assam, Odisha and Telangana — all other Indian states recognize games such as poker and rummy as games of skill, so it’s legal for players and firms to put money into them. It helped, for instance, when a major Indian company, Delta Corp, acquired Gaussian Network — the owner of Adda52 — in 2017, making it a listed company. “It made things even better for the industry — people tend to think, since we’re a listed company, we must be doing legitimate business!” says Agarwal.
That’s allowing a new generation of players, including women in an otherwise conservative society, to turn professional. Pratibha Arya, 25, who turned pro about a year and a half ago, started playing poker while pursuing a master’s in computer science. “I had charts prepared all over my room,” she says, laughing. Like any professional sportsperson, she trains for several sessions a day.
The increased legitimacy is also encouraging some firms to try “hybrid” tournaments. Initial rounds are played online. But for the final rounds, companies fly the surviving players to a single location to play live while streaming the games online. Both Junglee Games and Adda52 have adopted this approach.
To be sure, challenges continue to lurk. Broadly, there’s still a “lack of education” surrounding “risk-based strategic card games and other mind sports around India,” says Max Rabinovitch, chief strategy officer of Global Poker League. Luther agrees that “it’s our job to educate people” that betting in skill-based games like poker “is a calculated risk, like investing in stocks and shares,” and nothing more. Concerns over addiction persist too. That’s why all gaming companies are required to adhere to a set of rules under the AIGF’s Skill Games Charters. For example, if you’ve lost too much money — 80 percent of the balance — Junglee Games temporarily blocks your account. Adda52 encourages users to self-impose limits in terms of time and money on the forum, which then is locked in for a set period. These companies have customer care executives who are trained in basic counseling practices.
But the response these firms are getting is giving them the confidence to push ahead further. “We were emboldened” by the telecast of the GPL India on Colors Infinity, says Rabinovitch. It allowed casual viewers to see the “dedication and skill” poker takes, he adds. For PokerStars India, Siddiqui — seen as a self-made star who has risen through his grit and talent — as a brand ambassador has worked wonders, says Dewani. “The reach has been amazing. Besides, Nawaz has a pretty sick bluff!”
Now, the AIGF is seeking political endorsement too. Last month, it urged the country’s two biggest political parties — the BJP and the Congress — to include online gaming in their election manifestos because of its revenue and employment potential, though neither party did.
And there’s more money to play for than ever before. The first BaaziGames tournament had Rs. 10 lakh ($15,300) as guaranteed prize money — now, it offers Rs. 5 crore ($770,000), says Ganjoo. “The scenario has changed drastically. Today in India, you’ll find a Rs. 10 lakh ($15,300) game pretty much every day,” Agarwal says.
Time to get the game face on!