The market for online versions of games such as Ludo and card games, as well as for fantasy sports and others, has grown tremendously during this period of lockdown as people battle boredom, stress and loneliness amid continued physical distancing. And one of the biggest winners in this segment is online poker.
Even a pandemic hasn’t dampened the thrill of putting real money on the table when one is armed with a good set of cards, which is why India’s poker heads have been flocking to online venues such as Adda52, 9stacks, PokerStars and PokerBaazi, leading to a surge in numbers.
India’s poker industry was already in a major growth phase in 2019, and now, after the lockdown, it seems to have burgeoned further. “We noticed about a 30 per cent uptick in the number of concurrent users, and in total games played each day. In addition, referrals and new sign-ups had also increased by almost 100 per cent as compared to the pre-corona period,” Sudhir Kamath, CEO and co-founder of 9Stacks, tells ThePrint. He adds that tier-2, 3 and 4 markets also observed an explosive growth.
Even the economic crisis and ever-looming threat of job losses and shrinking disposable incomes have not deterred the average player from betting money on the game. “Almost all our players play poker or fantasy sports purely for fun. This is a discretionary spend that competes with say movies, eating out, or live sports,” says Kamath.
There are professional players, too, who make their entire living out of playing the game, like players of any other sport do. But Kamath explains, “Less than 10 per cent players see poker as a viable option to make money. These players have to develop much deeper skill through diligent study and practice, spending maybe three to four hours each day on learning and improving their game. Less than 1 per cent of our players would see themselves becoming professional, full-time poker players.”
Addictive thrill and responsible gaming
Mohd Rizwan, an IT professional in Pune, has always loved the game, but it was during the lockdown that it became irresistible to him. In the initial days of the Covid-induced lockdown, Rizwan was playing 10-12 hours a day, sometimes even 16, and spent about Rs 12-13,000 buying coins on Zynga, where one plays with online currency instead of real money.
For Rizwan, the best part about Zynga is the way it translates a little money into trillions of dollars — so at a time, one is playing games running into millions and billions of dollars. Playing at such high stakes, even if they’re virtual, is a huge rush. “You can’t take home the money you earn on this site or convert it into real currency, but just winning so much money can be thrilling,” he says, and this thrill was exactly what he needed to get through the first few weeks of isolation. The demand for Zynga coins is so high that there is even a black market for them.
But many other sites do deal in real money in every aspect. 9stacks lets players decide the level to which they are willing to bet and allows them to cap their daily playing hours. It claims to be the first site in India to include features that ensure responsible gaming.
“Our players can set their own limits on how much they deposit, what stakes they play, what kind of tournaments they can participate in. They can also choose to block their account for a duration of time, or even permanently. We have a team that reviews users’ gameplay and counsels those who want to up the stakes but don’t yet have the skill to compete against better players. Taken together, these efforts ensure our players play within their limits, stay safe and have fun,” Kamath says.
Also, it’s not a game that’s based on luck alone. Prateek Dadheech, a Mumbai-based television writer, says that’s what he likes the most about the game. “It’s all about minimising luck and maximising skill. You have to be calculative, you have to know how to bluff, all those things count, and the money you earn also doesn’t hurt.”
Speaking of winnings, many websites also host tournaments where one can win a handsome amount of money at a relatively low risk and deposit, because of the different pools that one can enter.
“They have a predetermined buy-in that the player can choose and sit at a table. The winner, or sometimes two winners, from each table then advance in rounds to win the cash prize,” Dadheech explains. “An acquaintance of mine once came second in one such tournament and took home Rs 2 lakh!”
Kamath says the highest prize money would be in the range of Rs 50 lakh, generated over many weeks of steady gameplay and lots of skill. “In a single tournament, players would have earned up to Rs 5 lakh or so, in the space of maybe six or seven hours.” He, however, says some players stick by the concept of ‘variance’ or what a layperson would call ‘win some, lose some’ — where instead of eyeing a single win, players seek the upside of many weeks of play, steadily increasing their pot.
You don’t get to read someone else’s poker face online
While everyone is learning to reorient the concept of social life to online platforms, the intimacy of sitting with friends is irreplaceable. But in poker, it’s not just the emotional thrill that’s missing. Playing online, while sitting alone in your bedroom, can affect one’s gameplay too.
“In real time, I can read a person’s face and body language, judge their game; this is something that’s missing in online play,” explains Gurugram-based Saarthak Dutt, creative director of MagicCircle Communications. “It’s easy to understand the pattern of a person’s game while playing three or four hands with them, too. In online games, since you’re playing with random people, it’s difficult to decipher their strategy.”
Dadheech shares Dutt’s sentiment. Neither of them, therefore, has really invested much while playing online. While Dadheech has capped it at Rs 500 that he keeps in circulation, Dutt initially keeps it in the Rs 1,000-1,500 range, which he slowly increases while playing.
This is vastly different from how they used to play in the pre-Covid era. Dadheech had gone up to putting Rs 7-8,000 in the pool, while Dutt sometimes had losses of around Rs 35,000.
It’s true that most sites do not allow you to create private rooms for just friends to play in, but Rizwan and his group found a way to bypass this. “We’d all coordinate our timing, get on a WhatsApp call and hijack a table, so to speak,” he says.
Either way, whether one is playing with friends or strangers, the fact is that online poker has taken off in a huge way in India, with even just-retired cricket star M.S. Dhoni signing on to be the face of PokerStars India.
The former captain said, “I am excited to be associated with the PokerStars family. The thrill, the excitement, the pressure, and the competitiveness of it — these are just some parallels I can draw between poker and cricket. In the last few years, there has been a change in the mindset of people when they think of online Poker. Online Poker like any game of skill requires one to be strategic and play responsibly. Slowly but surely it is being recognized as a sport that is fun and quick to learn but rich in its complexity.”
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