Gambling on the high seas: Poker Sports League spotlights card games as "mind sports"

The game of poker is casting off its negative impressions and going mainstream as a legal, intellectually  stimulating mind sport, backed by Viswanathan Anand. And, the money is unbelievably good. 

Jaideep Sen Published :  25th May 2018 06:00 AM   |   Published :   |  25th May 2018 06:00 AM
Deltin Royale

Deltin Royale

The lights of Goa’s coastline conceal a lot more than they reveal. Come sundown, the real action is no longer confined to the shacks on the beaches, and instead, moves onto a cluster of cruise liners moored close to the shore. Each of these luxury boats is set up as a legit casino or gambling haven, and they make for an entrancing sight, dancing a slow, almost seductive jig in tandem, resting on the calm waters of the River Mandovi.

The Deltin Royale, nicknamed Horseshoe Casino, is the largest of these boats, docked at the RND Jetty, Noah’s Ark, amidst the flickering, bobbing lights that circle the tarmac ring of Dayanand Bandodkar Marg in Panaji, looking out over the river. The placid, welcoming front divulges little about the fortune hunter’s paradise inside.

On board, there is a lot to lip-smack over — and, not just at the buffets. The prospect of an evening on a mini, floating sin city does arouse a wicked grin, curled at the ends of one’s lips. But that, in gist, is precisely the concern, especially among the chiefs of the Poker Sports League (PSL) — the inescapably dark, clandestine and unsocial perceptions that surround the idea of playing cards and gambling. The pleasures to derive thereof are for anyone’s imagination to run wild over.  

Holding all the aces
At the Season Two finale of the PSL tournament, which recently concluded on board the Deltin Royale, there was a lot to rejoice about — what with the team Goan Nuts picking up a cool INR 2 crore as the champions, at the end of three days of nail-biting gaming of Texas Hold ’Em, Pot-limit Omaha, Seven-Card Stud, Razz and other poker variations.

The overall prize pool was an eye-popping INR 4.5 crore, of which the runners up Gujarat Falcons collected INR 1.2 crore, and the second runners up Rajasthan Tilters pocketed a nifty INR 90 lakh. 

The players apart — there were eleven teams competing in all, with 10 players each — the star of the event turned out to be five-time world chess champion and Padma Vibhushan awardee Viswanathan Anand, playing an even hand as the league’s ambassador, and doing his best to lend the game of poker some credence as a valid, and thoroughly invigorating mind sport.

Anand spoke at length with enthusiasts about the “mentally stimulating” and “intellectually challenging” nature of poker, drawing parallels with chess on aspects of decision making, intuition and creative strategy required by players.

“Both games involve reading the other players at the table,” he points out, with a twinkle in his eyes. Still, the clincher — for poker’s sake, is entirely about the money. 

Goan Nuts lift the PSL Season 2 trophy


Chess wizards might generally be considered serious minded and disinterested in profiteering. The fact, however, is that a number of chess grandmasters — including the Russian Alexander Igorevich Grischuk and the German Jan Gustafson, as named by Anand — regularly pick up heftier bags of prize winnings by playing poker.

There are many other international chess players who are also prominent stars of poker, and there really is little to speak of in terms of degraded standings or tarnished reputations, reassures Anand.

The grandmaster’s assertion is clear: “Poker is a game of skill and not chance.” He explains, quite simply, “Over a large number of hands, the skill takes over.” The emphasis is thereby squarely on 
probability, and on mathematics and complex mental calculations, he points out.

On the other hand, the only difference between chess and poker, as he sees it, is the factor of chance, adds the grand-master. “Unlike chess, a lot of information is hidden on a poker board. That makes things all the more interesting.” 

“The whole idea of my association with PSL lies in the fact that I find poker no different from chess,” says Anand. Burman affirms their concerted purpose: To give poker its “long due prominence and acceptance” and establish it as a mainstream competitive sport. The burgeoning numbers of online players only adds to the game’s prospects.

Anand adds that poker does in fact have a wide following around the world, and is popular even on TV. Sure, for a spectator sport, poker can end up being boring — or engrossing — as say, golf or billiards. But that’s just a matter of one’s own preference, and curiosity, reasons the grandmaster.

Martinis on PSL bounty
For all the high stakes being tossed around, not to forget the endless rounds of pink champagne and the choicest hors d’oeuvres, things were rather tense through the three days of gaming — 12-14 hours a day, straight up — leading up to the finale; and the nerves were fairly evident on the tables.

The poker rookie’s tells are easy to pick: pinch of the trouser leg, nose rub, ear pinch, facial hair twirl, fingers through one’s hair, crack of the knuckles, raised eyebrows, twitch of nerves on the temples, throbbing jugular, tapping of fingers, cold fold of the arms, forced grimace, and so on. 

If poker is indeed an intellectual contest, a study of player mannerisms makes for lessons in essential psychology. No surprise that at the frontrunner tables, all the poker faces were down pat, like mugs of fiercely inclined guard dogs.

Many of them had hoodies and dark glasses on, lending a rock star air to the proceedings. Then again, the different laughs and reactions around the tables for each winning hand — from the low giggles and worldly sighs to measured coughs, muffled snorts, and loud gratified incantations — present an altogether different display of human emotions.

By any stretch, this isn’t an easy game to sit through — mastering a hand of cards, at such a level, involves complete control over one’s emotional faculties.  

The experience is certainly enticing — the roll and toss of dice in the air, the twirl of the roulette wheel, the smooth gloved gestures of the dealers, the hushed consultations on the side, and all the flashing numbers, and neon-lit bells and whistles — in a setting that’s capable of leaving the wisest among men feeling like a boy in a candy shop, albeit an adult fairyland candy shop.

There’s a great deal of fun along the course: Away from their grim, hard-nosed avatars at the tables, the players were quite a spirited lot in person. The tongue-in-cheek names of the teams themselves allowed for many a shared laugh — consider, the Punjab Bluffers, the Rajasthan Tilters and the Goan Nuts (the ‘nut hand’ is the strongest possible hand in a given situation).

Four of these teams — Andhra Bullets, Goan Nuts, Delhi Panthers, and Chennai Thalaivas also won Team of the Day awards (a bounty of INR 10 lakh each) based on top scores, on each day of the tournament. 

Amit Burman and Viswanathan Anand with the trophy


Freeroll with a flourish
When it comes to legalities, poker is completely above board, says Pranav Bagai, CEO, PSL. The point to note is that Goa’s onshore casinos are only allowed to run automated or mechanised games and slot machines, and for live gaming, you’re left with no resort but to head offshore.

Meanwhile, with political rumblings ongoing over unfair tax cuts for onshore casinos, online gaming portals such as Adda52, Poker-Baazi and Spartan Poker have made all the difference. 

The bait is hard to ignore: In India, the online poker industry is estimated at $150 million — while analysts forecast casino revenues in Goa alone to hit the $1 billion mark in the next few years — a significant amount, considering the almost nascent state of the community’s growth.

The Poker Sports League, with its unique franchise-based format, is the largest platform for poker in India, and in its second season this year, drew in 20,000 players apart from wild card entries representing 11 countries.

Adda52, incidentally, was acquired by Delta Corp for INR 155 crore in 2016, while Anuj Gupta, founder of the poker portal, joins Pranav Bagai and Amit Burman, vice chairman of Dabur, as co-founders of the Poker Sports League (Burman retains a personal interest, with no direct involvement of Dabur).

For an added note, Delta Corp, owned by Jaydev Mody, also runs the offshore casinos Deltin Jaqk and Deltin Caravela apart from Royale, as well as the onshore Deltin Suites Casino Hotel at Nerul. 

The setting of the finale


Anuj offers a word about the great levelling quality about poker: Absolutely anybody off the streets can be a winner, and size up with aces like Kevin Macphee, a recognised poker hand and international wild card with the Goan Nuts. In other words, in the online world, everybody is a champion in contention! 

Notably, Season 2 witnessed two women players (out of a total 110): Niharika Bindra from Delhi, and Sofia Lovgren from Sweden. Among celebrities, Bollywood actress Minissha Lamba is an oft-cited name in Indian circuits, while Chris Gayle and Shane Warne are known poker hands among the cricketers. 

While mentors like Aditya Sushant of Bengaluru Warriors, Kunal Patni of Andhra Bullets, Sumit Asrani of Kolkata Kings, and Akash Malik of Delhi Panthers bring in a fair deal of swagger to the table, they also play up the lifestyle choice of a poker player.

At the same time, the scholarly presence of mentors like Kanishka Samant of Chennai Thalaivas, and Amit Jain of Mumbai Anchors, presents ample reason to support a full-time poker playing career decision.

Their biggest challenge yet is about the image of gambling, reflects Burman in a relaxed moment on the sidelines. He’s in it for the fun, he insists, adding that future plans involve over INR 100 crore in the next five to eight years to maintain the league’s stature.

Burman’s vision might lead one to recall the ever-illuminating words of Kenny Rogers from the country classic, The Gambler: “You got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away, And know when to run…” For now, with the guidance of Viswanathan Anand, the Poker Sports League certainly seems set to laugh all the way to the bank. 

Poker Sports League Season 2 will be telecast on Dsport, Discovery India’s sports channel, June 12-17, 9 pm. Jaideep Sen was in Goa to attend the tournament, by invitation.