Cash me in! Introducing the new-age high-flying Indian poker champion celebrity lifestyle
It's a scene waiting to be scripted into a high-tension, grand finale of a blockbuster movie — one that’s entirely themed around poker. You could sync in a smooth John Barry original score in the background, just to set the mood.
The focus is zoomed-in over a card table covered with the finest baize — a surface so smooth, the cards glide over it from the dealer’s hands, a few milli-hair lengths above the surface.
The table sits at the head of a swarm of similar tables, all of them packed into a mid-sized yacht, moored a stone’s throw off the Goa coastline — to place some context, and for the making of some neat, divergent segues of long-takes of the moon glistening over the placid River Mandovi.
Around the head table, the tension is palpable, and barely visible — it’s the electricity between the cards and the baize. Circling around the table, the most blinding of spotlights maintain an unwavering vigil, like a ring of neon judges impassively observing every raised bid, and call for show.
For a note, the game of poker really isn’t as simple as of placing, wagering and finger-wagging over a case of bets; there is indeed a fair amount of skill at play here, over the predominantly looming question of luck.
Thankfully, in this case, like with many hit movies — you really needn’t get into the invigorating aspects of mathematics, and the mind-numbing psychology that actually drives the game’s champions.
You might even disregard all the vivid stereotypes of rubbernecked Rain Men with the unstoppable chuckles, the slick streetfighters in dusty leather jackets, and the smooth-handed mavericks straight off the boat.
As a matter of fact, around the table here, sit nine of India’s highest earning, most hard-nosed and most competitive poker players in the professional circuit; you could say, they’re the country’s most successful poker stars today. But there’s more to the whole setting, especially with the choice of players.
And there’s more to the underlying plot too — of identifying the makings of yet another new-age, anti-mainstream, alternative profile of a well and truly urban Indian rockstar lifestyle.
All out for glamour
Around the table that’s at the focus of all our attention — in varying proportions of size, mean spirit, depths of grimacing arrogance, and overbearing high-handedness — sit the finalists of a poker tournament.
A note for costume: the clothing is mostly of dark, disguise wear and heavy (it can get very cold inside the boat), commonly accessorised with hooded jerseys, thick dark glasses, like the ones with big loops on the side, designed for over-pretentious indoor nose-thumbing; and a choice of earplugs or headphones.
If you ever had a doubt about the starry, glamorous side of poker, you could drop them like an anchor at the dockyard.
The game of poker now boasts of international stars such as Ben Affleck, Shane Warne, Chris Gayle and closer home, even Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who’s the new brand ambassador for PokerStars India (look for his poker ads on YouTube).
All of them might carry a certain bad-boy chip on their shoulders, but they can also hold a poker face to put down Daniel Craig across the table.
Again, for the sake of clearing up context, the imagery suggested here is completely devoid of stereotypes of dance bars and hand-tossed showers of crisp currency notes; you know, all those images from the movies... You’d just have to hop onto any one of these boats, and wager your chips away, to realise how much fun it can be to toss some money around.
The clincher of our grand climax of a scene is yet to be built up, permitting adequate room for a cleaning up of poker’s toughest gamble yet — the uphill battle that it faces for a cleaner societal image, against all the negative cloak-and-dagger perceptions that haunt the idea of gambling — as opposed to playing the mind-sport of poker.
At a discussion with poker enthusiasts in Goa earlier this year, Kunal and Tarun joined other card-playing professionals to try and placate all manner of concerns — moralistic, financial and even psychological — to do with the game of poker.
Ultimately, it’s hard to argue that once the chips are cashed in, and the money’s in the bank — the concerns really just fly out the window.
Meanwhile, the likes of Kunal and Tarun are going at their game like hardened sportsmen — engaging in meditation, mind exercises, strict diet regimens, and so on.
Poker, for these stars, isn’t any less than any contact or team sport. In fact, all of them stress in unison — the benefits of mastering poker, in terms of management skill and practical psychology, are immense.
To drive home the point, the players point out that IIM Kozhikode now even offers a course that specialises in poker, under the guidance of poker expert Deepak Dhayanithy, who works at the institute as an assistant professor.
The reality about poker might take a while to sink in among regular Indian households — that there are thousands of poker players waging bets online — at any given minute, on any given day.
The true revelation here is actually to do with the birth of an alternative rockstar lifestyle — imagine working out and preparing for weekend poker tournaments, as a full-time career!
Exciting as that sounds, the game itself can be quite unforgiving — especially if you don’t keep your eyes on the table.
At the five-day live Deltin Poker Tournament, held in Goa earlier this February, co-hosted by the poker site Adda52.com and the floating casino of Deltin Royale, Anuj Gupta and Mohit Agarwal, the former IIT Delhi grads who co-founded Adda52.com, took time to clear all the apprehensions about poker.
Among the big names on board, meanwhile, was actor Minissha Lamba, having a good time with her stack of chips.
The big surprise yet — and the unexpected, decisive twist for our big climax — comes in the form of the tournament’s jackpot winner.
The hero of our blockbuster, as it turns out, isn’t among any of the glib-talking, silver-tongued men working their decks of cards. No! It’s a lady who trumps all the odds, in this case.
As the men broke into cold sweats, Nikita calmly knocked off each of her fierce competitors one by one — and it definitely helped that she’s easily the prettiest head-turner in the circuit.
Even Roland Landers, CEO, All India Gaming Federation (AIGF), agrees that Nikita is the next big model star in waiting, for the sake of poker in India. “She’s the best we have,” he exults! Who knows, maybe she will be a movie star someday.
In a message, post-tournament, Landers emphasised that while giving rise to new celeb stars, their focus is more on building interest around poker as a game of skill — taking into account aspects of patience, perseverance, concentration, and of course, basic math.
“Anybody and everybody can play this game,” enthused Landers, and with one look at their crowned champion, I was at a loss to further any arguments. All I could say was, “Cash me in!”
The writer was at the Deltin Poker Tournament in Goa by invitation.
— Jaideep Sen