History tells you that India is often late to the party. Be it technology, fashion, T20 or even freedom. We love being late. We wait and make others wait. It’s our thing. This characteristic is not necessarily something we have fashioned and it may just be something ingrained to our DNA. But it is difficult to deny the existence of this characteristic trait. Can anyone remember when was the last time a meeting started at 9 am as was mentioned in the mail the previous night? Did a single guest arrive for the dinner at or before 8?Did I ever reach class on time? Well the last one can on certain occasions be attributed to another trait, namely laziness, but that’s for another time! Today we focus on on something we have been waiting for as poker players, enthusiasts and investors for quite some time – The Boom.
The original poker boom originated in the west in 2003. This is often referred to as the ‘Moneymaker Effect’ – when a novice, Chris Moneymaker, entered the WSOP (World Series of Poker) via an online satellite and ended up winning the main event thereby converting a meagre $40 investment into a $2.5 million payout. Overnight the game of poker became a hit in the United States and was being spoken about in in every other household. Ordinary Joes were left wondering how a recreational and seemingly ordinary player overcame the odds and beat the very best. Suddenly, everyone wanted to become the next Moneymaker (and Greg Raymer did so the following year by emulating Moneymaker’s feat). This hype and hysteria saw the 2004 World Series featured three times as many players as the previous year and the numbers kept rising thereafter. The record stands at 8,773 participants in the 2006 edition. This is in sharp contrast to the mere 839 participants in 2003 and the 7 participants in 1970 – the year the WSOP was conceived.
While the success of the WSOP and online poker is heralded and well documented, the path that led there is perhaps less so. Poker picked up in the post World War 2 era and was played for a long time in an age when there were few rules and regulation. It grew steadily, albeit slowly, though the decades until the computer revolution brought the game online. Free poker (i.e. without real cash) was available online from as early as 1990 and in 1998, Planet Poker became the first online cards room to offer real money games. Another major event to also occur the same year, and one that continues to play an important role for the poker industry till date, was the movie Rounders featuring Matt Damon and picturized on Texas Hold’em poker. By the end of 1998, the online gambling business has generated $834.5 million in revenue despite connectivity issues, slow servers, and primitive network technology, as reported by Frost and Sullivan, global market research firm.
In 2000, Poker Spot became the first online poker site to offer online tournaments. UltimateBet – launched the following year – became the first site to display the average pot size in the software lobby. 2001 saw the the launch of 2 new websites – Party Poker and PokerStars, who between them went on to become the largest poker websites and remain so till date. Along with Paradise Poker, the websites garnered huge popularity through their proprietary software and promotional strategy. Paradise Poker then became the first online poker room to be owned by a publicly owned company when it was acquired by SportingBet, at the time the world’s largest publicly traded online gaming company, for $340 million. Party Poker soon followed when its parent company went public on the London Stock Exchange. At the time, its valuation was pegged at in excess of $8 billion. Over the next few years poker kept growing across North America and Europe and in 2010, there were over 500 websites operating worldwide.
Online poker was not however, without its own Kryptonites and there were many hiccups along the way. These ranged from collusion scams, to payout issues and even government regulations which culminated in Black Friday. Some players lost money, while others gambled away their entire livelihoods. The exposure of certain websites using super-user logins which game them access to view the hands of every player at a table, in real time, grievously eroded the faith players had in online systems forcing websites to seek international certifications. No one had ever said the path was going to be easy and it certainly was not.
Back here in India, we have only recently begun with our own journey. While certain individuals have been playing it for decades, poker has just begun to take over colleges and households alike. The once famous game of Bridge which was ever so popular throughout the 60’s all the way to the early 90’s has made way for poker. Children have taken to the sport from as early as the age of 15 with some waiting eagerly to turning 18, not because they can finally drink but because they can finally play online (might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the point). Tournaments in Goa, the Mecca of poker in India, are consistently seeing a rise in numbers from the early days of the IPC (Indian Poker Championship) which drew a crowd of about 100 to the recently concluded Baazi and Deltin Poker Tours which saw participation cross the 250 player mark in the Main Events. The online spree started with Add52.com in 2011 and today has over 15 sites competing for online supremacy with more coming along. With the recent acquisition of Gaussian Networks (the parent company of Add52) by the Deltin Group and the expectation that major network companies may soon start televising the sport, there is enough optimism going around, with some even hoping that the anticipated ‘boom’ is around the corner.
However, amid all the euphoria, there are also certain constraints which ail our nascent community. As young players attest, the task of convincing parents (and thereby society) to accept that their children have chosen poker as a profession has proved too herculean a task for many. And it is to be expected considering we Indians do come from a reserved background, one that is deeply entrenched in traditional values. There have also been online scandals with many players turning away from the poker industry in disgust after payout issues and software irregularities. Not least, is the near complete absence of female players from the circuit. These problems have led to some calling, admittedly in hushed voices, the poker market in India a bubble. They believe that the sport will remain as it is has been before and remains today – one that will always operate in the shadows, unable to come out in the open. Bound. Shackled.
But if there are problems aplenty then there is also optimism in equal measure. The question then comes – in which direction will the needle tilt? The western route had the ‘Moneymaker Effect”. That triggered the path for what is today a $50 billion industry. Do we too then wait for our own trigger? Maybe an Indian will win the WSOP. Or maybe someone will televise it soon and people will get hooked on. The thing is, we could wait and hope. Or maybe we can all start our own little revolution in any which way we can and hope to become small triggers in ourselves. Maybe for a change, we forge our own path and not wait…