A Look at India’s Slow-Growth Online Poker Market

Last week’s publication of a piece by the English-language Scroll.in website offered a peek at a recent legal development in India that has opened the way for all sorts of card games to be played for real money in the world’s second most populous country, with online poker among several such games likely receiving a boost as a result.

india-flagPoker and India don’t necessarily go hand in hand in many people’s minds, but any country with 1.2 billion residents is a huge profit-making opportunity for almost anything, if conditions are right.  And that’s what appears to be happening there, with Scroll reporting that a couple of dozen new India-based online poker sites have sprung up in the last four years.

As in many other countries, real-money card games have also been a legal gray area, very similar to that which existed elsewhere around the world, including the US, Russia, and several different European nations.  That’s led to the whole “skill game” argument (as opposed to “gambling”) emerging in India just as it has elsewhere.

India’s Supreme Court, Scroll and other sites have reported previously, has declined to intervene by clarifying the status of clubs and online sites offering such card games, in a case specifically involving another Western import, gin rummy.  Previously, access to such sites, of all sorts of card games, had been allowed in some Indian states, banned in others, and unofficially blacklisted in some of those as well.  Except now the gloves seem to be off, virtually across the nation.

It’s great news for online poker in India, giving the couple of dozen India-based poker sites virtual license to operate and likely encouraging the startups of many more.  Adda52.com is cited by the more recent Scroll story as already claiming some six lakh (600,000) users, a number that if true a whole lot of more well-known Western-world sites would envy.

If there’s one thing that’s missing from the Scroll story and a handful of rewrites that have popped up in the story’s wake, however, it’s a sense of history.  Yes, the Indian Supreme Court has opened the door to the industry, and yes, Adda52 and sites such as PokerGuru and Khelo365 have already staked out the turf.  Yet India has been at least a small part of online poker for virtually as long as online poker itself has existed.

The Scroll piece does an okay job of trying to explain the game’s background, from its 19th-century American roots — on the Mississippi riverboats as an offshoot of an old French game called poque — to the ’70s explosion of the game in Las Vegas and the global presence it achieved when the first biog wave of American TV poker shows were syndicated around the globe.

Still, what the story misses is India’s own role in online poker’s own growth.  The country’s massive and largely multilingual programming and customer-service industries played a big role in online poker’s early days, even if the country’s own population didn’t have much knowledge of the game.

Remember Anurag Dikshit, the mega-millionaire who was originally PartyPoker’s lead programmer?  Dikshit pulled together Party’s programming team in exchange for a share of the company founded by Russell DeLeon and Ruth (Parasol) DeLeon, and that turned out to be one fantastic adventure.

By 2002 or thereabouts, Party was the dominant name in online poker, and it remained there until 2006, when the US’s passage of the UIGEA forced the site out of the dominant US market.  And the programming and the customer support — and (if I recall correctly, the server network as well) — that was all based in India.

Nor was Party the only such online-poker site to built on an India-based foundation.  But it was certainly the largest.

The thing was, players from India were always present on international sites, if not in great numbers.  A large percentage of India’s professional base speaks English as well as one or more of India’s home language, so there was really never a need for the sites to be incorporated in India as well.  What’s different now is that the new wave of sites is actually marketing to India’s citizenry, even though many of these sites, like Adda52, are still written in English.

India also has a huge history in many different online card games, taken from both Eastern and Western cultures.  Several classic British card games remain very popular in India, such as gin and bridge, and there’s another, almost entirely separate category of native-to-India card games that have their own huge audiences.

Way back in 2006, for instance, I wrote about a game called teenpatti (also called teen pathi), an Indian poker variant not too dissimilar from the British game three-card brag or the US home-game favorite, guts.  Back then, India-based sites were attempting the same sort of cross-cultural pollination as poker was hoping for, albeit in the opposite direction.

The greater point, of course, is that card games for real money have a deep, deep history in India, whether it’s an online-poker hotbed or not.  It should come as no surprise that with the right market conditions, plain old games such Texas Hold’em and Omaha are receiving more and more visibility in New Delhi and Mumbai.

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