Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This personal essay by me appears in the winter edition of Forbes Life India.
I feel the ground sway under my feet as I get up. I gather my chips and walk unsteadily to the cashier’s cage. I’ve been playing poker for 40 hours now, and I’m up by the amount I used to earn in a month in my last job. But it’s been a swingy session, and I was down by a lot at one point till I fought back, and I was up by more than I am now till I lost a couple of hands. I’ve faced euphoria and devastation within 40 seconds of each other in the same hand, when I flopped the nuts—the best possible hand—on the flop, and my opponent, after going all-in on the turn, out-nutted me on the river. I’ve been on a high fueled by four Red Bulls and the excitement of winning, and now the ground is shaking and I wonder if I am about to faint and finally be punished for this brutal lifestyle. Then I realize, with some relief, why the earth is moving so gently under my feet: we are on a boat, after all—a floating casino in Goa, solidly anchored but still on water. I do not know what time it is, or what day, or whether I have missed my flight back to Mumbai. What I do know is that this session is over, I need sleep, and once I have rested I’ll be back for more.
I am a poker obsessive. This is a problem because it is difficult to state whether it is a problem or not. If someone is obsessed with tennis or chess or cricket, it becomes apparent soon enough whether they’re any good at it, and whether they have a future in it, because there are clear metrics to measure performance. If someone is obsessed with roulette or teen patti, it is equally clear that they are addicted to gambling, which can only be harmful in the long run. But poker exists in a twilight zone: it is both a game of skill, and a gamble. You could play it as a card game involving chance, and do it for the dopamine rushes that keeps addicts addicted; or you could study it as a science, bringing probability, game theory and psychology to bear on each carefully weighed decision. In the long run, a mathematical approach makes you money: If you keep getting your money in when the odds favour you, you will end up profitable. But in the short run, luck plays a huge role in the game. (The management of luck is the key skill in the game.) And in this short run, the wild gambler, the compulsive addict, can win huge amounts, while the skillful player can lose, and lose, and lose, despite constantly making the correct decisions, till he is emotionally imbalanced enough to actually start playing badly. Because this is a game that fosters self-delusion, that universal (and necessary) quality in human beings, it is impossible for me to say whether I am here as a gambling addict or as a serious sportsman. I know that I have both in me, and they battle every second that I am on the table.
I was drawn to poker, I suppose, for the same reasons that I was drawn to chess or scrabble: the intellectual challenge that it presented, and the competitive instinct that it fueled. I started playing the game three years ago, on the world’s biggest poker site, Pokerstars. Because of the difficulty in depositing money onto the site through Indian credit cards, which are barred by the RBI from depositing money on gambling sites, I used to play freeroll tournaments, that required no entry fee and had small guaranteed prizes. It was a good way to learn the basics of the game, and I followed it up by reading all the great instructional books in poker literature: the Sklanskys, the Harringtons, the Millers, the Brunsons, the Gordons. But this was all theoretical stuff, and I was itching to play live poker, with real people, who would give off tells when they bluffed me so I could make hero calls, like they do on television. None of my friends played poker, but early last year, I managed to get myself into The Sunday Game, a weekend gathering of poker enthusiasts in a suburban hotel in Mumbai. They’d book a room, organise a tournament, maybe two, with a Rs 3000 or 5000 buy-in, with 10% going to the rake to pay for the room, and the rest forming a prizepool for the top three or four players. Sometimes they’d play a cash game afterwards with a buy-in of Rs 1000. Looking back at the time, I realise that I was ridiculously bad: but playing with better players helped me, as did the fact that, being an obsessive with a steep learning curve, I worked hard on my game and got better really fast.
I still needed validation, though, and I got some when I went to Goa in June 2010 for the India Poker Championship, an event in which there were three tournaments held over the weekend at Casino Royale, a floating casino. Playing ABC poker, sticking to basics, I reached the final table of the main tournament, and got a modest payout for coming fifth. What was more thrilling, though, was how my cash-game sessions ended up. On the last day, I made a hero call against two all-in players on the turn, with one card to come, and won a pot worth Rs 1.5 lakhs. At the time, it seemed enormous to me, and I went home from that trip with a tidy profit.
Believing that mastery of the game was inevitable, I sought out cash games to play in Mumbai, and found one in a flat in Lokhandwala where I spent probably 100 of the next 120 nights. The apartment belonged to a player I shall refer to as Hunter, a savvy model and entrepreneur who conducted a home game every night, charging 2% of each pot as rake, and providing food and non-alcoholic drinks on the house. The first time I went there, the game had a modest Rs 5000 buy-in, with blinds of Rs 25 and 50. There was a raised platform on one side of the room, on which Hunter put a mattress, and we sat on that and by its side and played our game. Within three months, the blinds had increased to Rs 100 and 200, and the standard buy-in was Rs 20,000. Earlier, winning or losing 20 grand in a day was noteworthy: now, there could be three lakhs on the table at any given point, and you could win or lose a lakh in a day.
Naturally, Hunter had the platform demolished, and a new table and swank new chairs were purchased for us. My routine for about six months was this: wake up in the evening, pass time impatiently, and head off to Hunter’s place in time for the game to begin at 8 or 9 pm. The game would then go on till around 8 in the morning. I’d have a Red Bull while playing, and there would be chips and biscuits and fruits and other snacks. We could also order from any restaurant in the area, and ordering dal khichdi from Rhythm restuarant at 1am was, I recall, a common occurrence. At one point, Hunter decided that his players deserved healthier food. So a cook was hired for us, and though he was appallingly bad, at least we got home-cooked food in the middle of the night.
It was here that I discovered that the most important part of the game is the mental part: not in terms of calculating equity against opponent’s ranges and all that, which is of course essential, but in keeping your mental equilibrium through the inevitable swings of a poker session. I was given to steaming if someone gave me a bad beat after playing badly himself, and by allowing myself to feel angry or frustrated, I’d play worse than normal. I’d get bored and lose discipline and play more hands than I should, or passively chase draws even when the odds weren’t right for it. I’d lose more money playing badly than I won when I was playing well. The essential attribute of a poker player is that he must not be results-oriented, for good play is rewarded only in the long run, but must instead always focus on doing the right thing, making the correct play, regardless of its immediate consequence. (A la what Krishna said in the Bhagwad Gita.) It took time for me to cultivate that detachment in myself. (Having my iPod and Kindle with me helped conquer impatience.) Luckily, through that whole process, I remained a profitable player.
I also grew close to some of the other poker obsessives I played with. There is a strange dissonance at play here: on one hand, I wanted nothing more than to take the money of these people I played with, and I knew they wanted to empty my pockets as well; on the other, some of them became close friends, far more so than colleagues in an office would. Perhaps that is not quite so surprising: this was not an ordinary workplace where we met every day, but an emotionally fraught battlefield, such an unusual one that none of our non-poker playing friends could ever understand what it was truly like.
I also spent a while playing at a nearby club where some informal poker tables ran, and between these two places, met a wider cross-section of people than I would in any conventional job. Any writer would cherish meeting so many unusual characters: S, the government contractor who did not understand the game, was a true addict, and would mechanically push chips to the middle, pot after pot, every night, until his sources of funding, a probable by-product of Nehruvian socialism, dried up and he disappeared; P, the Delhi businessman who reportedly dropped around 75 lakhs over six months, and had to take a large loan from M, a player-cum-moneylender, who lent money at exorbitant rates (M was barred from Hunter’s game, though, which was relatively clean); B, the 20-year-old whose parents thought he was away nights because he worked in a call center, and who is now a full-time bookie; R, a reckless young gambler who called himself the Tom Dwan of Lokhandwala, and got into debts that he paid off by selling seats to a college where his father was a trustee; and others such as a couple of Bollywood actors and a cricketer who was as fearless on the poker table as on the field. (I say this in a good way.) They were fascinating people by themselves, but even more so in the context of this dramatic game, where emotional upheaval is routine.
The swings had a huge impact on us. On a day when I won a lot, I’d walk out with a lilt to my step, on top of the world, filled with self esteem and confidence, and women on the street would turn to look at me. When I lost, I’d be deflated and depressed, asking myself metaphysical questions not just about the point of this pursuit but of any pursuit. Eventually we got used to these fluctuations, as we needed to in order to stay sane. Our approach to money changed as well. Quite often, we’d have breakfast at the nearby Lokhandwala MacDonald’s; but equally often, a couple of us would head to the Juhu Marriott for the excellent breakfast buffet there. Earlier, in my middle-class way, I’d consider a Marriott breakfast an occasional extravagance. But now, when we were winning or losing over 30k in a day, we felt entitled to it. It cost, after all, no more than six big blinds. Or three straddles. Half a c-bet. Looking at the world through this prism made everything seem cheaper—though while at the tables, we never thought of the chips in terms of their real value, or we’d have been paralysed into inaction. (‘I can buy two iPads with the money I’m about to bet. OMG!’)
All this while, I kept going to Goa regularly. Last year, there was at least one tournament series every month; this year, one can easily spend four weekends there playing tournies continuously. I ended 2010 well, reaching seven final tables out of 14 tournaments played, including a second-place finish. But as I spent the first half of 2010 running bad in tournaments, I would put down both my good streak and my bad one to variance: these were short-term results, and the sample size was so small that it would be foolish to read too much into them. My focus remained cash games—until May this year.
By May, I’d overcome a downswing in the first part of the year—January was my only losing month—and had arrived at a healthy daily rate of profitability. But my game had stagnated, and I felt I needed to up it a notch. I decided to give up the potential earnings of the live games I played, and instead focus in a direction where immediate payouts weren’t likely: online poker.
Online poker is far tougher than live poker. The world’s best players play online, multi-tabling furiously, using complex tools that analyse their opponents’ historical betting patterns and raising frequencies. It is an evolved, highly technical battlefield, and most local players I played with had, like me, been small net losers online—despite a good streak here or there. Unlike many of them, I did not want to rationalise this away by cribbing that online poker was rigged. I wanted to conquer the beast.
Around the middle of this year, I joined a team put together by Adi Agarwal, a 26-year-old from Kolkata who has won more than US$ 3 million online in the last four years. (This is a matter of public record, by the way: there are websites that compile online results across all major sites, and everyone’s results, provided you know their username, are publicly available.) He had also finished in the top 100 of the main event of the World Series of Poker, the de facto world championship. (He declares his poker income and pays his taxes, for what it’s worth.) Adi wanted to stake us to play online and local tournaments with his money: in return, he’d get 50% of all winnings. Most importantly, he would go through our hand histories and actively coach us, taking care of leaks in our games. This was a win-win arrangement: it was risk-free in terms of investment for me, and a top player would share his insights on the game with me—almost akin to a tennis rookie being coached for free by an elite pro. And if his team played well, Adi would also stand to make more money than he could just playing on his own. (Such staking arrangements are very common, and most top players, to reduce variance, are part of such staking stables.)
For the last three months, thus, I’ve been playing at home. I’ve invested in a giant screen for my desktop, on which I can tile 20 tables at the same time. At 9pm, I start my online grind. At peak frequency, around midnight, I’m playing around 12 tables. By the time the night winds up, at around 8 in the morning, I’ve played over 30 tournaments. There is a five-minute break every hour, in which I have to pee/make coffee/get Red Bull from the fridge/make my ham-and-salami sandwich and so on. I also have the team on Skype, and we discuss poker, and how we could have played certain hands differently, and so on.
There is a method to this madness. Luck, or variance, plays a big role in poker in the short run, and the best way to counter this is to bring the long run closer by playing a lot. Online, you play many more hands per hour than you do live, and you can play multiple tables at the same time. The volume of play you put it, thus, could make a night of online poker equal to two months of live poker. If you play correctly, you are much more likely to be profitable—and the fields in online tournaments are so large that the occasional huge payout is likely for a good player. Just a month ago, I was chip leader in the biggest weekly tournament, the Sunday Million, with 25 people left. The first prize was over US$ 200,000; I ended up 18th for a fraction of that. An online grinder can make a healthy living stringing together smaller wins; but when the big one comes, it can be life-changing.
I still play live tournaments in Goa, though, and have won two in the last month. Hunter’s game in Mumbai has shut down for a host of reasons, one of them being a comical raid by the Anti-Terrorist Squad—a surreal story for another day. As many as four of the other regulars from that game have turned pro, and two of them regularly play high-stakes games in Goa, and speak of winning or losing five lakhs in a session as they used to speak of 50k swings six months earlier. The poker boom has only just started in India, and despite pending legal issues, hinging around poker’s acceptance as a game of skill, poker seems almost certain to become one of the country’s most popular sports.
And what about the way poker has consumed my life? I write a blog named India Uncut, which at its peak, when I wrote five posts a day, got 10,000 pageviews a day and had 17,000 RSS feed subscribers. Recently, I went two months without a post. My first novel, My Friend Sancho, was well received and sold well, but I just haven’t made enough progress on another one. (Among other projects, I’m planning a crime novel featuring a poker-playing detective who uses the cognitive tools he’s refined through playing the game to solve cases in the real world. A good way to bring my passions together, you think?)
When I gave up the corporate life to be a full-time writer, I had decided that I would only have one yardstick to judge my life: Do I wake up every morning looking forward to a day at work? And hell, I certainly do begin every day just waiting to being dealt in. I even played through an entire session in a dream one day, figuring out ranges and calculating equity in hand after hand after hand. And while I’ve given myself a deadline to start writing seriously again, until then, I will give myself up to this obsession. My chips are in the middle—I’m all in.
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And here’s a box that accompanied the piece:
There is an old saying that poker is the easiest game to learn and the hardest to master. Luckily, there are plenty of resources online you could use for either purpose. There are many sites where you could learn the basics of the game, but for a pithy explanation of the rules of the game, you could just start with Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_hold_%27em
The best site to play online is Pokerstars, at http://www.pokerstars.com. It’s the world’s biggest poker platform, is reliable and trustworthy, and while it doesn’t accept deposits from Indian credit cards, there are other deposit options that could help you get around that.
The best poker forums are on http://www.twoplustwo.com, and I highly recommend them. You could also check out http://www.cardplayer.com, the online face of the poker magazine. A good site to follow live coverage of events and news is http://www.pokernews.com. And to get the latest dope on Indian poker, there’s http://www.Pokerguru.in. (Disclosure: I’m part of their pro team.)
Finally, here are some great poker books. To understand the fundamentals of poker, there is no better place to start than ‘The Theory of Poker’ by David Sklansky. To improve your live cash-game skills, check out ‘No Limit Hold ‘em: Theory and Practice’ by Sklansky and Ed Miller. To understand the basics of tournament play, read the highly influential ‘Harrington on Hold ‘Em’ series by Dan Harrington. Some online players find its concepts outdated, and two recent books that are closer to the cutting edge when it comes to online tournament play are ‘The Raiser’s Edge’ by Bertrand ‘Elky’ Grospellier and others, and ‘Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker’ by Jonathan Little. To get an insight into the thinking behind high-stakes online cash games, check out the cult classic ‘Let There Be Range’ by Cole South and Tri Nguyen. And finally, to master the mental aspect of poker, read ‘The Elements of Poker’ by Tommy Angelo.
Good luck at the tables!
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