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In Position

Posted by Mithun Mahesh on 2021-10-03 at 7:12 PM

Poker is relatively a newer sport in our country. I would say even the top regs in the country are many work-years away when compared to the top regs of the world. Operators are yet to lay a solid foundation in terms of infrastructure. Players are yet to build a functional community. But given the time we have been active, whatever we have achieved as a team of players, operators, community, activists, reporters, and league organizers is commendable. The rate at which we have grown without any “Moneymaker effect” like phenomenon is genuinely inspiring. But as I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of work to do for all of us to preserve this beautiful sport.

Being at a delay can be advantageous if we learn from the mistakes made in the international poker scene. We are in position; we should leverage that. I have always believed in the mantra “Accept your reality, Focus on solutions.” So, this blog is my attempt at doing something about it. I’m by no means an expert, so this comes truly from my understanding to date.

We are a country filled with brilliant and ambitious young people, and it is evident that we are leaving our mark wherever we go. Sports is something we cherish a lot, and we treat athletes as a part of our extended lives. We cry with them – we celebrate with them. With the pandemic situation, sports like chess and poker have boomed beyond our imagination. According to me, chess is something very similar to poker. A theoretical player would understand precisely what I am stating here. Both are non-cooperative equilibrium games, chess with complete information and poker with incomplete. In chess, we optimally navigate through positions, whereas in poker, we optimally navigate through ranges. We have no trouble asserting chess as a sport as it has been played for decades, and we have seen players train like an athlete. I know a lot of poker players who train no differently than an athlete. Even I try to follow a chess-player training regime for poker with the help of industry experts, which I guess is working fine for me.

Stating poker as a sport might seem complicated due to the money factor and the short-term uncertainty aspects involved. That makes it a game full of illusions. And in my opinion, it’s the operator’s responsibility to educate the players about it. International sites like PokerStars do a remarkable job in this area (PokerStars school is where I took my initial lessons).

We all know the wonders of marketing this game as a sport, Pokerbaazi’s NPS being the prime example. What Baazi managed to pull off with a broken software was exceptional. Also, all the poker leagues in India are doing a fine job promoting it as a sport. Like many others, even my career kickstarted from the Global Poker League, held in 2018. Leagues like this give plenty of opportunities to newer and promising players while displaying the legitimacy of the game in the eyes of a larger number of people. I would like to praise Poker Sports League for doing it actively. Even though it could still be sportified and many areas need to be worked on, the future looks bright, assuming its financial aspects pan out well.

If you set up a 1-ball match cricket match, where the world’s best players face a team of average players, and then decide the champion based on the outcome. We all know what would happen. Structures are critical in any sport. On our Indian felts, we see a trend of skewing structures with disproportionate payouts to gain an advantage in the shorter run and to attract the glory hunting volume of players. You can’t call it a skill game after reducing the skill element. I don’t think it is sustainable at all. In my opinion, operators should see it as a cooperative game situation. The equilibrium lies in building a solid infrastructure co-operatively. This will pay off for a more extended amount of time and with a more significant market capture. What’s happening now is no different from an ICM-suicide scenario, where sites are being aggressive to destroy each other and the future poker scene with it. Operators shouldn’t forget that the government is the real chip-leader here and act accordingly.

In online chess tournaments, cheating is relatively easy, given the high-speed chess engines and the plethora of real-time assistance opportunities. But the operators do an exceptional job preventing it. Their sites detect quickly if any unfair software is running on player’s computers. Also, every important chess tournament has an arbiter who ensures fair play. The player’s cameras are enabled, the screens are monitored, and other possible measures are taken. I understand it’s tough to implement this level of scrutiny in poker as not everyone is a professional player. Also, we are still years away from reaching that computational prowess needed for players to cheat as it is possible in chess right now. However, there are some basic security measures that our operators conveniently ignore.

Our Indian software clients fail to detect any poker study-related software like equity calculators, range visualizers, and solvers. Even though having them on while playing won’t help the player as it would be painfully slow, it would eventually be a problem. International sites like GGPoker and PokerStars ensure this level of scrutiny on a priority basis. We should learn from them and enforce it strictly as soon as possible.

The concept of an arbiter can be implemented in some capacity, at least for some major final tables. A lot of issues like ghosting, real-time assistance will be mitigated. This would create a safe space for people who avoid playing online due to the same concerns. Educating players regarding fair play is also very essential. I recently saw a popular Indian player sharing an Instagram story that clearly showed them using a preflop range tool while playing a few tables. I wonder if they are ignorant about it being a case of RTA, how many other players might be making the same error of judgment. It might just be an information problem rather than a morality problem, and it is the operator’s responsibility to fix it.

There are other fundamental issues apart from fair play that we need to address immediately. Bankroll management and mental fitness are a few of them. Though one might argue these issues should be sorted at an individual level, I think some sort of introduction should be given at the very start. Not every player has access to this information or to a player who might advise them regarding the same.

Poker is an intense sport; it takes a toll on mental health. If approached correctly, you might attain enlightenment, or it might just make you a miserable person. Bankroll-wise, even I was reckless at the start, I just got lucky that I met the right people at the right time and then quickly started playing for a stable. Otherwise, I wonder, even I would’ve busted my roll, never being able to rise again. At least, some sort of seminars can be conducted actively regarding these issues. I assume that the mechanism to identify problematic players and counseling them shouldn’t be an infrastructural issue if operators set their vision right.

Also, even though poker news sites are not morally obligated to give a hand mitigating these issues, through them, they could be handled effectively. I request the industry leaders like PokerGuru Media, Gutshot, and others to spread awareness regarding this through their articles and programs. The existing programs available by the operators are just namesake and are not even appropriately informed. I would prefer to see a message reminding me about some mental health seminar over a reminder of late registration ending in 30 minutes. Again, operators need to set their vision right, not as a courtesy but as a necessity, especially in a country like India, where we have seen judicial opinion ignored casually. Public perception is paramount.

Nevertheless, we all have a responsibility to promote the game correctly and honestly at a personal level. Next time you boast about poker being a skill game, also tell them about the element of financial risk and the level of hard work you’ve put in to be able to compete. If you have the audacity to post your winnings, have the courage to post your buy-ins with it. Transparency from players like Bryn Kenney deserves the highest form of respect; we all should learn from it. Whatever I’ve shared might seem to some as ‘bad for the game.’ But remember that there won’t be any game if it keeps going this way.

Whatever has happened has happened. Instead of starting a blame game, let’s focus on solutions and build a sustainable future. Passionate players will survive and thrive through any ecosystem, so we see silence regarding such issues from them. But trust me, being vocal and actively making a change is a higher EV line, as it will make it more fluid in all sense for everyone.

After all, we are a country with more than a billion minds and only a fraction of the market share captured. If you agree with what I’ve to say, share this blog so that it comes to the attention of people to whom it’s addressed. Otherwise, it would be just another pointless article. Thank you!!

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Mithun Mahesh

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