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For the Love of the Game Ft. Amar Katharani

For the Love of the Game Ft. Amar Katharani
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  • Attreyee Khasnabis June 20, 2020
  • 6 Minutes Read

Hello and welcome poker lovers to the first edition of our latest feature – ‘For the Love of the Game!’ In this piece, we will take a look at the poker journeys of players who have been a part of the Indian poker industry since its very humble beginning. We will travel back in time to when the poker industry was more like a small community of players who were passionate about a card game a few others in the country knew how to play or cared much for. This feature will cover players, who do not pursue the sport professionally but follow it passionately. And in this debut edition, we caught up with one of the liveliest old-timers in the circuit, Amar Katharani (cover image)!

If you’re someone who enjoys the thrill of live poker and has attended a few poker tournaments in Goa, there is a good chance you must have seen Katharani. The debonair player is a dynamic presence on the cash game tables or even at the live tournaments, chatting up his tablemates, while simultaneously obliterating the competition. Starting off his poker journey back in 2005, Katharani may not have chosen poker as a career, but it is still safe to say that he is a poker enthusiast, even though he refers to himself as a semi-pro.

The 40-year-old Mumbaikar has, over the years, established friendships with numerous well-known personalities within the domestic circuit, including Jim Ramm and Gaurav Gala. Katharani, who has an MBA in Marketing from Wigan & Leigh College UK, currently manages his family’s export business. Having previously worked as a poker operator and the Team Manager for the victorious MIPL Team – Pune Kings, Katharani harbors a vision of poker becoming legal in India in the coming years.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane with Katharani.

 

When it All Began

Poker finds different ways to intrigue different people. For Katharani, it happened in 2005 when he saw a WPT tournament being broadcasted on a sports channel.

“My interest in poker started way back in 2005 or maybe even little earlier when a sports channel in India was broadcasting a WPT tournament at 11 pm. Coming from a family who loves card games, my mom, my brother, and I got kinda intrigued to what this game was that was fetching these people huge sums of money. That is how I started inquiring online about the sport and began to learn the game by watching videos, etc. This got me in touch with Jim Ramm, who was looking for poker enthusiasts in India and had a tie-up with an international website where he used to host $100 freerolls, and that’s how my poker journey began.”

We had come across an interesting blog by the 2012 PokerGuru Tour Season 2 Main Event champion Vinay Suchede where he talked about an exciting trip he made to Goa with Katharani to attend the 2011 Asian Poker Tour (APT) Goa. Reminiscing about it, Katharani said, “Vinay (Suchede) is one of the veterans I met during these online freerolls. We became friends and used to play small home games with a 500 buy-in. Since we happened to be in the same city, we connected instantly and also happened to travel to Goa often together for events. My first-ever live event was the Indian Poker Ranking Tournament (IPRT) hosted again by Jim Ramm, who I feel is the ‘Godfather of Indian poker’. I say this because he was the guy who hosted the very first tournament in India that attracted a field of 47 players. I know it sounds low, but it was a big leap for the Indian poker scene back then.

Jim Ramm
Jim Ramm

 

Not a Profession, But a Passion

With the love that Katharani has for poker, it may come as a surprise that he didn’t take it up as a career. His family’s expectations of him joining the family business may have gotten in the way of him becoming a poker pro, but it couldn’t deter his passion for the game.

“Playing poker professionally is something I always wanted to do, but being an MBA, my family expected me to join the family business. Even after I got married in 2007, poker was still not recognized as a sport in India and was considered a taboo, or you can say gambling. Moreover, there weren’t many platforms, either online or live, for it to be taken professionally in those days. However, I consider myself a semi-pro now, and I have never missed a single tourney in Goa. Starting from IPRT, Aces Unlimited, DPT, APT, IPC, and PokerGuru Tour, to finally playing the event that introduced me to poker in the first place – WPT.”

Amar Katharani at the 2018 WPT India 20K Shootout Final Table
Amar Katharani at the 2018 WPT India 20K Shootout Final Table

 

“Though I am presently looking after my family’s exports business, that has neither stopped me nor taken me away from poker. I do happen to play online on all the major sites, and, of course, I travel to Goa and other cities for cash game festivals. So, you can say I am pursuing it semi-professionally. So, if not a pro, I can surely say I’m a semi-pro [laughs]. Right now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m really missing live poker. I hope and pray that this virus goes away soon and we can get back to our normal routine lives,” Katharani added.

 

Being a Part of Industry

Being a naturally charming person, Katharani has easily formed some long-lasting relationships in the domestic circuit. He told us how one such friendship led to an opportunity of becoming the Team Manager for the MIPL team Pune Kings that went on to win Season 3.

“During my poker journey, I have made many absolutely great friends, and one of them is Gaurav Gala, who was at my table at the first IPRT event in Goa. We have been friends ever since then. When Gala was appointed the captain of the team Pune Kings in Season 3 of the MIPL [Match India Poker League], he asked me if I would be interested in being the Team Manager. It was a no brainer for me, and I immediately said yes! It was a star-studded team with the likes of Rubin Labroo, Akshay Nasa, Shuchi Agarwal, Tanmay Bagga, Tanay Hargunay, and Akash Shekhar. Being around these great poker minds was as magical as it was brilliant. We, as a team, worked on some strategies which clicked, and we won the trophy. As the whole format of MIPL is very different from regular poker. It promotes poker as a team sport, where individual scores don’t matter much. So, it was a big learning experience for me.”

Amar Katharani with MIPL Team Pune Kings
Amar Katharani with MIPL Team Pune Kings

 

But even before becoming a Team Manager, Katharani had also dabbled in the operational side of the mind sport.

“I have been at the operational end of poker as well. The idea was to gather poker enthusiasts all across Mumbai and provide a platform for them to meet and play against each other. It was something that I did when I had started to learn about poker. But it’s not legal to run a poker room in Maharashtra, so I stopped immediately. I pray that someday like Kolkata, poker will become legal in other states and cities.”

 

Love For Live Poker

For nearly three months, India has been under lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In the face of such a ‘once-in-a-generation’ infection, casinos in Goa and Sikkim were forced to close in March, and they are yet to re-open. Obviously, live poker has taken a backseat, and quite predictably, online poker is booming. The present crop of poker players prefer the online MTTs, so for them, the pandemic may not have caused much of an inconvenience. But for a live poker aficionado like Katharani, the impact has been somewhat disheartening.

Talking about his preference for cash games, the Mumbai resident said, “I do prefer cash games over tournaments only because of the convenience it gives me to play and get up whenever I want. Additionally, tournaments require a lot of patience and volume, including loads of help from online solvers, and coaching. It’s kind of difficult to play with the young masterminds of today, with me being self-taught [laughs]. So, I guess the term old school is apt for me.”

Amar Katharani

 

“Coming to playing online, I do play but not that often. I am more of a live poker lover. The whole feel of live reads, poker tells, playing with chips, constantly chatting with players, to me that’s poker. But, though I’m more of a live poker person, that doesn’t mean I don’t play online. I am very active on all Indian platforms,” he confesses.

Expressing how the COVID-19 has affected him, Katharani said, “I have always been a big fan of live poker because I feel I’m a people’s person. Being on the live felts, kinda gives a different high to me. So, during the COVID-19 period, I really am missing the live scene. But like I said, the beauty of this sport is that you can also play it online, so I’m not away from the game. I’m absolutely not on a break and active online.”

Commenting on the evolution of the live poker scene in India, he stated, “Well, the live poker scene has evolved in India drastically. I mean that because I have played a field of 47 people, which was the first-ever live event in India to the record-breaking field of 777 players in the 2019 IPC. Not only have the numbers gone up, but even the game itself has evolved. The prize pool guarantees are rising with every series, which is an indication that the sport is growing every year and attracting people from all walks of life, like doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, businessmen, housewives, etc. Bollywood celebs have also now become a regular feature on the poker tables during tournaments in Goa. Names like Dan Bilzerian, Patrik Antonius, David Benyamine, and many others have also come down to India. This proves that India has made a name for herself in the international poker arena. Indians winning a bracelet at the WSOP was something that Jim [Ramm] and I had talked about way back in 2007. He had told me that very soon, I want an Indian to get that prestigious bracelet and the Indian National Anthem to be played in Las Vegas. So, when Nikita Luther, Aditya Sushant, and Abhinav Iyer actually did win the bracelets, it was such a proud moment for old-timers like me. It kind of gave me a sense of pride to be part of this industry and to actually see it grow and reach to these levels.”

 

A Walk Down Memory Lane

Having been a part of the industry for over a decade, it is impossible not to have memorable incidents to narrate. When asked to share some of these memories, Katharani said, “Wow! Now that’s a tough one cause my whole journey has been like an album of memories! From cashing out for the first time to playing the WPT, to being the part of the MIPL Pune Kings team. One of the most recent memories I cherish is when I finished 16th in the record-breaking 2019 IPC Main Event. I could see a lot of my poker friends, along with new players and old ones, hooting and cheering for me. Secondly, sitting on a feature table and watching myself on YouTube during the tournament was fantastic.”

Amar Katharani

 

Talking about his APT Goa experience, he revealed, “During the first APT in Goa, I had knocked out Nam Lee in one of the knockout events. They had a contest wherein anyone who knocks out any of the APT pros would get a special cash prize and an APT branded soft-toy shark. I still have that shark with me and cherish it (be)cause Nam was one of the pros I watched on TV before I started playing poker. So, it was like a big achievement for me.”

Amar Katharani With Nam Lee
Amar Katharani With Nam Lee

 

“One of the memories of my journey that I also cherish happened on June 27, 2011. I woke up to a phone call from Peter Abraham saying that I’m on the cover of a non-poker magazine where they had written an article about the rise of the Indian poker scene. That came to me as s big surprise. I felt like a celebrity, and I cherish that memory to date.”

Amar Katharani Magazine Cover

 

Admiring the Game Changers

Having been a part of the industry for so long and witnessing its growth, Katharani had a ring-side view of all the game changers as they worked for the betterment of the sport.

Discussing his view on the subject, Katharani observed, “One name which stands out in the growth and development of Indian poker is advocate KN Suresh. Being a poker lover and a lawyer, he fought a legal battle with the government and got poker legalized in Kolkata and is striving to get it legalized in many other states. I feel that his hard work will go a long way toward bettering the poker industry.”

Katharani also recognized the contributions made by one of India’s leading online poker brands, Spartan Poker.

“The whole team of Spartan Poker namely, Amin Rozani, Sameer Rattonsey, Rajeev Kanjani, and Peter Abraham, who came up with the brand Indian Poker Championship (IPC) which broke the record of the highest attendance previously set by the WPT Main Event. The brand has been providing big guarantee tournaments and a world-class poker room onboard the Big Daddy Casino. Spartan Poker was the first online operator to come up with a massive franchise like ‘The Millionaire’ that promised a million to the winner, which was a benchmark for online poker back then. To date, the guarantee of this tournament keeps getting bigger and bigger, prompting other online sites, like PokerBaazi, to offer ₹1 Crore to the champion of its landmark tourney, the EndBoss. So, from playing a $100 freerolls to a ₹1 Crore top prize, it indeed has been a remarkable journey.

“One more name who that needs to be mentioned is Aditya ‘Intervention’ Agarwal. He is to poker what Sachin [Tendulkar] is to cricket. He is someone all the young talents thrive on being like. With his immense knowledge, experience, and skill, he has proved time and again that poker is absolutely a skill-based game. He is one of the best in our country. His brand PokerGuru not only gives information about the current affairs on poker in our country but also coaches and runs a stable, which has produced absolute champions who have proved themselves in major Indian, international and online tournaments. This shows how great a poker mentor. By sharing his knowledge with the budding players of today, he is taking Indian poker to great heights,” added Katharani.

Aditya Agarwal
Aditya Agarwal

 

Vision For the Future

Being an ardent poker lover, Katharani has the best interests of the sport in his heart. Talking about his vision for the future of the mind sport in India, he remarked, “In 10 years’ time, I see poker in India attracting and hosting all the major international brands, along with world-class poker rooms that can host tourneys with a capacity of more than 5,000 players. I also hope that the taboo associated with poker, of it being a game of chance and not a game of skill, will be eradicated. I want the game to be accepted as a viable profession and not just a card game. I want to see our very own Indian players becoming international stars and brand ambassadors of the sport globally, just like Daniel Negreanu or Phil Ivey.”

“If I could go back in time and change something for the betterment of poker, I would go and change our Indian law that restricts this beautiful sport from getting the legal status it deserves, just like Rummy and Bridge,” he added.

Explaining further, he said, “To take poker to the next level in our country, we need the laws to be in our favor. We can host bigger tournaments, but the constraint of space comes into play due to the casino being on small ships. So, hosting a huge event and getting international players to attend becomes a problem. Secondly, the tax levied on poker winnings is the same as any gambling or lottery winning, which prevents players from other countries to come to India to play. So, if the taxation policy can be changed and better infrastructure can be provided, it will work wonders in promoting poker to the masses.”

Amar Katharani

 

Summing up his poker journey thus far, Katharani said, “I have made great friends in my poker journey. Though I have come close to clinching a trophy or a title many times, I still haven’t got my hand on one yet [laughs]. That’s something I plan to achieve soon. I believe that the day you say you know it all in poker, you will never be able to move ahead. Every day I try to learn something new, even if it from a younger player. In the end, poker is something that takes five minutes to learn but a lifetime to master. And always remember – boys play cards; men play poker.”

Now, this is one player we will be rooting for to win that elusive title!

Stay tuned on PokerGuru for more inspiring stories!

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