5 Minutes Read
We’re back with the third edition of ‘For the Love of the Game’ – a special space for players who have been part of the Indian poker sector since the outset. This week we bring you Bharat Agarwalla – a passionate poker player who brings so much more to the table. The Kolkata-based businessman’s poker journey is, in many ways, synonymous with the growth of the mind sport in the country.
Agarwalla has, in fact, been a vital driving wheel in poker’s sojourn right from the early 2000s when he began hosting his own home poker games in Kolkata.
What is perhaps Agarwalla’s biggest contribution to Indian poker is his India Poker Series (IPS) live tournament series he organized in Goa from 2010 to 2013. In those early days, there were hardly any live poker tournaments happening in the country. It was a bold move for anyone to make, but Agarwalla made IPS happen with planning, panache, and the Casino Royale (Deltin Royale) team’s support.
There were challenges galore, like convincing players to come to Goa and participate, but Agarwalla only improved consistently with his offerings over the editions. He also entered an affiliation with Adda52 to bring in more players to the site and forged an understanding with Vikram Verma for the IPS and the latter’s own poker tournaments.
A true Calcuttan for his spirit and passion for pursuing his love for poker, Agarwalla has also been a tireless crusader for the game. He has mentored many players over the years and even helped organize and conduct inter and intra-club poker tournaments in Kolkata.
There are many priceless stories that this effervescent poker veteran can tell, so without much more delay, let’s hear it in his own words!
Agarwalla first learned about poker in 1990 from a friend studying in the US who was back home on vacations. He had only tried out the card game of Teen Patti/Flush before that, during Diwali.
“Thinking about this, nostalgia set in! At that time, very few people were familiar with poker in Calcutta; in fact, in India – so getting even four people to play at that time was a challenging task,” Agarwalla remembers.
So while he was introduced to poker and understood the game, he didn’t get to play much poker in the ’90s or early 2000s. In 2007, after Zynga Poker, popularly known as Facebook Poker, started becoming popular, and more people began getting familiar with the game.
“It’s around the same time that I got to know that people are playing poker in Kolkata. I was new on Facebook and connected with a few people who were interested in the game.”
Hosting Home Tournaments
Agarwalla soon started holding tournaments at his own place. It started out on a modest scale, but soon word spread, and the numbers started growing. “I remember the first time, only 13 people had come. Then the crowd gradually grew, the next time it was 20-plus people, probably around 25. Then we started getting 35 people. Then it grew to 70.”
Agarwalla’s home games had a healthy mix of tournaments and cash games. “We used to play a tournament, and those who busted would then play cash games. We used to have small buy-in tournaments at that time – ₹2,500, ₹3,000 entry buy-ins, and later on even ₹7,500- ₹10,000. The entire collection used to go to the winner, with me just managing to take out some amount covering the costs for refreshments, etc.”
Many of the people coming to his home games didn’t know each other, but soon his poker circle grew.
There is now a fixed set of a dozen players who play home games every Saturday afternoon. The group calls itself ‘By Invitation Only.’
Exploring Other Venues
It was only a matter of time before things took more significant proportions. In 2009, Agarwalla hosted a tournament in Kolkata in association with a friend, Ankush Dhelia. “We held this in an indoor cricket stadium and got 119 participants.”
The tournament was a resounding success and made Agarwalla think that if he could gather 119 players in Kolkata, why not do something at a pan-India level?! He knew that Nepal has casinos and initially planned to visit Kathmandu in December 2009 to host a tournament the year after. But he soon discovered that there was no proper poker room in Nepal. That brought Goa in the picture.
“In January 2010, I got to know that Goa has got a poker room. So I went there. There was one poker room in the casino that had only four poker tables. The management was ready to add four tables on another floor, so we could have 72 participants. But I didn’t think it would be any fun to split the tournament across two floors.”
The other casino had only two tables running that too in the gaming floor, and not a dedicated poker room with 8-10 tables, so Agarwalla rejected both the venues and kept his plans in abeyance while continuing to host cash games in Kolkata.
The Start of the India Poker Series
When the IPS was launched, it was one of the first official tournaments to happen in the country. The first event of the first IPS was on April 23, 2010, and it was with that tournament that the Casino Royale Poker Room was also officially launched.
“In March 2010, I got a call from Craig Wildman, the manager in the casino that I had visited. He was switching over to another casino, and he told me that the (Late) Phil Sanders is visiting Kolkata and wants to meet me. Sanders met me in March-end and told me that they were opening a poker room in Casino Royale, and I could use it as a venue for my tournaments.”
Initially, Agarwalla was apprehensive, but Sanders assured him that the casino would be extending poker operations to its basement where there was provision for 10 tables to be converted to a dedicated poker room.
“That’s when I decided to launch the IPS. I had three and a half weeks to prepare. I had already built a network of people playing poker – I was networking through social media (FB). We had very little time for everything – from creatives, the trophies, certificates, spreading the word, getting people to fill the form- but we managed!!”
The 1st Step For IPS
There was obviously some nervousness in the team, and there was no saying what footfall the IPS would get since most players lived out of Goa. Nonetheless, the IPS had a successful debut.
“One the first day of the IPS, when we saw the players coming in…the enthusiasm among them was great, and there were no hiccups, and everything went by smoothly! The player feedback was excellent. We wanted to make sure that they’re on our database to contact them in the future.”
Agarwalla went the extra mile with a tagline that read – ‘We have the Best Hand.’ “The word Best Hand was suggested to me by Aditya’ Bitti’ Agarwal. Our Certificates also read – ‘You have the Best Hand’ and our merchandise or goodies given to players read – I have the Best Hand.”
If he lacked international exposure at that point, the experience of hosting the home tournaments in Kolkata helped immensely. That, and proper support from the Casino Royale management and team, including Wildman.
Not An All-Male Domain
An interesting observation that Agarwalla made during the IPS days was that more women were interested in the sport. “Almost 20%, even close to 25% of the participants in my tournaments used to be women,” Agarwalla underlined.
In fact, in November 2011, Agarwalla hosted an all-ladies tournament during one of the IPS chapters. “People told me I won’t get more than 5-6 participants, but we got 12 participants, which was fantastic in those days!”
Growing the IPS
Agarwalla kept the buy-ins of the IPS tournaments modest so that everyone could participate. The IPS tournaments typically featured entry buy-ins ranging between ₹500 – ₹15,000, though later, he increased it to ₹25K (and also once at ₹50K). The inaugural year saw the series host three chapters in April, July, and October, each of the chapters comprised three events. From 2011 onwards, the series was extended to four-day events.
“The focus was to keep it affordable, and definitely have one tournament with a ₹5K buy-in, allowing people who don’t have very deep pockets to participate,” Agarwalla explained.
Partnering with Vikram Verma
In 2010, Agarwalla befriended Vikram Verma, who was running his own games in Mumbai. Verma was also interested in doing tournaments in Goa, and both agreed to host their own tournaments one after the other at the same venue, without any clash. “He’ll have his set of dates, me my set of dates, and players would get a super dose of tournaments. We did one event jointly as well.”
This was convenient for players who could plan their Goa poker trip to cover both series. This was at a time when all of a sudden many tournaments were happening in Goa.
“There was basically an oversupply of tournaments, so tying up with Verma helped avoid the overdose, and we could do it more professionally. We held nine events in 2011. Six chapters were held under IPS branding, two events under IPP, and one jointly in December 2010. When we did our events with Vikram, we did a five-day series in one of the chapters. I also tried out the knockout format, rebuy events, Double Chance, and even a PLO tournament during IPS.”
The Player Landscape
Being an organizer, Agarwalla had the rare opportunity to observe the changing player fabric. “In those years, the players’ knowledge of the game wasn’t as in-depth as today’s players. Basically, the range of experience was not at its peak at that time. Also, the community spirit in poker was not present in a big way. There was no online poker where players used to interact.”
He also remembers how in late 2010, PokerGuru started covering IPS tournaments and posting reports on their FB page. People sitting across the country were able to access the event details on social media. “This helped increase interest in poker. Players were evolving, and so was the popularity of the game.”
Taking a Sabbatical From Poker
By 2012-end, Agarwalla had already mapped out his calendar till mid of 2013. This was the time when Phil Sanders’ understanding with Casino Royale ended.
“Casino Royale had been my comfort territory, and with Sanders gone, I was apprehensive in carrying on further. But mostly, I didn’t want to continue with tournaments. I wanted more family time and business time in Kolkata. My daughter was planning to go to the US to study soon, so I didn’t want to miss out on spending time with her.”
Agarwalla decided to take a semi-sabbatical from poker. He wrapped up the IPS, and from mid-2013 to mid-2015, he played very sparingly, almost stopping his trips to Goa.
“During this sabbatical period, I worked on my health and made myself very fit by losing 30+ kilos. I realized that physical fitness helped me in poker, and I could play strenuous sessions with more ease. It made me more fit mentally, as well.”
His Family’s Take on Poker
“My family was quite okay with me playing poker,” Agarwalla shared, remembering how his father loved card games and had frequented casinos in Kathmandu in the 80s.
“He always used to say that there are certain games you can play in the casino, and if you play them right, then the odds are not that much against you. As a teenager, I was introduced to the concept of odds, making me eager to understand it even further. He also learned poker around the same time when I was introduced to it, so he wasn’t against it.”
But Agarwalla’s wife Jyoti Agarwalla wasn’t thrilled. “She thought there was some gambling aspect to it. Even though she had such a good teacher right at home (laughs), she wasn’t up for learning the game! In fact, I tried to teach both my daughters, but even they were not interested in the game.”
It was only later that Agarwalla’s wife started to fully accept something meritorious about the game and that he was possibly playing better than the average player.
Learning TDA Rules
It was in 2009 that Agarwalla became interested in the organizing aspect of poker tournaments.
“I had planned to direct tournaments hosted as part of the IPS, so that’s how I started getting myself familiarized with the TDA rules. In July 2011, I went to Macau for a 2-day trip to see how they conduct international tournaments. The idea was to crosscheck if the IPS was in line with the international methods of hosting tournaments.”
Luckily, Agarwalla found capable support in Wildman, who handled the IPS tournaments very well.
“It did help me to get in the know of the rules since I had to resolve some issues during the home games from time to time. In fact, in Kolkata, I had been the TD in few tournaments in 2016-2018 on the organizers’ request. This was done by me because of my passion for the sport and my friendship with the organizers.”
Becoming an Affiliate for Adda52
Agarwalla’s tryst as an affiliate for Adda52 began in 2011, right after the site launched. For quite some time, Agarwalla was among the handful of affiliates that the brand had, an equation that lasted till the end of 2015.
“When I took a semi-sabbatical from poker, my focus on getting new players to Adda(52) reduced. Since I could not add more players, I felt I was not doing justice to the understanding. Ultimately growth is required, but I was giving them no new players. So in 2015, we mutually agreed for me to discontinue being an affiliate for the brand.”
Agarwalla also remembered how it was PokerGuru that first mooted the concept of getting players through online felts. “I had several meetings with Rajat Agarwal, and he came up with the idea of doing freerolls to generate players for my live IPS events from the online freerolls. PokerGuru ran such freerolls on various sites for us and generated almost 10% of participants in 2010-2011. Adda52 pushed it hard, and in the initial period, the site was able to get me players, and I, in turn, was able to bring in players to the site.”
Introducing Intra & Inter-Club Poker in Kolkata
In 2012, Bengal Royal Club (BRC) – one of Kolkata’s long-standing social clubs, introduced poker as a mind sport in the sports category. As a club member, Agarwalla was tasked with executing the concept. BRC hosted its first intra-club, members-only poker tournament in 2012, and poker has since then, become an annual staple of the club’s sports itinerary.
“We have been holding tournaments there regularly 2013 onwards, and I am part of the club’s sports committee as the convener for poker,” Agarwalla informed, adding how the response was good. However, he found youngsters were a bit hesitant to compete against people of their parents’ age. “The age range of 30-50 had shown a lot of interest. Once again, there was good participation from ladies.”
Agarwalla had devised the concept of a poker league in 2011, and five years later, he was finally able to introduce it in club culture, as part of the BRC Annual Sports Carnival.
“During the 2018 BRC Annual Sports Carnival, we introduced poker as a mind sport, which was when the Inter-Club poker tournaments came into play. When we host these Inter-Club tournaments, we tell each club to have six playing members, once again with one lady member mandatory, and the team size can be up to 8 players.”
At BRC, with Agarwalla in the center of things, club members played online poker tournaments all through the COVID-led lockdown, usually every month.
Right from when he began hosting home games, Agarwalla has striven to help others learn the game. Amongst the many players whom Agarwalla has mentored, some are Pranay Dhelia, Abhishek Daga, Annaya Bhaia (Nita), Anirudha Agarwalla, Harsh Keyal, and Aditi Bhojnagarwala.
He also staked a select few players in 2010-2012. “Almost all of my players have been winning players and made money for themselves and for me. But when I started doing tournaments in the BRC, and the Inter-Club concept started to evolve, I identified good players and began mentoring players from the club, helping our team improve their understanding of the game. We had regular practice sessions and boot camps, and I am mentoring many of them even today.”
What Poker Means to Him
Agarwalla words his feelings for poker aptly – “Poker is a love of mine. I would not exactly call it a three-decade-old love affair of mine, but very close to that…rather a love story that started in 1990, which got reignited in 2007. I feel passion for the mind sport and have gone to lengths in my own way to popularize the game. Poker is something that will remain with me for the rest of my life. Poker has, over the years, given me a great set of friends from the poker playing community from all over the country.”
He emphasized how important it is for poker players to manage their physical and mental fitness to perform better.
“Poker has taught me to be more patient and also improved my bankroll management. It has taught me to be a fighter. It made me learn not to give up and try to bounce back every time I go downwards; this is something which I had also learned as a teenager as I used to play competitive level cricket and table tennis in those days in high school and college.”
Agarwalla conveys that poker has taught him to respect other winners and made him more disciplined as a person.
Views on the Domestic Poker Sector
Agarwalla opined that online poker’s reach is definitely profound and vast, and it is now complementing the live sector.
“We’ve been seen poker grow at a breakneck pace over the last 10-12 years. Online poker has taken off from where the live tournament scene had reached way back in 2015. In fact, online poker may have started in 2011, but it has made a significant takeoff from that level. I predict that over the next 20-30 years, poker’s growth will continue year-on-year.”
Agarwalla pointed out that the high rate of rake in live poker events and an astronomical taxation level are significant deterrents to the game’s growth. He also opined that though casinos are bearing extra operational costs of operating offshore vessels, they will have to address this issue sooner or later.
Taxation was the other big problem. “In poker, when playing a tournament, you’re straight away taxed at 30%, which is very high. Definitely, the tax system for tournaments is defective. The government may sooner or later rationalize, or make it a flat 15-20% or settle it at 18%, which I feel is required to grow the game.”
An Eventful Poker Journey
As a person who was introduced to poker in the early ’90s to someone who began hosting home games and applied his experience to hosting a pan-India series, Agarwalla has come a long way.
He sums up his poker journey, also encapsulating the changing trends in the game itself. “In the early 90s, when I was a novice, I knew that poker is definitely not gambling. I was more into playing Omaha Hi-Lo, Seven Card Stud, 5-Card Lo, and believe me, I never knew what Texas Hold ’em is then.”
“Then, from 2007 to 2013, when I was in Kolkata and through hosting IPS, I observed a growing interest in poker and realized that hold ’em was the game of interest. This was when I got exposed to the game in a more significant way, and my conviction that poker is a mind sport became stronger,” he added.
2015 onwards, post his semi-sabbatical; Agarwalla became more active in organizing tournaments in recreational clubs. The next year, he started mentoring a few players in Kolkata.
Through the COVID-19 Lockdown
All hell has broken loose this year, with the COVID-19 unleashing a global health crisis. Agarwalla’s last home game was on March 21, pre-COVID. But if live poker was a no-no, his playing frequency became very high during the early lockdown months.
“I was never an online player,” Agarwalla said, underlining how he enjoys the thrill of reading people, their reactions, and behavior on the table. “On March 22, we made our own club on PPPoker, and the same group that used to play live started playing virtually. We played extensively in March to mid-May, so yes, we had an overdose of playing! Then, when the unlocking started happening in a phased manner from May onwards, our games’ frequency began to reduce.”
Big Plans Ahead
Agarwalla is quick about his future plans – “I was working on a concept with a friend of mine, we started discussions at the mid of 2019. But the entire concept was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We plan to pursue the project and will definitely give more details when the COVID situation eases, and people start inter-mingling so that I can practically begin to plan further for the same!”
With a lifetime of efforts for promoting poker behind him, Agarwalla has left an indelible mark on the Indian poker industry. We can depend on him to continue on his poker sojourn with the same zest, and wish him all the best!