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Over the last few months, we have had many conversations with players, both up-and-coming and established names. So, it was quite refreshing to talk to someone who understands it all – the recreational, professional, and operational aspects of poker, in short, a veteran poker operator. With how popular poker has become today, we often forget that the game has actually been around in the country for well over a decade. The people, who had initially given their time and support to grow the game – these are the unsung heroes of the industry. One such personality is Madhav Gupta, aka ‘Maddy’ (cover image). Known by a variety of nicknames, whether it be ‘Goa ka Daddy’ or ‘Student of the Year,’ some teammates at PokerGuru Staking even call him ‘Maalik,’ Gupta is without a doubt one of the friendliest players on the block and a prime candidate for the ‘Mr. Congeniality’ title!
Given his latest exploits on the international and national felts, especially his recent WPT India ₹20K MegaStack win in October, Gupta is fast gaining ground as a tournament pro. While his dalliance with poker started off as a leisurely pursuit, it has since turned into a life-long relationship.
Flashback to the start brings us to a time when most casinos weren’t even open to the idea of fencing off a dedicated space for poker since the game wasn’t very popular among their clientele. Gupta left behind a flourishing family business to join hands with Sachin Pawa and Gurpreet Bakshi to set up the SOL Poker Room onboard Casino Pride. This, in fact, was Gupta’s entry into the business side of the poker industry. Though his partners eventually exited the venture and moved on to take over the reins of Crown Casino, Gupta stayed back at Pride, and he stayed put for eight long years, going on to become one of the most prominent names on the live scene in Goa.
The Pride poker room has played host to some insane cash games and numerous poker tournaments during Maddy’s time with the room, including the first two editions of the PokerGuru Tour. His amicable nature and charming hospitality endeared him to the poker community, so much so, that his name became almost synonymous with the poker room.
After setting his feet firmly in the live domain, Maddy set his sights towards the online side of the business. His online ambitions fructified in the form of online gaming venture Baadshah Gaming. In fact, even the Pride Poker Room was rebranded to Baadshah Gaming Live Poker Room, following the Pride Group’s decision to invest in the venture. Three editions of the Baadshah Gaming Live Tournament (BLT) were also hosted at the venue.
As the competition between the offshore casinos anchored on the Mandovi River intensified, a bigger and better vessel, the Casino Pride 2 was brought in. Around the same time, Gupta joined hands with another industry leader, much like himself, PokerBaazi CEO, Navkiran Singh. Together, these two stalwarts re-launched the PokerBaazi LIVE Poker Room onboard the new Casio Pride 2 vessel. This, in turn, led to the revival of the much-popular Baazi Poker Tournament (BPT) that had been on hiatus since 2016.
The BPT comeback series in October was a resounding success. Amidst the high-octane action and the runaway success of the series, news of Gupta’s exit from the Pride Poker Room went mostly unreported.
After taking a self-imposed sabbatical from the business side of the game, Gupta’s poker journey has come full-circle back to where it all began – a player who fell in love with the game and wanted to learn more.
Today he is devoting all his time trying to hone his skills at a game he has spent the better part of the decade running. Learning the tricks of the trade from one of India’s most accomplished poker pro’s and coaches, Aditya Agarwal, he honestly admits to having learned more of the game in the last eight months than the 15 years before that. He has been working hard on his game, and the effort has started to bear fruit. Impressed with the work being done at PokerGuru Staking, he even bought a piece of the business.
In this candid chat with us, Gupta reminisces about the ‘good old days,’ his reasons for parting ways with the Pride Poker Room, mentorship under Agarwal, along with his current and future plans. Here are the excerpts.
In a way, you have been one of the longest-serving live poker room operators in the country, with over a decade of experience of both being an operator and a patron of the game. Care to share some of your most cherished moments?
Wow, that’s a large question. Like you said, I have been doing this for a while. I remember when we initially started, neither sort of the casinos nor the players really understood the game. A big part of the game for us was when we initially started was introducing poker itself; of course, at the casino end, the business was incredibly small, especially compared to the other games I ran, namely Teen Patti, Baccarat and stuff. You know the numbers from poker were so small that the casinos were not very interested in pushing it forward.
It was the same with the number of players that actually ended up playing, which is why when you look at tournaments back then, you would have main events of around fifty-sixty people. Today we are actually waiting to see which is the first brand to crack a thousand, and I think that’s gonna happen in 2020 as well. One of the fun parts for us actually was what we call the hand chart games. This was our aim of bringing in a lot more people into the games so we would actually grow and recruit Teen Patti players to come and play poker. We would give them all hand ranking charts, it was actually a really fun game as no one really knew what was happening. Hand charts are what they would use to see that if they had a better hand or a worse hand from their opponent post-flop when betting was going on, so it was wild.
Actually, I’d love to know what inspired you to leave behind a well-established family business to take up running a live poker room in the first place?
That’s an interesting question as well. I didn’t really expect that this will sort of mushroom to what it did or even for as long as it did. I was playing poker already for 6 or 7 years before I came and took over the business at Casino Pride, and the idea really again was to promote the game and to push it a little further. It was a sort of a passion project as opposed to a business decision, initially at least. As I spend more and more time, I saw the legs that this business had, and one thing led to another, and before I knew it was a decade, and I was still doing it.
Back in June, PokerBaazi and Casino Pride joined hands to launch the PokerBaazi LIVE poker room. You were an integral part of that collaboration. In fact, Pride Poker Room has been synonymous with Maddy for almost a decade, but news of your exit from the poker room management went mostly unreported. What was the reason behind the departure?
Of the unreported part, I don’t know. Still, in terms of exit, you know again I mentioned when I initially came here to the business, the idea was, you know this is something that I like to do and initially got into it from playing poker. It was that interest and that passion that I got into the business. Still, I never envisioned myself doing this for eternity, and I think a decade is long enough for any business.
The game is a little different today in terms of how operators are approaching the space. For me, I wanted to take a sabbatical, it’s been a decade for me doing this, and I want to spend some more time in doing what I genuinely enjoy doing which is actually playing the game. The game and the business are so engrossing that you can’t be doing both. So, the idea was to take a little time off and travel a little bit and play a little poker.
So, what have you been up to after selling off all your poker and business operations? Are you planning to venture into the other verticals of the business side of poker soon, or is it back to the good old poker playing days for you?
In terms of other business decisions, in line with poker, I don’t think I’m done with the business, I will definitely be coming back. In terms of what form and when, I would like to leave those open-ended for right now. I have, however, had the good fortune over the past one year to spend quality time with Aditya Agarwal in terms of truly understanding the game, and I have to say that it’s made it a lot more fun.
This was something that I was interested in doing way before I quit, which is why I spent the last year understanding and learning the game from Adi, in a much more technical approach. I have to say I have learned much more in the last eight months than I knew in the 15 years before that.
That saying is much because I was a profitable poker player so I am actually spending a lot of the sabbatical in traveling so that I can play a bunch more poker tournaments specifically. I feel that’s a part of the game, it’s a lot more sport right as opposed to cash games, and with the advent of all the different programs and study materials out there, it’s almost a little solved, so to speak. As I learn more, the more I realize that I know nothing, and that’s interesting. That’s the fun part of the game.
You seem to have made an almost complete exit from the business side of poker. Even your online gaming startup Baadshah Gaming is no longer operational. What is the reason for this?
Yes, you are right that I have sort of exited most of the business for now. The idea was that I did not see myself having a significant differentiator from what was already in the market.
It’s a general business philosophy that unless you are different and better than the rest, it doesn’t particularly board well in the long term to continue to do it. When I started live rooms, there was no one who was doing it independently. The Deltin was doing it almost in house and that was also restricted to one or two tables, so we knew that we could provide something new and different to our players and that why we got into it. In terms of Baadshah, it was just a push to the passion project and we realized early on in Baadshah that we are going to be one of the many. And one of the many wasn’t something that we were interested in doing, which is why we exited. Hopefully, there are some things in the works, and the idea is that once we find a clear differentiator from what is being offered today in the market, we would then re-enter the business side.
What are the key differences between running an online poker room and a live poker room since you obviously have experience running both?
The single earnest difference would be in terms of scale. The idea of running a live poker room is that you are pushing at better services, better experience from a pretty small option given because obviously playing in Goa, in a casino, is an expensive proposition.
You have to spend an X amount on your flights and hotels to get here, and buy-ins tend to be much larger as well. The smallest game in Goa today is a 100/200, whereas online, you will get 1/2 rupee game as well. So, it becomes a difference between the masses and a very niche live game market. I think that will be the single largest difference between an online and live room.
We got an epic MMG tale when you shared a few insane high stakes cash game stories. Since you can be credited to hosting some of the biggest games at Casino Pride, would you mind sharing a few (at least one) such tales?
I remember a game when we were in the early days when we got one of the flush players to come into the game, and I remember that it was a night when he was a sort of perennial loser in the game. I started having a conversation with him about understanding poker or how the game isn’t like flush, it isn’t a light game, it is about strategy it is about hand ranges. He sat me down and explained to me how Ace-King and King-Ten are practically the same hands, and both are 50-50 to win.
And you know I sat with him discussing this for a very long time. I remember in the same night he gets into a big pot with another high stake regular, and it was a 500/1000 game running at that point at 2010-11. They get into this massive hand, and of course, there was a lot of bad blooded ego on the side. It was an all-in situation, and hands go face up.
He has Ace-Queen to his opponents Ace-King. At this point, the other player with ace-king who was a poker reg and he knew he can lose this incredibly large pot said do you want to do something – you want to do some deal. The guy with the Ace-Queen says sure, let’s spit the pot. The reg says this stuff doesn’t make sense; I’m talking about equities.
The flush player is like – “you know what I’m gonna win anyway, so if you want, we could stake another hundred thousand dollars each aside.” Luckily for the poker pro, he decided not to do it because it was an all-in situation and what do you see – he flops a queen to win the pot.
That was sort of fun, exciting as well, no matter how much you study the game you are going to get beats. The idea of understanding that the game isn’t about taking one-time shots, a lot of legwork goes in, this is where the skill element of poker comes in. It is about consistency, it is about getting into good positive spots continuously. So it’s not about taking a one-time taunt. And those are lessons that apply well to life as well.
I recently saw a video where a poker player tried to steal some chips from the table by distracting the other player at the table and successfully kept some chips in his pocket. The first thought that came to my mind was – “Can anyone be that stupid to steal or behave this way in a casino/poker room environment when there is literally no blank spot”? In your vast experience, did you ever encounter such shenanigans?
Yes, of course, it is an industry that is very showy, there is a lot of money around, so moralities or ends are being questioned. And it is just not for the player’s morality that is in question, the staff that is dealing on tables, it is operators themselves that will look at short cuts or look at ways to make the little extra buck.
It’s tough. There are various versions of that story that we continuously see to interact with. Our approach at Pride always was the idea to give the benefit of the doubt even when it could be a genuine mistake. Even when you know that it is not an honest mistake, you have to find a way to rectify it, which will not lead to long term repercussions on whoever did it.
But of course, the actual end of that spectrum is making decisions that would lead to longer-term issues for whoever has done that. This could be something as simple as just banning them from the casino to as much as having the authorities/police involved as well. Obviously, variations of those have been done over the years.
So that’s again an area that has been taken care of because those are general level challenges that you face even in a grocery store. The more you talk about these things of becoming like, they are not just part and parcel of this game, but they are simply part and parcel of business in India or business anywhere. We had cases in this World Series where a player was disqualified for taking his opponents chips, so it’s not an India specific issue and of course, not a casino-specific issue either.
You told me once that the current state of such massive guaranteed tournaments will not be sustainable in the long run. It’s been some time, and the GTD’s are only increasing. Do you think that this is the calm before the storm, and you will eventually be proved right, or have you changed your opinion on this?
That’s interesting, I haven’t spent much time thinking about it. I don’t know, I hope I am consistently proven incorrect. It is something that goes well for the future of the industry if I was incredibly wrong on that opinion.
However, what you know, there is one specific operator that is consistently breaking guarantees. The others have almost stopped it. There is one operator that is continuously moving ahead. Of course, to get to these numbers, there are challenges in the extreme, and all sorts of short cuts have been taken. But I would be happy if I am proven wrong.
Just to add, the big idea at that point was that these guarantees will continue to get pushed upwards directly till we get some new players. I have to say, I have come up to recent live tournaments that were held in Goa and saw a bunch of new players, so that seems to be a good thing.
There are a bunch of sites that are pushing towards organic growth by evaluating new ideas, a lot more mainstream advertising coming up, a lot more mainstream brand ambassadors in the light. All of those should board well in pushing the game ahead.
We know you always had a broader perspective on the future of the Indian poker scene. How do you see this shaping in the future?
So, I will break it up into two parts, the regulars, and the recreational players. In terms of regulars, I see much much better results as the years go by, on that, I have to say that the Indian regulars are putting in a lot of hard work.
I had the privilege of traveling over the last one year, and I have to say even though our percentage of total regulars or at least international level regulars is fairly low compared to other countries, the amount of work the Indian players are putting in is incredible. They have really caught up with the rest of Asia in the last 2 years and going forward in the next few years you are going to see Indians winning a lot more of the main events or getting stellar results at least definitely as far as Asia is concerned and we have started to see snippets of it on the western front as well.
In terms of the recreation players, yes, the goal is to continue to increase that. I think more mainstream advertising and more acceptance as we see this next generation of Indians using their own personal disposable income and break away from Teen Patti and the gamble around Diwali to take up poker as a profession and as a skill game.
If you think of it again as a market, the numbers are still minute. The potential scope in India is enormous as we continue to see more and more of the regulars do well and if the pros do well and get scores, it will further drive more and more recreational players to try to turn pro. As you can clearly see, this is today truly not just a lifestyle choice but a business and a way to earn money. It’s a profession, and we are seeing great acceptance of that.
We believe that our industry is still nascent but fast-growing, but with these barrages of legal challenges, for e.g. the two PIL’s filed at the Delhi High Court, now the SC GST challenge. How uncertain things really are according to you?
I don’t want to particularly comment on the legality aspect of it, it doesn’t really matter what my opinion on it is. It will be finally the court’s opinion, but I know that the industry on an operator level is definitely doing a lot towards getting this resolved. Again, as you said that the industry is fairly nascent, it is so small today that the government isn’t particularly concerned about pushing the numbers through.
So, it is going to be the case where the operators themselves have to take the initiative to try to make this happen, and a great case in point is of this is Dream11. So Dream11 does this, they go and they challenge their own business model in the courts, and now they have successfully done this in multiple states and then gone ahead to the local legal authorities and explained why the game is a game of skill and why it should be allowed.
Of course, for the future of poker as well, I don’t think we can rely on judiciary coming off age and seeing the value in it. The real way to sort of push it through will be where the industry itself goes and tries to change the public opinion by proving that this is a game of skill, and it’s not a gamble.
I have discussed this time and again with my interactions with players and some (not to name any) even said, “In this current government regime, anything is possible”. What could be the end result and the turmoil of all this? In simple words, are you optimistic or pessimistic about this industry?
I think it’s still too early to state. We haven’t actually seen the government’s real opinion on it. Many of the governments that have currently said that it is not legal on our own opinions. I don’t want to be second-guessing of what the government thinks of it.
I personally believe that this is a game of great skill. As I said, I have learned more in the last 8 months that I did 15 years before that and now that I have learned a little bit, I actually believe that I know nothing.
I believe in another 2-3 years ahead; I may start learning what the game actually is about. The fact that there are so many nuances to it, the fact that the stuff I learned 6 months ago is already outdated, there is a new theory and a better way to play. I believe this is a game of skill, and I believe that if we can correctly showcase that, it will start being good for the game. There are few indications that it’s happening, the fact that IIM today has a course on poker, it’s great. The fact that we have a gaming federation that’s trying to push it forward is amazing. The fact that more and more celebrities are willing to endorse the game again means that as a society we are moving towards the path of higher acceptability.
In terms of whether the government looks at all of this and works on that, as I stated, that will have to be a concerted effort by operators to consistently push and educate the government on how this is not gambling.
Talk to us about your association with PokerGuru Staking. How is it getting mentored by your close friend Aditya Agarwal?
In one word, it’s amazing. The guy is a genius, there are no two ways about this. I have actually been sort of waiting to do something well so that I can embarrass him.
It’s great. He takes a lot of effort, of course, PokerGuru Staking itself is owned and managed by two very close friends of mine in Vikram Kumar and Kartik Ved.
My association with them primarily was as a friend, spending more and more time with them and Aditya [Agarwal], and over the last some time, I actually ended up buying some stake because I genuinely believe what they are doing is excellent. They empower young kids to push the game to the next level and actually make this into a viable business choice and a viable profession.
Within that, I am seeing the amount of effort that Aditya puts today towards his students. It’s not just about “ok let me teach you this,” it’s about why you need to learn it, who’s doing badly, and how to spend more time with that person.
PokerGuru Staking group itself, I have to say that the amount of work and study that the PokerGuru Staking group is doing is incredible. They have to be leaps and bounds ahead of everybody else in terms of the amount of effort that they are doing. That is something that is going to show in the years to come. Of course, we are already seeing great results from them, but I think currently they have only scratched the surface of where they will end up reaching. Of course, we have seen it on the online felt, but over the last 6 months, we are making a concerted effort towards having them play live as well, and as you would know this, every series there is a big score from a PokerGuru player. Frankly, that all goes to Aditya.
There is a lot of gossip doing the rounds that you are working really hard towards your game, and what’s all the fuss about this ‘Student of the Year’ award that all the PG Ambassadors feel you are the frontrunner to win?
There is no race. The race was conquered by Ashish Ahuja before I started. This is just their way of making fun of me and of course, me being the oldest student in the group, but there is no race. I think I lost that race a long time ago. But there is always next year.
But seriously, how is the mentoring and the poker study going on? Also, something I have been dying to ask you – why do they call you ‘Goa ka Daddy’?
Sadly, the ‘Goa ka Daddy’ is something which has stayed for a long time, but the mentoring is consistent, and the beauty of the game is that you can actually get mentored by people younger than you. It’s just about sort of experience of playing it.
The studying itself is superb like I said, I have learned more in the last year that I knew all this time that I was playing poker. More than that, it’s the comfort of knowing that when you’re sitting on a table, knowing exactly what’s up and it just makes the game a lot more fun.
Initially, when I got into the study aspect of the game, it was never to play professionally. Still, it was just that I had a once in a lifetime opportunity of having a close friend who was teaching a bunch of kids, and he was like why should I not take advantage of this opportunity. But as I spent more and more time on it, I realized that the game itself was becoming so much more fun for me.
The study just takes away everything that is supposed to be a cooler spot and just solves it. I initially got into the game because of the math, and I now realize that the math I knew at least then which was enough to be profitable back then, it was so basic, and the game is so far ahead today with the different computer programs that you have today, the different areas where you can study, there is so much material available on the web. It just makes it an overall more enjoyable experience, and frankly, for me, that’s what poker has always been. Sort of a fun way to spend the evening, and if you can do that while making money, it just makes it so much more fun.
You have worked yourself over 70 Lakhs in live tournament earnings and even took down your first live title after winning the WPT India Megastack event in Oct. How was it finally getting the monkey off your back? The study working off, or was it run good?
I mean, a singular event is always going to be partially run based and not just studying, but yes, the beauty of the study is that it becomes valuable even on the days you don’t win.
The idea with the study isn’t that you’re gonna study today and you will win tomorrow, it’s not that. The idea is to consistently put yourself in more favorable spots, and you’re able to pull away from the areas you would typically loose, and that’s the idea.
Yes, the 70 Lakhs number is today, nothing. PokerGuru Ambassador Ashish Munot won more than that in a single event, so the idea isn’t about that. Still, the fact is to consistently put yourself in the right spots, good spots and playing hands correctly. Towards that, I think the journey has just begun, and I don’t think one live title per se is any real monkey off my back. I believe there is bigger and better stuff out there which is still to come. But having the ability to go there and play confidently, I think that’s going to be the single most significant take away of the coaching of last year.
We know that you traveled with the PokerGuru Staking clan to Cambodia and Vietnam recently and even made a couple of deep runs. Where are you going next? Will you be attending the WSOP again next year?
The next travel is a toss out between the Red Dragon in Manila and the Aussie Millions, but it’s definitely going to be one of the two. I have taken a sabbatical, and I do plan to travel a whole bunch. My aim or goal is to be at least 7-8 months on the road. So, in January, I will be attending at least one series, possibly if I do Aussie Millions, it will just be that otherwise, I would do the Red Dragon followed by APT Vietnam.
I haven’t really planned for the whole year, but I know that the summer is going to be for the World Series. Hopefully I can get some scores and do a bunch between Jan and Vegas. This is the first year when I don’t have a full-time responsibility so I can be there for the whole summer.
Any parting words?
I think that there is more to come – both in terms of my business involvement in the game as well as on the professional front of me playing the game. Hopefully, 2020 will be that year, and if it’s not, then we work a little harder, and then 2021 will be that year.