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American author James Altucher had said, “Poker is a skill game pretending to be a chance game.” There is a lot to this quote than what meets the naked eye. In a country like India, where children are introduced to card games at a relatively young age, they are also simultaneously taught that playing cards involve more luck than skill. Needless to say, that our society still primarily believes that most games played with cards equate to gambling, unlike mind sports like chess.
Sadly, poker too falls within that gambit, and becoming a poker professional was never an easy decision for anyone who has chosen to venture into this unconventional path. Poker is not just a career; it’s a lifestyle.
Massive gains and big losses, playing all night, and sleeping through most of the day. Watching videos of others playing poker and going to casinos to play live tournaments. All of this is not easy to explain to your family, especially parents. Since family’s support is crucial for a poker player to reach their potential, it’s even more important for younger players to move forward in this journey with the family firmly rooting for them.
On the surface, poker may look like a flamboyant sport – ginormous guarantees, celebrities brand ambassadors, the nocturnal lifestyle. The reality is very different. The mind sport requires long hours of concentration, and study is equally important to stay competitive. Add to that the substantial financial backing and emotional support needed to handle variance; poker can be a very taxing game. In the Indian context, this is even more crucial since our society still thrives on the concept of close-knit familial relationships.
We’ve seen online poker boom exponentially during the COVID-19 induced lockdown. In just the past six months, young talents like EndBoss runner-up Neel Joshi, and Destiny champion Siddhanth Kripalani have dominated the headlines. Most top performers like Young Gun Gaurav Sood, Srihari Bang, Sanat Mehrotra, and Vaibhav Sharma are under 35 years of age.
In this feature, we bring you conversations with some of the country’s top poker pros and their parents. In the course of these candid tête-à-têtes, it became clear to us that the Indian society is gradually opening up to poker as a profession. These interviews reveal that these pros have not only been slaying it on the felts but have also achieved an ideal work-life balance with their family’s full support.
The original ‘Poker Guru of India,’ Aditya Agarwal, needs no introduction. A poker pioneer, Aditya, is considered to be among the top echelons of the domestic circuit. Not only is he the master of the game himself, but several of today’s promising talents have taken tutelage from him, including the likes of Aditya Sushant, Ashish Ahuja, Ashish Munot, and many others.
Aditya has been playing the game seriously for over 15 years and says that his family wholeheartedly supports his career choice.
He remembers how his parents reacted when he broke the news that he wanted to play poker professionally. “My parents were initially apprehensive of me playing poker professionally because that would mean putting aside my computer engineering track at Drexel (University in Philadelphia). But my parents have always believed in my brother and me and let us carve our own future.”
Coming from a family that is involved with poker in some capacity did have its benefits, though. “We are a poker family. My father loves his occasional low stakes cash sessions. My mother is always trying to make a flush in OFC in her spare time. My brother and sister-in-law are the people behind PokerGuru. My wife is also on the grind when she can find time from our little one.”
Aditya’s father, Bal Krishan Agarwal, told us that he was rather enthusiastic upon hearing about his son’s passion for poker. “I have been very passionate about all sports. In fact, I have been paying more stress to sports rather than studies all my life. I’m very passionate about Bridge, horse racing, and other card games. So, when Adi (Aditya) told me that he has become a poker player, I was thrilled, and I thought this would be his extra-curricular activity.”
But like most parents, he was understandably worried. “But when he said that he wants to take it up as a profession, then I was a little apprehensive, and I told him that you have to be very good to be able to sustain your family. You have to be either very good, or you’ll have to take it as a past time. Later, he went on to prove his point, so I am happy.”
Being a sport-lover himself, Mr. Agarwal never honestly had any inhibitions regarding poker. “No, not really, you know whatever sport one takes, if you can excel in it and sustain it, then it is fine.
In fact, he also understands that poker has the potential to grow big in India, and underlined, “Poker has become one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. Previously, it used to be Bridge but now, poker is catching on like wildfire. So, I see a tremendous future in poker, and it is good for the sport.”
When asked if he thought Aditya would have done better in a more traditional occupation, he said, “It depends on person to person. In hindsight, I don’t think Adi would have made it big in a conventional job, so I think he was cut out for this. He did the right thing.”
Talking about the need for creating more awareness regarding poker, he stated, “High courts have already declared poker a game of skill, and you do require a lot of skill to win at poker. Anybody cannot be an Adi, and you require certain skills. Adi is also doing the right thing by coaching the youngsters and passing the training to them.”
Nikita Luther, India’s poker superwoman, is a beacon of hope in what can undoubtedly be considered a male-dominated sport. She has proved that women can not only compete with men in poker but can also beat them. Her rather long list of achievements includes titles at DPT and IPC and a coveted WSOP bracelet.
Also, a brand ambassador for Spartan Poker, Nikita, started playing poker professionally four years ago. Sharing how her parents had reacted to her decision to play poker professionally, she revealed, “My mother has always been supportive of poker as a career, my father took longer to warm up to it. What helped was the fact that I was working with Poker Sports League alongside playing poker for the first two years of turning pro. After consistently getting good results, I decided to focus solely on poker, and by then, I had earned the full trust and confidence of the family.”
“I wouldn’t be anywhere if it wasn’t for their support and encouragement. Poker is a tough environment. Having poker as a career means dealing with variance, long and erratic hours, unpredictable travel schedules, and tons of mental and emotional stress. They are there for me through it all despite their own struggles, and I can’t be more grateful,” Nikita added.
Nikita’s mother, Mukta Luther, a former lecturer in Economics, told us how happy she was to learn of her daughter’s love for poker. “I was always very supportive, and I was quite happy that she liked poker. I used to educate everyone around me that it is not gambling, it is a sport.”
Unlike most parents, Mrs. Luther never had any inhibitions regarding the game. “It is not a conventional profession, but personally, I never had inhibitions. For me, it was like any other sport.”
As the saying goes, ‘mother knows best,’ she was aware Nikita would not be content in a traditional job and so was happy that she found her true calling in poker. “I feel this profession is best suited to her because she is not conventional in her outlook. She has always been a very bright and kind-hearted girl, and I knew she would not be happy in a 9 to 5 job. I feel a passion-driven career is where she will realize her full potential.”
Discussing her views on how awareness about the mind sport can be developed in the country, Mrs. Luther said, “The industry needs to be regulated such that the taxation on earnings from poker falls under the sporting industry and not the gambling industry so that the game is recognized as a profession.”
Poker pro and coach Abhishek Gondi has considerable experience both on and off the felts. He is also the co-founder of Poker Bootcamp India alongside Tanay Hargunaney, a venture through which he provides coaching to budding poker players.
The Bengaluru-based pro started his poker journey about 13 years ago, and like most parents, his family too was not supportive from the get-go. “I have been playing poker for thirteen years now. Initially, my family had a problem with me becoming a professional. But they never had a problem with me playing poker actually. But they had a problem with me making it a profession.”
He remembers, “My dad always said keep it as a passion or a hobby, but you should not get into poker as a profession. But he is also the most supportive dad that anyone can ever get. He has been my guide, my mentor, and is extremely supportive, actually.”
Yes, Abhishek admits, family support is crucial. “I definitely think that family support is important. Any kind of support is important. But having said that, it makes the ride and journey even harder but doesn’t make it impossible. Awareness is the first step to anything, so definitely lack of awareness means they are not informed, they don’t have the right information.”
“Parents have a hard time because they don’t understand what goes into this to do it professionally, and less than three percent of the players are winning. So, understandably, they will find it tough to accept this,” he added.
Having been a part of the industry for so long, Abhishek has witnessed its evolution over the years. He feels that India is steadily changing its view on poker.
“I think the taboo attached to poker is slowly changing. There’s definitely a change in mindset, but people consider it gambling in some parts because it is played with cards and money.”
Abhishek’s father, Hardip Singh Goindi, an engineer and an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad, reminisced how he felt when he first found out that his son was playing poker. “So, we came to know that he is playing poker, which was about 10 to 12 years back. To me, it was like, maybe he is pursuing this as his hobby and will leave it eventually. Because I expected him to do something reasonable like an MBA, which he did after doing his BBA. So, it was difficult initially to accept that this can be a profession. Sometimes, I followed him on the internet on whichever games he was playing, all he was doing without him knowing. It took about 5-6 years to finally say okay it’s fine. I this is what you want to do, let’s see what can be done.”
Mr. Goindi admitted that he had his inhibitions regarding poker. “He has been really open with me many times, especially after the first 2-3 years of playing. During that time, he may have felt that I should not come to know of it since I didn’t know anything about the game. He was not sure what I was going to say. This is a fact since I did feel that coming from an educated family, he should not be doing this. So, eventually, we said okay, he has got to do something. So, did I have apprehension about that, definitely, I had.”
He also shared how Abhishek helped change his mind regarding the game. “He convinced me a lot of times why is it sports and he is an extreme extrovert and convincing kind of guy. The difficulty in this game is that you don’t know when your mind will go off because you are playing with money. I mean, you are playing, and suddenly you get mixed thoughts, you think no, I will do this and then I will do that. And suddenly you blow off the total money and then what will you do after that. Do you borrow it or do something else after that? So, it is a sport and I accept that it is a skill game. It involves more luck than in tennis or cricket or soccer, which are also skill games. I used to do the stock market, and he used to tell me that you do the stock market, that’s also a bit of luck. I said, ya, that’s also a bit of luck, but still on a long-term basis, skills are required for. I said I totally accept it. But I said that the temperament required here is different than some other sports.”
For all his reservations, Goindi’s dad knew that Abhishek was brought up as a very independent guy and taught to work hard, with integrity. “Now, I have accepted the game. I have accepted the fact that he is playing. I told my friends about that, this is what he is doing, and they like it,” he added.
Would Abhishek have done better in a traditional job? “It is tough to answer this, frankly. Would he have made a good manager or a good leader? I have no doubt about that. He is a good guy in terms of understanding, hard work, and intelligence. He is extrovert and good at building relationships. I have no doubts that he would have been a good manager or leader.”
But the fact that Abhishek loves what he is doing makes all the difference. “On the other hand, what I find is that what he is doing now, he is liking it and enjoys it. That’s extremely important because that can be long-lasting for him and give him joy… So now, I have told him…keep on improving and excelling in that. Just make sure that you save enough, do the right thing over a while so that you have reserves for a rainy day.”
Yes, now that he knows more about the game, Mr. Goindi strongly feels poker is much more than just a game. “It took me time to realize the skill aspect of poker. Poker is a game of skill and not gambling, that’s the ultimate statement you want to make, but that can’t be the only statement. I know for a fact that Abhishek doesn’t gamble, even if he in the casinos, he never plays any casino games. That’s where media houses like PokerGuru come in. You have to connect the person to the game. You need to highlight how poker brings out the best in a person, and then the skill aspect will automatically come in. Obviously, it involves money and some luck, but you need to highlight what poker teaches you. Once you start talking about it, you will see other people learning it.”
Arjanveer Singh Chadha
One of the more renowned students of Aditya Agarwal, Arjanveer Singh Chadha, was introduced to the game at a reasonably young age. It was in 2005 when he saw his brother who had returned from Canada playing poker online. However, he started playing the game professionally about six or seven years ago.
Though his parents support him now, Arjanveer remembers the early days when he disclosed to his family that he wanted to pursue poker as a career.
“In the beginning, when I told them, they were totally against me playing poker, as you can expect, most parents would be. There has always been a stigma attached to playing card games in India. But with time and knowing about my results, they came to realize how passionate I am about the game and more than capable of doing it for a living.”
For Arjanveer, his parents show support by letting him be. “They now understand that I have an unusual work timing as I have to play during nights and sleep mostly till late afternoon. They are very proud of me now and boast about how good I am doing with their friends and family. Sometimes, my mother even shares the PokerGuru Facebook posts about me doing well in some event. Whenever an article about poker comes in any magazine or newspaper, they are the first to share it with their friends and me!”
Arjanveer’s mother, Ranju Chadha, is a boutique store owner in Chandigarh. She remembered Arjanveer was fascinated with card games from a very young age. “We (my friends and I) used to play rummy at our house. And when he (Arjanveer) was around four, he would just come and stand by us when we were playing. When I would say that you are not allowed to stand here. He would say, ‘I will be standing quietly’ (laughs). He has seen it in the family. We are all card players in the family. But that is just rummy. My parents, husband, me, and everybody in the family play cards in an informal environment. So, I think it’s in his blood.”
That’s not to say she wasn’t shocked when she found out her son was playing poker. “I thought of it as gambling. Now we are cool with it. It took us about four years to really understand the game.”
Arjanveer’s mother admitted she had even sent him packing a couple of times. “I actually turned him out of the house twice. Then within two-three days, I got him back. Then after a month, he said I just want you to read about it. So, then he showed me several articles and made me read a lot about the whole thing. We are a family of professional golfers, both national and international. He then started explaining to me how golf and poker are similar. He said that if you allow playing golf as it is a passion for children, why will I not follow my passion? I will not do anything else other than this. If you can understand my passion and let me be, then I will grow. After reading more about it, I told him that I will observe him for two years, and then I will see what he can achieve in this field.”
Talking about his budding poker career, she said, “For a year we have been seeing that things are going well. He is now completely focused on the game. This is what he wants to do in his life and nothing else. A year and a half back, he proved to us that he is a competent player. It is not just he made money, and we said, oh, very good, very good. No, it was not like that at all. It was all about his focus and his game. So, he just needed our support as his game was good.”
Sharing how she came to terms with Arjanveer’s career choice, Mrs. Chadha said, “I have read quite a bit about poker, and I have met with friends whose children or relatives are trying to get into this. My elder son is very supportive of Arjan. He also helped me understand that Arjan is a good player…We have a very big house with everything in it. But I made him move out just to run his own system and support himself completely. Tomorrow he will have a family, how will he look after, how will he take care of the running of the house, the groceries or rent or whatever. I just made him understand that he just has to be comfortable in his line of work so that he will be able to make a living for himself. So, it has been a year that he has moved to another house of ours but he has been completely running the show himself and proving himself.”
Arjanveer has been living in another house in Mohali that the family owns. “He sometimes comes here over the weekend or for a night. Then he goes back to his own house, which is a huge thing for a parent. He was living there first, and then Rocky (Ashish Ahuja) moved in later, during the lockdown,” she added.
What does she now think of poker? “It is today’s game; it is the game that the younger generation understands. It is not a game that we understood in our times. In our times, we focused on the casinos. I was a professional blackjack player when I was studying in class nine because I lived in Kathmandu, and we had the casinos there. But I used to think that poker was a gambling thing, my mindset was like that. Our mindset belongs to an older generation, which is hard to change.”
She now doesn’t hide the fact from friends and relatives that her son plays poker. “I bluntly tell them that my son is a professional poker player. And they look at me like something has happened. It is true that people are not open about it right now. The younger generation relates to it. But not our generation. A relative of ours asked me that at the time of his ‘rishta’, what are going to say that the boy is doing. I said I will make sure that they know that he is playing poker and what it is all about. If they are accepting that, then only I will bring the girl to our family.”
Meeting the family of Arjanveer’s mentor also helped. “There was a big list in my mind then I met his coach (Aditya Agarwal) in Goa. He was there with his wife, son, and both the mothers, his mother, and his mother-in-law. I met them, I spoke to them, and I felt how chilled they were there. And both mothers were a generation ahead of us; they were not my age. They were older than me, and they were so chilled. I asked Aditya’s wife (Shuchi Chamaria) how it was getting married to him. And I remember her answer ‘bas kar liya ho gaya’ along with a lovely smile on her face. That gave my mind peace,” she added.
This year’s poker sensation, who has truly made a name for himself in the domestic circuit, is Young Gun Gaurav Sood. With a whopping ₹3.21 Crores in annual winnings, Sood has been crushing the online MTT’s. The 24-year-old has been the undisputed #1 ranked player in the country for an incredible 18 consecutive weeks.
Gaurav underlines how poker is still considered a luck-based game. “There’s still a staunch belief about poker being a luck-oriented game and basically being dictated by fortune as it goes for other card games in the casino. But I think in our country, the community is so small. As professionals, we have a definite responsibility to change the taboo around it and not even take a ‘jua’ joke or whatever they call it even in passive conversations. Like everything, if you educate people rightly about it, the mentality will gradually be put in place. I can say I’m doing my bit, but it definitely has to be a collective effort.”
He began playing poker full-time in March last year, after completing his BDS degree. His parents, Gautam Dev Sood and Shailee Sood, who are both dentists by profession, have supported his career choice. Especially his mother, who, according to Sood, “feels proud about me making some inroads in such a competitive field.”
Gaurav believes that the exposure he received from new media sites has helped strengthen his parents’ belief regarding his career as a poker player. “Seeing my interviews on PokerGuru, Gutshot, and then watching the live telecast of me playing live in Goa, made them feel really proud. After seeing that, it strengthened their belief that it’s a skill game, and then they started supporting me wholeheartedly.”
“They’ve been extremely supportive in every aspect I’d say and especially my mom. Partially knowing the ups and downs of the game, she does inquire almost every day about my sessions and has started to understand the terms a bit as I keep telling her stuff about it,” Gaurav added.
Initially, Gaurav’s parents felt it was okay to play poker as a hobby or interest, but not as a career. “We always wanted him to become a dentist and continue the legacy of the family,” they said, adding, “We did have inhibition about the sport in the beginning, but gradually as we saw him playing and consistently working so hard for it, it definitely did change our minds. I’d say that we are still in the process of understanding the nature of the game entirely, but we do understand a fair bit now.”
Their love for their son won out in the end, and now they are very proud of Gaurav’s achievements. “We are extremely proud and happy as he is following his passion for this game. Our ultimate goal is for him to be happy and successful in life, which I’m sure he is working towards, and he definitely will be. Nothing better than making your hobby or the thing that you love to do your passion. Very few get that opportunity, and we’re happy that he is one of them. Back in the day, we did think that a conventional career was definitely a better choice to make, but every profession comes with its own pros and cons, and so does this. In my opinion, one just needs to excel in whatever career they choose for themselves, and that’s all that matters in life.”
A promising poker talent and another one of our Young Guns, Devang Yadav, is a Mechanical Engineer from IIT Delhi and was introduced to poker in 2014. He started playing poker professionally in 2017.
Devang’s parents had a few reservations initially but eventually changed their minds. “They had a few reservations to start with but gradually with time and a lot of effort in showing them my passion for it and that it’s a skill game, can be studied and has variance involved they came to terms with it.”
Since then, his parents have been supportive of him. “They have been generally supportive of whatever I pursue unless it’s illegal,” Devang joked.
Devang’s mother, Shalini Yadav, who is a homemaker, revealed that at first, she thought that “he was out of track and stuck in some sort of gambling,” and admitted that, “since it is rather unheard of that someone takes poker as a career, we were definitely having a few inhibitions.”
This changed when they saw Devang’s dedication towards poker. “Yes, watching him do well, and him being true to his work has changed our mindset. I feel good that he is achieving success in what he puts his countless hours into, but there is no safe passage here. The security of a certain paycheck is not there.”
She reiterated the need for creating awareness about poker being a game of skill. “There should be a dedicated social media presence not only accessible to the player pool but to everyone in general. There should be a plea for the government to accept it as a sport. Articles and adverts will definitely come in handy.”
We have a strong suggestion for those of you getting the urge to show this article to your parents and announcing that you want to turn pro. Please read through the list of pointers we have listed below first.
Breaking the Ice: Points to Consider Before Telling Your Parents You Want to be a Poker Pro
1. Determining if You Are Ready to Take up Poker as a Career
Taking up poker professionally is not a decision that should be taken lightly. So, before you tell your parents about your career choice, it’s good to have a proven track record in the game. While poker is a game of skill, luck does play a certain role, as it does with any sport. Do not let a fluke win or short-term period of success lead you to overestimate your skill. Unless you can show multiple excellent results in tournaments or a reliable graph over a reasonable period, chances are that you are not ready to become a poker pro yet.
2. Understanding the Importance of Bankroll Management
In an interview with Muskan Sethi, former WSOP Main Event champion Chris Moneymaker expertly explained the distinction between poker bankroll and expendable money, saying, “So proper bankroll management is a very, very tough skill. If you want to be a poker player, it’s probably the most predominant skill that you will need is to be able to manage your bankroll. There’s a difference between bankroll, and you’re expendable money. A poker bankroll is what you can’t replenish. You’re not going to get a paycheque and then put more money to your poker bankroll. Obviously, your poker bankroll is bigger if you can put more money into it. People will ask me; I’ve got a $200 poker bankroll. So, I ask, now what happens if you lose the $200? They say I’ll just put $200 more. Well, then that’s not your poker bankroll.”
Understanding the concept of bankroll management is not only crucial in poker, but it also demonstrates to worried parents that you are not an irresponsible gambling addict being reckless with your finances and your life.
3. Understanding the Intricacies of the Game
Parents often have a hard time understanding that poker can be played professionally because it isn’t exactly a full-time job. You’re not going to the office. You don’t have to adhere to any particular work routine. It can be confusing for parents who have only done the more conventional ‘9 to 5’ jobs.
A good way to convince your parents that you are taking poker seriously is to study the game when you’re not playing it. You should dedicate a portion of your time to reviewing hand histories and working on plugging those leaks in your game that could cost you money over time. Discussing this development plan with your parents will reassure them that you are not merely planning to play a few poker hands each day then chill out.
All in all, poker is exploding in India. The success of Team India at the recently-concluded 2020 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Online series is proof enough that the young crop of Indian poker pros is more than competent at winning against some of the biggest pros in the world.
So, if you feel that poker is your true calling, then work hard and don’t get dissuaded by the downswings! As for your family, they will eventually come around if you can find the discipline and hard work to prove yourself.