10 Minutes Read
It’s here! The World Series of Poker (WSOP) – the world’s biggest and richest sporting event – is alive and kicking at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas!
The comeback series is a highly anticipated one but will the series touch past records – or even come close? The view on this is divided, and most seem to be against the idea given the travel and other COVID-19 related restrictions.
Over the past few years, the Indian contingent attending the WSOP has consistently grown in numbers. 2019 had the highest number of Indian players in attendance to date. But due to the travel restrictions preventing Indians from directly entering the USA, the number of Indian players heading to Las Vegas is expected to be drastically smaller than last time. Some players are already on their way, and most seem to have chosen Mexico to meet the 14-day quarantine requirement to enter the US, while others are still finalizing travel plans.
We do know that India’s poker veteran Aditya Agarwal is going to be there. The most experienced Indian at the WSOP, Agarwal, has been diligently playing the entire (most years) WSOP schedule for nearly 15 years and will be accompanied by his poker-playing wife, Shuchi, to Vegas. He’ll be flying through Mexico, but once the 14-day stay is over, we can see the seasoned pro at the WSOP felts.
Also making it to the international stop are bracelet champions Abhinav Iyer, Nikita Luther, PokerGuru Ambassador Kartik Ved, and Vegas-resident Nipun Java, poker beasts Sriharsha Doddapaneni, Abhishek Goindi, and Young Guns Arsh Grover and Neel Joshi. MPL Poker brand ambassador Dhaval Mudgal and the banker-turned poker pro Kunal Patni are the other poker stalwarts confirmed to be in attendance.
These are just the names we know. It would be safe to assume more Indian players to join the series, especially around the Main Event.
Roadblocks – Restrictions
While the WSOP is coming back after a 26-month-long hiatus, the brand has put up several hard-hitting COVID-restrictions that will undoubtedly impact turnouts, especially the international numbers. You have to double vaccinated. The US also has a mandatory 14-day out of India rule. This effectively means Indian players have to spend at least 14 days in a “green zone” before entering the US.
Owing to the COVID pre-conditions, many Indians players are giving the WSOP a miss this year, including the 2018 WSOP The Closer runner-up Paawan Bansal and Young Gun Gaurav Sood. Both players have confirmed that they will be attending the EPT Sochi instead. Bansal got a Covaxin shot that is currently not recognized by the WHO, and Sood was unable to get a visa clearance.
Sood said – “All the safety measures are needed, but some feel a little harsh. All the very best to Team India this year.”
According to Aditya Agarwal, the double vaccination rule is a big dampener: “A lot of people in the U.S. are anti-vaccine, so I think 50% of the field just gets reduced right there. The risk is always there, but I prefer playing in a bigger field. The smarter people are fully vaccinated, so it will make the field a little bit tougher.”
Nikita Luther points out that the double vaccination rule has made it inconvenient for players outside of the US, particularly Indians. “While this does help one feel safer to attend the series, it is an inconvenient rule and one that isn’t uniform with the norms in the rest of the casinos or rest of the country (i.e., USA). Many people have only got single doses so far, and many EULs for vaccines are under process at WHO for recognition, such as India’s Covaxin. Given that vaccination and norms urrounding it are in such premature stages, this rule, in my opinion, is an unfair one.”
Poker coach and co-founder of Poker Bootcamp India, Abhishek Goindi, took a more neutral stance. “The double vaccination being mandatory for players, I think, is a good thing. It just ensures that everybody is safe and there is no panic. There is no discomfort, and everything can operate smoothly. I think it’s a good rule in general.”
However, Goindi felt Rule #2 was harsh and that players should be given the benefit of the doubt if WSOP suspects they have COVID-19. “Rule #2 seems a little strict, but I think they should have like a protocol or such instead of directly disqualifying players. I am not sure what the process is, but if they suspect, they should probably give the player the benefit of the doubt and go the distance to figure out if it’s legit or not, rather than a player just getting falsely accused and knocked out.”
PokerGuru Ambassador Kartik Ved, on the other hand, feels the double vaccination rule is the right move by the WSOP, keeping health in mind. His teammate Ashish Ahuja agrees. “I think it’s a good measure by the WSOP as it reduces the risk… it is necessary to take precautions in the times of the pandemic, it’s a special situation, and we can’t blame the WSOP for that.”
However, according to Ahuja, the 14-day out of India rule is a bit far-fetched and should be removed for anyone fully vaccinated. “I won’t be traveling because of this rule.”
Dhaval Mudgal was among those in favor of the restrictions. “I think it’s the need of the hour, and safety protocols will be important to resume life at some level.” He added: “There will always be a bit of ambiguity as COVID can throw multiple complications into the mix, but I’m happy to hear that strict rules are being enforced for the safety of everyone.”
Here is a quick look at some Indians attending the series and their past WSOP feats.
Aditya Agarwal happens to be India’s most consistent attendee at the annual series – he has been a WSOP regular for 15 years! Agarwal has posted 46 WSOP cashes to collect winnings over $582,356 (₹4.32 Crore – basis current currency rates). The former PokerStars India Team Pro is close to breaching the world record of maximum cashes at the WSOP Main Event, held by Berry Johnston. The poker maestro is the most experienced player from the present Indian contingent, and most would say is the top choice for winning India a gold bracelet this year.
Expectedly, Agarwal is attending the fall edition. He took his second vaccine shot in September, with plans mapped out to attend the WSOP. He has also been putting a lot of time and effort into preparing for the series and seems to be in fantastic form. Most notable was his close finish for the IOPC- The Crown title in August – he finished runner-up to Vaibhav Temani for ₹33.21 Lakhs.
Though he initially planned to play most NLHE events, Agarwal is now making the mandatory 14-day stop in Mexico, so it means he’ll be skipping the first few weeks to the WSOP. “I personally don’t like to miss the second half near the Main Event, so I am trying to go, and Mexico seems the only possible route. If travel opens up on November 1, players may not have to make this halt, but I would not want to risk it that way.”
Chennai-born Abhinav Iyer scripted history in 2019 when he picked India’s first solo bracelet in The Closer. The payday of $565,346 (~₹3.87 Crores) that Iyer bagged is not only his personal-best live score. It is also the single-biggest cash that an Indian has won at the series yet. All eyes will be on the ‘poster boy’ of Indian poker as he attempts to add another gold bracelet to his tally!
Nikita Luther is one of India’s few female poker players who have risen from relative amateurism to poker stardom in just a few years. Luther turned heads in 2018 after teaming up with Germany’s Guiseppe Pantaleo to win the Tag Team event. The bracelet queen of India has strengthened her grasp of the game over time and is currently the face of Spartan Poker.
Right when the series was announced, Luther had shared her excitement at the stop making a comeback. “I do plan to attend the series. I miss the live felts, so I am doing the 14-day mandatory quarantine in Mexico to be able to play the WSOP.”
What, according to her, will be the attendance from India this year? “I feel the attendance will be cut down in about half the average of the last three years. There is still a lot of skepticism surrounding travel and safety. The time of the year is different as well since it is not the summer months.”
That said, Luther says that the WSOP schedule is packed with exciting events. “I usually start playing a couple of weeks before the Main Event, take a few days’ break right before the Main Event, and leave Vegas for a few days to refresh and rejuvenate. Then I come back to play the Main and a couple of tournaments after. But this year, there are many tournaments even after the Main Event, so might be a different pattern once I finalize my schedule.”
Kolkata-born and US-settled Nipun Java is a die-hard Indian at heart and shares an energetic camaraderie with the Indian pros who are regulars at the WSOP. In 2017, Java teamed up with Aditya Sushant, and the duo went on to win the Tag Team event. At the same stop, Java won his first solo bracelet in Event #71: $1,000 WSOP.com ONLINE NLHE Championship.
Live poker has been on-road in the US for several months now, and given that Java is a US resident, he has been traveling around to attend different stops. Unsurprisingly, he will be attending the WSOP. “I’m excited and looking forward to playing the WSOP! Going to play a full schedule. Anything 5k or lower, PLO and Hold’em. The Reunion, Monster Stack, Millionaire Maker, and the 1500 6-Max seem exciting to me.”
Like all pros eagerly waiting for WSOP to return, Java has been preparing hard for the series. “Been putting in hours grinding the poker lab and trying to stay physically active. Hoping being a Vegas resident now helps me stay relaxed through this series.”
He wasn’t sure how many Indians would be attending. “I would love to see a significant attendance, but there may be an impact from the pandemic to the numbers, and unfortunately, the tax issues create a real hurdle as well.”
Aggressive, dedicated, and focused, Kartik Ved has a glittering scorecard at the WSOP, topped by a bracelet win (although online). What stands out is that Ved has doggedly improved his performance at the stop each time.
He attended the WSOP for the first time in 2018 at the behest of his mentor, Aditya Agarwal.
While his track record at the live series is impressive, with eight WSOP cashes worth a cumulative $272,117 in winnings, his record in the online series is even better. In August 2020, Ved took down the WSOP Online Event #64: $840 Turbo Bounty NLHE, becoming the fifth Indian to win a WSOP bracelet.
So can we hope to see Ved at the fall edition?! “Yes, I plan to attend the series,” Ved told us, adding that he will be spending 14 days in Mexico before entering the US. “Super excited for the whole trip!!”
Ved has been busy preparing for the series. “It’s going to be a two-month-long series. No one is sure what’s going to happen in case of a COVID breakout. It’s the first large field poker series in almost two years. Let’s see how it goes.”
He added that the 2021 schedule does look good, albeit expensive. “There are lot more tournaments in the $1.5K-plus bracket and lesser for <1K bracket,” he pointed out, adding that: “The plan is to play everything that’s running up to $1.5Ks and look forward to the Main Event.”
A musician and a poker player, and since June the brand ambassador for MPL Poker, Dhaval Mudgal is one of the most seasoned players and has a prized WPT Vietnam Main Event title to prove it. Mudgal’s first outing at the WSOP was in 2016 when he posted two cashes.
The Delhi-based pro may have been more proactive at the Asian live stops in the past but is making it to the WSOP this year! “At first, I wasn’t sure if I could go, but now that the rules have been made clear and Covishield is accepted by the WSOP, I will be leaving soon for Vegas!”
Like most Indians, Mudgal will be making a stopover in Mexico. “Always exciting to visit a new country, and I will be meeting up with everybody in Mexico and then head to Vegas after!”
He predicted that due to the 14-day rule, Indian attendance would be small, ranging from around 15-16 players. “But strong contingent nonetheless! If direct travel opens up in November, I see another large bunch showing up for the main event and the events after.”
The online MTT phenom Sriharsha Doddapaneni is another Indian traveling to Mexico before heading to Las Vegas. The two-time Millionaire champion has all but 17 cashes at the series to his name, adding up to $19,405. Like most missing the excitement of live tournaments, Doddapaneni is all prepped up for his WSOP outing and will be looking to better his past WSOP performances.
Kunal Patni, the banker-turned poker player, is another Indian confirmed to be attending the WSOP. Patni is a very versatile player equally comfortable at the live tournament felts as online poker.
While his long-dotted scorecard of live scores mostly has cashes won at domestic and Asian felts, he’s also been an active Indian representative at international stops in Berlin, Rozvadov, and the UK. Patni earned his first WSOP cash in 2015, and since then, he’s been a regular fixture in the Indian team that attends the series every year.
The recently appointed Adda52 Game Ambassador has been wreaking havoc on the virtual felts – he is ranked #5 on the annual leaderboard. In a recent interview with PokerGuru, Patni had shared how mind coaching with Karim Chelli and poker coaching with Danish Shaikh had uplifted his gameplay. Well, given his current form on the online felts, he is certainly one of the top contenders to bring back the gold bracelet.
Goa-based poker coach Abhishek Goindi has reportedly already started out for the WSOP – making a Mexico halt en route. Goindi has a record of 12 WSOP cashes to his name – nine of them earned at the WSOP Online series last year.
Goindi is one of the most professionally attuned players in the circuit, and with him representing Team India, we can optimistically look forward to some good results!
Young Gun Arsh Grover is already in Mexico, all raring to reach Vegas for the WSOP. The online phenom is one of the hottest running players on the domestic felts and has dominated not only the 2020 annual online leaderboards back home but is also among the top six players in the current year’s online standings. Looking at his recent online feats, Grover is clearly in good shape for the live edition.
Twenty-four-years old Neel Joshi opened his scorecard at the WSOP annual series in 2019 and to date has 29 WSOP cashes (includes scores from WSOP Online series), amounting to $110,267. The Young Gun, best known for his runner-up score in the inaugural EndBoss, is another confirmed attendee for the WSOP.
PokerGuru extends a big shoutout and best wishes to all the Indians playing at the WSOP. Keep following PokerGuru for all the daily updates from WSOP 2021 in Las Vegas.