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Poker Sports League: An opportunity to show India that poker is largely a skill-based game

Gambling is looked down upon in India, and with good reason. Gambling usually involves betting money in a game completely or largely based on chance, rather than skill.

Thus, a game which is mere gambling can never be a sport because it involves no skill.

But what happens when there is a game which does involve betting money, does have a small amount of luck involved, but is also based largely on skill? More importantly, is there actually a game like that which could then be called a sport?

Few games answer this question more convincingly than poker, a family of card games in which players bet money on the basis of the combination of the cards available to them.

There are several variations of poker, the most popular being Texas Hold'em. The other prominent ones are Omaha, Seven-Card Stud, Razz and 2-7 Triple Draw.

If you do not know the rules of poker, there are several websites which will explain them to you.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Right now is the perfect time to talk about poker in India. Because the country is about to host its first poker tournament.

Poker Sports League (PSL), the brain child of Dabur's vie chairman Amit Burman, is going to begin probably in February. Even though the PSL website has not released the schedule for the qualification games, the deadline to apply as a player is coming to an end and some of the poker teams have already been sold to prominent businesspersons.

There will be 12 teams in the PSL with nine players each. Each team will have a captain, two 'pro players' who will be chosen on the basis of their achievements in poker so far, two 'live qualifiers' who will be selected on the basis of live qualification games which will be run in few cities in India, two 'online qualifiers' selected through online qualification games and two 'wild card entries'.

And the prize money is a whopping Rs 3.36 crore. According to Big Wire, the finals will be hosted in Goa over five days and before that, the selection process will take nearly three months.

The reason the PSL is an important event for mind sports in India is because this is probably the best shot poker players have to convince the country that poker is not gambling. It is largely a skill-based game.

Right now, poker is recognised as a skill-based game in only three states in India: Karnataka, West Bengal and Nagaland, according to this report in The Economic Times.

In Goa, poker is permitted within casinos. The state government in Kerala is discussing if poker should be considered a game of skill. And in Gujarat, the high court is awaiting a response from the state government on the classification of poker.

Poker, not just in India but in many parts of the world, is misunderstood and is considered to be gambling.

So what makes poker a skill-based game?

Now, that is the million-dollar question. Let's begin the answer by recollecting what was said in a James Bond movie.

The plot of Casino Royale revolves largely around poker, even though the way the game of poker is shown in the movie is unrealistic and a bit too dramatic. Some of the important concepts of poker like bluffing and tells are oversimplified in the movie.

But in this scene from Casino Royale, James Bond tells us: "In poker, you never play your hand. You play the man across from you."

Again, the dialogue is more focused on some entertaining word play rather than reality. But the strategy in real poker games is similar to what is being said in this dialogue.

This dialogue basically means that in poker, the strength of your hand does not necessarily determine whether you will win or lose the hand. It all depends on how you play that hand.

It all depends on whether you have a fair idea of the strength of your opponents' hands, whether you know when the statistical odds are in your favour or not and most importantly, whether you can convince other players that your hand is stronger or weaker than it actually is.

That is where bluffing comes into play. Bluffing is the backbone of poker. It is in bluffing that most of the skills are required. Knowing when to bluff, how to bluff, whether your opponent is bluffing or not decide whether you are a good player or not.

For example, take a look at this hand of Texas Hold'em from the World Series of Poker 2013 Main Event final table between WSOP 2013 winner Ryan Riess and his opponent Jay Farber (By the way, if you do not know the rules, it is highly recommended that you go through the rules of Texas Hold'em):

The play by Jay Farber in this hand was not only one of the most daring and great moves in poker play but also shows the importance of bluffing and the skill behind it.

The first disadvantage which Farber had in this hand was that he was out of position. Position refers to where you are seated at the poker table and decides when your turn will come. Position is one of the most important factors in poker play because it decides whether your turn will come before or after all the players or somewhere in between. The best position is the Dealer position, which means that your turn comes after all the other players have decided what to do, giving you the benefit of knowing what the other players have done before making your own decision.

In this hand, Riess had the Dealer position. Farber also had a substantially lower chip count than Riess, which means that Riess could bully him with his massive chip stack.

And Riess did exactly that. He raised pre-flop to 2.5 million chips. Farber didn't get bullied and called. He also may have correctly guessed at that time that Riess was trying to bully him and did not genuinely have a good hand.

After the flop, Farber checked and Riess again raised to 3 million chips. Farber called. At this point, both the players were trying to represent a valuable hand.

It was after the turn that things began to get really interesting. Farber checked, after which Riess raised to 5 million. After that, Jay Farber re-raised to a staggering 13.45 million chips. Farber, from this point onwards, was clearly trying to tell Riess that he had an extremely strong hand, especially because he check-raised (A check-raise is when you raise after checking the first time).

And Riess called. The pot size by then was 38,200,000 chips. With the table already so tense, after the river, Farber raised to 24.5 million out of position ('out of position' is when you take a decision before your opponent).

As legendary poker player and commentator Antonio 'The Magician' Esfandiari put it, that was a very big move by Farber. Because Riess had called after his massive raise post-turn. Farber, at this point, was representing an unbeatable hand.

Riess took a full five minutes and 55 seconds to make his decision. And during those nearly six minutes, Farber sat across from Riess like a statue, not moving a muscle and with as blank an expression as possible, even when Riess tried talking to him. This is critical, especially when playing against excellent players, because anything you do at the poker table can give your opponent a sign of strength or weakness.

Riess eventually folded and Farber won the massive pot of 62,700,000 chips. After that, Farber got the chip lead over Riess. And then, Farber's hole cards were revealed.

Jay Farber had absolutely nothing. It was a stone-cold bluff. On the other hand, Riess had a pair of sevens, which would have defeated Farber had he called.

Let's do a recap of the facts: Farber had the lower chip count. He was out of position. And worst of all, he had a High Card, the worst hand in Hold 'em. If poker was a game of luck, Farber should have lost badly.

But, because of an excellent poker face, some very observant reading of Riess's play, some daring moves and most importantly, a well-timed and consistent bluff, Farber won, and how! Even though Farber eventually lost the game, the way he played that hand shows what a dangerous player he is.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is poker.

Yes, there is a small amount of luck. Yes, there are some bad beats in which despite all the skill, a bad card can destroy your game. But those moments are much less frequent than moments like Farber's bluff.

Check out how James Obst folded a Full House (an extremely strong hand) because he correctly sensed that his opponent Michael Ruane had hit a Straight Flush (the second-best hand in poker, also one of the rarest of the rare hands) at the WSOP 2016 main event:

Phillip Hellmuth, arguably the most successful poker player, has won the WSOP bracelet 14 times. Johnny Chan has won it 10 times. And Daniel Negreanu has done it 6 times.

As pointed out in Rounders (another film based on poker), you do not get lucky 14 times or 10 times or even 6 times.

Hellmuth, Chan and Negreanu are living examples of people who have utilised their exceptional poker skills to win a lot of money, over and over again.

There is even a course in poker in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But the best way to find out about poker skills is to play the game. And that brings us back to the Poker Sports League.

The PSL is an extremely important event for mind sports in India because maybe, just maybe, it can convince people what all poker players are desperately trying to tell the world: Poker is definitely a skill-based game.

If you ask me, one of the most beautiful aspects about poker is that it does not matter where you come from. This may sound like a cliche you've heard for many things. But think about it: In personal matters, in your career, in the constant struggle to be successful, power and money make a massive difference.

But when you sit at a poker table, it does not matter if your opponent is a powerful politician, rich businessperson, famous movie star or a VIP. Your opponent's background will not help him or her at all at a poker table. There is no politics involved at a poker table. Literally the only thing that matters is strategy.

Of course, the game does have its drawbacks. Poker is extremely addictive and even great players can go on tilt and lose all they have won in a single hand. "Poker is like a tempestuous mistress; she is unpredictable and sexy. Once you’ve been with her, she will possess your mind long after the last card is thrown down," says this Quartz article.

But no one said being good at the game is easy. Despite the drawbacks of the game that you have to keep in mind if you play it regularly, poker ultimately boils down to a test of skill and nerves.


Updated Date: Jan 16, 2017 16:07 PM

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