Where Are All the Indian Poker Players?

Whenever I see a poker tournament on TV or wander through a casino, I am always struck by a particular absence: there seem to be very few Indian-Americans playing poker. Considering that there are so many Indians of poker age in this country who thrive in finance, computer science, engineering, and other fields that incorporate math, probability, risk, etc. — i.e., the kind of fields that produce a lot of amateur and pro poker players — why should this be so?

I guess there are two separate questions:

1. Am I right in my perception that Indians are underrepresented?

2. If so, why is that the case?

I open this question up to all of you. In the meantime, I asked a few people to respond by e-mail: Rafe Furst, our poker-playing friend, truth-seeker, and all-around smart guy; Sudhir Venkatesh, our sociologist friend who isn’t a big gambler (as far as I know), but is an Indian immigrant and perceptive observer; and Shubhodeep Pal, an 18-year-old from Dehradun, India, now studying at Singapore Management University (and who just happened to recently send in an interesting question by e-mail, having nothing to do with the topic of gambling).

Rafe Furst:

I don’t know of any data, but it is also my anecdotal experience that [Indians] are under-represented from what one would expect. My wild-ass guess is that culturally, gambling and game playing are not valued in Indian culture, and perhaps even hold a stigma. (This would not be hard to assess by talking to a few Indian-Americans.) Contrast this with many Asian cultures, in which gambling has a long history, and the twin virtues of luck and cleverness are lauded.

Notably, poker does not seem to be that popular with Japanese people, and I wonder if the cultural emphasis on personal honor/respect and social consensus are antithetical to poker. For instance, being seen as a highly competitive person who may not be in total control of his emotions or gambling activities seems to run counter to those cultural ideals.

Sudhir Venkatesh:

Okay … So I asked my relatives, and I can’t get definitive answers, other than that gambling is somewhat taboo among Hindus. This may be the upper-class, fairly conservative opinion, but the summary view would be that:

1. Indians never had much money, and, other than astrological betting (e.g., making the right bet on a marital prospect), gambling never took hold because of this.

2. Gambling generally refers to a strategy to gain material goods, and Hindu teachings generally say this is a failed strategy toward happiness — not necessarily a moral taboo, but rather a disincentive based on the folly that the material dimension provides such rewards in the psych realm.

3. For some members of the upper-class, gambling is seen as dirty because it is involvement in the world rooted in selfish behavior.

Shubhodeep Pal:

My answer might be incomplete, but the fact remains that in India, people tend to stress cultural values a lot. As far as I know, a majority of Indians are brought up on the following broad and vague dictum: smoking, drinking alcohol, and gambling are BAD.

For good or ill, these cultural deterrents are sufficient to keep most Indians away from casinos and the like. The guilt associated with association with “bad” places is an added deterrent. In a country where family life and family values are of supreme importance, people tend to think with their hearts. However, as we move up to the higher strata of society, the same are considered acceptable.

Moreover, I believe people erroneously tend to link cultural values with religion. Religion is a strong enough deterrent or motivator in India.

Another point: I do not necessarily believe that Indians are good at math, probability, etc., for the precise reason that I don’t think the educational system makes us think as much as it should. Most of the questions asked in examinations are common questions, and since high performance is placed at such a premium, most school qualifying examinations tend to be easy and can be “cracked.”

There seems to be a lot of explanatory power in these answers. Assuming they are at least partially true, it raises at least two further questions:

1. How much are the cultural pressures that discourage gambling responsible for the relative success of Indians in the U.S. education and labor markets?

2. As more people of Indian origin grow up in the U.S., will the cultural prohibitions of the old country fade — and will the tables of Vegas soon be populated by Indian players?


John S.

Maybe they're smart enough to realize that it's smarter to stay out of the game.

Owinok

Fascinating question. However, it is highly unlikely that the "average Indian" manages to migrate to the US and that could explain the occupation and professional choices. Could it be that the particular set of Indian-Americans are not inclined to playing poker or gambling notwithstanding their possession of skils that would make them good at it? Alternatively, being mathematically gifted, they have just determined that the odds are not worth it.

NB

Could it be that 'smart' Indians (engineers, etc.) are more risk-averse than 'smart' other ethnicities? Maybe they know that professional gambling is actually very risky (with the best players in the world often going broke because of a bad luck streak and so they don't quit their day jobs that pay them very well AND will never leave them in the hole.

As for amateur poker playing, as far as I know, Indians (in America) seem to be represented as I would expect - i.e. in accordance with their representation in the general population. I suspect that all these observations of lots of Indians outside the casinos and not so many at poker tables has to do with observational bias. Perhaps one notes the sighting of an Indian family more often than one notes the sighting of a white family. So even though proportionally there are as many Indians at casino tables as outside casinos, you think there are fewer because you thought you came across proportionally a lot more Indian people than white people (or other races) outside.

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True Indian

Well... most important aspect to consider the inherent nature of indian...the stuff which is in their genes!!!---Indians are known to be avid "hagglers"...we can't live without a "bargain"!! Betting on things without any hope of significant return is against our grain. We can't stand to loose money knowingly!!! We know too much of math to predict/evaluate the odds!!

W2

To respond to point number 2, on my many trips to Vegas, I have encountered very few Indian players. But, if you were to take the bus to any of the casinos around Gary, Indiana and take a seat in the poker room, you would very likely have at least one Indian man (anedotally, I have never seen an Indian female at the table)at the table with you. Is it simply a question there being a lot of Indians that live near the Chicago area, or is there a cultural taboo against a place like Vegas, where the primary purpose of the trip would be to gamble? It also makes me wonder whether the Indian players that I see in Gary are playing without their family/friend's knowledge.

Jay

It's because we're all stuck in the library at medical school, duh!

At least that's where I tell my mom I am when I'm making a midnight run to the 'woods...

Diane Francis

Your observations are the same as mine and another question is why are there so many Chinese people gambling? It's overwhelming in Vegas or the casinos in Niagara Falls Canada. Everywhere. In fact, in Canada Chinese croupiers, running Chinese ethnic card games in Mandarin or Cantonese, populate the casinos.
Diane
http://communities.canada.com/financialpost/blogs/francis/default.aspx

AJ

I used to play a lot of poker online, and I almost dropped out of college freshman year, because of how much money I could have been making playing poker. I'm American-born, but both my parents are Indian, and I've been wondering about this question too.

For me, I figured out that if I invested all the money I won from playing poker, I could make more, without swings that weren't nearly as big as when I played poker.

I've never been in a Las Vegas card room (I'm still underage for Vegas), but I think I know why I see so few Indians at the final tables for big poker events. The reason is that most of them play for the cash, not the win. This makes it very difficult for them to accumulate the chips necessary to get to the final table. Often times, it requires a ridiculous amount of luck to do that, no matter how good you are. This strategy (which is actually a much more profitable move, in the long-run) I think parallels the "safe" kind of thinking that I see so much between my parents and their Indian friends. They had a big discussion once about why they have good jobs (mainly in engineering or academia), while they hear about some other guys take a bunch of chances and make a lot more money. However, they said that they settled for the safer route. Maybe that kind of thinking gets passed down?

Also, most good players are really sticking to the online realm, because they can see so many more hands, and beat variance. Usually, the only people playing in Vegas card rooms are the big sharks, or tourists. I don't know how many Indians would prefer a trip to Vegas over something like the Grand Canyon. This goes back to the safety issue, and how gambling (even when its just putting money in a bunch of favorable places) is viewed as an "unsafe" bet.

As time goes on, I think we'll see more and more Indian-American players (like myself) who will start playing poker. Right now, the majority of us are 1st generation Americans, and a lot of us are still underage. Give us a couple of years, and we'll be there with the best of them.

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Brent Michael Krupp

How can you ask a question like this without someone mentioning the classic game of Indian Poker?!? I guess I'll do the honors: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_poker

I guess it's not PC to call it that, given that it gets its name from the stereotype of Native Americans wearing feathers on their heads, or something. Blind Man's Bluff is another name for it, but I suppose someone will call that non-PC, too...

kris

Fist of all, in the question, Dubner asks about American-Indians, and then the answers are all relating to Asian Indians, also known as Indians. What group are we talking about here, and are there "so many" American-Indians of poker age who thrive on computer science, statistics, and engineering? Maybe, but Dubner seems to be confused, or at least confusing, in his own question.

As for why there aren't more American Indian gamblers, my guess would be that they abide by the same rule that drug dealers do: don't use the product. Since American Indians run so many casinos, they know that its a rigged game and that gambling would only eat into their profits. And if they did gamble, they would be gambling in an American Indian owned casino to support their own.

Kris

Whoops, I missed that he said Indian American and not American Indian. Ignore EVERYTHING I said in the previous post.

v

OK, the consensus seems to be "I don't know" and I will sample the few people I know. Here is my experience and it doesn't necessarily square with other peoples take.

1. Taboo of gambling is true. But there aren't any strong penalties for gambling either, unless you bankrupted yourself(if so,I expect any sane culture to look down upon it harshly). Nowhere does it ever have the same taboo as flunking an exam.

2. All my cousins and uncles play cards for money. It is not poker, but good old rummy or theen patte(three cards). In fact, cards and alcohol are staple entertainment for older folks during marriages. Yes, I have *huge* family, 18 aunts and unlces in total.

3. All my friends are big time into sports betting and quite a few of them play poker online.

4. Is there really that much money to make in poker ,unless one is playing professionally. Above all the H1B program is biased against poker players. It doesn't consider it as "high-tech" skill in shortage.

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Manas Tungare

In addition to agreeing with all the observations so far, from my sample size of 1, and much anecdotal evidence, I'm going to guess that we Indians are risk-averse when we cannot accurately measure the nature of the risk.

Also, we're looking at a smaller fraction of the population, that which immigrated to the US. It is probable that the intersection of that set and the set of Indians interested in gambling is a null set (or close to it.) This is similar to W2's take on it.

Both points are guesses.

Akshay

My responses ...

1. The "average" Indian who comes over to the US either has the goal of settling down here, or of saving a ton of money, pray for a favorable exchange rate, and decamp to set up shop back in India. In the latter case, it's easy to see why such a person wouldn't be too drawn to gambling.

In the former case, you have to understand that the Indian society/ economy only recently adopted the credit card system. The average man, until the 90's bought most of his goods with cash, or bank loans. I suspect that the credit card system is the reason why Westerners are more open to gambling with hard cash. Indians aren't used to that, and hence wouldn't want to throw away a mortgage payment, or something similar on a chance for payback.

2. An interesting question ... it's difficult to answer because a lot of the 2nd generation Indians I meet tend to follow Indian norms with more enthusiasm than 1st generation Indians. And that ties directly into what Mr. Pal says in his response.

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MM

I have noticed, on the other hand, that there are a lot of Lebanese poker players, or American and Australians of Lebanese descent and they have won a large number of tournaments, way out of proportion to the size of their population. See for example Joe Hachem, Abdul Khodr, Freddy Deeb, Sammy Farha, Kathy Najimi, many others...

Poulsbo

I don't actually think this is the reason why but...
I can't think of a famous American-Indian poker player (I'm sure there must be a few, but not with names you see in commercials/video games).
African Americans want to be the next Phil Ivey.
Asian Americans want to be the next Johnny Chan.
Female want to the the next Annie Duke.
Obnoxious egomaniacs want to be the next Phil Helmuth (J/K, I actually really like Phil).
You get the point...

J. Story

Following a tangent, is it just poker, or are Indian-Americans also underrepresented at the blackjack table? What about roulette? Craps? Slots? In other words, do members of certain culture groups tend not to gamble, or do they tend to favor or disfavor particular forms of gambling? Add horseracing and sports betting to that list too.

ssa

I agree that Indian Americans seem under-represented in poker. In contrast, it seems to me that Indian Americans are over-represented in their participation and interest in the stock market. This seems to be especially true for Indian doctors.

The interest of Indian Americans in the stock market is consistent with the fact that Indian immigrants to the US self-selected on their willingness to take the risk of moving to a new country for financial gain; however, this story doesn't explain their lack of participation in poker.

David

Amazing that out of 9 responses so far, only #1 and #6 appear to have the tiniest scintilla of what poker is about (as distinct from every other game in the casino).

Sanjay Altekar

In Indian mythology gambling was one of the main causes for the ruin of the greatest ruling family of the Pandavas which in turn led to the disastrous Great War between them and Kauravas. This resulted the almost complete destruction of the Bharata race where all the males of the next generations were killed and it was only Krishna's intervention that allowed the race to continue.

Hence for Brahmins in India (the priestly and scholarly class), gambling has always been despised and viewed negatively. The other classes (warrior, business, etc.) may not share the same revulsion for gambling, but the majority of the Indians who came to the US and became doctors, computer engineers and other white collar professionals, are from Brahmin backgrounds. And even the non-brahmins probably do not have a very high opinion of gambling.