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?


MM

How can you say Indians don't gamble? have you looked at the Bombay BSE Sensex stock index lately? up 34% this year... who needs poker?

Sindhu

In India, gambling is not popular because:
(1) there is a high risk, and Indians are not risk-takers, they want to play safe.
(2) Any money that is not "hard-earned" will not last, according to popular belief. We are taught this at a young age. So if it comes easy, it goes easy. There is no incentive to play.

Rishi

I am an Indian and a poker player, and there is one factor that I think needs mentioning that hasn't been mentioned yet here:

Indians are (in comparison to Americans) much more shy.

Poker requires people to sit at a table, observe one another, and find each others tells. It involves a lot of eye contact, and a lot of 'social confidence'.

You will find LOADS of Indian Americans at slot machines, Blackjack tables, roulette tables, and crapps etc in any given casino. Why? Because there, they have to deal with a maximum of one other person, and don't need to converse/ interact elaborately.

Indians are also more risk averse. Crapps and Blackjack have better winnings than poker (which is increasingly all or nothing texas holdem these days) and slot machines have very small bets.

browning

"Under-represented" or "blessedly free?" Who wants to be "fully represented" where the house reliably gets the money? That's like saying that an ethnic group is under-represented in the cancer ward.

Alex

>a majority of Indians are brought up on the following
>broad and vague dictum: smoking, drinking alcohol,
>and gambling are BAD

While this may be true of Indians, it is also largely true for non-Indians. And yet, Indian-American college students are just as likely to be drinkers and binge drinkers as others, in my experience. Indian-Americans in their 20's and 30's drink, much as the rest of the population, as best as I can tell.

And so, this just begs the original question. That is, if Indian-Americans are raised with the lessons that drinking is "BAD" and that gambling is "BAD," why do so many ignore the former and attend the latter?

dev

As a poker playing Indian-American (albeit not a professional by any means), I might have some small insight into this.

First, to address the carefully worded assumption of the argument, a lot of the reason Indian-Americans are considered good in math, probability, risk, etc. is because in a way it's a self selected sample of the general Indian population; most of the Indian immigrants into the US in the past 40 years or so were given visas based on their mathematical/scientific prowess, there weren't that many poets or musicians allowed in. No, the way to get into America (or England) if you wanted to go was math or science.

I believe that's also the reason you don't see a lot of Indian-American gamblers, it's that immigrant experience. Most of the first generation immigrants that came here were the heads of their classes and came to the US in pursuit of a higher standard of living and learning. Given that, the priority was getting stable jobs or positions so that they could provide for themselves and their families back home in India. The boom or bust mentality of gambling is somewhat antithetical to that mindset.

In turn, they brought up their kids to pursue those same values. As many second generation kids can tell you, they are ... strongly encouraged, to go into professions such as a doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. instead of the humanities, because of the income prospects and relative stability in those professions. Now the kids don't always listen of course, but for the most part they take after their parents at least a little bit. Announcing one day that you've decided to become a full-time professional poker player instead of going to college would probably cause conflict in any similar family, but for the Indian family that came from a country where poverty is so prevalent, and had built up a (relative) fortune over a lifetime of salaried work, becoming something as risky as a poker player would be a source of considerable angst for the parents.

In other words, I don't think it's much to do with Indian culture shunning gambling outright (after all, an important part of the Mahabharata deals with a rigged dice game, and the giant war that resulted from it), but rather the priorities of the kind of people who immigrated from India to America.

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Jean Naimard

It is obvious. The indians are at home, busy winning at the casino!

Some years ago I was at the Hull (near Ottawa, Canada), busy winning at roulette: I was standing back, waging nothing at all, just watching all the $20 and $50 and $100 bills many orientals from Ottawa were busy slipping on the table.

All those dollars going into the bank were so much tax dollars I would not have to pay!

I felt like the biggest winner.

Like all those indians you don't see in the casinos .

Herr Ziffer

One might also ask why the Vietnamese are so over-represented in these poker tournaments.

Raj B

Personally, I think the social stigma definitely plays a big big role. From anecdotal experience, there's a lot of card games that are played on festive and family occasions (Diwali, for instance), but it's seen as a time to indulge. At other times, it is taboo. People do it anyway, but like drinking, it's kinda hush-hush.

Personally, when I moved to the US, it took me over a year to get used to the idea that it was actually OK to drink here with nobody judging you negatively for it. I have friends who still haven't gotten accustomed to that.

I also agree with the commentator who connected the taboo against gambling with the Mahabharata epic story. It is something you hear about from childhood. It would definitely have a subconscious impact.

Raj B

Also, are you taking online poker into account? I know for a fact that partypoker.com was founded (jointly) by an Indian dude.

Giri G

put it simply, a SURVEY can be taken to form a trend than just to guess..

dev

I realize that in my long, rambling response I didn't actually directly respond to the questions asked, which really is the fundamental part of responding to something. Hopefully this does a better job:

1. They're related, but indirectly. Gambling falls in the "don't waste your money" camp, rather then any moral issue for the most part. Not wasting money is probably a good thing in the education and labor markets, but I don't think it's something you can directly correlate. Maybe.

2. Yes. I don't know if it'll ever be "full" of Indian players, but the second (and third and fourth) generations will be more likely to try it. We're simply more exposed to that mindset, we've started life as middle to upper class citizens and are more willing to takes risks with money such as gambling (as well as becoming an entrepreneur, or a musician, or English major...okay, maybe not that risky). We've been exposed to years of advertising by Vegas and individual casinos, and have black, white, asian and hispanic friends that gamble as well. Of course we're going to gamble more then our parents did.

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Jasleen

I'm Indian and I've been to Vegas twice - didn't gamble a cent either time. It's because of all the reasons cited above that explain why Indians who go there for vacation are mostly interested in sight-seeing. Vegas is known for its glamour, beautiful structures, shows and buzzing life in addition to gambling. I bet if you walked outside the casinos you'd see groups of Indian families taking in the city on its streets.

You will, however, see Indians in Atlantic city in its casinos - those Indians who do not fall in the risk-averse or gambling loathing category, and go to Atlantic city for the purpose of gambling. I was taken there by Indian friends and got bored with the relatively lackluster hotels and streets (compared to Vegas).

Justin

On the contrary, I've always wondered how so many people that understand math/risk/probability can stand to play a game as maddening as poker.

Kathryn

Perhaps India's interest in a pre-ordained fate, e.g. astrology, is a bigger factor than meets the eye. If fate rules supreme, one's luck factor is already determined at birth. The logic would be: If the individual was born poor, then they will stay poor. This further implies that no windfall is their future to begin with, so why bother? Of course, many Indian immigrants to western nations must believe otherwise; that they can transcend their stratified circumstances in India. In that case, why bother making the trip and starting anew? So what are the odds of Indian-Americans starting to gamble? Anyone willing to bet on it?

Shan

Good question, I think I might be qualified to answer it. Personally, I'm Pakistani... but I spent years as a member of an Indian student organization at the University of Missouri and I used to play in a nearly-daily poker game with a group of Indians.

Indian family values are vehemently against acts like gambling and drinking (and Pakistani values are even more so). That discourages many young Indians from gambling or drinking enough to let their parents find out. In my experience, young Indians tend to care more about their family's opinion. I would rarely come across a person (excluding Muslims) who didn't drink or gamble... furthermore, of the people who did drink/gamble, it was considered the social norm to hide it from their parents, no matter how old and independent they may have been.

I recently (less than 6 months ago) had a span of a month or so when I was playing poker 4-5 nights a week with a group that usually turned out to be 75-80% Indian (most of my friends happen to be Indian). Most of the guys that I play with are avid poker players and some of them spend a fair amount of time playing online and at small local tournaments.

So why don't they show up on TV or at casinos? Here is my list:

1. Although young Indian-Americans usually don't care much about their parents' culture, they do care a lot about their parents' opinion of them. The last thing they want is the stigma of "gambler"... so they'll try their best to not be seen at a casino or, even worse, at a major televised tournament.

2. In Indian-American culture, probably for the same reason as what Venkatesh mentioned, money is highly valued. Any act that might lead to the unnecessary loss of money is often shunned. Meanwhile, the potential of making money is usually disregarded, even by businessmen. It is common to see an Indian/Pakistani businessman (you see them everywhere... motels, gas stations, convenient stores, etc.) to take any necessary measures in an attempt to avoid investing money to make his business better (even if it means that it might help his profits).

3. Indians/Pakistanis also tend to highly value the opinions of the rest of the local Indian/Pakistani community. For this reason, they will often reserve all spending for something that is easy to show off (i.e. cars, clothes, etc.).

I could probably come up with a longer, more thorough, and better-written list, but right now I'm in my office (I'm pretending to work on a research manuscript). If somebody does happen to read this, feel free to email me if you want me to elaborate... siddiqis@health.missouri.edu .

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Mary

Casino games are all lousy investments, mathematically speaking. I think the more one knows about statistics, probability and finance the less likely one would be to play.

aps

A couple of points:

The census (the last time I looked) said that there are approximately 2 million Indian-Americans in the country - under one percent. So, maybe there are under one percent of poker players that are Indian, who knows?

I'm not sure that people that are attracted to math/engineering/computers are necessarily attracted to poker - the reverse may be true (i.e. poker players may be gadget freaks as a rule).

Religion/Culture may have something to do with it, but I feel there is a much more pressing "immigrant" pressure on discouraging gambling - that it's unlikely that you will make steady money gambling. Medicine, engineering and other "professional" pursuits are prized in the Indian-American community because they are perceived as being steady income and "good" (i.e. high) income.

I'm a thirty something Indian-American who immigrated here when I was 14. In my parents' social circle, gambling wasn't really religiously taboo, because they all played card games for penny bets at parties. However, when someone in the community gambled in a way that affected the family stability (shame, lost money, sold things, etc), that seemed to reinforce the notion that gambling excessively was bad.

Maybe inclusion in the group of poker players is less correlated to ethnic traits than to psychological traits such as thrill seeking, reward seeking, competitiveness and risk tolerance.

I probably just repeated things a lot of other people said in the comments already, but I hope that helps.

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tim

As someone currently writing his dissertation on poker, feminism, and ethnicity, I thought I should chime in.

While not familiar at all with Indian culture, I think there are socioeconomic factors that lead to the current demographics of poker.

1. My ethnographic work suggests the live poker environment is extremely hostile to any groups other than white males.

2. Southeast Asian players almost universally emigrate to the U.S. in levels of abject poverty. Development of poker skills is, essentially, a path to the American dream (this is kind of a core component of my dissertation).

3. Indian-Americans, on the whole, occupy a considerably higher level of both wealth and influence than Southeast Asian-Americans (and immigration patterns suggest they come to the U.S. with different goals in mind, with a more strongly-established position, et cetera). Therefore, I would hypothesize there is less incentive for Indian-Americans to forego more traditional occupations to engage in poker as a profession.

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Ron Larson

How many casinos are they in India?
I don't know the answer. However, I've never heard of any.

If the answer is zero, then there is your answer. It is not part of the culture.