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?


Sudha

Poker is more about luck and body language than math or probability theory which explains the tons of D list celebs.

Like Raj b said, Diwali night has mandatory card games/gambling in many parts of India. Probably it is more of fun than profit though. Gov sponsored lottery is widespread in Southern India to pay for various programs much like in California. Also Goa has cruise ships which sail out of state jurisdiction to hold gambling cruises. Movies and TV soaps also depict immoral high society women in parties where they gamble and drink, while ignoring kids and husbands. So there is gambling but definitely not as widespread or socially acceptable for the masses.

Ashish

As a slightly related aside, Indians seem very overrepresented in the world of chess, particularly scholastic chess. At a recent very large scholastic tournament near San Francisco, I'd say about a third of the participating children were Indian American, a third Chinese American, under a third (including the winner) Russian/Jewish, and the remainder Middle Eastern. Scarcely a WASP or other ethnicity in sight.

Wyatt

I had an Indian statistics professor at UPENN for a business-probability course a few years ago. He had a great story that involved a good friend of his and a casual night at a Las Vegas casino.

Apparently, they were not there to gamble (his devoutly religious friend forbade it), but they did decide to put a single quarter in a single slot machine just for the fun of it - and if they won anything, they would put it right back. Well, sure enough, they hit a rather sizeable jackpot. Sticking to their guns, they then spent the better part of the remainder of the night putting every quarter right back into that machine.

My professor always thought it was a funny story (as did the class) but I guess his friend saw it as punishment for even thinking of gambling - even if the goal was not to win but just to have fun.

Of course this single data point doesn't answer any questions, but I thought the story was appropriate.

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Abhishek

1. We are way too skeptical in nature. We don't trust buying online and using credit cards (this also explains why the online stores like amazon and ebay still haven't picked up in India)
2. We are not very big risk takers (this also explains why we don't put our money where our brain is, but let the west take the risk and we crack the code/chip)
3. We can't justify the loss as "whatever, at least we had fun" to ourselves. Money is way too dear to us than fun.

"We", here is the majority. Of the minority, #11 (Akshay's) point number 1 says it all.

P.S. Regarding everyone saying its a taboo in our religion, well sorry, its not. We play it rather indulgently on the Hindu New Year. One of our biggest mythologies (Mahabharat) has its story built around gambling (although it clearly depicted the "evils" of over-indulgence).

Raj Pandravada

I think there are a few points to consider...I haven't read the other posts, so kindly overlook anything already covered by someone else.

1. Americans of Indian origin are too busy 'figuring' themselves out to play serious poker

2. Indians who come to the US usually do so on a tight budget, and might remain frugal their whole lives

3. Indians are taught from a young age not to play with money, and that gambling is a serious vice

4. I don't know if it's being smart or not, but everyone will agree that the typical Indian is 'careful' with money, the way George Costanza is 'careful' with money....but hey, I'm a Cosmo guy...

5. As a poker-playing Indian, the only thing that stops me from playing in casinos is the possibility of getting ripped off (seen 'Rounders' starring Matt Damon and Ed Norton?), but I guess that has nothing to do with the fact that I am Indian

Oh BTW, what do the following have in common?

TV Producer
Chiropractor
Lawyer
Accountant
Investment banker

The last five World Champions of Poker....where amongst these would you put the 'typical' Indian?

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Andrew

"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."

I don't know if I consider poker a casino game. In live poker especially it's not hard to come out ahead. I've been playing recreationally for a few years now, and I'm very much in the black when it comes to winnings. Online is a little different because there are fewer fish and more sharks, but live poker is very beatable.

If you give me $10,000 with the option of the stock market or poker, I'd probably choose poker. I think I have a better chance of getting ahead that way.

Joy

My guess is that there are two factors here, and one is mathematical, and the other is behavioral:

Mathematical: Indian Americans make up a small percentage of the U.S. population, statisically. Subcontinental and southeast asians are 4.3 percent of the U.S. population, and Indians are a subset of that, so it is entirely possible that there could be almost no Indian Americans in casinos, and they would not be "under-represented."

Behavioral: In addition to being a game of odds, poker is also a game of reading the behavior of others at the table and attempting to deduce from their behavior whether their hands are better than yours. Reading these small ques in peoples' behavior becomes considerably more difficult when they come from a different culture, upbringing, or socio-economic background than you do.

Raman VikramAdith

HAHA, it is considered a 'bad habit' in India to gamble. There are other things labelled as bad habits of course, like alcohol and dating.

It's probably only youngsters who might try and act contrary to these taboos, but rebellious teens would rather get drunk and flirt than go to a casino. After all, gambling somehow lacks a youthful appeal.

As for why it is a taboo, I guess that would be rather obvious. But Indian viewpoints are often defined by our mythology, and if we take a look at our greatest mythology, the Mahabaratha, you'll see why gambling has such a bad name. One of the key episodes involves the otherwise uber-virtuous Yuddishtra being tricked into gambling away his wealth, his kingdom, his brothers, and eventually his wife!

Of course, that's a Hindu thing, but as for Muslims, gambling is completely forbidden. So it's highly unlikely you'll find too many gamblers from South Asia.

Gambling sucks unless don't approach it with the rationality of a number crunching economist.

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Raj Pandravada

I just noticed that many of my fellow-blog-readers mentioned the Mahabharata as a major anti-gambling influence for Indians.

But few mentioned that the king, Yudishtira, who gambled away his family, fortune and future, was CHEATED. They play a complicated form of die-rolling in the Mahabharata...and Shakuni, the cunning trickster had a pair of loaded dice, not unlike the grifters you find in gambling dens all over the world today....

Also, we're talking about poker here, which, as any poker player will tell you, is far more than just gambling, and that there is no small amount of skill involved.

In any case, one needs to read the whole of the epic story to understand the morality tale...and I absolutely love it! Wonder why we Indians (or Stephen Jackson for that matter) never made a spectacular movie about it....can't even begin to imagine the special effects!

Here's a quorum for you, Stephen:
If poker was popular in India 3000 years ago, and if Yudishtira had a poker face, would there be more Indians in Vegas?

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Piyush Goyal

I think the a large part of the answer lies in economics or as you guys call it, incentive structure.

Indian culture definitely explains some lack of interest in gambling - we are brought up on the Mahabharata where gambling caused loss of property, face and wife for the Pandavas. We see gambling ills potrayed in popular media which usually associates gambling/playing card games to alcoholic and abusive husbands all adding to the negative image of gambling.

More importantly the economics of gambling didnt look enticing to most Indians for ever.

Indians have atleast for the last few centuries endured poverty as a people and any activity like gambling that had a high probability of loosing your hard earned money or destroy savings was frowned upon. This is evident when Indians cash out before reaching the final poker tables (Highly Risk averse).

Remove this incentive structure by removing money from the equation and you will see an increase in the number of Indians on the poker tables. You can see that happening already in some of the clubs across the country that have weekly poker games (you play with no money and win prizes like gift cards to the bar) - plenty of Indians around.

Poker with no money removes the incentive structure and somewhat the social stigma of gambling - it is just considered an evening out chilling and having fun.

This is not just true of clubs with Poker tournaments but also true in private parties, where young professionals get together and play but again no money involved.

Lastly a hello to Shubhodeep Pal, a fellow from Dehradun as myself. He probably went to school with a couple of my nephews both in D'dun and in Singapore.

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John

Robert Whelan, an economist at ECONorthwest in Portland, Ore., who has studied gambling in depth, once told me that he suspects there is a genetic element to the enjoyment of gambling. Studies of problem gambling, in particular, conclude that there is may be a small percentage of people who, once exposed to gambling, will become problem gamblers, just like there seems to be a portion of the population who, once they start drinking alcohol, will become alcoholics.
If there is a genetic element to the enjoyment of gambling (linked to the rush from "action" that gamblers talk about), then it seems possible that this genetic factor may be distributed differently in different populations. Japanese people seem to have a low rate of alcholism, and some medical researchers believe this is genetic -- interestingly, people who flush red when they drink are less likely to become alcoholic, and Japan has a high proportion of "flushers."
Perhaps India has a low proportion of people who get a kick out of gambling action?

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Prashant

I am an Indian and came to the US three years ago. Gambling in India is looked down upon and is considered an addiction akin to alcohol or drugs. Generally, you will see people from the low-income strata indulging in gambling. Most epics, folk tales and movies portray gambling as a vice; with the involvement of the mafia and suchlike.
There are no casinos to speak of (except in some parts of Goa) and hence gambling in any other region is technically illegal, except of course, the state sponsored lotteries. This I think is the main reason why gambling, in general, and poker, in particular, is not as prevalent among the average Indian youth as one would imagine.
Also, India being a male-dominated society, the money remains in the hands of the males of the families and hence very few females get the opportunity to gamble.
The first time I gambled was in a casino in the US. I almost freaked out when I saw poker on national television. In my opinion, poker is gambling and not a sport and should be banished from the realms of television.

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Kimmitt

Any game's participation is going to be highly culturally determined, if only because it's way more fun to play a game that other people also enjoy, and we tend to cluster with folks in our culture.

So we get white D&D and poker players, Chinese gamblers, elderly slot machine players -- because the games are both compatible with the needs of the players and the game which that culture happened to settle on.

Fred

I know at least one top (50/100+ NL) online player is Indian-American. A few tourney pros are too -- just looking at the Hendon mob site for this year's top 100 tourney money winners, I see Raj Patel and Ram Vaswani, of Indian descent. I think Hevad Khan is as well, not 100% sure though.

If you want another baffler, try to find a Japanese poker player. The Japanese are supposed to like gambling, but for some reason seem to avoid poker.

bryce

here's the question you need to ask: why are so many of the top players jewish? they are good with money, at scheming and manipulation and money...or what?

bryce little
nyc

Vijay

To be honest it's a very interesting observation. You would see so many Indians (basically Asians) all around the town, but not so many on the poker table. I agree it's one of the practices that are considered taboo as per family values. But, "Teen Patti" (a spin on Poker, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teen_patti) is a common game among adults in the state of Gujarat, especially on Diwali, the festival of lights. Still, you won't find so many Indians at the poker table in Vegas. Risk aversion might be *one* of the reasons...

mrkwst

OK, the truth now.

How many of you (upon reading the headline) thought this article would be about that drunk's game where you take a single card stick it to your forehead, and then bet blind on who has the highest card?

Yeah. That's what I thought.

Krishnan

Indians who come to US come (mainly) for educational purposes. Generally they tend to be risk-averse(if they werent, they would stick to making money in India).

As for Indian-americans, the risk averseness might be traced to their parents'(who in turn are influenced by the diaspora) influence.

Purely from personal observation of a subset of indian culture(if there is one) in India.

I grew up with people who didnt think twice about getting rich quickly(lottery mainly). That they werent successful didnt stop them from trying again and again.

Those were the good old days of socialism where making money came with its attendant guilt and the only state sanctioned way was lottery. Lottery is a huge money spinner for state governments in India.

Card games generally are played within families themselves, though no betting is involved.

As this generation grows up, gambling will increase.

Siddhartha

I am a 20-something Indian-American male. I have spent a lot of time playing poker in Bay Area card rooms, home games, and online before UIGEA. While I can't speak for the population distribution in the on-line world, you will not infrequently find players of Indian descent in live card rooms around here.

There is a strong tradition of card games, chess, and parcheesi being played in India, but not necessarily for money, for reasons others have alluded to. Thus, when you encounter an Indian poker player at the tables, he (and there aren't any "she's" really) is often approaching the game from a strategic/intellectual perspective, and not necessarily as a way to "gambool" (not that there is anything wrong with gambooling every now and then). However without the larger pool of players playing mainly for kicks, it is hard to develop a big player base, and hence become a noticeable group in the US. As a consequence of this, the shark/fish ratio is higher among Indian-Americans than other groups in my experience, even though their overall numbers are not high.

It also worth noting that the co-founder and majority owner of Party Gaming is an Indian.

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4sudha

I wanted to buy a yahoo poker game for $20 and my dad looked at me like I was a degenerate. I think the next Indian poker star will be as celebrated in our community as the current Indian porn star.