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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?