A $175,805 win is big in itself. But 28-year-old Nikita Luther’s success at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) 2018 in Nevada also made her India’s first female poker player to be awarded a WSOP bracelet. That’s akin to an Olympic gold medal in the game, says Mohit Agarwal, co-founder of Adda52, India’s largest poker website, whose professional team includes Luther. Her achievement was no flash in the pan. It’s reflective of a new obsession — online card games — that’s taking over urban India and reshaping attitudes toward a centuries-old tradition.
Card games are entrenched in Indian culture and traceable to Mughal courts of the 1500s. Rummy, which involves building sets, and Teen Patti, similar to the British three-card brag, are staples during festivals such as Diwali. But the games, where players often bet small amounts, also developed an association with gambling and wastefulness. That lack of broad social acceptance meant these games remained largely limited to family gatherings, never growing into regulated and accepted professions or hobbies. Until now.
A rapidly growing set of companies like Adda52 are pulling these games out of the closet, taking them online and injecting professionalism, regulation, and money like never before. They’re drawing millions of young players who are looking for alternate forms of entertainment beyond the national passions of cricket and films. India today has at least 18 major online card gaming firms, compared to 10 in 2014, according to consulting firm Deloitte. The country’s online gaming industry is expected to touch Rs. 11,900 crore ($1.8 billion) by 2023, a new report by consulting firm KPMG suggests, nearly three times the $670 million market in 2018. India in 2018 had 250 million gamers, up from 20 million in 2010.
Leading the rummy revolution is Junglee Games, a firm launched by founder Ankush Gera in San Francisco but aimed at the Indian market. It alone commands 20 million Indian players. Its ongoing Rummy Premier League, with the finale on May 19, has a prize pool of Rs. 1 crore ($153,000). BaaziGames, another firm, launched its rummy site, RummyBaazi, this month, and online poker is also booming. BaaziGames’ poker platform PokerBaazi has grown 70 percent year-over-year since its launch in 2014, says Varun Ganjoo, its director. Adda52 hosted the country’s first national poker championship in April, with Rs. 2,500 ($38) buy-in and a guaranteed prize of Rs.1 crore ($153,000). Around 4,000 players participated. The website plans to raise tournament stakes to Rs.10 crore ($1.53 million).