Rakesh Sharma: When poker is your middle name, success will follow!


Rakesh Sharma
City of Residence Goa
Occupation Film Maker
Fav Place to play poker PokerStars, Casino Royale, Casino Pride
Fav Poker Game No Limit Texas Hold’em
Fav Poker Hand Pocket 2’s to Pocket 8’s (Low to Medium Pocket Pairs)

Rakesh Sharma

He is Rakesh PkrSharma on Facebook and a very active admin of the PPA Forum. He will often be seen in the poker rooms of the offshore casinos of Goa grinding it on the final tables.

I remember the first time I met the man on the final table of an India Poker Legend Satellite Event in Casino Royale, Goa. He was completely in command and I was totally in awe. So when the thought of starting a series of friendly chats with Indian poker players for OPN began, then my first choice was of course, Rakesh.

Rupal Bansal, brings to you an interesting chat with Rakesh Sharma, a respected name in the Indian Poker fraternity and a poker player who speaks his mind out for the game. 

1. Hi Rakesh, thanks for chatting with OPN. For readers who don’t know much about you, please tell us how you got into playing poker?

RS: I was laid up with a lower back problem, almost totally horizontal for a couple of years, confined at home, worried about the brain going to seed! A friend, visiting me, introduced me to something called Zynga Poker online. It took me a few hours to figure out the ‘hands-hierarchy’ – it’s been a learning curve ever since then!

I played my first live poker hand in July 2011, that too after I’d been living in Goa for a couple of years. I had just about got the doctors’ okay to start moving about, after a serious recovery regimen. A highroller blackjacker friend took me to Casino Royale with some other guests who wished to experience a ‘casino’. He literally thrust a 10K chip into my hand, urging me to try out live poker. It was a fascinating first session on the main table, with the ‘regulars’ delighted at the arrival of a ‘fish’. A couple of hours later, I left the table with 35K. Some more sessions followed intermittently over the next few months, most of them ending in modest gains.

 I was a very disciplined player right from the start, leaving the tables if I lost or won the equivalent of 2 buy-ins (20K). I made slow but steady gains and 6-8 months later this ‘bankroll’ gave me the confidence to start trying my hand at tournament poker.

Within a couple of months of playing tourneys, I won my first title at IPS, followed by another at IPL and then at UPC.  I finished my first year of live tournament poker with 20-plus Final Tables, shipping seven titles!

2. How often do you play live poker?

RS: Now, I hardly play live poker for a couple of reasons:

  1. The Goa poker cashgame scene has dipped quite seriously. For most poker players, it is an all-night activity whereas I need to wind up early, to tend to my normal workday. Earlier, it was possible to find 2-3 full tables at 8pm, play till 11 pm and get back home in time – now, most poker rooms are short-handed during the evenings.
  2. Tournament poker now interests me far more; the equal starting stack creates a level playing field, unlike in the cash games, where big stack bullies can dominate. In 2013, the Goa tourney scene has taken a massive hit on the back of issues like TDS, low turnouts and ‘value’. 
  3. Online poker allows me to play more hands per hour than I’d play in a week on the cash tables, which lets me try out variations, strategies and ‘new’ styles of play at fairly low stakes.

3. Poker isn’t exactly looked as profession in India. How did you cope with family and friends when you first started playing?  

RS: I’m hardly a professional poker player. I see myself as a keen poker enthusiast, a serious student of the sport. I have a deep fascination for the math involved as also the constant need to analyse and adapt – to change strategies, styles of play and levels of aggression as a tournament progresses. People have always interested me, so quite often, I’m busy at the tables even when I’m not involved, observing and learning about them as poker players and as persons.

My friends’ reactions would be a mixed bag – some are unlikely to believe that a ‘serious’ film-maker like me actually enjoys the sport so much. Some already see resonances – making hard-hitting documentaries is often tricky, as it involves filming in hostile conditions, an intuitive approach to sift the truth from embellishments and a dynamic assessment of a situation even as it unfolds.  The ability to look beyond the immediate, to see dimensions and mentally map out trajectories.  An openness to discard a hypothesis, accept other possibilities and improvise. Exactly what cine-verite filming involves!

Most of my friends clearly see how it allows me to ‘switch off’ so completely, something I was unable to do for years despite the toll it was taking – filming and editing material full of grief, despair and loss of hope etc. Poker allows me to step into a different universe altogether, with little or no connection with my work, and yet have the resonances I speak of above.

4. For new players, if you could give three poker tips, what would they be?

a. The learning never stops: If you ever think you know everything there is to know about poker, it is time to take a break! It is definitely time to order a few more books, browse a few more portals, watch some more videos and have many intense discussions with your peers!

b. Bad runs are not just to blamed on bad luck/ variance – they are often sustained by ‘bad play’. A bad run is a good opportunity to take a break, analyze your game, seek advice and fix the leaks/ errors.

c. No credit: It is a bad idea to lend anyone your money to gamble with. It is an even more terrible idea to borrow money to gamble away. I’ve seen so many young players blowing away their bankrolls and get into a cycle of debt, finally finishing in a state where 90% of the winnings go to someone else when they eventually make a big score! Prudent bankroll management is as important a poker skill as mastering pot odds or ‘tells’ or ICM and SPRs.

5. What do you do when not playing poker?

RS: First and foremost – I am a film-maker. Everything else is a distant second, including poker. Maybe that’ll change once the poker trophies outnumber my film festival trophies!

I unwind by playing poker. A lot of my free time though still goes into reading, browsing, watching drama or documentary and lazing.

6. What is your one poker dream and why?

RS: My poker dream is to be in the ‘zone’ for a few weeks (maybe months) continuously – I have only been like that for a few hours in some tourneys and only a few times, for days at a time – the zone when you read everyone well intuitively,, have your instincts at their sharpest to sense weaknesses and push or to know when to avoid tight spots – the ‘zone’ where the gut is in tune with the head, in a manner of speaking.  

The results will automatically follow if one is playing sharp, solid poker, that too, ‘in the zone’!

7. If you didn’t have poker, then what?

RS: Sudoku – I find myself turning into an addict! It also fulfills the primary objective of keeping the Alzheimer’s at bay!! I sometimes take a break during my long poker sessions by playing Blackjack, as this game too involves a fair amount of math.

8. Congrats on setting up PPA on FB. How far do you think it is going in uniting the Indian poker community and how many unfulfilled tasks are still there?

RS: The Poker Player Alliance (PPA) is an online community space for players to discuss all issues and matters related to poker. It is non-partisan, non-commercial and has no ‘owners’. It is also a strictly no-spam, no-adverts space. Its volunteer-admin panel has 10 poker players, most of them with serious, solid credentials.

 In the few months it has existed, it has already created a space for some sort of dialogue between the players, the poker rooms and the tourney organizers. It is a tricky terrain to navigate, as most of the poker stakeholders are just about getting used to the idea of a democratic space where they can be freely critiqued or questioned! Some of them are still quite touchy though.

It is early days yet for the group to start speaking of uniting the entire poker community. I’d say a start has been made. Poker players, though a rather opinionated lot, share an over-riding love for poker itself. So, perhaps forging a sense of unity around issues that concern the players is not a tough ask. The real challenge is getting the other stakeholders to share a platform and unite for promoting poker as also to tackle the quasi-legal or formal challenges. It is tough as they have their own commercial interests to protect and prior baggage to shed, but I am hopeful that a myopic approach will soon give way to a broader vision.

PPA can actually make a difference only if it continues to grow and enlists a majority of Indian poker players as its members. Only then can players as PPA set some agendas and have any kind of say. For example, with a sizeable membership base, it can interact seriously with the upcoming Gaming Commission. So, join the group and add the other serious poker players you know!  

9. Many players speak of legal cases and some even suggest PILs. What, to you, is a pragmatic approach? What should the poker community ask the government for?

RS: We need to dismiss the idea that a PIL can be filed! There is no Public Interest Litigation involved here! Poker-related lawsuits can be filed by individuals and organizations, but we must have clarity about the objectives. What is it that we will ask the courts to do?

A lot of the player-angst is related to taxation issues. But that’s not a matter for a lawsuit; the forum to sort this out is the Income-Tax Tribunal or the Ministry of Finance. We can’t possibly argue that poker players are a special lot and poker incomes must be made tax-free! What we can and should realistically try for is the recognition of poker incomes as professional incomes (rather than lottery-like windfall gains), with expenses (like buy-ins) allowed as deductibles.

The second set of issues concerns the legality of poker rooms. There are Central laws and State laws that need to be analysed and reconciled. There are precedents to be examined and their applicability to poker argued in courts, esp the cases related to rummy or bridge clubs. But this needs to be done in a concerted manner, or else we will continue to have a complex legalscape. For instance, as of now, on the back of some sort of tenuous court orders, poker rooms operate in Bangalore, but despite the so-called ruling, they are not immune to police action. Recently, all card rooms (rummy and poker) were shut down by the cops! That just underscores the need for a co-ordinated, precedent-setting legal strategy and action.

The third set of issues concerns the legality of online gaming. As of now, most Indian poker portals are operating in a rather ambiguous, grey zone. A few months ago, when I queried a promoter-owner of a portal advertising ‘legal online poker in India’, all I had by way of a response was “my partner has taken care of it with the lawyers”! There is a range of Income Tax, Information Technology and Gambling related laws to be navigated there. As of now, what exists on record is an unfavorable opinion by a Delhi Court, now under appeal. There are serious question marks on the legality of the Indian poker portals at present.

There is, however, a larger debate about legalizing betting in the wake of the IPL match-fixing scandal. There is always a possibility that anything legalizing betting may open the doors for legitimizing online poker as well.

10. Finally, what should be done to make poker an accepted game/profession in India? What can make poker grow?

RS: In terms of social acceptability, poker has already been replacing Indian Flush or Teenpatti as a family card game for friendly gambling on festive occasions. However, it is a long way off from gaining acceptability as a profession, a difficulty that perhaps any form of gambling would face in a morality-driven society, especially within a stability-craving middle class.

Any sport needs heroes – golf broke out of the burra-sahib ethos once ‘regular’ Indians started notching up impressive wins in tournaments abroad. Poker too needs a ‘breakout’ string of successes – the first set of WSOP bracelets perhaps? The Red Dragon trophy? Some European championships?  Some more people like Aditya Sushant (PPA admin) cracking the PS Sunday Million? Or people like Sumeet Sapra, Prabhat, Amit, Goindi (all PPA admins) or others like Adi, Sahil, Amit Jain, Dhaval Mudgal, Danish, Rahul Raju, Jasven, Samoh etc – who are already scoring well online and/or at events like APT, PS Macau, WSOP etc – any one of them can soon ship a major international or online title or two. Maybe some of them will begin to make it to the World/ Asia Top 10 consistently. Once there is a serious set of success stories, we will see a greater interest and a growing player pool.

The game also needs governmental recognition as a sport/ profession – that alone will go a long way in de-stigmatising the game! Currently, under the tax laws, poker is clubbed with things like lottery, with zero recognition of the skill, the preparation and ‘peak form’ you need to be in to consistently win tourneys.

Poker stakeholders, especially Indian tourney organizers also need to peep out of their personal ponds and set aside their little turf wars/ brand-battles and fragile egos, to glimpse at the vast ocean of opportunity that awaits them. All the stakeholders need to come together and use their energies to focus on promoting the sport. It makes sound business sense too – rather than fight for a miniscule slice of a competitor’s tiny pie, focus on enlarging the pie itself!

At least some of the more serious stakeholders need to look beyond immediate profits/ windfall gains (eg, through rake-sharing with casinos during tourney weekends) and work with a long-term perspective. For instance, many technical institutions have a student poker community – and yet, there is nobody actually even thinking of college-circuit poker tourneys! Nothing prevents anyone from organizing tourneys in 40-50 institutions (eg, Manipal, IITs, Management institutes etc where poker is already being played) culminating in a grand all-India finale comprising Top 3 finishers from each of the local tourneys. These could be organized during the college festival season, when a range of other activities and contests are already being organized, often with not-so-insubstantial sponsorships and advertiser interest!

Another example: we are yet to have a single televised Indian poker series! If lakhs of Indians have registered on facebook poker, surely that’s a captive audience for such a series. Why await broadcaster interest?  Nothing prevents the stakeholders from promoting and uploading a series on youtube, use it as a way to expand the poker-audience (and player base) and document/demonstrate the numbers to potential sponsors and TV channels. It is also a serious way to expand the revenue streams – tourney sponsorships, player- sponsorships, advertising revenues, broadcast fees etc.

It would need a reorientation of approach and strategy, a willingness to plough back profits or even make some serious investments. It will need clarity, strategy and much ground-level hard work. But surely, all poker stakeholders need to go beyond the regular pool of the few hundred regulars and look at the bigger picture – how to get into their tourneys (and poker rooms) even a fraction of the lakhs playing poker on facebook, in homegames and in their colleges/hostels.  Just a one percent conversion would increase the current poker pool by ten-fold!

Poker in India is poised to take off and zoom.  As they say in the movies – we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!