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Poker's Popularity In India Growing At 'Speed Of Light,' Says Female Online Poker Pro

Poker Player Muskan Sethi To Be Honored By India's President

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Poker in India is booming.

Sometime next month, Ram Nath Kovind, President of India, will honor a group of 100 women, including a poker pro, at a ceremony for their achievements in male-dominated fields.

Muskan Sethi, a professional player from New Delhi, was singled out for recognition along with other trailblazers that include the first woman from India to reach Antarctica, the first female cadet to join the Indian Army and India’s first woman firefighter.

Sethi, who also has a job as a social worker, has about $150,000 in lifetime tournament earnings (online and live). The 28-year-old has been playing poker since around 2010.

Her recognition by the head of the Indian state comes at a time when India has emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing poker markets. That’s despite a patchwork of laws surrounding the activity, similar to how the game is viewed legally in the United States.

According to Sethi, laws in most states exempt games of skill from the definition of gambling. There have been judicial precedents, legislative provisions in some states and statistical evidence to show that poker would fall within the ambit of games of skill. However, the poker community is still waiting for full legal clarity from the higher courts.

Card Player had the chance to speak to Sethi about her young career and the state of the game in her home country.

Brian Pempus: How did you find poker and what made the game interesting for you?

Muskan Sethi: At a very young age I use to accompany my dad and watch intense poker on TV. They use to show WPT replays back in 2008 on Indian Television. He never touched cards, but he’s a happy spectator. A few years later I casually found Zynga Poker, followed by discovering a whole new world of poker on YouTube thanks to “Poker After Dark.” I fell in love with this mind sport! At 25 I won the SharkCage qualifier on PokerStars from a free depositor’s ticket and was on a TV show playing against some of the biggest names for $1 million. Ever since then I believe this is my calling and I am really passionate about it.

BP: So poker on Facebook played a big role for you?

MS: It meant the world to me at that point, having no idea about the real poker sites. It was the most exciting thing to play with people in real time across the world, playing for respect and ego. It encouraged so many of us, including me to explore and study the game.

BP: Watching poker on TV as a kid was also instrumental for you?

MS: That’s the biggest reason why I’m a poker player today. It’s a very common way to start out for most players, but for me watching Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey and the others play graceful poker was life changing. Sitting far away in a completely different world and mindset I got so inspired and I dared to dream. It was much later that I realized I am not the only one hiding a secret [in India]. There are many like me and I hope we all make it.

BP: How does your family feel about your poker career?

MS: My family is my support system. They respect the game as a sport. It’s fun to involve them, watch the game over dinner. Their innocent expressions, excitement and curiosity is priceless to me. I consider myself really lucky that I am following my dreams and pursuing poker as a profession. My family’s acceptance played a huge role because on the flip side I had to be hush-hush about it and keep it [quiet], as it is an unusual career option for women in India. It almost comes as a shock to those who consider it “gambling,” but it’s fine because the rest of the world has so much respect for the skill. It’s compared to chess and stock trading. It’s a popular hobby among top officials, professionals and business men because it’s a beautiful sport.

BP: What role did your late mother have in your poker career?

MS: My mother is my pride. Her memories are my prized possessions. She always believed in my poker dreams, from daydreaming about Las Vegas to staying up all night playing online tournaments. My mum has seen me do it all. She wanted me to stay focused no matter what I take up in life. She was full of love and light. Bubble Sethi, a dedicated social worker. [She was] a national awardee, polo player, a politician, a TV and film producer. One of her documentaries was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. A strong and independent woman who made a difference in many lives. One of my dreams is to build an old age home in her name.

BP: How special is it to be honored by India’s president?

MS: It really means a lot to me. Meeting his excellence, our Honourable President, and to be even counted among the 100 women, it’s all like a dream to me. I get goosebumps when I think about it. I take it as an acknowledgment, a heartfelt encouragement for everything I have believed in. Now it’s time to take up the responsibilities that come with this achievement. A group of established sportswomen and I have started working on different ideas to promote sports as a career among women and youth of India.

BP: How do people in India view poker? Do people see it as gambling or skill?

MS: This argument is never ending but I am feeling positive. The Indian poker community used to be a tight-knit family but now it is going mainstream and tapping the masses. We are currently witnessing the “poker boom” in India, but poker as a profession is something new to many. Poker should be viewed as a skill worldwide. It’s easily misunderstood not because luck is involved but because of the gambling image. It should be as normal as betting with your playmates during a round of golf. Poker needs a revolution!

BP: What is the live poker scene like where you live?

MS: There are private cash games all over the country. I personally focus on tournaments for now. One live tournament series every few months is our domestic live scene. Few poker tours have successfully hosted these events in the past. WPT India is happening for the first time. We are really looking forward to it. It’s being hosted in [the Indian state] Goa, a beautiful beach destination. It’s also an upcoming poker paradise. A group of floating casinos legally operate on the Mondovi River. India has the potential to do wonders in these coming years.

BP: Can you estimate how many poker players live in India?

MS: It is very difficult to give an estimate but the rough number of active and regular poker players should be greater than 100,000. Spectators and recreational players are increasing at the speed of light. We already have three poker leagues in India. The Indian poker scene is now backed by international groups, corporate houses and the glamour industry. They are going to be aired on national television which should be multiplying the numbers meanwhile online operators are hosting big tournaments and crushing the guarantees every time.

BP: How do you balance poker and your career as a social worker?

MS: To be honest, I’ve interlinked the two. I contribute most of my winnings to charity and that keeps me going for them. Poker takes over our lives before we know it. After getting some mental coaching from Elliot Roe, I was able to zoom out and see the bigger picture. This quote really inspires me: “Make a life, not a living.” I’m trying to do that and it gives me happiness. I follow a strict poker and fitness routine so I can make enough time for my family and social causes.