Alexander R. Villegas
“Fucking Bitti man,” Aditya “Adi” Agarwal said. He looked at his phone and called his friend again
It was past 3 p.m. and Adi had been pacing in front of his parents’ house for about 15 minutes.
“I should’ve started calling him at one,” Adi said. The two agreed to meet at 2 p.m. “I played this one wrong.”
Adi laughed in a way that’d let a blind man to pick him out of a lineup. Those who haven’t heard it have heard variations. It’s a childish high-pitch spurt that often sounds malicious, but is no more harmless than he is. Weighing in at just 120 pounds and measuring 5’8,” Adi is a peaceful, thin-limbed man who prefers to use his body as an online poker playing vessel.
That mindset helped Adi become India’s top-earning live and online player with more than $3.8 million in online cashes and $300,000 in live events.
The highly-profitable vessel still lives with mom and dad in Calcutta.
“I really like hanging out with my parents,” Adi said. “And it’s comfortable here.”
Some home comforts include three maids and a few drivers. When the drivers aren’t available, Adi counts on himself to get around.
Adi doesn’t have a car or know how to drive, but he still has a driver’s license thanks to the intricacies of Indian bureaucracy. For rides, Adi has to count on his friend, Aditya “Bitti” Agarwal instead. Aside from having identical names, both live within a mile of each other in New Alipore, Calcutta. It’s city that Adi — a Drexel graduate — described as the Philadelphia of India.
“It’s dirty, there’s not much to do, everything closes kind of early but it’s historically important you know,” Adi said. “And it’s not that bad.”
With nearly identical IDs, the two Agarwals often cause confusion in tournament entry lists and in-flight meals. One, as Indians would say, is veg, while the other is non-veg. This mix-up caused one Agarwal to go hungry on a flight to a tournament once.
Besides their name and interest in poker, the two Agarwals have little in common.
One is usually late while the other is always really late. One avoids all types of conflict while the other often gets into brawls at bars. One drinks regularly and the other lets his screen names hint at his vices. They both play No-Limit Hold’em, but they play a completely different game.
In a haze of naps, Bollywood movies and smoke breaks, Adi grinds online poker during odd hours of the night in his room. Bitti spends his nights on the streets of Calcutta. Bitti is a self-described social butterfly that’s often out partying, hosting or playing in Calcutta's largest underground cash games. But today the Agarwals are taking a break from poker to gamble on horses.
If Bitti shows up on time.
It was 3:20 p.m. and the last race was scheduled at 3:45 p.m. One Agarwal called the other and the latter didn’t pick up.
“That’s a good sign,” Adi said. “Means he’s in his car.”
Adi lives in Block O, from his house, you go up to Chetla Road and take a left. Then you take the first right and walk a few minutes to Block G, where Bitti lives.
Soon after the call, Bitti’s 2008 Honda Civic screeched to a halt in front of Adi’s house.
The car — a bright red Japanese import — is a sore thumb in Kolkatan traffic, which is dominated by tank-like yellow Ambassador cabs, small green-and-yellow motorized rickshaws and fearless motorcyclists on Pulsars.
Adi got into the Civic, Bitti slammed it into gear and the two swerved and beeped through Indian traffic as fast as they could.
Which was pretty fast.
The kingpins of Kolkatan poker were off to gamble on horses.
Out in 52nd.
The top 50 players got a $14,000 package to the 2014 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. Adi made his final move with ace-six suited and was up against pocket kings and deuce-six.
It was 8:30 a.m. and after 12 hours of play, 15 tournaments and more than $8,000 in buy-ins, the satellite was Adi’s last chance to turn a profit. The package would’ve put the session in the black, but now Adi was looking at a net loss of $4,789 for the day.
Things were looking good with 60 players left. Adi was in the top 50 and there were plenty of short stacks. Then, with about 55 players left, several of the short stacks doubled up repeatedly and Adi found himself dipping.
One player at Adi’s table amassed more chips than the rest of the table combined and started moving all-in every hand.
With a guaranteed call, Adi was looking for any ace — or any face-card really — to go all in. He finally made his move with ace-six from the cutoff.
Then another short stack re-shoved from the hijack.
“Faaak,” Adi muttered.
With a guaranteed overcall on a $14,000 bubble, Adi knew the hijack was strong.
The big stack called from the big blind with deuce-six offsuit and the hijack showed pocket kings. The board brought no ace for Adi and he was eliminated in 52nd.
“Sums up the day,” Adi said. He stared at the screen as his chips moved to his opponent. The qualifier ended a few moments later and Adi’s session was over.
Adi compared beats with another player on Skype, entered his net loss in his staking spreadsheet and then went to go have breakfast with his father, who had been checking up on him for the past hour.
“They don’t get the online poker thing that much,” Adi said. “But they know if I’m still playing when they wake up it’s a good thing. I’m deep in something.”
A good Sunday session ends when India’s Monday is gearing up.
When Adi finishes a bit earlier, he joins his father for morning prayers at a temple they have on the top floor of their house.
It’ll just be breakfast today though.
With a spicy morning meal, bubble adrenaline and paternal conversation occupying his mind, Adi’s face doesn’t meet his pillow until about 10 a.m. Even then, Adi doesn’t sleep for a more than a few hours.
Adi is sensitive to light and noise and Calcutta — as well as the house — is bustling with both during the day. The Agarwals live across the street from a school and there are frequent house guests throughout the day.
Despite being at odds with India and his father’s schedule, Adi’s personality isn’t. Adi’s father, Mr. Bal Krishan Agarwal, is a man of charity, whiskeys and a good sweat. Mr. Agarwal was a competitive bridge player in his youth, but opted for a life of business in the pharmaceutical industry.
Mr. Agarwal plays it safe at work, but he likes to wager on cricket and owns pieces of a few racing horses at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club. Mr. Agarwal and several of Adi’s relatives also play card games at family gatherings.
Adi says it was this openness to gambling and familiarity with cards that kept him open-minded when he first encountered poker as a college freshman at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
“Lots of Indian kids in the [U.S.] would’ve been like ‘Nah, I’m not gonna get into that and blow all my savings, just gonna stick to school’” Adi said.
But Adi didn’t quit when he lost, he rallied the troops.
“I got this group of Indian kids together and told them we had to stick together,” Adi said.
They started learning the game and improving. Well, some of them improved. One of Adi’s friends had to leave school after losing his tuition money on four separate occasions.
Adi fared better though and mastered the $5 buy-in college games. Then a Bulgarian friend introduced him to online poker. Takeback deals and sign-up bonuses abounded back then and Adi got himself banned from a site after taking advantage of their $50 sign-up bonus several, several times.
Adi then got serious and spread his online wings. He became “intervntion” on PokerStars, “intervention” on Full Tilt and “ismoketoomuch” on iPoker. Adi also started frequenting online communities like TwoPlusTwo and PokerGuru.
As his online profile grew, it started spilling into his “live” life. Adi started traveling to live events and met people he’d only encountered on the virtual felt.
He befriended Matt Stout during one trip to Atlantic City and met another player he’d played against several times on Paradise Poker, Sorel Mizzi.
Adi began to discuss poker with a more dedicated group of players and his game improved. He continued to attend live events and became the first Indian player to cash on the European Poker Tour after he finished 15th in EPT Barcelona back in 2007.
Adi finished 96th in the WSOP Main Event for $51,466 the following year and kept branching out.
Adi started staking players and became a partner at Poker Guru. He helped run the website and organized poker tournaments in India. All this was going on while Adi continued to excel online. Adi managed to get ranked ninth in PocketFives’ online poker rankings in 2010 and vowed to beat it the next year.
Then, on April 15th, 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice seized the domains of PokerStars, FullTilt, AbsolutePoker and Ultimate Bet. Black Friday.
Everything Adi worked for was in limbo. Ultimate Bet money was a loss and his other accounts were frozen after frantic US-based players tried to transfer money him to cash out.
On top of that, Adi was still hitting the live circuit. The trifecta of online, live and staking losses gave Adi a six-figure makeup bill of his own.
He decided it was time to get back to his roots.
After the 2013 WSOP, Adi packed his bags and picked back up where he started, Calcutta. The game: online poker.
His goals aren't modest either. Adi wants to be back on top and become a sponsored player for a major site. Things have been going well so far. Adi went on a $90,000 upswing a few months after he moved back and almost got out of makeup. While getting out of makeup is a goal, but it won’t change his game.
“I see so many players play on their own money when they get out of makeup and their game changes,” Adi said. “They nit it up and stop taking chances and just grind out a living. They don’t go for tough fields or try to improve their game. Just grinding.
“[That style] would’ve made you a lot of money in 2006, but not anymore.”
The once swarming pools of online poker dried up since Black Friday and to make the same — or even less — as before, Adi has to play against and beat the best.
This involves watching several hours of training videos –Adi is a fan Phil Galfond’s site, Run It Once– reviewing hand histories with friends and learning everything he can about his opponents. Aside from PokerTracker, Adi looks to see what other tournaments his opponents are playing and — if he knows their real name — he checks their social media accounts to see what kind of mood they’re in.
But the best way to improve against the best is by playing against the best. According to Adi, the tournament with the highest concentration of top online players is the $109+R on PokerStars.
Adi says players like Chris Moorman, Stephen Chidwick and David Vamplew usually frequent the $109.
“The final tables there are so difficult man,” Adi said. He lingered on the “so” for a while. “Online or live, anything I play after that tournament seems so easy.”
In his never-ending quest to improve, Adi also has to overcome the difficulties of his Calcuttan seclusion.
While India is a very inexpensive place to live, the country comes with a rake of its own.
The Internet is finicky and needs frequent restarts. Sometimes — usually on Sunday nights, when the major Sunday tournaments are just starting — the Internet redirects to the service provider’s website and doesn’t fix itself until about midnight.
For those times, Adi has a backup source USB stick that can be up-and-running in about a minute.
Adi also lives in a unique time zone that’s mostly dictated by online servers. His circadian rhythm can’t ignore the sun though and his will is often swayed by Indian culture.
On Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, poker takes priority. The days leading up to the session involve preparing his mind and thin frame for 12-hours of button-clicking. Adi studies up and times his naps to trick his brain to peak at about 3 a.m.
This involves waking up at noon, eating and another nap. Then Adi wakes up at about 4 p.m. for another round of food and some quality time with the parents.
Then there’s one last nap until about 8:30 p.m.
The maids bring some food to last through the session and a cup of tea to start it. Adi brings up Poker Tracker and lays a blanket across his legs. As the tables start popping up, Adi rearranges them in a Tetris-like fashion, calculating the optimal table-to-screen ratio while taking into account whatever movie or show he’s watching.
Adi’s just as likely to watch something from Hollywood as from Bollywood, but he always sets aside at least one hour — he sometimes watches the live feed — for “Bigg Boss,” the Indian version of “Big Brother.” George Orwell’s “1984” didn’t have the cultural impact in India as it did in the Americas. Despite studying in the United States and traveling the world for poker, Adi can never shake his roots.
“I’m like the most Indian person you’ll ever meet,” Adi said. His accent reinforces his point. Adi can’t even stop noticing the social discrepancies in movies while he’s playing.
“If that was India you’d kill like 100 people,” Adi said while peeking over at the last race of “The Fast and the Furious.” The streets of Calcutta are far too crowded for such shenanigans.
“If that was India he’d be dead,” Adi said when Nicolas Cage drank straight from the sink in “Face/Off.”
Most of India’s tap water is very unfit for consumption.
“Man, I hate when they do all this mushy stuff,” Adi said after Kushal Tandon expressed his desire to propose to Gauhar Khan in “Bigg Boss 7.”
In India, marriage comes at Adi from all angles.
Adi is close enough to 30 that he says he forgets if he’s 28 or 29 and his parents are very keen on him getting married. Arranged marriage is still very prominent in India, but according to Adi, it’s more of a suggestion.
“You can say no and the girls can too. One of my friends went back to his village to get married and all the girls said no,” Adi giggled mischievously. “He was so embarrassed.”
Adi’s brother — a few years his elder — got married last year and his parents have been dropping hints ever since.
“I need to go to the gym though, bulk up,” Adi thrusted his chest forward and flexed his thin arms. “Get a good wife man, I don’t wanna get rejected.”
On top of that, winter is wedding season in Calcutta. With high humidity and temperatures that can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, Calcutta's residents save social activities for the cooler winter months.
Weddings are so common in the winter that they affect the price of gold and Adi even had three scheduled within two weeks in November. One was a neighbor’s, another was one of his father’s employee’s and the third was of a high school friend Adi hadn’t seen in a decade.
At that wedding, Adi and his former high school crew recalled their misadventures that often ended in them getting slapped or caned by teachers. The nature of their reunion also led to the question of when Adi planned on getting married.
Adi at a wedding with a friend’s little brother he hadn’t seen since childhood. Adi said he didn’t know and had to cut the reunion short. It was Saturday and he had to play.
For now, poker is his priority.
In his quest to become the best, Adi is hoping to become a symbol of Indian poker.
“You either got an education, or you became Sachin,” Adi said, referring to the options most Indian boys had growing up.
Adi was talking about cricket phenom Sachin Tendulkar, who dominated the global cricket scene for nearly a quarter century as the best batsman in cricket.
“People in India are crazy about Sachin,” Adi said. “He’s so humble and he never changed. He was the perfect role model. [People] even have pictures of him in their temples, he’s like a god.”
The cricket deity retired in November 2013. India mourned.
“It’s sad man, the end of an era,” Adi said. “I don’t even remember what cricket was like without Sachin.”
Adi made Tendulkar his Pocketfives profile picture to remind himself of a man who’ll never stop being an inspiration to him. Unlike most Indians his age, Adi — who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Drexel — still hasn’t chosen between Sachin or a college degree.
He’s hoping to combine both by becoming an Indian poker star.
“It would be great to win the Main Event or something and become like a mini-Sachin.” Adi pinched two fingers together to emphasize how small of a Sachin he’d be. Cricket has nearly all of India’s 1.2 billion citizens as fans while poker is relatively unknown.
But that’s quickly changing.
India’s underground gambling market is estimated to be worth about $30 billion a year. While this number largely consists of cricket and sports betting, it also takes into account the denizens of underground poker games popping up all across India.
Bitti has experience in both, but prefers not to talk about his highly unprofitable forays into cricket betting. Bitti’s game is the live Indian poker scene and there’s one place all Indian players hit at some point in their career, Goa. That's where Adi and Bitti first met in 2011.
Adi was with PokerGuru and they were hosting their first tournament in Goa. Bitti was playing the event and was a newly converted Goa addict. The two quickly became friends and enjoyed the irony that it took a meeting in Goa to discover a neighbor in Kolkata.
Goa has always been an Indian oddity. It's a tropical paradise on India’s west coast with a Portuguese backdrop where you’re just as likely to encounter Russian as you are Hindi. It was a Portuguese colony that’s morphed into a vacation mecca for national and international tourists. Goan towns house Catholic churches, casinos, Russian kindergartens and the sunset-facing beaches teem with Indian families or hordes of Russian and Eastern European tourists.
Indian families flock to Goa during winter for beach sports and family fun while other beaches are perpetually inhabited by Russian hippies celebrating the sunset with drum circles. Then they jiggle to psytrance on a cocktail of alcohol, hallucinogens and amphetamines until sunrise.
There’s also poker.
Many Indians — especially poker players — end up staying in Goa for months at a time. Goa is India’s smallest state, but it has almost every casino in the country. There are 12 casinos in Goa while Sikkim, the only other Indian state where casinos are legal, has one. The abundance of casinos and tropical location — Sikkim is in the Himalayas — makes Goa a natural destination for poker players.
When Bitti started playing poker with friends in Kolkata, he heard of the riches and soft games all across Goa. Bitti never passes up a good opportunity and took a shot in Goa back in 2010 with a 50,000₹ ($1,000 USD) bankroll.
Bitti doubled his bankroll on the first day and then took a few days off.
“You know, because I was better than them,” Bitti laughed. Unlike Adi, Bitti’s laugh fills a room and usually ends with a high-five. “I ended up about four or five [thousand] U.S. at the end of the week.”
Being the social butterfly that he is, Bitti also met people on the business side of poker. One of those people was Bharat Agarwalla, a player that Bitti founded the Indian Poker Series (IPS) with. Goa was the only feasible location to host tournaments so Bitti and the IPS alternated hosting events with PokerGuru. After a few more tournaments with the IPS, Bitti teamed up with Adi and joined team PokerGuru.
Bitti’s poker horizons quickly grew beyond the Indian subcontinent and he started playing online while frequenting the Asian poker circuit. Bitti soon felt that his online apprenticeship paid off.
“I finished 40th in the Sunday Million, deeper than any Indian player at the time,” Bitti said. His record has been beaten.
“I started a trend, many people just followed it,” Bitti filled the room with laughter and another high-five. Bitti’s appearance on the Asian Pacific Poker Tour didn’t go as smooth though. At his first tournament in APPT Macau, Bitti was suspected of cheating for a few minutes.
Adi registered online and played Day 1A of the event while Bitti played Day 1B and registered at the desk. The identical name, combined with the nearly identical address caused the registration desk to believe that Bitti was slyly trying to get back into the tournament.
The tournament director was called, the other Aditya Agarwal was located, IDs were shown and introductions were made. Bitti was allowed to play and the APPT became conscious of the multiple Aditya Agarwals. Bitti was motivated by what he saw abroad; the sounds of chips, the musty poker room air and stale egg rolls. Bitti wanted to bring it back to Calcutta. All of it.
Bitti continued to frequent Calcuttan cash games and then tried to start a room in Nepal near the end of 2011.
Kathmandu is just a one-hour flight from Kolkata and is far more convenient and inexpensive than Goa. It has its drawbacks though, Nepalese citizens aren’t allowed to gamble in Nepal, so all the players had to be imported from abroad.
Bitti called several Indian players, offered free airfare and accommodation and even started a small poker tour that included three events across Nepal, Bangladesh and Dubai. It soon fizzled out though.
“It was too much work and there wasn’t enough revenue,” Bitti said. “And tournaments here have a limit. You usually don’t get more than 100 or 150 players.”
The money and value on the Indian scene came elsewhere.
“Cash games,” Bitti said. “Always cash games.”
Bitti specializes in the format and enjoys the social aspect the game. He even discovered the game on a social network. Back in 2007, Bitti started playing poker on Facebook via a Zynga app.
“I kept going all in and losing,” Bitti said. “I kept wondering why, where’s the money going?”
Then in 2008, Bitti got together with a small group of friends and started learning the game. The group was his Teen Patti — a popular Indian card game — crew and they picked up No-Limit Hold’em effortlessly. The group consisted of a maximum of seven players and they started playing 200 ₹ ($3.30) tournaments. They soon found others.
While Calcutta has a population of about 4.5 million, everyone seems to know what everyone else is up to. Bitti’s group caught wind of another pack of poker-playing Calcuttans that numbered about 30 players. They were holding the largest tournament Bitti had encountered — 10,000 ₹ ($160) — and he was desperate to play it. Bitti took it down and won about $2,000.
With that victory and his never-ending networking, Bitti’s name became well-known on the Calcuttan poker scene. But that wasn’t enough, Bitti wanted to make sure his name became synonymous with Calcuttan poker.
Bitti played as many cash games as he could and started organizing them as well. It was a murky legal area. A profitable, murky legal area.
Gambling is illegal in Calcutta, but the West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competitions Act of 1957 specifically excludes poker — along with Rummy, Nap and lotteries — from the ban. Despite this, games are forced underground and are constantly raided by police. But raids, according to Bitti, are no big deal.
“I either show them the [1957 act] or talk to the officer in charge,” Bitti said, noting that talking opens up a few loopholes in the Indian legal system.
“If you have enough money, you can get away with anything in India,” Bitti said. “Anything.”
Bitti says almost every underground game gets hit by the police and they even take turns raiding different games. But sometimes it’s bad luck.
“One time we got busted for parking,” Bitti said. “We had too many cars outside and the police showed up and saw that we were playing.”
Some hosts prefer to keep games on the move though, offering them in hotel suites across the city.
“No shady places,” Bitti said. “They’re nice, five-star places. You get cigarettes, you get food, you get alcohol, it’s good.”
When these games get organized, word is sent to Bitti or one of his friends and then invitations trickle down through the Calcuttan grapevine. While some players have to wait for an invitation, others frequent games that have more permanent locations.
A few apartments across Calcutta have turned into dedicated poker rooms that get rented out per day. Some games are in high rises in unassuming, gated communities.
A regular high-rise entrance — which is sometimes manned by residential security — leads to a regular set of stairs. These stairs lead to a regular, yet under-furnished, apartment.
One game a two-bedroom living space complete with one kitchen and one bathroom. But every time the bedroom doors open, drafts of riffling chips, rapid-fire Hindi and blue light escape.
The Calcuttan poker scene.
The minimum buy-in for these games ranges anywhere from $100 to $20,000. Those who frequent the games, Bitti says, are the same people that frequent the city's upper class, rich businessmen and even richer businessmen.
Many players at the night games are also spotted throughout Calcutta's clubs. After the club closes — if it’s not VIP, it’s an invite-only open bar celebrating a DJ’s most recent hit or something — players hit popular night food stands to suck down noodles and sober up a bit before heading off to the cash games.
Calcutta used to be the capital of high-stakes cash games in India, but that crown kept changing as underground games kept popping up across the country. Mumbai, India’s largest city and home to Bollywood, had the largest games for a while. Delhi, the nation’s capital, also held the title for some time.
The constant shifting of high-stakes games, Bitti says, in addition to them being invite-only, makes it hard to be a professional player. There aren’t many grinders and the better you are, Bitti says, the harder it is to find a game.
“If you keep beating them, they stop inviting you,” Bitti said. “They’re not dumb, they know you have an edge, so they stick to their own group and try to improve. But there are many guys with an ego problem, they still lose, they still give us their money.”
Games run throughout the week, but the quantity also fluctuates with the seasons. There’s a sharp drop during wedding season, but a surge during Diwali. It takes a lot of scheduling and social finesse to grind the Calcutta poker scene, but that might change soon.
Down in Bangalore, Kizhakke Naduvath Suresh, a prominent criminal attorney, is shaking things up. It started when a home game Suresh was hosting got raided. Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka, is not covered by the West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competitions Act of 1957 but Suresh refused to pay the police and took them to court instead.
He successfully argued that poker was a game of skill and won the case.
In celebration, Suresh opened up another game. In response, the police raided it again. Back to court they went. Suresh won again and then opened up the India Poker Association, India’s first legal poker room outside of Goa. There are now three card rooms in Bangalore and more coming to the rest of India, including Calcutta.
Bitti met Suresh in 2009 when a mutual friend of theirs organized a tournament in Calcuttra.
The two have been in contact since and then joined forces after Suresh opened up card rooms in late 2011 and early 2012. They’re planning on bringing legal card rooms to Calcutta.
According to Bitti, the legal precedence set by Suresh and the West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competitions Act of 1957 paved the way for legal card rooms in Calcutta. The two have also done most of the legwork.
“We got everything ready,” Bitti said. “No financial worries. We got some places in mind too.”
Bitti says that he and Suresh are now just wading through a pool of red tape and paper work. Picking a name is also on the to-do list.
“King of aces,” Adi suggested.
“No,” Bitti sighed and shook his head.
While they disagree on what Kolkata’s first legal card room should be named, both Agarwals agree that the Indian poker scene is about to explode.
The question is how soon.
Bal Krishan Agarwal
Aditya "Adi" Agarwal
Aditya "Bitti" Agarwal
Adi on a Sunday grind.
The Agarwal home in Calcutta.
Big Boss and online poker.
Adi at a friend's wedding
A line at the PokerStars Live room in Macau
A street game of Teen Patti.
A staircase leading to an underground game in Calcutta.
The living room gets turned into a waiting room for the game.
A player taking a smoke break at an underground game.