Anirban Roy Choudhury

PokerStars latches dream to become No.1 poker site by 2020 to Bigg Boss wagon

Viacom18’s general entertainment channel, Colors, flagged off the 13th edition of Bigg Boss on September 29, 2019. The show that locks celebrities inside a house with more than 100 cameras is one of the biggest television productions in India. Subsequently, the ad rates are sold at a premium too, as per industry sources, during the weekends a 10-second-slot for sponsors costs around Rs 2.5 lakh.

Chinese smartphone marketers, Vivo is the title sponsor this year, while PepsiCo’s Lay’s is the special partner. Whirlpool, BharatPe, Ching's Chinese and helo are the other brands that are associated with the show that features Salman Khan on the weekends. That is not it, there is another ‘unusual’ sponsor spending to garner eyeballs through the show and that is PokerStars India.

PokerStars, founded in 2001, is one of the largest online poker platforms of the world and is owned by The Stars Group. It made its entry into India in 2018 through a strategic partnership with lottery and gaming conglomerate Sugal and Damani group. Delta Corp-owned Deltin group, which owns casinos in Goa, runs adda52, the largest online poker platform in India. Apart from that, there is Spartan Poker, PokerBaazi, and few others. The online poker industry is estimated to be Rs 500 crore with 1.5 to 2 million players logging in to play real cash games and tournaments. The platforms charge a certain amount for each hand depending on the stakes and that is their primary source of revenue. Apart from cash games, where one can sit and get up whenever they want there are many multi-table tournaments. In tournaments, a certain prize money is pre-announced and the players need to buy a ticket to enter the tournament.

While the sport has been around for long, it has witnessed a really slow growth rate compared to other real money games such as Rummy (card game) or Fantasy games (Dream11, Hala Play, MyCircle11, etc.). “Rummy has 15 million players. Dream11 has close to 70 million players while poker has got only 1.5 to 2 million players in India. It is primarily because of the way poker is marketed in India,” says Ankur Dewani, chief executive officer, Sachiko Gaming, the company operating PokerStars India.

Ankur Dewani
Ankur Dewani

He believes that his peers in the business only promoted the game within the community and that is why it never attracted the masses. “Look at Dream11, because of the popularity of Cricket in India and their marketing campaigns involving former Indian captain, MS Dhoni, they managed to get such a huge base of users on the platform,” adds Dewani.

PokerStars India is happy with the traction it witnessed so far being one of the last entrants in the market. It had roped in Nawazuddin Siddiqui as its brand ambassador and Dewani says the association helped them reach beyond metros. “While it is true that players with deeper pockets are in the metros of the country, but to attain scale you need to go to the tier-II and tier-III cities. That is why we got Nawaz on board as his role in Sacred Games makes him easily connect with the urban pocket and smaller cities also resonate with him,” informs Dewani.

Dewani says the moment the campaign went live it got traction from UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh. “Campaigns work. TV adds credibility to your campaign and when you have a familiar star associated with it you manage to win the trust of the people,” he divulges. As informed by Dewani, close to 80 per cent of the signups on PokerStars are happening through phones while 60 per cent of the players play from hand-held devices. The traffic is still very much male-dominated but women are signing up across platforms, too.

Poker has attracted industrialists too. FMCG giant Dabur’s chairman, Amit Burman co-owns Poker Sports League, a franchisee poker league in India. He, too, believes TV and a renowned face helps attain credibility. Burman has reportedly invested more than Rs 20 crore to establish the first-ever poker league in India. Last year, the finals were aired on Discovery’s television sportscaster DSport. While they were speaking with various television networks, not all were very welcoming as there is still a debate whether Poker is a game of skill or chance.

Amit Burman
Amit Burman

“I think we have managed to change the perception,” says Burman. He adds, “This year we are doing the finale on land in Kolkata. That will further help us change the perception. A lot of institutes such as Havard and IIT Kozhikode have now introduced a lesson in their curriculum — Introduction to Poker. This will definitely help the cause of the sport.”

Whether poker is a game of skill or amounts to gambling is not clear, the matter is under litigation before the Gujarat High Court. In such a scenario, can a GEC air poker ads, which will also get telecast in the states the game is banned? “If poker is held to be gambling, then running advertisements would be illegal as there are state-specific legislation that prevents advertisement and promotion of gambling,” says Jay Sayta, corporate lawyer and founder of He adds, “However, as long as advertisements are run with a disclaimer clearly stating that users from states where it is explicitly banned are not permitted, the advertisements are unlikely to run into trouble, until the legality of poker is conclusively decided."

Coming back to PokerStars India and its association with Bigg Boss, Dewani says the show resonates the game of poker. “The locked celebrities have to play a mind game throughout and it is a test of their patience. Exactly what poker is and that is why we thought it is a right match,” says Dewani. As a part of the association, PokerStars ads will run on the commercial breaks during the show. The poker platform will also get mentions while the show is on as the house is expected to see a lot of activities involving poker and PokerStars.

Industry experts believe, adda52 is the market leader in India followed by Spartan Poker and Pokerbaazi. PokerStars is catching up too, and the number of players playing cash Hold’em (a type of poker) on the platform is at par with Spartan and Baazi. Dewani has his eyes set on the number one position in India. “We expect to reach that feat by 2020,” he concludes.