IIM professor Deepak Dhayanithy speaks about elective course on poker

Professor Deepak Dhayanithy, strategic faculty member of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Kozhikode, who formulated an elective course called ‘Competitive Strategy: The game of poker’ (CSP), recently spoke to online poker portal 9stacks on completion of six years of the first and only course on poker in a premier Indian educational institute.

Commenting on the occasion, Dhayanithy notes, “I feel satisfied when I teach this course. Managers are professional decision-makers and poker is a great mental sport to teach them the skills of decision-making. I am happy to bring the two together.

Most people think with the certainty of hindsight that business is very deterministic. But it is not. The challenges in business strategies are in a constant flux, and the managers have to constantly adapt to the changes happening in the world.

Poker is a great way to teach probabilistic decision-making. It may be new in India, but courses on poker strategies have been being offered in Harvard, MIT and other universities across the USA. And these courses teach approaches that are relevant in a variety of business settings, ranging from stock markets to vendor negotiations to capital investment decisions under uncertainty – and even extend to normal real-life decision making.”

Dhayanithy himself was introduced to card games when he was a child and used to actively participate in the family sport. Being a sports buff, he was fully convinced of poker through ESPN. Intrigued by the skill and strategy used by professional poker players, he started playing poker and he liked it.

Being a poker player himself, the IIM professor is very pleased that the course has proven popular and effective. Before every class, he plays a tournament and spends time studying about poker strategies, so that he can teach the class. 

Talking about the elective course, Dhayanithy says, “From about 60 students in its first year of inception, CSP is now sought by over 200 students. An almost equal batch proportion of boys and girls opt for the elective in their 2nd year. Most girls in the class are as competitive as the boys,”

Most students enjoy the classes which include playing tournaments, discussions, participating in live sessions and understanding business parallels as well as the business of poker itself. However, about 20 percent of the students still think of it as taboo. He tells them to not change their beliefs and experience poker for what it is. They still attend the elective classes,” he adds.

While poker has gained respectability abroad, it is still frowned upon and disapproved by many parents in India. However, with the advent of many online poker sites, Dhayanithy thinks this is improving.

When asked if he faces any issues with the parents of his students, he laughs and says “My students introduce me to their parents during convocation as their poker professor. All I do is say Namaste and try to get off the topic as soon as possible.” 

For the budding poker industry in the country, he says the best way to protect the game and help in destigmatizing the name is to promote brand ambassadors – poker players who carve successful careers for themselves. Further, they are well-spoken, free-thinking, intelligent and hard-working – characteristics that would resonate with the larger audience.


9stacks enables responsible gaming feature on website

After Adda52 announced the responsible gaming feature on its website last month, online poker website 9stacks has also announced a similar initiative, with an aim to protecting users from the negative effects of uncontrolled gaming and providing a safe and comfortable experience to consumers.

9stack’s initiative, similar to Adda52’s includes features that allows users to create their own limits, for cash games, tournament buy-ins and deposits.

Using the deposit limit feature, the online poker portal allows users to set restrictions on the amount of money a user can deposit within a week and also allows the player the option to restrict himself from depositing any amount for a week.

Another feature unveiled by the website also allows players to register for ‘self-exclusion’. Using this feature, users can prevent themselves from playing any poker games or tournaments on the websites for periods ranging from 12 hours to three months.

Commenting on the responsible gaming feature, Sudhir Kamath, CEO of 9Stacks stated, “For us, responsible gaming is about protecting our players from the potential negative consequences of online gaming. Via Responsible Gaming, we aim to ensure that our users have a safe experience while playing on 9stacks. We will give full freedom to the users to create their own playing limits so that they can control their actions, and play safely at the same time.”

Industry bodies such as the All India Gaming Federation (AIGF), the Rummy Federation (TRF) and the Indian Federation for Sports Gaming (IFSG) have been advocating that all online gaming companies undertake responsible gaming and player protection measures and adopt certain consumer friendly policies.


9stacks group entity launches new fantasy sports portal Faboom

The founders of online poker website 9stacks have started a new fantasy sports portal Faboom, through a related entity named Faboom Gaming LLP.

9stacks, which raised a $4 million in a Series A funding round last year, joins a host of other online poker and rummy brands including PokerBaazi, Spartan Poker, Adda52, Ace2Three and RummyCircle in foraying into the increasingly competitive and cluttered fantasy sports market.

As per media reports, to differentiate itself from other existing products, Faboom has brought in an innovative model of playing fantasy sports called ‘rank fantasy’.

The model discards the requirement of choosing a captain and vice-captain while drafting a fantasy league team and instead requires players to rank all 11 players in order of their preference, based on which a multiplier is applied to the points achieved by the players.

According to the website, this rank fantasy model reduces variance due to extreme outcomes since the points generated in the rank fantasy format do not significantly depend on the performance of one or two players, unlike the conventional format that depends to a large extent on the points generated by the designated captain and vice-captain.

In addition to this new format of fantasy sports, Faboom has also announced a Rs. 50 introductory bonus to new users who signup on the website.


WPT Vietnam winner Dhaval Mudgal talks about poker developments in 2018

Dhaval Mudgal, the winner of WPT Vietnam and one of India’s top poker players, recently gave an interesting interview to Raj Juneja, the host of Poker Life India.

In their discussion on PokerGuru TV, Mudgal and Juneja spoke about various poker developments  that affected the growth of poker in India in the year 2018.

The discussion began with the variables affecting the game at the macro-level. Juneja noted how better internet connectivity and higher smartphone usage is changing the gaming market. He also pointed out the huge funding received by companies like 9Stacks.

Mudgal and Juneja went on to appreciate the way 9Stacks used its Rs. 27 crores funding by taking more than 50 Indians to the #LFGVegas promotion, and now sending a lot of players to play in Australia, as well. Mudgal said, “It’s important to engage new people (players)… it’s a big responsibility that lies with people (poker companies) who get big fundings.”

The duo spoke about the trailblazing run that Team India had in international events in 2018. They recognised a few Indian poker players who performed well at events like WSOP and APPT Macau—Nishant came 34th in WSOP and cashed in Rs 1.57 Cr, one of Dhaval’s closest friends, Nikki (Nikita Luther), won a bracelet, and Paawan (Bansal) did well in Las Vegas. Mudgal appreciated the fantastic performances of Indian players in 2018.

They briefly touched upon the tweets by Lok Sabha MP Dr. Shashi Tharoor on the sports gaming private member’s bill introduced by him. The Poker Life India host raised an important question about All India Gaming Federation (AIGF)—‘If there is a new start-up poker website, are they bound to join AIGF or can they operate outside of it?’

To this, Mudgal replied saying that he doesn’t think that there is anything that compels any poker start-up to join AIGF. However, he also put across his viewpoint on the importance of being affiliated to an organised body that can regulate and systemise gaming.

Speaking on the topic of RNG, Mudgal said that companies like Poket52 that claim of bringing in safer RNG system with the help of blockchain technology will be game changing only if the security enhancement offered by them is significantly higher than the existing operators. He also asked that in case Pocket52 and other such companies are really offering safer games, then does it mean that the current ones are not secure?

The duo also spoke about how social media is used as a medium by poker players to voice their opinions about poker platforms, as was recently done for Adda52 and The Spartan Poker. They questioned the authenticity of the criticism sometimes received by such platforms on social media.

This led to Mudgal pointing out the importance of unity and long-term thinking among poker players. He said that players should not go for short-term gains at the cost of compromising the quality of the game in the long-run.

Another important point discussed by the duo was about big big money coming into fantasy league gaming platforms. For example, Dream11 got $100 million investment from Tencent Holdings from China.

Mudgal noted that ‘truly, fantasy sports has ridiculous potential in our country.’  He stated that specially, for games like cricket that have a large customer base, the prize pools can reach billions even if small ticket prices are charged from each player.

The ace poker player showed optimism about the potential of some of these huge prize pools and funding trickling into the poker sector of the gaming industry, too.

He, however, expressed slight concern about the large hold of the popular and huge fantasy gaming sector on the regulations that will take affect for the gaming industry as a whole.

He mentioned how, with huge funding, fantasy sport platforms may easily be able to afford draconian taxes, while poker players cannot afford to pay the same, at present.

He also noted how the changes that poker players want in the gaming industry are far deep rooted than the changes required in Fantasy gaming and Rummy sectors. He indicated that poker players would hope for a more customised regulation for the poker industry than a one-fit-for-all solution for the entire gaming industry.

Nevertheless, the duo noted that any regulatory changes in the gaming industry are more likely to be brought to fruition after the elections of 2019.

They briefly spoke about the social stigma around poker in India. Mudgal shared his experience of how people abroad find playing poker for a living cool, while people in India think of it as gambling. However, they noted how the perception about the game is changing over time.

Mudgal also noted the contribution of poker leagues like PSL, Match IPL and GPL India in bringing the right exposure for poker among the mass audience. He said that such platforms show people how exciting this sport is and motivate them to join existing players in playing poker. 


Recap: Important deals of 2018 and what the gaming industry can expect in 2019

Consolidation of the online gaming industry was the trend in 2018 and the year saw quite a few M&A transactions happening, particularly in the online skill gaming space, although there weren’t too many updates on the legal and regulatory front, with important cases that will decide the future of poker in Gujarat and rummy/skill games in Telangana getting stalled.

Here is a recap of some of the important deals that happened in 2018:

1.  PokerStars starts India website with Sugal & Damani Group: Canada-based The Stars Group granted an exclusive license to Sachiko Gaming Private Limited, a company connected to the lottery conglomerate Sugal & Damani Group to start an India website, in April 2018. Although the PokerStars India website has not yet gathered as much momentum as one would have expected,  it is expected that Sachiko Gaming will ramp up their marketing spends, by spending over Rs.20-30 crores in the next couple of years, in an attempt to take the new website to the leadership position in online poker.

2. Dream11 raises around US$100 million in a Series D round led by Tencent Holdings: Leading online fantasy sports portal Dream11 raised around US$100 million (around Rs. 700 crores) in a Series D round. The round was led by Chinese gaming and e-commerce giant Tencent Holdings and other existing investors of the company. The deal will fund Dream11’s aggressive media campaigns and tie-ups with sports federations across cricket, hockey, kabbadi, football and other sports. The massive infusion of capital will probably make it almost impossible to dislodge Dream11 from the market leader’s position in the fantasy sports space.

3. 9stacks raises Rs. 28 crores in Series A round: Sparskills Technologies Private Limited, the company that operates online poker website 9stacks, became one of the few gaming websites in the country to raise a Series A funding round. The company raised around Rs. 28 crores in two tranches, in the funding round led by VC firm WaterBridge Ventures and other existing angel investors.

4. Sequoia Capital invests in skill gaming and e-sports startup MPL: Another interesting transaction in the real money skill gaming space was Sequoia Capital’s US$5 million (around Rs.35.1 crore) investment in Mobile Premier League (MPL), an app that allows players to play real-money tournaments of casual and strategy games like fruit chop, monster truck, space breaker, sudoku etc.

5. Patym forms JV for skill-gaming venture: Another interesting trend in 2018 was the joint venture formed by Indian payment and shopping giant Paytm with Alibaba-backed Chinese technology company AGTech Holdings. The two companies have formed Gamepind, a real money quiz gaming website and app. The two companies have infused around US$16 million (over Rs. 100 crores) in the new venture, with indications that the new company Gamepind will also foray into other conventional skill games like poker and rummy.

Apart from the above, there were several other companies that forayed into the online poker and fantasy sports space, as well as other innovative games like quiz and esports.

Looking ahead into 2019, one can expect this trend to continue and more ventures in the social and skill gaming space. It should not surprise anyone if this trend will continue into the next year and new, innovative type of skill games will gain popularity.

The coming year would also hopefully see resolution of the pending matters in the Gujarat and Telangana High Courts on poker and rummy respectively that would give more clarity to the skill gaming industry. The debate on the merits of the legalisation of sports betting and other types of online gaming at a central level will also gain momentum, especially after Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s private member’s bill on the subject. The second half of 2019, after the Lok Sabha election, could see some further movement on the topic.


9stacks raises additional Rs. 6.55 crores from angels; total funds raised in Series A round is Rs. 27.55 crores

Three days after Glaws had exclusively reported that online poker portal 9stacks has raised Rs. 21 crores (around US$ 3 million) in a Series A funding round led by early stage VC firm WaterBridge Ventures, it has now emerged that around 14 existing angel investors in the company have invested an additional Rs. 6.55 crores in the company as a top up the round to the existing funding round.

The additional investment done by a fresh private placement offer, increases the holding of a few existing angel investors. Like the earlier Series A round, the investment has been done in the form of Series A Compulsorily Convertible Preference Shares (CCPS) in Sparskills Technologies Private Limited, the parent company of 9stacks.

A total of 46,814 CCPS of face value of Rs. 20 each, yielding a dividend of 0.01%  per annum and convertible to equity shares at the option of the shareholder, will be issued to 14 angel investors. The Series A round has been done at a valuation in excess of Rs. 100 crores.

With the completion of this funding round, 9stacks becomes one of the few online gaming companies to have access to institutional funding.


9stacks raises Rs. 21 crores in Series A funding round

Exclusive Sparskills Technologies Private Limited, the parent company of online poker portal 9stacks has raised Rs. 21 crores (approximately US$3 million) in a Series A funding round that was closed recently.  As per records available with the Registrar of Companies (ROC), the Series A funding round was led by early stage VC firm WaterBridge Ventures.

WaterBridge Ventures has invested Rs. 7 crores in the company for 50,000 Series A Compulsorily Convertible Series A Preference Shares (Series A CCPS) and one equity share in the company.

Apart from the venture capital firm, around 30 existing angel investors of the company have invested the balance Rs. 14 crores in the company. The existing angel investors and WaterBridge Ventures have been issued Series A CCPS of face value of Rs. 20 in the company yielding a 0.01% dividend per annum.

It is understood that the Series A CCPS can be converted into regular equity shares of the company at any time upon the request of the investors. Although the company has not issued any statement on the valuation at which the funds were raised, it is understood that the funds were raised at valuation of around Rs. 100 crores.

Commenting on the investment, Manish Kheterpal, Managing Partner of WaterBridge Ventures noted, “India is at the cusp of massive online gaming adoption with an exponential increase in players and revenue expected in this sector. Real Money Gaming will have a significant wallet share of online due to ubiquitous mobile access, increasing disposable income, convenience and superior user experience. Having said that, it is an execution heavy space and we therefore chose to back a highly professional and accomplished team of founders comprising of Sudhir, Pratik, Abhinav and Rishab. We are proud to partner with this founding team with great pedigree and a proven track record.”

Confirming the development Sudhir Kamath, CEO of 9stacks said in a statement, “With WaterBridge Ventures becoming the lead investor in our Series A fund raise, we are delighted to announce that 9stacks is India’s first online poker company to reach this funding milestone.  This is a great sign of confidence in the 9stacks team,the systems and processes we’ve put in place, in addition to the rapidly growing market itself. We will use these funds to ramp up user acquisition, data analytics, machine learning, and product & market expansion. We want 9stacks to be the preferred platform for poker in India, especially for new players, where anyone can discover, learn and play poker, any time, anywhere.”

In December 2017, 9stacks had raised around Rs. 10 crores in an angel funding (Pre-Series A) round. With the latest round of funding, 9stacks becomes one of the few online poker brands to have access to investment from institutional investors.

Business Poker

Feature: 9stacks CEO Sudhir Kamath talks about his vision for growing online gaming in India

IIM-Ahmedabad graduate Sudhir Kamath is a late entrant to the poker industry in India. After having a successful career as a consultant at McKinsey and later as managing director of oil exploration company Suntera Energy, Kamath along with his three co-founders decided last year to foray into the online poker business by starting 9stacks.

In less than a year, 9stacks has become a popular poker website for poker players with its out of the box offers and marketing techniques. In this exclusive interview, Kamath talks about his company’s strategy and plans:

Full interview:

Q. Before starting 9stacks, you were the CEO of an oil company and you were also an angel investor and consultant with McKinsey. Can you tell us more about how you thought about starting an online poker website?

Sudhir Kamath (SK): When I was running an oil company, or when I was evaluating angel investments, I always looked for opportunities that had cash flow as well as growth potential – online poker is one of those rare sectors where this combination is achievable, and that appealed to me. As a group, all four of us co-founders (Pratik, Abhinav, Rishab and I) shared the view that this is a great sector in which to build a lasting company. However, it’s not an easy business; it is a very execution-heavy space.

There are social, tech, legal, and financial hurdles – and we wanted to come up with a one stop solution  for all of these. In 2017 we set the ball rolling, and it’s been a great ride since then. I know people think of us as “IIT-IIM” founders but apart from the degrees, each of us also has many years of experience in building strong and differentiated businesses.

Q. It has been over a year since you started your new venture. Can you throw some light on the response so far and the numbers done by 9stacks?

SK: We are now a company that is known industry wide for its fast cashouts, innovative what-you-see is what-you-get promotions and offers that are never misleading or exaggerated. We have worked hard on building the best team in the industry, and putting in place the most transparent processes / financial systems / legal compliances. In the coming years we aim to become the go-to platform for everyone who wants to explore poker or make it big in poker.

In terms of numbers, we are nearing a user base of 1 lakh+ subscribers. More than 3 million hands of poker are being played every month on our platform, with monthly gross transactions exceeding $5 million per month and growing rapidly. We’ve had plenty of months where we’ve doubled revenues month on month, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed for more of the same! By the way, we’re yet to complete a full year of operations – that milestone comes up in a few weeks, and we’ll have some fun surprises for our customers then.

Q. In December 2017, it was announced that your company raised Rs. 10 crores in a Pre-Series A funding round. Any plans of raising more funds in the near term? What is going to be your company’s strategy towards raising funds?

SK: Yes, we will raise further funding this year. We believe that investors need time and education to get comfortable with the sector, so we have engaged transparently with potential investors at all times.

We do expect that 9stacks would become the first poker company in India to raise institutional funding from professional investors – as and when that happens, it would be a credit to our team and the systems/processes we have put in place. The money enables us to work with a long enough horizon and build our business patiently, while giving our customers even more comfort that we are here to stay.

Q. The online poker market is increasingly competitive, with many established and new players making a foray in this space. In light of this, what is it that differentiates 9stacks from the dozens of already existing poker websites in the market and secondly, given the aggressive spends by poker websites on marketing, bonuses and promotional activities what is the road to profitability for an online poker startup like yours?

SK: One, promotions: We have had some of the best promos and offers across the industry, starting with the Vegas promotion where we took 25 people to Las Vegas WSOP as part of “9stacks Team India”! Rather than spending money on a small set of “pros” representing our site, we prefer to send a number of people to play across the world and make their poker dreams come true. We’ve designed our promos to be very transparent – there are no outrageous hidden clauses and we are a feedback driven, data driven company. And we want to ensure there is always an element of fun to what we do!

Two, cashouts: Any one who has made money on 9stacks, has always been able to cash out smoothly. We guarantee money out in two hours for any cashout between 10 AM and 8 PM, any day of the week including national holidays. In coming months, we’ll make it even faster for our regular customers.

Three, safety: We are all well aware of many sites that launched and then shut down, often losing players money in the process (RIP, bankroll management!). We have been very clear from Day 1 that user money and ‘our’ money are separate and need to be kept in separate accounts. The money we raised from investors is used for all our overheads as well as marketing expenses – user money stays segregated, and that is one reason why we can guarantee superfast cash-outs.

Four, taxation: Our users have the peace of mind that taxes are paid correctly. We were the first poker company in the industry to adopt a ‘dual chip system’ for all our tables. We are glad the industry has taken it up seriously and we expect the dual wallet system to become the norm across websites. Let me explain – let’s say a user plays on one of our competitors, wins Rs. 5,000 in one session, and loses Rs. 5,000 in the next. The user assumes he has won zero overall and doesn’t need to pay taxes. Unfortunately, the taxman may take a different view, and ask for tax on the 5,000 winnings without allowing set off of the 5,000 loss. Our ‘Dual chip system’ helps avoid this problem for our users.  When tax authorities start assessing players poker income, we hope that players who played on our system will be able to sleep easy!

You asked about profitability. As business owners in poker we need to be prepared for the long haul. No one will make money in the first year, or perhaps even the first five, and you have to be prepared to slog it out!

Q. What are the future expansion plans for 9stacks? Any plans to start something offline, or for instance launch other games or do something outside India?

SK: Certainly not offline – our DNA is firmly online. Online expansions are certainly on the cards but for now we’re focused only on the Indian poker market.

Q. One of the major issues for anyone starting a poker website or any skill gaming business is the legal and regulatory risk. As we know, there is ongoing litigation on whether poker is a game of skill and some states/courts have banned the game. How do you see the legal challenges being addressed and do you think there will be either regulation or relief from courts?

SK: We can’t fight these battles by ourselves, so we have signed up to be part of the industry body (All India Gaming Federation) – there is a lot of policy advocacy / education that needs to be done in the years to come and it is better done collectively. There are many stakeholders that need to be addressed: courts and regulators are the obvious ones but also media, online channels like Facebook and Google, and various others.

Q. Another important issue that is increasingly being highlighted is that of responsible gaming. Companies are taking the initiative to ensure that players do not deposit beyond their means and should be given help if they are exceeding their limits. What are the steps taken by 9stacks to promote responsible gaming?

SK: This is one area where we need to become stronger. When we started, we ensured the strictest compliance with all laws – for instance, we have the strongest 3-stage KYC process in the industry, and compulsory geo-tagging (not merely IP-based locations which are easy to spoof). Next on our agenda is everything else a responsible global operator should be doing – well beyond our domestic competitors.

Over the last few months we have been analyzing the data on which to base our “responsible gaming” algorithms. We hope to get to both “static” checks (based on self-declarations or self-set limits that are fixed in advance) as well as more “dynamic” checks that would analyze real-time playing behaviour, possibly using machine learning to spot anomalies.

Q. Finally, any parting thoughts on how you see the poker and gaming space evolving in India.

SK: Poker has been gathering pace for the past 10 years or so in India, and I feel the industry is on the verge of a massive poker boom. When we took 25 players to Vegas as “9stacksTeamIndia”, we hoped some of them would make deep runs at the WSOP Main Event – and Vivek Rughani and Nishant Sharma did so in spectacular fashion.

For both of them it was their first ever visit to the US, first time to Vegas, first time at the WSOP, and then to finish in the top 100- talk about living the dream!

We at 9stacks hope to continue our support for more Indian players going international, and some of these players will become the shining stars for the next generation of serious players. In parallel, we see a huge uptick in interest from casual players who want to play poker for fun – we should soon be at a point where people are choosing between Netflix, TV sports, and online poker!

As passionate poker players and facilitators, we believe that creating a great gaming experience for the users irrespective of their skills levels, will be key to the growth and acceptance of this mind sport. If you offer a safe, fun environment with a good, intuitive interface, users will spend more time and make the effort to learn the game and get better at it.

I believe online poker is going to change the face of gaming in India in the next 5 years. As an industry, we can really bust the social myths about poker and take it forward in the coming years. As more people play the game, they will understand that it can be as competitive as other mind sports like chess or scrabble, and can be as much fun as Fortnite or Temple Run!


9stacks sponsors 9 women players to play at DPT

9stacks, one of the newest online poker websites in the country has in a unique and laudable initiative decided to sponsor nine leading women poker players of the country to play at India’s biggest poker event, the Deltin Poker Tournament (DPT) at the Deltin Royale Casino in Goa from 15th-19th February, 2018.

The nine women players, who hail from various parts of the country and include journalists, entrepreneurs, IIM graduates and social workers have been dubbed as the ‘Nine Missketeers’ by the poker website.

The Missketeers are led by Muskan Sethi, who was recently among the top 100 women of the country to be felicitated by the President of India and include Radhika Mahalingaiah (journalist), Chandni Malik, Simrit Tiwana (freelance writer), Rupal Bansal (former founder of Online Poker News website), Lavanya Thota (IIM Kozhikode graduate), Ritu Chadha (chartered accountant and entrepreneur), Prashaste Sinha and Sakshi Misra (social media strategist).

Sudhir Kamat, founder of 9stacks explained that the website has taken this initiative to increase gender diversity in poker tournaments in India and to inspire more women to play the game.

“Even though poker has historically been perceived as a ‘Man’s Game’, we’ve been finding an increasing number of women players on our site, including a number of first-time players. Given that poker is a mind sport that requires strategic acumen regardless of their gender we think there’s a huge market waiting to be tapped here, and we just need a small push to encourage more women to take up poker either professionally or just for fun.

For those who want to give it a shot professionally, rubbing shoulders with and playing against some of the best male poker players in the field would be a good step, so we at 9stacks decided to send a team of 9 women poker players to the Deltin Poker Tournament. These women (whom we call “The 9 Missketeers”), we hope, will be role models for many more women who can and should be playing poker!” he added.