The Filter Koffee podcast’s host Karthik Nagarajan recently hosted a talk with professional poker player Muskan Sethi about her journey to becoming the country’s first female professional poker player, and other things like how to work towards becoming a professional poker player, formats of poker leagues, and more.
Among her many accomplishments, Sethi has won the President’s Award for being India’s first female professional poker player and has also won a million dollars on live television on a poker show called Shark Cage. She also advocates responsible gaming.
Muskan Sethi’s poker journey
The game of poker intrigued Sethi as a kid, when her father used to watch poker on TV. Mentally stimulating games fascinated her even as a youngster. She observed elders playing cards and how they conducted themselves--their moves, body language, etc.--during the game.
When Sethi was young, she played Zynga poker on Facebook with friends. She took up online poker again as an escape from stress, when she lost her mother in 2014. Her boyfriend, then, (husband now) helped her move to playing real-money poker. Later, poker gave her a work style where she was her own boss, could do charity, and could even make a living.
Her first stint with playing professional poker was at the age of 25 years, when she enrolled for a freeroll tournament and went on to play in Barcelona at a series hosted by PokerStars where the winner takes it all. She came in second. At the tournament, she got to play with big and accomplished poker players who were her idols.
When she returned to India, she discovered the Indian poker Industry. She was welcomed into the community, where she later learnt a lot.
How to match international poker experience
Nagarajan pointed out that in countries like the US and Europe, players play poker at home, local tournaments, professional tournaments, and online platforms, before they go to a televised show with years of practice. Sethi, on the other hand, had no such experience.
Sethi replied saying that Indian players don’t have much experience compared to international players, but free information is available online to learn.
She believes that the more you play, the better you get. However, as an ambassador of responsible gaming, she advocates bankroll management, which involves minimizing risk and maximizing rewards. She says that players should start playing tournaments with disposable income and minimum stakes. ‘If you’re good, you’ll win and swim up the stakes,’ Sethi said.
Role of coaches in learning poker
Sethi said that she started off her game fearlessly and with an aggressive play style, while coaches tamed her and taught her Game theory.
She believes that now she can exploit that Game theory that defines the optimal way of playing. She says that if one plays with the theory, one can easily make money and be an exploitative player who is balanced and timely aggressive.
Sethi suggests that before you approach a coach, learn as much as you can online. Coaches help you define goals and go over strategies, player positions, each hand, each hand from each position, different stack sizes, stages in tournaments (early, middle and late), etc. Coaches also plan a schedule for your bankroll, and they even teach how to deal with variance or randomness in a game, making the game more scientific than luck-based.
Being a woman on a poker table
Sethi believes that women naturally have a strategic acumen and are good at multitasking, which is great for playing poker. She thinks that women need to ward off reservations about societal taboos and stigmas, as such thinking hinders them from going out and playing games like poker. Sethi encourages women to play with a perception of self-empowerment.
She pointed out that she got a helping hand from other women in poker in India, as they share a common passion.
She also heartily adds that men also do not underestimate women on a poker table, as it’s their own loss if they do, as women can exploit such men’s preconceived notions. “Age and gender has no bar in poker. Poker doesn't belong to men, it belongs to sharp minds.” Sethi says.
The presidential award
In 2018, Sethi was awarded the presidential award at Rashtrapati Bhavan. She was among many women who were the ‘first ladies’ to make a mark in their respective fields.
She was one among many accomplished women including India’s first woman firefighter, the first female captain of a navy ship, the first indian judge at cannes film festival (Aishwarya Rai), the first female F1 race driver, and the first female chess grandmaster of India, etc.
Tips for aspiring players
Sethi says that aspiring poker players should follow their passion and put in the required hard work. She highlights the benefits of being a professional poker player--make good money, have time to take care of family, have time for personal activities like meditation, yoga, and painting.
Sethi also pointed out that playing poker evolves one as a person, it makes one balanced, hardworking, and used to putting quality effort. Sethi says that playing poker even wakes up your consciousness, hones your gut feeling, and teaches patience and how to prioritize things. She adds that these skills learnt through poker can be transferred in one’s life, as well.
She says that serious players should find good coaches and use poker software and training sites. She herself also mentors budding players. She says that these days even average players are good, so to excel one needs to work hard.
League structure in poker
To exemplify how poker leagues work, Sethi explained the structure of the Global Poker League--In the first stage, Indian champions compete with other national champions. The national champion, then, goes on to compete with global champions at the global league.
At the national level, there are three categories of players--
Qualifiers: A qualifier doesn’t need any experience.They only need to know the basics of the game.
Pros: Players who enter a league as professional players need to show winning volumes and accomplishments from the past.
Wildcards: These players are chosen by team managers and could be the world’s best players.
Players from all these categories play together. Players are judged and picked from these games to make teams for leagues. Each team has 1-2 qualifiers, 1-2 pros, one wildcard player, and one mentor.
Two best teams reach the national finale. The champion team in India competes with other national champions in the global tournament.
Revolutionising of poker
Nagarajan points out that in WSOP 2003, Chris Moneymaker, an accountant, won the Main event and took home millions of dollars. This was the tipping point that revolutionized the game of poker in the US. He was the first person who qualified through an online poker site and went on to become a world champion.
Sethi points out that in India this boom is imminent, as well, as the stigma around poker is wearing off. She says that it’s a great time for the game of poker now, as poker allows you to work from home in this time of widespread lockdowns.
Physical fitness is required for poker
When asked if physical fitness is important for poker players, Sethi says that to be able to concentrate for a long period of time, to go through an emotional roller coaster of a tournament, and to play long game sessions, one requires stamina and focus.
Sethi points out that a professional poker player needs to meditate, practice the game, study their own game, and practice peace of mind and balance in nutrition. Also, as the game is sedentary, maintaining fitness and exercising to keep a healthy blood circulation is important.
For Sethi, poker became her source of happiness. She finds the game bigger than herself and she is ready to work hard to excel at it. There were times when she questioned her choice of playing poker professionally, but her success, including receiving an award from the president of India, made sense of it all for her.