Sharks are Turning Kolkata into India’s Poker Capital

D. D. Thacker is late.

Situated in a fancy upper-class neighborhood in Kolkata, his club does not announce itself. There is no signboard. A security guard screens and interrogates us. He relaxes upon hearing Thacker’s name. “Take a left from here,” he tells us, pointing us towards a rectangular opening in the wall next to him. “You will find an elevator when you enter. Take it to the second floor. Then take a right.” A rickety Soviet-style lift groans its way to the second floor. We take the right as instructed and there it is: ‘TURN ‘N’ RIVA’, the club’s name inspired by terms used for moves at the end of a poker game. Brightly lit, it is the only source of light in the corridor littered with sawdust where flakes of chipped wood sprawl across the entrance of a closed furniture workshop. The whole setting seems straight out of a film noir from the 50s.

We pass a heavy teak door and walk straight into a cul-de-sac. The bunch of young men idling in the corridor look at us suspiciously, softening their stance as we, once again, mention Thacker’s name. They point at the door we missed – the entrance to the club.

Inside, there are two large oblong-shaped poker tables. Only one is occupied. Beefy men with droopy, sunken eyes wearing days’ old stubbles – the result of many nights of playing poker with little or no sleep – are placing bets. Samuel, Thacker’s Partner, a tall and muscular man tells me, “Diddy,” – Thacker’s nickname – “will be here anytime.” We are offered lukewarm tea in small paper cups. Pizzas and other snacks start appearing for the players, carried in by thin, short waiters. The dealer, a beautiful woman with mongoloid features dressed sharply in dark trousers held up by a fashionable leather belt and a white shirt, keeps a keen eye on the door. The walls of the club are plastered end-to-end with advertisements of online poker sites and casinos where thrilled players exchange big smiles and high-fives.

I also notice several cameras and have the constant feeling that we are being watched. I am even accompanied to the washroom (thankfully, no cameras there) by one of the ‘crew’; he stands at the door for as long as I am inside.

As we go out for a smoke, one of the staff members – all of whom wear tight tees saying ‘CREW’ – forbids me from taking any pictures.
Several cigarettes and random chatter later, Thacker arrives. He is an hour late.

He goes straight into his office where we are summoned to by a minion. There’s more tea, this time in china cups.

Thacker, with bulging biceps and a wrist tattoo that reads ‘Bluff’, has a flowing, mostly white beard with black streaks that make him look more like a distinguished poet than a poker club owner. I half expect him to pull out and read a Tagore poem from a leather-bound tome. His eyes, though, betray a hardened man.

He keeps his answers short and to the point; it’s clear he has other, more practical things than an interview on his mind; halfway through the interview, he notes ruefully that a punter who owes him INR 2 lakhs has run away.

“You know there is no legal way to get this money out,” he says. I nod at the implication, not so much in agreement with the methods I imagine Samuel and the crew employ, but to acknowledge that there may very well be no other way. In any case, Thacker believes that no poker club in the city has a clear basis in law. “There are no ‘legal’ clubs in Kolkata because no one has a trade license. Poker is not listed as a trade by the government. I have only a club license. That is how everyone else also operates, no matter what they tell you.”

About the Writer

Abhimanyu Kumar is a freelance journalist based out of Delhi. He has earlier reported on politics and culture for The Hindu Business Line, Al-Jazeera, DW, and others.