City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Lure of Teen Patti?

Come Diwali time, particularly in North India, the ‘taash parties’ get underway with a good degree of seriousness. For some not immediately comprehensible reason, gambling is considered auspicious at this time of the year, and this cultural licence is utilised with a vengeance as friends and families sit down together and gamble. The dominant mode of gambling in India, particularly during this period is teen patti, also called Flash, and there is something about the obsession with this game that needs greater understanding.

Growing up, teen-patti held a particular fascination. Having seen enough Hindi films where the hero inevitably managed to contrive, through exceedingly dubious means, three aces to the villain’s somewhat unambitious hand of three kings, the aura of sin that surrounded this card game was temptingly delicious. The whole idea of playing card games, otherwise seen as a wholesome activity involving friends and family, suddenly turned a little dark and exciting when teen-patti was played. The innocuousness evaporated and we all became rakish gamblers, playing without money but risking our all daringly in our fevered imaginations.

The lure of gambling is not difficult to understand. Gambling distils the journey of our life into very few decisions that need to be made in very little time. It makes us experience the highs and lows of life in an abbreviated moment, as it accords us a random set of circumstances, arrays it against a competitive context, and attaches material consequences to our actions. In teen-patti, one’s position in the world is determined randomly, imprinted in the three cards one picks up. This is all the legacy one has, the only means with which one can make something of ourselves. The sizing up of risk, the weighing of probabilities and the assessment of one’s opponent in the game all play a role in determining one’s moves.

The game is simple enough. It involves probability and simple hierarchy. In a normal game of teen-patti, one plays with the hand one is dealt with, and the player with the highest cards wins. Unlike poker, where the game is mobile, in the sense that all players can change the cards they were originally dealt, something that introduces many variables and involves strategy and skill, standard teen-patti is a fixed game based largely on luck. On the face of it, there is little skill involved in the game- it is nothing but a show of force between the players. This is not entirely true, for had that been the case, only open hands would have been dealt, with the best cards winning.

Teen patti is largely a game of chance, but its popularity comes from that aspect of it which involves risk-taking and some skill. Structurally it is a game of chance, with just enough complexity so as to be able to set it in time, and give it the sense of a game. The structure of the game, where every player gets to assess risk, and chooses to operate somewhere within its spectrum, is the key to the involvement it generates in its players. Teen-patti is an exposition in risk and our ability to handle it, robed in a game of chance.

There are elements in the game that heighten the experience of risk. Playing inventive ‘variations’ change the probabilities involved. Playing ‘blind’ is another instrument for both risk-taking and in altering the risk scenario for other players, who have pay double to stay in the game once they have seen their cards and want to continue playing. The person playing blind is, at relatively lower cost, staying in the game longer, and is in essence transferring the risk-taking decision to the players who have seen their cards. Betting against the blind player, who himself has no idea of what cards he is holding, is in effect betting for one’s belief in oneself, and the belief comes at a cost that keeps adding up. In gambling, one cannot lie to oneself, for the costs of that self-deception are immediate.

The popularity of teen-patti in India has perhaps something to do with its stripped-down nature that captures the essence of gambling without the complications of skill. It allows everyone access to the game. In most cases, the stakes that one plays with are those that one can afford. Winning or losing is in most cases (barring those with a gambling problem) symbolic rather than real. Experiencing the tension involved in gambling is a thrilling form of self-knowledge.

How one plays teen-patti says a lot about the kind of person one is. There are the excitable ones, who interpret each hand they are dealt as a report card issued to them and emote accordingly. There are the sly ones, who quietly keep pulling out winning hands and racking up their winnings. The perennially unlucky ones make a great show of their misfortune but continue to soldier on, heroic in their martyrdom. The seasoned gamblers, play with an easy rhythm, without seeming to take too much notice of either good or bad luck. To them gambling is a narrative, a flow of circumstances that needs to be channelled one’s way. They understand risk, and are able to take liberties with it, while remaining respectful.

As someone who doesn’t particularly value winning but hates losing, gambling is a low-reward activity personally, but there is something about the ritual that is both intriguing and attractive. It is interesting how under the canopy of religious sanction, one is allowed to indulge in a practice that is otherwise frowned heavily upon. The idea of acknowledging the whimsicality of all that is material by allowing gambling on the day on which the Goddess of wealth is worshipped, is in many ways an act of great wisdom. That eventually what appears the most consequential and material is at its heart a game we can barely comprehend, is a lesson that gambling teaches well. Teen-patti seems particularly well suited as a vehicle for that message.

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