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Real money gaming is taking off in India. Card games like poker are today no longer restricted to the confines of home games or played during lazy afternoons at kitty parties. Today these games are thriving businesses that employ hundreds if not thousands of people. With the proliferation of companies offering online poker services, there has been a massive boom in poker’s popularity, and hordes of players have taken up the game professionally.
Still, while poker is widely accepted as a skill game, the definite legal answer to the question “is playing poker for real money legal in India” varies from state to state.
The view on the legality of the sport varies from state to state since the Indian constitution has entrusted the Indian states with the power of framing laws on gambling and betting for the respective states. The Public Gambling Act, 1867, prohibits running or being in charge of a public gambling house and provides that games of mere skill are exempt from the application of the Act. Some of the states have adopted this Central law.
Online poker is legal in most states in the country. Still, there are a few exceptions like Gujarat, Assam, and Orissa, where the peculiar wordings of the state laws have cast doubt on offline and online poker’s legality.
Indian laws have thus classified games into ‘game of skill’ and ‘game of chance’ and three crucial decisions of the Supreme Court have defined the basis for and set the legal precedent to permit gaming and gambling in India –
> In 1957, the Supreme Court, while hearing the RMD Chamarbaugwala vs. Union of India case, asserted that games involving a certain level of skill wouldn’t be considered gambling.
> In 1967, while hearing the State of Andhra Pradesh vs. K. Satyanarayana, the Supreme Court ruled that rummy is a game of skill, irrespective of the format, venue and stakes involved. The court allowed establishments offering games of skill to collect a small fee for the same.
> In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that horse racing is a game of skill and not gambling. Handing out this verdict in the case of K.R. Lakshmanan vs. State of Tamil Nadu, the three-judge bench upheld the 1967 judgment and stated that games that involved a substantial degree of skill fall within the definition of ‘games of mere skill.’
> In December 2019, the Supreme Court upheld the April 30 ruling of the Bombay High Court, which asserted that fantasy gaming site Dream11 hosted games of skill and did not amount to gambling.
Dismissing the three Special Leave Petitions (SLP) filed by Gurdeep Singh Sachar, Union of India and State of Maharashtra, the Apex Court also rejected the GST evasion charges against Dream11, upholding the 18% GST paid by the company as correct. By doing so, the Supreme Court settled once and for all the issue of the legality of fantasy games.
Two significant decisions of the High Courts of Karnataka and Calcutta have also strengthened the legal grounds for offline and online poker in India. In 2013, the High Court of Karnataka observed that if played as a game of skill, poker can be allowed to be played at recreational clubs and doesn’t require a license. Furthermore, law enforcement authorities cannot interfere with such operations.
The Calcutta High Court also, in 2015, directed police and state authorities not to interfere in poker games conducted in clubs. This same judgment was reiterated by the Jalpaiguri Bench of the Calcutta High Court in October 2019 that upheld the legal view that poker is a game of skill and does not fall under the definition of gambling.
All forms of real money gaming, including poker, rummy, and fantasy sports, are legally banned in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.
Telangana was one of the biggest markets for online rummy until June 2017, when the state government issued two ordinances to place a blanket ban on all forms of real money gaming. In 2017-end, the government enforced the Telangana Prevention of Dangerous Activities Amendment Bill 2017, which got the approval of the state governor and the President of India in October 2018.
Two years later, Andhra Pradesh followed the footsteps of Telangana. On September 25, 2020, the government passed an ordinance amending the Andhra Pradesh Gaming Act, 1974, making all forms of real money online gaming a punishable offense.
On November 21, 2020, Tamil Nadu also enforced an ordinance that amended the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act, 1930, Chennai City Police Act, 1888, and the Tamil Nadu District Police Act, 1859, and deemed playing real-money games including poker, rummy, and fantasy sports punishable by a fine and imprisonment.
Karnataka has now indicated that it may soon follow suit. In November 2020, the state Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai announced that the state government was considering to bring in an ordinance to ban online games. The state High Court has asked the government to respond to a PIL demanding a blanket ban on all kinds of gambling and betting activities, and the matter will be heard on January 12, 2021.
Let’s take a closer look at specific laws concerning the legality of poker in major states.
Residents of the state are prohibited from playing online poker for stakes. The state’s stance on gambling is dictated by the Assam’s Game and Betting Act 1970 that considers games of skill like poker or rummy to be gambling and illegal.
Poker, rummy, fantasy sports, and all other real-money online games are legally banned in Andhra Pradesh. The state government announced a ban on all forms of real money online games on September 2, 2020.
On September 25, the state government passed an ordinance to amend the Andhra Pradesh Gaming Act 1974. The ordinance deems indulging in real money online gambling in the state an offense punishable by six months to two years of imprisonment. The ordinance came into force with immediate effect, making Andhra Pradesh the second Indian state, after Telangana, in banning all forms of real money online gaming.
Renamed the Andhra Pradesh Gaming (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, the government of YS Jaganmohan Reddy has prohibited the following:
1. Collection or soliciting of bets
2. Receipt or distribution of winning or prizes in money or otherwise in respect of any wager or bet
3. Any act which is intended to aid, induce, solicit or facilitate wagering or betting or such collection, soliciting, receipt or distribution
4. Any act of risking money or playing stakes or otherwise on the result of a game or an event, including on a game of skill.
In a landmark observation, the Karnataka High Court on October 8, 2013, in the Indian Poker Association (IPA) vs. State of Karnataka case, ruled that if played as a game of skill, poker can be permitted in recreational clubs and doesn’t require a license for the same.
However, the order had limited applicability in defining poker as a game of skill and allows for poker to be played only for recreational purposes. Nonetheless, since the Public Gambling Act of 1867 does not talk about online gambling, the Karnataka High Court ruling set a favorable legal precedent for the poker industry.
Therefore, poker and other real-money online games like rummy and fantasy sports are currently not considered illegal in Karnataka. However, the Karnataka government has publicly announced its intention of banning real-money gaming in the state.
In November 2020, state Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai announced that the state government was considering promulgating an ordinance to ban all real-money online games.
Subsequently, a PIL was filed by Sharada D.R demanding a blanket ban on all kinds of gambling and betting activities. The petitioner underlined the dire need for regulating online gambling. The petitioner questioned why the state government had not created any regulatory regime for the same. The High Court has asked the state government to respond to the PIL, and the matter is scheduled for hearing on January 12, 2021.
Goa is one of only two Indian states that legally permit casinos. The Goa, Daman, and Diu Public Gambling Act, 1976 dictates the state’s gambling laws and has provisions for offshore casinos while permitting land-based casinos only at Five-Star hotels. There is a thriving casino industry in the coastal state dominated by six offshore casinos.
Hospitality and casino major Delta Corp alone owns and operates three casinos, namely, Casino Deltin Royale, Casino Deltin JAQK, and Deltin Caravela. The company also owns the land-based casino hotel, Deltin Suites.
Two offshore casinos, Pride I and Pride II, are operated by the Pride Group, while the Golden Globe Hotel Pvt. Ltd that used to own Casino Maharaja, boosted its presence in Goa by launching its newest vessel, Big Daddy, in 2019.
All the offshore casinos are moored on River Mandovi, and the Goa Government has envisaged moving offshore casinos to land in the near future in the under-construction Mopa Airport complex. The government’s casino policy has been in the works over the past few years. The government has been giving six-month extensions to offshore casinos to operate from River Mandovi.
In the wake of rising local demand and political discussion on moving the casinos from their current location, the government has explored the possibility of temporarily relocating the offshore casinos to Aguada Bay. Still, the plan has been met with wide-scale opposition. The government’s recent endeavor to move some offshore casinos to the Veerem side of the river has also been largely opposed. The government in 2020 banned all Goa locals from entering casinos.
Online poker is legal in Goa, and several top online poker sites, including Adda52, PokerBaazi, and Spartan Poker, are operating live poker rooms on-board offshore casinos. These poker rooms frequently host live poker tournaments and dominate the domestic live poker sector.
Gujarat is one of the Indian states where the matter regarding the legality of playing poker for stakes in currently sub judice. In 2017, the Gujarat police raided poker clubs in Surat and Ahmedabad and forcibly shut them. The Gujarat High Court subsequently rejected the civil petition filed by KN Suresh and his Indian Poker Association (IPA) that sought poker to be recognized as a game of skill. The High Court also ruled that poker amounts to gambling and cannot be permitted. Suresh’s appeal against the decision is now pending before the court. Similar petitions were filed by other stakeholders, namely Aman Chhabra, Hotel Ramada, and Dominance Games Pvt. Ltd.
The High Court’s decision has taken a toll on online poker in Gujarat as well. Baadshah Gaming and PokerStars India were among the first sites to stop accepting players residing in Gujarat. Currently, most popular online poker sites like Adda52 and PokerBaazi do not accept Gujarat residents’ membership requests.
In April 2019, the state police approached the State Home Department to amend the Gujarat Prevention of Gambling Act and introduce new legislation to ban all forms of online gambling in the state, including poker.
Online rummy is illegal in Kerala. However, other skill games like poker and fantasy sports continue to be offered in the state.
Previously, the Kerala Gaming Act, 1960 exempted games that predominantly involved skill from the Act’s provisions.
A plea submitted by film director Pauly Vadakkan to the Kerala High Court petitioned real-money gaming platforms regulation. The petition also asked for online betting and gambling, particularly online rummy, to be declared illegal.
On February 9, Kerala’s state government told the Kerala High Court (HC) that the government had proposed to regulate online rummy by issuing a notification under the Kerala Gaming Act. The notification proposed to remove the special exemption given to online rummy under the Gaming Act. On February 27, the Kerala government issued a notification declaring online rummy illegal in the state.
The Bombay Prevention of Gambling Act, 1887, deems it an offense to run a gaming house but is ambiguous on offline poker and online poker’s legality. For this reason, poker is considered legal in Maharashtra. However, in 2016, after Maharashtra police raided an apartment and arrested a big group playing poker, the issue found its way into the Bombay High Court.
In March 2018, while hearing a writ petition against the arrest, the Bombay HC ruled that playing the game of poker amounts to gambling and that poker is a game of pure chance, not involving skills.
Furthermore, web-based betting is a prohibited offense in Maharashtra under the ‘Bombay Wager Act, 2017, effectively making real-money poker illegal in Maharashtra.
Tamil Nadu is the most recent Southern state in India to ban online gaming in 2020. On November 6, 2020, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami announced that the state government was considering placing a complete ban on real-money online games.
The government made the decision under strong political pressure after incidents of several suicide cases by youths who had lost their money to gaming. A proposal to promulgate an ordinance by amending the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act, 1930 (Tamil Nadu Act III of 1930), Chennai City Police Act, 1888 (Tamil Nadu Act III of 1888), and the Tamil Nadu District Police Act, 1859 (Tamil Nadu Act XXIV of 1859) was submitted to Governor, Banwarilal Purohit.
On November 21, Governor Purohit promulgated the ordinance banning all forms of online gaming.
The salient features of the ordinance are –
The ordinance was challenged by Haryana-based online game portal Junglee Games India Private Limited and its CEO Rahul Nandkumar Bhardwaj who filed a PIL at the Madras High Court.
However, on December 7, the High Court denied the request for an interim stay on the ban. The court has instead directed the State government to respond to the petition, and the state government has to file its response by December 21, 2020.
With the ordinance in place, all forms of real-money gaming, including poker, rummy, and fantasy sports, are legally prohibited in Tamil Nadu.
Poker is considered a skill game in Nagaland, where the government has enforced the Nagaland Prohibition of Gambling and Promotion & Regulation of Online Games of Skill Act and Rules, 2016, aka Nagaland Act. The legislation prohibits gambling involving games of chance. Under the Act, the government has issued online skill game licenses to several online operators.
Orissa is one of the states where online poker is considered illegal. The state prohibits the same through the provisos of the Orissa (Prevention of) Gaming Act -1955 that does not make any exception for games of skill.
Online gambling that includes online poker is legal in Sikkim under the Sikkim Online Gaming (Regulation) Rules 2009. The state government can issue licenses to operators seeking to offer online gambling services to the state. In April 2014, the Union Home Ministry gave its nod to the Sikkim government to regulate online betting activities as long as this did not extend to include services offered in other states and Union Territories in India. On July 30, 2015, the Sikkim government amended and passed the Sikkim Online Gaming (Regulation) Amendment Bill 2015. The bill entailed certain conditions for online and offline gaming, including a ban on locals from entering the casinos in the state.
Telangana was one of the biggest markets for online gaming, especially rummy, until June 2017, when the state government issued two ordinances quickly to place a blanket ban on all forms of real money gaming. The government followed this up by bringing in the Telangana Prevention of Dangerous Activities Amendment Bill 2017, bolstering real-money gaming prohibition.
Online rummy operators were hit the hardest, and three rummy operators challenged the ordinances and the bill. Despite the legal challenges, the bill passed through the state legislative assembly and was subsequently approved by the state governor and President of India in October 2018. With this, games of skill like offline and online poker and rummy are not only considered illegal. Still, they are a punishable offense in the state, allowing concerned authorities to detain any individual who has committed an “offense” under the Gaming Act for up to 12 months without bail or trial.
When it comes to offering a legal umbrella to poker, West Bengal provides a clear judicial diktat for real money gaming. The mind sport derives its legal basis from the West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competitions Act, 1957, section 2 (1) (b), which explicitly excludes games like poker, rummy, bridge, and nap from the ambit of gambling.
This fact was acknowledged by the Calcutta High Court in June 2015 when, after hearing a writ petition by KN Suresh, the High Court had directed police and other state authorities not to interfere in poker games conducted in poker clubs.
In October 2019, the Jalpaiguri Circuit Bench of the Calcutta High Court reiterated the view mentioned above that poker is a game of skill and does not fall under the ambit of gambling.
This report was updated on March 4, 2021.