IAG October 2014 - page 4

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Sorting India: It’sasToughas it Sounds
s it legal in India toplay rummy for stakes?
This is thequestionbefore thehighest court in the land, and simpleas it soundson the
faceof it, we’re talking about India, a virtual continent unto itself, anation so large and
of suchmind-bending complexity, nothing is ever simple. Depending onhow the court
decides towrestlewith it— and it’s never an issue that has generated a clear answer, not to
mentionone that hasn’t been contradictedby lotsof other answers—the implications for the
futureof gambling in the secondmost populous country onEarth are likely tobe enormous.
Same as everywhere else, gambling is immensely popular in India—a US$60 billion
market, conservatively estimated—and conducted with aplomb at all levels of society, and
in India these aremany. The laws governing it are anything but uniform, although they are
almost uniformly hostile, which is about the same as everywhere else, too, so itmostly goes
on in a vast gray realmwith some touches of black andwhite around the edges.
The surface questionbefore the SupremeCourt iswhether a private club inChennai was
running a “common gaminghouse,” a no-no, broadly speaking, since the days of theBritish
Raj, by allowing itsmembers tobet against eachother at rummy. Police raided the clubback
in 2011 and issued fines. The clubwent to court andwon an exemption on the grounds that
rummy isn’t gamblingbut agameof skill. It’s anage-oldplaint, of course, andone that’s still
hotly disputed in online and land-based jurisdictions the world over, mainly with regard to
But thisonedidn’t end there. TheMadrasHighCourt took thematteron inaverypointed
fashion by resorting to a 45-year-old ruling out of the state of Andhra Pradesh on the skill-
versus-chance question only to break with it by declaring that skill and chance aren’t the
issues: money changed hands and therefore the club effectively was operating an illegal
The club appealed to theSupremeCourt, whichmaywell choose to limit its ruling to this
specific case and the specific circumstances relevant to it—in other words, it may do what
legalminds are inclined todo anddrawmore lines across a page that’s prettymarkedup as
it is, with29 states and seven federally administered territories all regulatinggamblingunder
different, often conflicting, lawsandenforcing them in conflictingways, severely at timesand
sometimes not at all.
Or the justices could take the rareopportunity to say somethingdefinitive about skill and
chance. They could, in effect, definewhat constitutes gambling in India and thereby provide
some urgently needed guidance onwhat is legal andwhat is not. This is the great elephant
in the room, if you’ll pardon the expression, and to finally deal with it would be huge, and
not only as it pertains to a national market that is floodedwith purveyors of rummy, both of
the terrestrial and online variety. It could persuade the federal government, which has been
no help to date, of the need to impose some kind of order on the anarchy. The country is
also flooded with online poker and sports betting sites, many of them run bymajor names
of the likes of WilliamHill and Poker Stars and bet365, and they have an obvious and quite
considerable stake in thisaswell, asdo the thousandsof clubs like theone inChennai,which
couldbecomemini-casinos for all intents andpurposes.
Believe it or not, the prevailing federal statute dates back to 1867, you know, when the sun
neversetandall that.Everybodyknows it’sobsolete.Nobodydoesanythingabout it.Well,almost
nobody. TheLawCommissionof India, abodyof experts that advises the central government’s
UnionLawMinistry, is in theprocessof reviewingapassel of colonial-era lawsstill on thebooks
to recommendwhichones to repeal. ThePublicGamingAct, as it’s titled, isone.
The key point about that decades-old Andhra Pradesh ruling is that it was unequivocal.
Rummy isn’t gambling, it said, therefore the state’sbanon “commongaminghouses”didn’t
apply. TheHighCourt inMadras couldn’t ignore this. It had to strike a line through it, and a
boldoneat that. Interestingly enough, not sixmonths later, anonlinepoker case camebefore
theDelhiDistrictCourt,whichwantedsobadly tocomedownagainstpoker asagameof skill
that it said there is no such thing as “skill” on a computer.
So the Supreme Court has its challenges cut out for it, and it has asked the federal
government toweigh in by contributing a brief, whichmay indicate that it indeed intends to
confront them.
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