With the Law Commission panel preparing a report to submit to Supreme Court to legalize sports betting and gambling in India, there remain speculations on whether or not, if poker would also be legalized in the country. The reason for the uncertainty is the decision laid down by the Gujarat High Court.
In 2013, on October 8 in the case of the ‘Honourable Karnataka High Court in Indian Poker Association vs. the State of Karnataka,’ laid down that playing skill-based games like poker in recreational clubs are permitted, and no license is required for the same. Further, on July 2, 2015, in the case of Kizhakke Naduvath Suresh v. State of West Bengal & Others, Hon’ble Calcutta High Court laid down that the state government, police, municipal and other authorities shall not interfere in poker games conducted by the Petitioner, KN Suresh, and his club.
On December 4th, 2017, the Honourable Gujarat High Court gave its verdict that poker is a game of chance rather than a game of skill. This brings poker under the umbrella of gambling and hence, facilitating the organization of poker games is against the law laid down in the Prevention of Gambling Act, 1887 (from now on referred to as the ‘Act’). The Act states ‘gaming’ to wagering or betting except wagering or betting upon a horse-race or dog race under certain stipulations is not illegal.
In this instance, The poker organizations who petitioned wanted to set a poker room in their gaming houses and had to approach the Court since city police did not entertain their proposal. The Petitioners referred to other Indian states which consider poker to be a game of skill and not like a game of chance. The Indian Poker Association also made illustrations and claimed that poker is a game no different than any other game of skill and shouldn’t be view under the purview of gambling. Hence, organizing poker games should not be forbidden. On the other hand, the state government declared that poker is a game of chance and could affect a large number of lives negatively in the state of Gujarat.
After hearing both, the sides Honourable Justice Rajesh H. Shukla dismissed the petition by denying the request to stop police interference in those gaming houses that organizes poker games. It should also be taken into consideration, that the High Courts of Calcutta and Karnataka have earlier opined that poker is a game which requires skill and hence, stated that police/law enforcement authorities could not intervene in the game of poker as it is nowhere related to gambling.
The poker organizers are believed to file an appeal against this decision before a Division Bench of the Gujarat High Court. However, this decision of the Honourable Gujarat High Court was announced after two weeks the legislature of the state of Telangana passed a Bill to outlaw online gambling and skill games played with stakes. In the light of the same, this decision will be regarded as an obstacle not only to organizing poker games but also for existing service provides in the online poker industry.
It’s undeniable that a game of poker needs no skill because with every hand they played and every card that dealt, it is crucial for the players to use their experiences and calculations to have the edge over their opponents. It is not purely based on chance as held by the Honourable Karnataka and Calcutta High Courts. On the other hand, the Honourable Gujarat High Court’s decision comes well after the decisions of the High Court of Karnataka and Calcutta High Court.
It becomes important to note here that gambling is covered under Item 34 of the State list under Seventh Schedule of Indian Constitution and is, therefore, a state subject. Thus, it is the duty of state legislature and not state judiciary to be laying down the law that legalizes or outlaws poker. Also, gaming legislation in all states except Odisha, Telegana and Assam exempt “games of skill” or “games of mere skill” from the definition of gambling. This has thus, caused a lot of uncertainty in how this game should be construed legally.