Background:

On October 8, 2013, Hon’ble Karnataka High Court in Indian Poker Association v. State of Karnataka[1]laid down that playing skill based games like poker in recreational clubs is 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[2], 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.

Decision of Gujarat HC:

The Hon’ble Gujarat High Court on December 4, 2017, laid down that poker is a game of chance rather than a game of skill which 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 (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Act’). The Act defines ‘gaming’ to include wagering or betting except wagering or betting upon a horse-race, or dog race under certain stipulations.

The Petitioners in this case wanted to establish a poker room and had to approach the Court since their proposal was not entertained by city police. The Petitioners also made references to other Indian states which considered poker to be a game of skill. The Indian Poker Association also made representations and exclaimed that poker is a game of skill and lies outside the purview of gambling and hence, organizing of poker games should not be prohibited. On the other hand, the state government pleaded that poker is a game of chance and could possibly affect a large number of lives negatively in the state of Gujarat.

Hon’ble Justice Rajesh H. Shukla after hearing both the sides dismissed the petition thereby denying the request to stop police interference in organizing of poker games. It should be noted that the High Courts of Karnataka and Calcutta have earlier opined that poker is a game which requires skill and hence, stated that police/law enforcement authorities cannot interfere in the game of poker as it is not gambling.

The Petitioners are expected to file an appeal against this decision before a Division Bench of the Gujarat High Court. Note that this decision of the Hon’ble Gujarat High Court was passed two weeks after the legislature of the state of Telangana passed a Bill to ban online gambling and skill games played for stakes. In the light of the same, this decision will be perceived as an impediment not only in organizing poker games, but also for existing service provides in online poker industry.

State of conflict:

It would still be difficult to deny that game of poker requires some amount of skill and is not purely based on chance as held by Hon’ble Karnataka and Calcutta High Courts. On the other hand, the Hon’ble 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 legislations in all states with the exception of Assam, Odisha and Telangana 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.