BENGALURU: It’s around 7pm on a Tuesday. Most people are either returning from or going to work. However, in a sprawling room on the third floor of a building on 100-feet road, Indiranagar, a group of nine people are huddled around a poker table. Some are making small bets, others big. Goonjan Mall, a businessman who comes to the club twice a week, approaches the counter with his chips and complains, “I’ve been here for three hours and all I’ve won is `1,700,” he says, adding, “I play for leisure and make small bets. Others play for lakhs.”
There are approximately 10 poker clubs in the city, and a growing number of poker enthusiasts. The stakes involved are very high, says Hemanth, the manager of the Indiranagar club. He highlights how players play for around `13 lakhs per month at his club. “On the weekends, we organize tournaments for upto `2 lakhs. The more people that participate, the more we raise the stakes. On the weekday’s, the minimum amount that is played for `20,000,” he says.
While city clubs organise events and tournaments on a daily basis, there are a few tournaments in the country where the prize money runs into several lakhs. The introduction of Poker Super League or PSL, an IPL-styled league with teams from several states, has further raised the stakes. Started this year and sponsored by a big FMCG major, top teams have a chance to win over `3 crores in prize money.
So when did poker grip Bengaluru? People always played card games like bridge, rummy and black jack during festivals like Ugadi and Diwali, with friends and family in close settings. A number of poker enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, however, agree that poker transcended these intimate settings somewhere around 2011-12. K N Suresh, is a lawyer and the founder- secretary of the Indian Poker Association (IPA), who has crusaded for making poker legal in India. He even claims to remember the exact month when poker picked up in the city. “People started playing poker here in March, 2012. Presently, there are around 1,000-2,000 people here who are actively playing,” he adds. The boom in online gaming and a number of poker websites that regularly host tournaments has further fueled the interest. It has taken the game even to tier-1 and tier-2 cities, according to Praveen Dwarkanath, founder of the city-based poker portal, Poker Ninja.
Sampath Kumar, founder of Cardrack Poker Room, Jayanagar, proudly claims that his club is the “fourth one” to be started in the city. The game, Sampath says, requires great skill and intelligence, and is compared to chess. “Now, there are many players across the country who have become big names, and many are from Bengaluru,”
Although the number of people playing poker has grown exponentially in the city, not all clubs are getting sufficient business, says Sampath. “Only a few clubs in Indiranagar and Koramangala are doing well,” he says. He also talks about the intense competition between the clubs.
A game of skill or chance?
A few months back, one of the major poker clubs in the city had to cancel a tournament when they received constant queries from the police. A spokesperson for the club says, “We do not usually face problems, but whenever big tournaments involving big money are organised, the authorities tend to get suspicious, even though we are doing nothing wrong.” There have been a number of raids on poker clubs too.
Poker comes under the ambit of the Karnataka Police Act, 1963. Suresh, has fought cases in the High Courts of Karnataka and Kolkata for the legality of poker, and has won. “People often think that betting constitutes gambling. But the two are separate. Gambling is an act of wagering a sum of money for a prize in a game of chance. If you wager money for a price in a game of skill, it isn’t gambling,” he says. Gambling constitutes three things — a game of chance, public participation and the proprietor making a profit, he adds.
There are no law books that specify what constitutes a game of skill or chance. “Even a game like cricket cannot be defined as a game of skill,” Suresh adds. In a petition filed by the IPA, the Karantaka High Court gave a landmark judgement in 2013, declaring poker a game of skill, and that playing it in “recreational clubs” is not a crime.
An expert in the field who has been in the poker scene claims there is a loophole in the judgement, which is being exploited. Recreational clubs, like chess clubs, have certain rules like the hours of operation, membership, etc. “Poker clubs here violate all such rules. They operate late and invite raids. Transactions aren't legal,” he says. It’s also not clear whether or not it’s for profit .