New Delhi: About five years ago, online poker tournaments in India would typically have 50-60-odd players at a time. Yet, while the entire world was playing for millions on online poker sites, Indian poker players would struggle to find a game in Indian rupees or withdraw money from global poker websites. Today, online tournaments on websites, which are based in India, routinely deal legally in the Indian currency, and have thousands of players playing in tournaments and cash games.
While many would consider Poker and Rummy as gambling, the Supreme Court exempts skill-based games from the same. In a ruling back in 1967 (Andhra Pradesh vs K. Satyanarayanan), the SC had recognised Rummy as a skill-based game. Similarly, Poker was recognised as a skill-based game by the Karnataka high court, though that ruling referred to offline poker. “You have to look at what exactly is being offered online, and it has to be evaluated on whether similar things when done offline, are deemed to be legal,” said N.S. Nappinai, a SC advocate and a cyber law expert.
“There have been various legal precedents to argue that a game which requires substantial degree of skill for a player to be successful will be considered as a game of skill and does not amount to gambling,” says a July 2018 report by Deloitte, citing that section 12 of India’s Public Gaming Act exempts skill-based games from penal provisions against gambling.While the SC does exempt skill-based games from being prosecuted under gambling, states can still have their own laws. “The poker community in India is still at a nascent stage, which makes it easier to build a career here than in the West,” said Clawin D’Souza, a professional poker player from India, who has played in the World Series of Poker Europe. D’Souza was one of the players who started years ago, learning the ropes online and, eventually, quitting his full-time job to make a career out of the game.
D’Souza added that the investments behind these websites make them much more stable now. “When you withdraw money from these websites, they cut TDS (tax deducted at source), making it easier to withdraw money that you earn into your bank account.”
At the moment, D’Souza works with the Indian Poker Player’s Association, which offers players avenues to learn the game, and play real money poker on various Indian websites for free. Online poker games in India today range from buy-ins of a few hundred rupees to lakhs and if players can get a good grasp of the game, there’s a lot they can earn. According to Prithvi Singh, chief technology officer and founder of Gameskraft, a gaming startup launched in mid-2017, there are two kinds of online games—casual and skill-based. The company started with RummyCulture, which reached over a million registered users in 18 months, according to the company. “Rummy is an old market, but it got formally legalized in 2015. Similarly, fantasy leagues have also been legalized now,” said Singh.
Gameskraft recently launched Gamezy, an online fantasy cricket game similar to Dream11, which you may have seen advertised during the ongoing cricket World Cup.
Further, Singh said online skill-based gaming portals should get an RnG (Random Number Generator) certification, though there is no legislation around it. RnG is an algorithm that ensures fair play on these websites, as it would be in real offline games. It’s especially important for card-based gaming and there are multiple algorithms that they can choose from.
Singh echoes D’Souza’s statement about growth in skill-based gaming online. “I would consider gaming in the entertainment category,” he said. “The new generation is more open to online gaming, and spending power is also increasing.”
To be sure, the growth of smartphones, cheap data and digital wallets is another reason why these websites are picking up. Like the poker sites, RummyCulture also allows people to play in the low ₹5-10 limit to the high ten thousands. Last year, one of the world’s largest poker websites, Pokerstars, started a dedicated service for India. Through this, Indian players can play against each other on Pokerstars’ software and deposit or withdraw cash in Indian rupees, along with the proper tax cuts.
Singh said these websites also use analytics tools to improve player stickiness. “To build a popular game, you need to collect data from users. We have a data science team that crunches the data and gives insights into the development team about what experiments are working. For instance, if I had to show a green or yellow button, we will show each to half of the users and collect analytics on their response,” Singh said. Gameskraft even uses machine learning (ML) algorithms to understand user behaviour on its platforms.