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Feature: Poker aficionado Bharat Agarwalla speaks on the legality of poker and the future of the gaming industry



Bharat Agarwalla has been an ardent poker player and has followed the gaming industry for over 20 years. In 2010 he started a poker tournament, India Poker Series (IPS) at Goa’s Casino Royale. In the last one year, IPS has become the leading poker tournament in India.

In this exclusive interview, Agarwalla speaks on the legality of poker, the favourable statute in West Bengal allowing poker and the future prospects of the gaming industry and the need for opening up the gaming industry.

Bharat Agarwalla, Director, India Poker Series

Q. There has been a lot of media coverage on the growing craze for the game of poker. Can you give some insights on the growth of poker in India and the future of the game?

Bharat Agarwalla (BA): It was a rough ride initially as the number of players who participated in the tourneys initially were few, but the popularity kept picking up. Last year in 2010 there were just 2-3 tournament organisers and the number of tourney were barely 8-10, but 2011 saw the number of organisers rise to 5-6 and the number of tourneys to 35 or so and in 2012 I will not be surprised if the number of tourneys reaches 45-50. This means a tourney on every weekend. This does not fully indicate that growth but it reflects the potential. In 2013 we expect the real boom to take place. The future of poker in India is very high. Indians love to play poker and they will find their way to Goa and play tourneys and ring games alike.

Q. There has been International debate on whether poker is a game of skill or chance. Poker lovers have also started the same debate in India and claim that poker is a game of skill. Do you view poker as a game of mere skill? Do you feel that such a proposition can be legally proved in courts in India such that poker would be exempted from the ambit of gambling such that the game would be freely allowed in India?

BA: Poker is a game of skill but the element of luck is also there. Infact the element of luck is there in every field. The reason why I would say that there is skill involved in poker is because one needs the skill of calculation of odds and probability, the ability to read actions and reactions and also ability to read emotions and faces and behaviour. The nature of skill required is not comparable to any other sport directly but poker has its own position. It would be very difficult to prove in the courts that poker is a game of skill and not a game of chance for the simple reason that the skill required is a package of many things and not just one.

Even if we presume that poker be declared a game of skill then also to play poker freely one has to remove the money aspect from it specially for the ring games (cash games). The moment one clubs the money aspect to it, it tantamounts to gambling. But in such a situation, the tourneys (poker tournaments) will not come under gambling because it is a competition. I would be most happy if the game is given its due position of being a game of skill so that the respect for the game goes up higher.

Q.  The gaming industry in India has been restricted to Goa, Sikkim and plans for casinos in Daman.  Do you reckon more states allowing casinos in the near future? Which would be the states where the change is likely?

BA: Yes, I do feel more states will gradually open up and allow casinos. The reason is simply because every state knows that people do gamble, its one of the oldest forms of entertainment and a very popular form of entertainment, people indulge in horse racing, stock markets and so why will this be left behind.

The world is ever changing and evolution process will lead the states to permit casinos. It also generates a lot of tourism and also generates jobs in casinos, hotels, and various other connected areas. The states which I forsee permitting gambling over the next 10 years are Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Himchal Pradesh, NCR (Gurgaon/Noida), Maharshtra (Pune or around that region), and may be Rajasthan as well.

Q. I had first reported a few months ago that poker would be perfectly legal in the state of West Bengal and poker rooms may be established in the state soon. What is your take on the issue and do you have any plans of conducting poker in West Bengal any time in the near future based on these provisions?

BA: I am aware of the Act you are talking about, I personally feel that such an act would legally allow casinos but the insertion of the word poker in that act seems to be an error as because 30-40 years back poker was not so popular even in the USA so its not seeming to be in place.

Even if one uses that Act and opens a card room or a poker room, it would draw the attention of the law makers and they will immediately amend the act. Considering this aspect I would not (nor have done so till now even after knowing about it) open a card room in West Bengal. After making investments etc if one sees the law being changed then all the investments would go down the drain. Its better to wait for a full fledged act come where it permits poker openly. Its best to wait for the laws to open up.

Q. Do you feel that the government would liberalise the gaming industry anytime soon due to huge revenues that may be earned out of it. How would you see the gaming industry growing in the next few years?

BA: Yes the Government would surely liberalise it and we will see more foreign investments in this industry. I would not be surprised if few of the big names of Vegas or Macau make investments in this sector once the policies open up. It would trigger a big upward movement to the industry and also give a big boost to tourism.

Q. Would you support the nationwide legalisation of all forms of gaming similar to what UK did after the passage of Gambling Act in 2005? If yes, by when would you think that such a plan would be fulfilled?

BA: UK is a small country while India is huge and also regionally divided and also divided into too many states. If a nationwide legalisation to gaming were to be proposed then it would face a lot of opposition and would never see daylight. Its best let each state decide its own course. If you see China then Macau has gambling but not Hong Kong. Similarly even in the USA, there casinos are restricted to states as per the policy of each one. This is a better model and it will be easier to govern specially as our country is large.

Jay has researched extensively on gaming laws and has been cited by various media houses and journals as an expert. He has helped leading newspapers in their stories on gaming laws. Jay completed his B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) degree from NUJS, Kolkata in 2015 and is currently based out of Mumbai.