Categories
Legal & Regulatory

Is Match IPL illegally charging 'annual membership fees' from players?

Earlier this week, Raj Kundra-promoted Viaan Industries, announced that it was launching a Match Indian Poker League (Match IPL) in collaboration with Switzerland headquartered not-for-profit, International Federation of Poker (IFP).

Kundra during and before the launch emphasised that his new venture did not involve any betting or wagering and was a free-to-play sporting league. Unfortunately, it appears that he was being economical with the truth and that he suppressed facts about the format and revenue model of the tournament.

While Match IPL is structured like a sporting league, where eight teams that are given out to franchises, compete against one another, players who aspire to play in the league necessarily have to download the ‘IFP Match Poker’ mobile application and play poker against a mechanical bot.

Not only does one have to download the app, but if a player wishes to be considered to play in one of the teams of Match IPL, he would necessarily have to pay an annual membership fee of Rs. 999/- to qualify.  Further, IFP and Kundra have also stated that paying the annual membership fee and even winning the maximum points against the bot in the app would in no way guarantee a spot in any of the teams and the franchise owners would retain the sole right to decide the team composition.

In other words, the team owners retain the discretion to select any or none of the top performing players who participate in the app. A team retains the right to select all players who would play in the league from outside those paying the annual membership fee, i.e. from the circle of their friends, acquaintances etc.

It thus seems that the method of selection of players who would participate in Match IPL is non-transparent and arbitrary. While ordinarily a sporting league is entitled to have its own rules, even if they are arbitrary and whimsical selection guidelines, what could make the Match IPL team selection model illegal is the fact that they are charging membership fees from prospective players.

What is termed as ‘membership fees’ by IFP and Viaan Industries could actually be construed as a ‘bet’ or ‘wager’ by the player in exchange of a chance to participate in the Match IPL tournament and the possibility of winning cash prizes.

This claim is further strengthened by the fact that there is no objective or transparent criteria of awarding points to the players who participate in the app. Further, the argument of the player using his or her skill also does not seem to be a valid one as the player does not have to compete against peers, but against a bot. The argument that poker is a game of skill is only used when the game is played against other, human players, where one has to use mathematical, analytical, psychological and game theory skills.

Playing poker against a machine can hardly be said to be a game which is substantially and preponderantly dependent on skill.

Charging money in exchange of the possibility of winning a reward in a game that involves chance falls within the well-accepted definition of ‘gambling’, ‘gaming’ or ‘betting’. Various judgments of the Supreme Court and High Courts have also, while interpreting state gaming statutes, clarified this position.

From the above facts, it seems that the Match IPL app could be running in contravention of various state gaming legislations.

It would not be surprising if Kundra, who shut down his stock exchange game, when question marks were raised about its legality, would do the same with the Match IPL app. After all, starting and shutting down businesses seems to be Kundra’s forte, who it is alleged, has not paid dues to many of his vendors and employees.

Categories
Gaming Legal & Regulatory

Raj Kundra linked company withdraws real money stock game following media and SEBI pressure

Days after the media and the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) raised questions about the legality of stock exchange based games luring customers with real money under the garb of being a game of skill, Satyug Gold Pvt. Ltd., promoted by Raj Kundra, has withdrawn its real money offering on its website Stockrace.in, to avoid any questions raised on the legality of the game and punitive action by SEBI.

The homepage of Stockrace.in has now clearly mentioned that the game is free to play and has removed any references to deposit of any money. The game however, continues to offer prizes to winners.

The decision to withdraw real money stock based games comes just a week after Glaws.in had raised questions about the legality of such games, noting that they would probably fall under the definition of ‘derivatives’ under the Securities Contract (Regulation) Act, 1956 and consequently, could be construed as an unrecognised and illegal stock exchange.

SEBI had also issued advisories last month cautioning investors against participating in such schemes and stating that online prize-based stock exchange games do not fall within its regulatory ambit.

It is learnt that stockrace.in had managed to garner over 10,000 registrations in the past one month owing to the lure of real money gaming on stock exchanges. Although the real money component has been withdrawn, it is believed that the game will continue as a free to play competition.

Categories
Gaming Poker

Raj Kundra promoted company launches new poker website, offers chance to play with celebrities

Exclusive After launching free to play and real money stock market games as well as freemium social games under the brand name ‘Viaan Studios’, businessman Raj Kundra and Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty have announced their foray into the online poker space.

Unfazed by recent controversies surrounding the legality of stockrace.in, Kundra has launched celebritygames.in a real money online poker website operated by his company, Satyug Gold Pvt. Ltd. The website  offers players a chance to play real money online poker on the same table with celebrities like Shane Warne, Shahid Kapoor, Minisha Lamba, Shilpa Shetty etc.

Following are the details as per the  ‘About’ page of the website:

celebritygames.in is a registered trademark and brand belonging to Satyug Gold Pvt Ltd. After the amazing success of StockRace.in we bring you Celebritygames.in India’s only celebrity endorsed poker site where real celebrities come to play. We have created the best place to play poker with your favorite celebrities in India. Everyone from Bollywood stars to prominent cricketers & Businessmen play on Celebrity Poker. You can play your favorite card games of Texas Hold’em Poker and Omaha Poker with the A-list. We offer 24/7 customer support backed with our state of the art playing software, your online poker experience just got better!

All the card games offered at Celebritygames.in are completely legal to play in India and we guarantee around the clock 24-hour entertainment. Practice with our free play version and once you are ready then play with real money to win. Choose from our poker variants of No Limit Texas Hold’em and Pot Limit Omaha and enjoy the 24/7 action. Playing online poker on our site is 100% safe & secure as we follow the highest level of online security.

We provide detailed information of poker tips, tricks, facts, strategies & video tutorials from well-known celebrity Poker players. While playing at Celebrity Poker.in you may just get lucky and get to play on a table with celebrities like Shane Warne, Shilpa Shetty, Harman Baweja, Shahid Kapoor, Rohan Gavaskar, Raj Kundra, Minisha Lamba and the list goes on…

Kundra promoted Satyug Gold is the third prominent company to foray into the online poker space after Essel Group’s launch of poker through its affiliate company Fortuity Games and Delta Corp’s  acquisition of Adda52. With this latest announcement, it seems that the online gaming space is set for a major period of consolidation and growth.

Categories
Gaming Legal & Regulatory

Are stock market games operating illegally?

Over the past few days, there has been lot of controversy in the media over the legality of games based on stock exchange or listed securities, especially websites that allow players to stake real money and win large amounts of prizes. Many websites allow players to either play for free or purchase points for a fee, which can be redeemed for alluring gifts if their selected stocks perform as per their predictions.

Stockrace.in is one such website promoted by Ripu Sudan Kundra alias Raj Kundra, a British businessman and husband of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty.

Stockrace allows visitors to predict whether a particular stock, currency or commodity will go up or down within the next sixty seconds, wherein customers can place a maximum bet of  Rs. 5,000/- per trade by purchasing virtual points. Winners can redeem their points by redeeming their points for lucrative prizes such as mobile phones, gold coins, cars etc.

Another website, known as the Indian Trading League which has been endorsed by former cricketer Kapil Dev, has a league-type competition wherein players can compete to predict price movements of listed stocks and commodities  and winners can get daily, weekly, monthly or yearly cash prizes.

Admittedly, such websites have not obtained any authorisation from the capital markets regulator, i.e. the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) and claim to operate as ‘games of skill’.

In fact, SEBI recently issued advisories to the stock exchanges to inform the public that such kind of prize schemes or games do not have the authorisation of any regulator body and therefore the general public may participate in such games or schemes at their own risk.  Such websites are unregulated and operate akin to other poker, rummy or fantasy sports websites.

These stock gaming websites face two major legal challenges, first, whether SEBI approval is required and whether such websites are operating in violation of the Securities Contract (Regulation) Act, 1956 (“SCRA”) and second, whether such websites are actually games of skill.

Both these issues are mutually exclusive, i.e. if such websites are found to be falling within SEBI’s regulatory ambit, they are deemed to be related to or incidental to Parliament’s power of regulating stock exchanges  and future markets, and by extension they would fall under the central list as per the constitutional provisions. By extension of this argument, they would be outside the domain of state governments’ regulatory powers. Thus, the issue of whether such games involve skill or not becomes irrelevant.

However, if such games fall outside the regulatory ambit of SEBI, then it can be argued that they these games that can be covered under the ambit of gambling ,betting  or other state-level legislations. Consequently, it becomes important to examine whether these games actually involve a substantial degree of skill.

It would therefore be appropriate to examine both these issues separately:

  1. Violation of SCRA provisions

SCRA is the parent legislation for registration and regulation of stock exchanges and for prescribing penalty for unauthorised trading in securities. As per Section 2(h)(ia) of SCRA, the term securities includes within its ambit derivative, rights or interests in stocks or shares and any other instrument so declared by the central government. The term ‘derivative’ has been separately defined in Section 2(ac) of the Act and includes  a contract which derives its value from the prices, or index of prices of underlying securities.

Further, stock exchanges have been defined under Section  2(j) of SCRA  to mean any body or company created for the purpose of assisting, regulating or controlling the business of buying, selling or dealing in securities.

From the business model of the stock gaming websites, it seems that there is a real-money contract between the player and company operating the website to reward the winner based on the performance and price movement of real, listed securities such as NIFTY stocks.

Under Section 19 of the SCRA, organising or assisting unauthorised stock exchanges or performing contracts in securities not authorised by the central government or SEBI are deemed to be illegal.

It is clear from the above discussion that stock exchange games could very well fall within the definition of stock exchanges. These operators could also be construed to be entering into contracts relating to securities or advertising/canvassing or encouraging unauthorised stock exchanges.

Notably, such activities, including operation of an unauthorised stock exchange are punishable by imprisonment up to ten years and fine up to twenty five crore rupees under Section 23 of the SCRA. It can certainly be argued that such websites are operating in contravention of SCRA as per a plain interpretation of the law.

2. Game of skill argument

In the event that such stock games are outside the regulatory ambit of SEBI, it has to be examined whether the games fall within the category of games of mere skill as defined by most state gaming legislations (with the exception of Assam and Odisha).

The Supreme Court in Dr. KR Lakshmanan v. State of Tamil Nadu & Another, defined games of mere skill to mean those games where skill outweighs chance, i.e. games where there is preponderance and predominance of skill over chance.

Thus, whether a game would be one involving skill, intellect and mental prowess or one where chance is the overwhelming element would depend on the business model of each website and statistical evidence that can be gathered. Arguably, predicting of stocks requires analysis of the financials, global trends, industry specific knowledge and awareness about socio-political and economic developments etc.

Even assuming that predicting price of  a stock is a matter of skill, it still remains unclear whether such skilled predictions can be made within a short span of sixty seconds or a few hours.  In other words, even though prediction of a price of a stock over a longer period of time (a few days or months) can be said to involve a large degree of skill, such a game would still be based on the vagaries of luck or chance if the time span is very short.

Conclusion

The legality of virtual stock market games are not fully clear and there are question marks about their legality on various fronts.  It is likely that SEBI will crackdown on such games and initiate action under provisions of the SCRA or under its general powers to issue directions.