The Poker Question

Beside lovemaking, singing in the shower and poker, there are not many human activities where there is such a great difference between a person’s self delusional ability and actual ability.” I am not a professional poker player. I play the occasional hand and my winnings are by chance. If I have to describe the game to you – correctly and comprehensively – I must read, therefore, the tomes that have been written on it before. Such is the sophistication of the game, even if you might think you know poker –  it is likely you are a ‘fish’. I am not going to profess to you how to play poker therefore. No last words. You have to learn, read and play – and only if you deserve it you shall, one day, be a ‘shark’.

India is troubled waters for the sharks. And the fish. You may have heard of poker being played in the Casinos of Goa and Sikkim – but it is a game that is mostly played privately and in hush-hush circles. The laws of our land after all have not declared poker to be a game of preponderance of skill.

At one time the notion was that in order to be branded as gambling, the game should have been one – success in which – depended entirely on chance. “If even a scintilla of skill was required for success – the competition could not be regarded as of a gambling nature” (See, State of Bombay v. R.M.D. Chamarbaugwala, AIR 1957 SC 699). The benchmark of “scintilla of skill” subsequently morphed into “substantial degree of skill”. The opposite ends of a spectrum. It is only “competitions which involve substantial skill”, now, that are considered business activities, the protection of which is guaranteed by Article 19(1)(g)” (See, R.M.D. Chamarbaugwala v. Union of India, AIR 1957 SC 628).

It is presumably because poker is still viewed as gambling – as a game of chance – that there are difficulties in organizing poker tournaments/competitions. Most are conducted in rabbit holes. It is in this context that the order of the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka (“HC”), at Bangalore, in the matter of Indian Poker Association v. State of Karnataka (Writ Petition No. 39167-39169 of 2013) is significant. The HC has ably recognized that poker is a “game of skill”. However, there are no qualifications made to that recognition.

We know from before though that a “game of skill is one in which the element of skill predominates over the element of chance” [See, Dr. K.R. Lakshmanan v. State of Tamil Nadu, (1996) 2 SCC 226] and that it is not necessary to “decide in terms of mathematical precision the relative proportion of chance or skill when deciding whether a game is game of skill [See, M.J. Sivani v. State of Karnataka, (1995) 6 SCC 289]. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together – knowing too that competitions/tournaments, which involve substantial skill, are business activities ensured by our fundamental rights – do I see myself in a poker tournament soon?

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