Indian High Court in Tamil Nadu strikes down poker ban

Jon Pill
Posted on: August 03, 2021 14:42 PDT

India's non-stop back-and-forth on the legality of online poker took a big step in the direction of legalization today. The Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu struck down an online poker ban as unconstitutional.

Earlier this year, the state of Tamil Nadu amended the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act of 1930. The amendment — passed as Part II of the TN Gaming & Police Laws (Amendment) Act, 2021 — banned online gaming. Included under the umbrella of the amendment were the traditionally legal skill-games of poker and gin rummy. Both games are huge business in India, especially online.

The court announced that it "strikes down the amendment in its entirety as ultra vires the Constitution." Ultra vires, literally "beyond the powers," is the legal term for something this is done outside of one's authority.

The grounds for this repeal were somewhat unusual. Here the court deemed the state legislature had overstepped their authority.

The Judges, Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy, cited Article 19 of the Constitution, which protects the right of Indian people to "practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade, or business."

A government recognizing poker as a trade is enough to warm the cockles, but the political game here is not over yet.

Industry responses

Industry leaders and professionals have been quick to comment on the event.

Gaming lawyer Jay Sayta described the ruling as an "historic" one.

"Madras High Court has struck down and held as ultra vires the constitution the entirety of Part II of the Tamil Nadu Gaming & Police Laws (Amendment) Act, 2021," Sayta wrote. "Which banned betting or wagering in cyberspace on poker, rummy or other skill-based games. Historic judgment."

Roland Landers, the CEO of the All India Gaming Federation, issued a statement in response to the court's decision in Tamil Nadu.

"We welcome the order of the Madras High Court," Landers said. "Which iterates that the court is not against online gaming, and calls for the government to devise a regulatory framework to provide clarity to the sunrise online gaming industry with a view to encourage investments leading to technological advancements as well as generation of revenue and employment."

The anti-gambling lobby hasn't quite gathered itself to respond yet.

COVID and poker in India

After what seemed like a slow start, COVID got its claws into India in a big way this year. Morgues overflowed and bodies had to be burned on enormous pyres. The poker world did what it could, with fundraising efforts run by everyone from Natural8 to Bollywood movie star Siddanth Kapoor.

The pandemic also pushed the large number of real money players online. Live venues for games like poker, teen patti, gin rummy, bridge, and backgammon all shut down. The result was an increased focus on online gambling across the states and at the federal level.

Indian poker had good months where new online gaming companies launched. It also had bad ones where whole states shut down online poker. This high court ruling has the feel of a good month.

However, it's important to note that the ruling does not prevent the state from passing new gambling legislation. In fact, the court encouraged it. When confronted by the argument that games could be rigged, the court responded, "you regulate it, you don't ban it."

The ball is back in the legislature's court. There is clearly strong anti-gambling sentiment among those in charge. What happens next will be interesting to watch, and could have a long-term impact on the post-COVD landscape of the poker industry in India and abroad.

Featured image source: Flickr by Surajram Kumaravel