Relief for poker players in West Bengal. “No police interference in poker games in WB” rules Calcutta High Court

The Jalpaiguri Circuit Bench (“the Court”) of the Calcutta High Court on August 29, 2019 in the case of Indian Poker Association v. The State of West Bengal passed an order directing the police to not interfere in the games of poker unless there is a specific complaint that the players are involved in gambling or any other overt illegal act.

In the present case, the Indian Poker Association (“Petitioner”) rented a room for its members to play poker, in Hotel Tourist Inn, Siliguri. The local police authorities entered the above room and started harassing the members by claiming that poker is banned under the law in the State of West Bengal. Aggrieved by this move of the state police the Petitioner filed a writ petition in the Court.

The Petitioner relied on a 2015 case Shri Kizhakke Naduvath Suresh v. The State of West Bengal, decided by a single judge bench of the Calcutta High Court (“High Court”), which also dealt with similar issue. The High Court noted that the game of poker is expressly excluded from the definition of either gaming or gambling as provided under Section 2(1)(b) of the West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competitions Act, 1957. The High Court was of the opinion that since, the game of poker is not covered within the definition of either gaming or gambling, if any player indulges in poker without indulging in any other overt act, which could be deemed as an offence, the police have no right to interfere.

The State of West Bengal (“Respondent”), argued that the police reached the hotel and stop the game of poker because of a complaint that the police received. The complaint alleged that the players in the hotel room were involved in gambling.

The Court noted the abovementioned judgment by the High Court and re-iterated that playing poker shall not attract any unnecessary harassment from the police. The Court rejected the Respondent’s argument and stated that there was nothing on record to state that the police had any specific complaint or information that the members of Petitioner were involved in any overt illegal act.

The Court disposed the petition by directing the Respondent and the police to not interfere with the games of poker organised by the Petitioner for its member, unless there is any specific complaint that the players are indulged in gambling or any other covert act which can be deemed as an offence under the law. The Court also stated that even when the police receives such complaint, they can investigate it, but they don’t have an “unlimited license” to enter the room and go on a rampage in the garb of investigation without a specific arrest warrant or a permission from the appropriate authorities to enter into the room and inspect what is going on inside it.

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Most of the state specific gambling legislations have not specified the games which would fall within the definition of either gaming or gambling. Since, there is no explicit mention of such games, courts in India generally determine the legality of such games using the games of skill and games of chance principle. However, the West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competitions Act, 1957 does provide for explicit exclusion of poker from the definition of gaming and gambling. The present judgment by the Court clarifies that since poker is excluded from the scope of gambling, the players may continue playing poker as long as they don’t indulge in any overt act which can be deemed as illegal. Interestingly, the Court did not explain the meaning and scope of “overt acts which can be considered illegal”.

The state specific legislations do provide that if there are any games of skill, then they shall not be deemed as gambling. Poker has been subject to a lot of scrutiny on whether it is a game of skill or a game of chance. In December 2017, Gujarat High Court in Dominance Games Pvt. Ltd. v. State of Gujarat held that poker is a game of chance and shall be considered as gambling under the Prevention of Gambling Laws Act, 1887. The Gujarat High Court further held that indulging in any games of skill for money will also be considered as gambling under the Prevention of Gambling Act, 1887. However, an appeal against this judgment was filed before a division bench in Gujarat High Court, which has been continuously adjourned. Recently, the matter was listed on September 16, 2019 but, was adjourned and is scheduled to be heard today i.e., October 4, 2019.

The matter related to poker is far from being settled and it will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court of India decides as and when it gets any case concerning with legality of poker

Disclaimer: This post has been prepared for informational purposes only. The information/or observations contained in this post does not constitute legal advice and should not be acted upon in any specific situation without seeking proper legal advice from a practicing attorney.