SPECIAL REPORT: Gambling’s Odds In India

India has 10,000 Gods. And each one, they say, has 400 avatars. Thus imagine the betting permutations in this amazing world, both ancient and modern; the planet’s largest democracy and most populous nation, the first–and final–frontier of gaming. The possibilities are limitless. Forget Latin America. The great gambling conundrum to crack is Bharat. Not Brazil.

How much is India’s gambling market worth? Think of a number. Double it. Treble it. Quadruple it. Nobody, least of all this reporter, knows. Not the government. Not the big-hitter international brands running murky “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t tell” off-shore sites. Not the “Goonda” gangsters driving India’s massive, mind-bogglingly lucrative, clandestine sports betting and “Matka” numbers rackets.

To suggest, as is sometimes offered, that Britain, the former colonial power, “introduced” gambling to India is patent nonsense. Gambling, as we all know, is as old as human civilization itself; as old as selling sex and, as most holy scriptures illustrate, “killing” one’s own brother or sister.

Playing The Game

Undeniably what the British did was make an entirely unsuccessful attempt to control and codify gambling with their 1867 Public Gambling Act of India, still extant in this post-colonial nation, population 1.44 billion people.

And–key to the present and future of Indian betting–the Britishers also introduced the game of cricket.

Cricketers Are Worshipped As Latter-day Gods
Cricket. In India it’s become a national religion. And cricketers latter-day Gods.

Cricket, like no other sport, drives Indian betting, both legal, such as it is, and the vast network of bookies, some registered, others nefarious, sub-brokers, et al, who sit on every street corner; on a ladder stretching from the slums of Mumbai to a penthouse in Dubai.

They are known as “Dallal”. Some are registered, “safe”; others are non-registered, “unsafe”.

It’s all done via mobile phone call. Odds change from ball to ball. And they’ll take a bet on anything: from the probability of the batter hitting two successive sixes (“Sixer” or “Chaka”), to the number of no-balls, run-outs, dropped catches, et cetera.

In-play Pioneers

It could be convincingly argued that these Dallal are the very pioneers of in-play betting, now boosting the fortunes of so many legal, registered sportsbooks around the world.

Bets are taken on every type of cricket match, from low-level area matches organised on behalf of political parties, which typically feature 12 teams in a tournament, to state, regional, national and international levels.

With some pride, cryptocurrency bookmaker Stake.com recently announced it had recorded more than US$100 million (£78.76m) wagered on the top flight Indian Premier League this month of May. Impressive, no doubt, but a mere drop in the ocean, I’d wager, compared to the billions of rupees bet on the illicit market.

Cricket is followed in Indian sports betting popularity, by some margin, by the country’s unique game of Kabaddi, a form of hyper-aggressive tag, played by two teams of seven. Football, of the English Premier League variety, is also gaining as a betting proposition.

But undoubtedly the most popular form of gambling in this fast-emerging Asian superpower is “Matka” — the illegal numbers racket, which has a plethora of underground games running across the nation throughout the day and night.

One bets on three ascending numbers, from one to zero; zero being 10, for example: 124 or 257 or 390.

Mumbai Main Market

The three numbers are called a “Panna”.

1 is “Eka”; 2 is “Duvva”; 3 is “Tia”; 4 is “Chowka”, the same slang word for a four in cricket; 5 is “Panja”; 6 is “Chaka” or “Sixer”, again the local term for hitting a six in cricket; 7 is “Mayyat”, meaning “Funeral”; 8 is “Ata”; 9 is “Nawa” and 0 is “Mendi”.

One can bet anything from one rupee to INR100,000 (approximately £1,000)–known as a “Lakh”–and more.

INR100, approximately £1, is the most common bet; and, if correct, will usually win you INR15,000, around £150.

A wager on a so-called double Panna, for example 227 or 277, wins you twice this amount.

In Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, the city’s so-called Mumbai Main Market has two games, or draws, one “open” at 9pm; the other “close” at 12pm.

There are many other illegal numbers rackets in greater metropolitan Mumbai, among them the Kalyan Market, which has an “open” draw at 3pm and a “close” draw at 6pm.

Home of Chess

Such is the complexity and diversity of India’s betting demi-monde, the fact that chess–perhaps the most challenging game, or sport, of all–was invented here makes perfect sense. Little wonder too that Indians are also at the fore of software and AI development.

This conundrum sits at the heart of the great India gambling debate and the challenging, ongoing efforts to either legalise gaming or bury regulated betting alltogether.

For the moment the forces that decide such things can’t even agree on a common definition of what is gambling and what is gaming?

In general terms, it seems that proponents for a legal betting system in India more or less concur that “gambling” defines games of chance; while betting on, or in, games of skill–such as card games, horse racing and cricket–are defined as “gaming”.

Progressive and reform-minded advocates for gambling liberalisation, within the Ministry of Information and Technology, who I interviewed on a condition of anonymity, were in favour of an 18 percent Government Service Tax (GST) for all forms of betting.

But the recent imposition of a 28 percent GST on the nation’s nascent and still-to-be-defined gambling and iGaming verticals has come as a hammer, if not death, blow to the industry — an industry already at massive disadvantage to a well entrenched network of illegal Dallal brokers.

For the moment the only states that allow legal, transparent, sportsbetting are the remote and sparsely-populated north-eastern states of Sikkim, Nagaland and Meghalaya.

More Modi

Elsewhere–with the exception of the former Portuguese colonial enclaves of Goa, and Daman and Diu–gambling remains locked in a hazy legal netherworld: Retail betting is illegal but mobile phone-armed digital punters still play a plethora of off-shore sites; some dodgy, others bona fide.

In many states, like the southern behemoth of Tamil Nadu, both retail and digital gambling are fiercely outlawed.

India’s ultra nationalist, socially-conservative Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already claimed victory in the country’s latest elections, which formally close on June 1.

Already at the helm for 10-years, Modi, certainly no fan of gambling or gaming in any form, will rule for at least another five.

Legal, regulated All-India betting will not be coming to this country any time soon.

But three numbers, any three numbers, providing they’re ascending and single digit, on a slip of paper and handed to the omnipresent Dallal on a street corner very near you.

Now that, you can bet on.

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