A dairy worker in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh; a teacher in a government school on the frontiers of the Thar desert; an entrepreneur in Pune; an employee at an electronics repair store in Bihar’s Patna; a customer support executive in Bengaluru. This motley crew has one thing in common—they’ve all lost more money than they’ve won, playing rummy online.

Rummy is a simple card game. Two to six players pool money to create a winning pot. The players are dealt thirteen-card hands, and swap or draw cards from the deck to create sets of the same rank or sequences within the same suit. The first to do this using all the cards in their hand wins the entire pot.

Online, the game has been made so affordable that it’s nearly harmless. Rummy gaming sites like Rummy Circle, Junglee Rummy, and Ace2three allow users to bet as little as Rs 10 ($0.14) to as much as Rs 5,000 ($68.95). Multiple rounds of the game, therefore, can see players earn anywhere from Rs 100 to a few lakh.

Essentially, what one might call gambling.

Gambling has been banned in India—with the exception of Goa, Sikkim, and Daman and Diu—for more than a century, courtesy of the Public Gambling Act of 1867. But there’s a provision in the form of Section 12 of the Act that says games of skill aren’t considered gambling.

But to cross over that chasm and be recognised as a game of skill, games need a special exemption from the courts. Rummy was among the first to get that reprieve. The argument for Rummy as a game of skill was simple enough. While the simplicity of its rule set helped its popularity snowball, mastering the game—as with most card games—takes years of practice. In 1968, the Supreme Court of India agreed, recognising rummy played in clubs as a game of skill. Poker still awaits that kind of clear exception from an Indian court.

This ruling has led to the rise of online rummy in India. The industry has been growing at a compound annual growth rate of 20-25% over the last four years. Today, it is the only segment of online gaming that actually makes money. In the current financial year, all India’s online rummy operators, like the Tiger Global-backed Rummy Circle, Junglee Rummy, Ace2Three, and Adda 52, have made a combined Rs 4,000 crore ($551 million) in revenue. This is according to Sameer Barde, the chief executive officer of The Online Rummy Federation (TORF), a lobby group of online rummy companies in India.

That topline suggests wagers of around Rs 40,000 crore ($5.5 billion), given that companies take a commission of 10-12% out of each prize pot. This comes from around five million users who play for money, a small but vital sliver of the 55 55 Business Standard Gaming portals to the rescue of pandemic-hit rummy and bridge players Read more million who play the game, mostly for free.

AUTHOR

Arundhati Ramanathan

Arundhati is Bengaluru-based. She is interested in how people use money in the digital age and how new economies will take shape based on that interaction. She has spent over 10 years reporting and writing on various subjects. Previous stints were at Mint, Outlook Business and Reuters.

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