Online gambling is not legal in India—other than in Sikkim. Yet while you can’t play poker with real money, it’s possible to get into a game of rummy and walk out richer—or poorer, of course. For, according to a 1967 Supreme Court ruling, rummy is recognized as a game of skill, not of chance—therefore, it is legal to play online with stakes.

This has led to the creation of an online cards industry that Deepak Abbot, Mumbai-based head, product, Reliance Entertainment Digital (which owns Zapak.com), says has an annual revenue of well over 100 crore.

In other countries, the laws vary. For example, in the US, gambling online on poker is illegal; in the UK, it requires a licence. The states here are able to frame their own gambling laws, which is why Sikkim has been able to legalize Internet gambling.

This could change quickly though. In March, the Madras high court prohibited a Chennai club from playing rummy for stakes and making a profit from this. The club has approached the Supreme Court, and a decision is expected in September. As reported in The Hindu on Sunday, the Supreme Court has given a temporary stay on the high court decision. The apex court will now take a decision on whether games of skill can be played for stakes, and if organizations may profit by offering such services, a decision which will affect the websites too.

Vijay Singh, 24, is a film editing professional who moved from Delhi to Mumbai in 2011. A stranger to the city, Singh plays a lot of online games every evening, including rummy for cash, on Games24x7.com.

Singh plays other games online too, and says he likes car-racing games when he wants to relax. “The rummy games are exciting because of the money involved. I set aside 500 each weekend, less than what going to a 2-hour movie adds up to."

More often than not, he has lost that 500, but there have been times when he’s doubled and even tripled the money he started with. “Overall, I’ve won 800 this month, and had a lot of fun."

For Zapak and the other sites, the process is simple. You buy virtual counters for real money, and use them as stakes for the games. To play, log on to the website, and start playing. If you win, you “cash in" your counters, and get a cheque. The sites take a transaction fee of 15-20% depending on the total value of each game.

The sites also offer free versions of the game—played only for points, and not for real money. In absolute numbers, this is far more popular—Abbot and Deepak Gullapalli, the Hyderabad-based CEO and founder of Ace2Three.com, say that on their sites, the number of paying players is only 20% of the total users. Abbot adds, “I can’t disclose the break-up but the paid version is much more lucrative for us."

According to Abbot, the higher- stake games are more popular among users. “The maximum stake we have goes up to 800, and that room is full more often than the minimum, 20 stake."

To keep users interested, the sites also arrange tournaments. Games24x7’s Mumbai-based chief operating officer (COO) and co-founder Bhavin Pandya says, “We run tournaments for eight to 1,024 players." They have a dozen daily tournaments, which usually have up to 256 players, and 32 winners, for a prize of 415 each, but there are also weekly tournaments with 128 players, and prizes of 3,264 and 8,500, going up to 27,200.

There are dozens of websites where people play rummy online, some free and some paid. The biggest is probably Games24x7, which claims 900,000 active users—Gullapalli says Ace2Three has around 200,000 active users while Zapak, whose rummy site is only six months old, has 100,000.

If the Supreme Court upholds the high court decision, then all these sites may have to reconsider their business models. Gullapalli says, “If this happens we will continue to offer rummy without cash, and look for other revenue models. We have over 30,000 paying customers who would be negatively affected if that were the case."

The three main websites today are Games24x7, Ace2Three and Zapak.

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