Nikolay Davydenko. Photo: Reuters
Nikolay Davydenko. Photo: Reuters

From cockfighting to tennis: The old match-fixing blues

The inescapable truth about sports is that people will bet on matches and attempt fixes

Section 115BB of the Indian Income Tax Act spells out the “tax on winnings from lotteries, crossword puzzles, races including horse races, card games and other games of any sort or gambling or betting of any form or nature whatsoever".

That is, if you bet and win, you must pay your taxes.

I am by no means the first to read news about betting in a sport and then consider, in mild befuddlement, the language of Section 115BB. In fact, it has puzzled me since the first time I filed a tax return and read the section. The money we Indians make from betting—on horses or anything—is taxable.

In effect, the existence of this section suggests that such money is above board and legal. But here’s the kicker: horse racing is the only sport in which betting is legal; there are licensed bookmakers who will take your bets on any given race.

(Yes, it’s also true that there’s plenty of unlicensed and, therefore, illegal betting on horses. I won’t get into that here).

If you must declare winnings from betting of any form as income and pay tax on it, why is only one such form of betting legal? It’s as if our laws declared that journalism is the only legal way of earning a salary—and so architects, bee keepers, cooks and doctors all earn money illegally. Makes zero sense, right? To me, making horse racing the only sport that you can legally bet on is as devoid of sense.

I mean, several years ago, I watched some brutal cockfighting in the town of Uldha in West Bengal and plenty of betting on birds that were fitted with deadly curved blades. Some years after that, I watched some expert archery in Shillong and again, plenty of betting on the accuracy of the archers. Both times, plenty of the people around me—almost all men, oddly enough—collected their winnings at the end, and quite openly.

That’s taxable income, I would think, according to Section 115BB. Yet, given that their act of placing bets was illegal, my guess is that none of those men declared the winnings on their next tax return, always assuming that they habitually filed returns in the first place, and would ordinarily declare all their income in doing so.

Whatever your opinion of cockfighting and archery, they were happening openly in these towns. So too was all the betting. Yet, for no reason that I understand, the betting is illegal, by definition. What do we make of all this?

And these are only some of the questions to ask about betting on sports. Where you have betting, and especially as the sums betted become substantial, you will inevitably have attempts to influence the action. What’s to be done about that? Make cockfights illegal? Make betting on cockfights illegal? Make the fixing of cockfights illegal? Something else? Nothing at all?

Honestly, I don’t know. Betting, and our mixed-up attitude towards it, has always confused me.

But all this has been on my mind because of the latest uproar over betting in sport: the recent news that match-fixing has happened in professional tennis for years, and even in Grand Slam tournaments. Without naming anyone, BBC and Buzzfeed reported that “28 top-level players, including winners of Grand Slam titles" have been involved in match-fixing, that the tennis establishment has known this and yet not acted against these players.

Until now, the only instance of match-fixing alleged in pro tennis was in 2007, when world No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko played a much lower-ranked Argentine, Martin Vassallo Arguello, in a match in Poland. Out of the blue, huge amounts of money were placed on an Arguello victory, even as Davydenko opened up a comfortable lead in the match.

Out of the blue, too, Davydenko claimed an injury to his foot and forfeited the match.

Had Davydenko been paid to lose? The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) investigated and cleared both him and Arguello. But inveterate tennis-watchers like me had quite different ideas. What’s more, we also know well that people bet on horse races and cricket and archery and every other sport on the planet and that there are inevitably, inexorably, attempts to influence the outcomes of those games.

If that’s so, there’s no reason to imagine the same thing doesn’t happen in tennis, however much we love this wonderful sport.

And there was even a repeat of sorts of the Davydenko-Arguello incident in the ongoing Australian Open. Last Sunday, Andrea Hlavackova and Lukasz Kubot faced off against Lara Arruabarrena and David Marrero in a first-round mixed doubles match. Both teams were unseeded, and all four players were ranked between No. 20 and No. 33. So, you might have expected an even contest.

But out of the blue, “large amounts of money (were bet) on the match, nearly all of which was for Hlavackova and Kubot". They won the match easily amid a slew of errors from Arruabarrena and Marrero, who claimed an injury to his knee.

Had they been paid to lose? To be sure, it would have been pretty boneheaded to fix a match in the midst of the huge fuss over the BBC-Buzzfeed report. That alone argues against fixing. Still, why were those “large amounts of money" bet on the match?

Whatever the explanation, the inescapable truth about sports is that people will bet on matches and attempt fixes.

Like that day in Uldha, in fact. At one point, I actually saw someone, armed with a persuasive wad of cash, surreptitiously urging an owner to let his bird lose the next bout. The owner removed the blade on the bird’s ankle and fitted a different one—a duller one, I had to assume.

I didn’t stay to watch whatever carnage may have resulted.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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