In Tamil Nadu nearly all forms of gambling are prohibited by law. This is despite the Rajan Report ranking us India’s third most developed state.  We trail Goa which is a Casino Mecca, and are ranked between Kerala and Maharashtra which have very active lottery commissions. Unlike fellow developed states, in our state neither legal casino nor legal lottery can be found. The only legal form of gambling in Tamil Nadu is horse race betting.
In this article I provide an overview of our gambling laws. Note that while we do have some residents opposed to gambling for religious and social reasons, an enormous amount of illegal gambling still takes place in our state. This is especially true in Chennai which is the fourth largest metropolitan area in India. It is quite common for even wealthy businessmen to gather for high stakes flush (teen patti) games and to place IPL cricket bets. In rural areas cricket is also huge as is cockfighting, rummy and casino games. For this reason, I discuss the various types of gambling found in our state one at a time separately after first introducing our core gaming laws.
Horse Race Betting in Tamil Nadu
Horse racing is very famous and has a long history in our state. The official account is that in 1777 the government allocated 107-acres of land in Chennai (then Madras) to be used to conduct horse races. This happened to be the land that Guindy Race Course still stands today making it the oldest racecourse in India. We also have a second track. That being Ooty Racecourse which is located in Ooty, The Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. It has conducted seasonal races since it opened in 1886.
Documented history suggests that while racing began here in the 1770s, it wasn’t a sport that involved a large number of spectators placing bets until much later. It was mostly for the privileged classes. Also, shortly after our state’s racing industry was berthed, races became rare due to Hyder Ali attacks. It wasn’t until 1837 that there was a turf club established. This closed in 1875 due to financial difficulties.
Our modern horse racing industry dates to 1886/1887 when Ooty Racecourse began, and our current turf authority Madras Race Club was established. By this time racing was very popular in India. However the most famous races then took place in Kolkata, then Calcutta, in what is now West Bengal. By the 1930s several cities were hosting major races, and the sport began to become semi-popular with spectators.
During this first century and a half horse race betting had a mostly unwritten exemption from our state-wide ban on gambling. It simply wasn’t targeted. It obtained legitimate status when in 1935 the government moved to regulate and tax it with the passing of the Tamil Nadu Betting Tax Act, 1935[C]. With it being the only form of gambling legal in our state its popularity spiked to previously unprecedented levels. By the late 1940s lawmakers began to take notice and there were proposals to ban horse racing. It however continued until 1974.
In 1974 the Tamil Nadu Horse Races (Abolition of Wagering or Betting) Act[D] saw horse racing banned for moral reasons. The Madras High Court would later stay the implementation of this ordinance and races resumed in 1978. In 1996 the matter was settled with the Supreme Court ruling on the famous case Dr. K.R. Lakshmanan vs State Of Tamil Nadu.
One element of this set the legal precedent that horse race betting be treated for legal purpose as a skill not chance. As most states, including ours, exempt such wagering from their gambling laws, this legitimised horse racing betting making it legal in most every Indian State.
As mentioned there are two tracks still active today. Guindy Race Track, also known as Madras Race Course, is located in Chennai. It houses about 625 horses, has a 3 level viewing stadium, a banquet hall and 14 guest rooms. Here the season runs November to March with most fixtures on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Our second track is Ooty Racecourse which is located on the other side of our state. In fact, it is closer to Karnataka’s capital Bangalore (about a 5h 30m, 265km, drive) than to our capital Chennai (about a 9h 548km drive). This is a beautiful location not far from Coimbatose. While the scenery alone makes it well worth the trip, there are also some great races held here. These include the Nilgris 1,000 Guineas, the Nilgris 2,000 Guineas and the Nilgris Derby Stakes. It is a plus that the season begins in April and thus runs opposite that of Chennai’s horse race season.
A legal related document some readers might find interesting is C&RA’s Tamil Nadu Betting Tax Audit Manual. This covers the current procedures and the types of bets that are allowed.
Betting Cricket and Other Sports
As covered in a Wikipedia entry, there are many sports played in Tamil Nadu including cricket, hockey, squash, boating, swimming, tennis, motor racing, volleyball and archery. There are also some in which the laws that prohibit sport betting are practically ignored. The most famous example is cockfighting in Karur.
In Karur having roosters fight until one touches his beak to the ground, runs away, or falls unable to continue, is an ancient tradition. Although it was once banned due to gambling concerns, today major cockfighting events that see some 200 to 1000 cocks (roosters) fight operate with court approval. While the police are on hand to supposedly prevent betting, this is almost never enforced. People come from all over our state and other parts of India come to watch and bet on these cock fights.
There are other sports where the enforcement of betting is not a major concern too. Jallikattu (bull taming) in Central Tamil Nadu is an example that is treated similar to cockfighting in Karur.
There are also times where betting against one another might be legal. Take for example the Chennai Open tennis tournament that takes place every January. If players such as Ramesh Krishnan, Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, Mahesh Bhupathi and Nirupama Vaidyanathan make a tennis bet against one another this is not a crime, as that has the skill based exemption that is covered in both the Madras City Police Act and the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act. It would however violate the anticorruption policy of the ATP. Apply the same example to South Indian sports such as Rekla race, Uriyadi, Ilavatta Kal and there are likely no consequences when the wager is between competitors.
In most all other cases, especially cricket, the police actively work to shut bookmakers down. Despite this, cricket betting is in huge demand. Our state has the Chennai Super Kings which are arguably the most successful team in the history of the Indian Premier League (IPL). During the first six IPL seasons, IPL1 (2008) to IPL6 (2013), our team finished runner up three times, and won back to back Championships in IPL3 (2010) and IPL4 (2011). We also have won Champions League Twenty20 (CLT20). Yet our status in the league was put at risk over a match fixing scandal that saw many, including a team owner, arrested for betting. 
It is quite common to find articles online that call for making cricket betting legal. It is often pointed out that in other top cricketing nations including Australia, UK, Sri Lanka, South Africa and New Zealand betting is regulated and taxed. Their bookmakers often detect match fixing by investigating irregular betting activity. The demand does not change as already most Indians bet cricket. They just do so via hundi and mafia some of which are involved in corruption. The match-fixing scandals makes games less enjoyable for the true fans too. Going after bookies drains our resources, where legal betting would mean massive tax revenue. While a strong argument to legalise it exists, cricket betting remains illegal and is punishable by up to 1 month in prison.
Casinos in Tamil Nadu
The laws that apply to casino gambling have already been covered in this article. The Madras City Police Act and the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act were first drafted in 1888 and 1930 respectively with the primary objective of banning casino games. Still the news is often covering illegal casino busts, and it is likely there are others that avoid police detection. Still, the laws are as I mentioned earlier in the article.
Indians interested in playing live casinos legally will need to travel. There are only two states in India with casinos. The easiest to visit is Goa. This is about a 12 hour drive from Chennai, or is a short flight. For the flights, Spicejet is often the cheapest airline and is priced around Rs. 6,000 for round trips. Air India is generally the next cheapest at around 10-20% higher priced. This of course changes often and promotions can be found. There are many casinos in Goa. The other option is Sikkim. They have Casino Mahjong which is Tibetan spiritual themed and located in their Mayfair Hotel.
If you prefer to travel out of the country, Colombo, Sri Lanka is probably most recommended. Here 41.4% of the population is Sinhalese (41.4%), but there is a large Tamil population. About 28.9% of Colombo residents are Sri Lanka Tamils and about 2.1% Indian Tamils. Likewise, Tamil is widely spoken and it is possible to enter Sri Lanka for up to 30 days with an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA). While it is cheaper and easier to enter obtaining one in advanced, one can also be obtained right at Bandaranaike International Airport.
Another place Indians can travel to without a visa is Macau. Entry is for up to 30 days and this is the largest casino destination in the world. Here the cost of hotels is very high. If looking for a cheaper option, note that Indians can enter Cambodia with a visa on arrival that cost $20 US. In their capital Phnom Penh there is a very nice casino named Naga World.
Also worth a mention is that AirAsia.com often has well priced direct flights Chennai to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. From here you can catch a very inexpensive bus ride KL Sentral, and another to Genting Highlands which has theme parks and legal casinos. The hotels in that area are semi-expensive on weekends, but inexpensive during the week. Agoda.com is the best site to use to book. Many Indian visitors will make an effort to visit the famous Hindu site Batu Caves, either before heading to Genting Highlands or before their return flight home. The downside is that Indians are required to obtain a visa prior to bordering their flight to Malaysia.
Lottery in Tamil Nadu
Although prohibited under both the Madras City Police Act and the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act, lottery did have a period where it was legal. This happened in 1968 when then DMK C. Annadurai came up with the campaign “if you win, it is for your home, and if you don’t, it is for your State”. With that lottery had become billed as a good thing. Many however fell into debt, and there were fake ticket scams that deprived winners and also the government.
In 2003 lottery was banned in Tamil Nadu. During the year prior Tamil Nadu state lottery revenue was only Rs. 22 crores from in-state draws and Rs. 34 crores from the fees collected through lotteries ran by other states. The ban came with little notice. In early 2003, Chief Minster Jayalalithaa Jayaram delivered a house department notice that translated in English to:
“In exercise of the powers conferred by Section 5 of the Lotteries (Regulation) Act, 1998 (Central Act 17 of 1998), the governor of Tamil Nadu hereby prohibits the sale of tickets within the territory of Tamil Nadu of all lotteries, organised, conducted or promoted by every state, including the state of Tamil Nadu.”
From the time of her notice on, lottery in Tamil Nadu has been banned. Despite this, illegal lottery is widespread in our state. There are famous stories about Myanmarese ring leader Santiago Martin who is in charge of the lottery ticket smuggling rackets and has allegedly over 2,000 employees in Chennai alone. Although he has been arrested  the racket continues. It is very common to hear in the news that lottery smugglers have been caught, arrested and that the tickets have been forfeited to the state. More recently there have been news stories about e-lottery rings being broken up.
A final topic related to lottery that is worth mentioning is the Tamil Nadu Prize Schemes (Prohibition) Act, 1979[E]. This specific law is the reason many major retailers exclude Tamil Nadu from their giveaways. Various promotions ran by Pepsi, Nestle, Sony and other companies that involve texting a code found on a purchased product for a chance to win a prize are available in all states but ours. This mentioned ordinance makes it illegal for companies to giveaway prizes to encourage purchases of their products. The punishment for violating it is up to 3-years in prison. We are the only Indian state that has this law.
It is not a crime for individuals to buy a Kit Kat candy bar to find a code that can be sent via text for a chance to win a Google Nexus Android 4.4 device. It is however likely a crime for the company to offer such a promotion.
Flush, Rummy, Poker and other Card Games
The final category of gambling to discuss is card games. Most card games found in casinos such as baccarat, pai gow poker, Asia poker, Caribbean stud, let it ride, etc. are of course illegal. The penalty for violating their prohibition is up to 3 months in prison when playing in public and up to 1 month when playing in a common gaming house. This all clear cut. Where it gets sticky is card games that involve far more skill than chance.
One might feel because they can beat blackjack by counting cards that this is a skill game. Unfortunately throughout much of India including our state this argument holds no water. The police treat blackjack, as well as flush (teen patti) as games of chance. There are however games that have historically been treated as games of skill.
In a famous 1967 caseState of Andhra Pradesh v. K. Satyanarayana the Supreme Court of India set a precedent for rummy being treated as a game of skill. Also, in the horse racing case I mentioned earlier of Dr. K.R. Lakshmanan vs State Of Tamil Nadu this same court reiterated that rummy is a game predominately comprised of skill.
The above is important because section 49 of the Madras City Police Act and section 11 of the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act make exemptions for skill based games. The same exemptions can be found in most other Indian states too. Likewise it had been considered legal here, until it came under attack in the summer of 2011.
On 10 August 2011 police raided the Mahalakshmi Cultural Association in T Nagar, found 56 people playing rummy for sakes, seized 178 chips and Rs. 6.95 lakh, and charged 57 people with gambling-related crimes. As expected, on 4 November 2011 a single judge ruled rummy was a game of skill and therefore police could not treat it as illegal activity. On 22 March 2012, an appeal was heard and a shock verdict was delivered.
The judges commented “From the judgment of the apex court, it appears to us that if rummy is played with stakes, the police have authority to take action as per the provisions of the Chennai City Police Act, even though the game involves skill.” Then they stated: “playing cards for stakes has two evils. It corrupts the mind of the players, making them addicts, and it makes most of the players bankrupt.” And, so they ruled, “if an establishment is used for this activity, it will be termed a gambling house. It is illegal if members or guests or the club makes a profit out of gambling.”
This ruling came as a complete shock. All over Chennai there are clubs that host 13-card rummy tournaments. Some good news is that as is discussed in a glaws.in article , the Madras High Court issued a stay order on 30 April 2012. This matter is now pending Supreme Court review. In the comments section of that article, the author Jay Sayta notes that the final verdict of this case should be out by late 2014 or 2015. He promises a complete analysis once it is.
It should be noted that the stay order only applies to the case involving the Mahalakshmi Cultural Association in T Nagar. The police are free to move on other clubs offering rummy for stakes if they so choose. So in short, the legality of playing skill based card games for stakes is currently unknown.
As for other poker games such as Texas Hold’em, Omaha, Stud, Badugi, Triple Draw, etc., whether these are considered a skill game is up for interpretation. It is very likely that while every players know they are actually skill games, in terms of the law they are probably treated the same as blackjack and are therefore illegal. This is because poker does not have the same backing as rummy has with the 1967 Supreme Court ruling behind it. Unfortunately it is often not until someone is arrested and opts for a lengthy court battle over minor penalty that legal interpretations are made.
Primary Gaming Laws
Understand that Tamil Nadu was named Madras State until 1969 and that our capital that is now named Chennai was officially named Madras City until 1996. The laws on the books may confuse some as the Madras City Police Act applies not only to Chennai, but to neighbouring areas and two separate large cities. Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act, despite carrying the name of our state, does not apply to our most populated areas. This is explained below.
- Madras City Police Act, 1888[A] – contains the primary gambling law applicable to our state’s largest cities. This includes the Chennai Metropolitan Area that is comprised of the entire Chennai District and the Ambattur, Gummidipoondi, Madhavaram, Ponneri, Poonamallee and Tiruvallur taluks of Tiruvallur District, and Alandur, Chengalpattu, Kanchipuram, Sholinganallur, Sriperumbudur and Tambaram taluks of Kanchipuram District. Due to a 1987 amendment it also now includes our second and third largest cities Madurai and Coimbatore too.
- Tamil Nadu Gaming Act, 1930[B] – applies to all areas of Tamil Nadu not mentioned above. This includes the cities Vellore, Erode, Thanjavur, Nagercoil, Hosur, Irumbuliyur, Salem, Tirunelveli, Sivakasi, Tiruchirappalli and many others.
The core objective of these ordinances is to make gambling in public a crime and to make common gaming houses the same. The penalty for public gambling is up to 3 months in prison and a fine up to Rs. 300 under both Acts. As for common gaming houses these are defined as any place, be it a home, room, tent, enclosure, vehicle, vessel or any other structure whatsoever in which cards, dice, table or other instruments of gaming or betting are kept. Even cricket betting slips are considered gaming instruments. The penalty for being found in a common gaming house is up to one month in prison. There is also a fine of up to Rs. 200 under the Madras City Police Act, and up to Rs. 500 under the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act.
One other law gamblers from the city might wish to be aware of is found in Section 51 of the Madras City Police Act. Under this section the penalty for cheating at games, gambling or betting is up to 6 months in prison. No such law is found in the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act.
Whilst the penalties stipulated in our state’s gambling laws might appear harsh, it is quite rare casual gamblers are sentenced to prison time. Most matters are settled with a petty fine. When it comes to being involved in the business side of illegal gambling, this is where the penalties get harsh and prison time is very common. Arrests of Chennai bookies and broken up Flush games are common news topics in our state.
Consistent by way of both gambling related Acts, in all of Tamil Nadu the penalty for owning, opening, operating, managing, or having any other business involvement with a common gaming house is a fine not exceeding five hundred rupees, or imprisonment not exceeding three months, or both. There are greater penalties too for specific offenses as well as for repeat offenders. Details can be found in Section 49A of the Madras City version and Section 4 of the Tamil Nadu version.
With the primary aspects of our law now explained, I conclude this article with gambling in Tamil Nadu broken down in the categories horse race betting, betting cricket and other sports, lottery/contest, casino and card games such as flush, rummy, and holdem poker.
Gambling Laws Reference in this Article
[A]: docs.google.com, Madras City Police Act, 1888
[B]: docs.google.com, Tamil Nadu Gaming Act, 1930
[C]: tnvat.gov.in, Tamil Nadu Betting Tax Act, 1935
[D]: lawsofindia.org, The Tamil Nadu Horse Races (Abolition of Wagering or Betting) Act (Repealed), 1974
[E]: legalpundits.com, Tamil Nadu Prize Schemes (Prohibition) Act, 1979
External Source Credits
: profit.ndtv.com, Rajan Report: India States MDI Rankings, 2014
: docs.google.com, Dr. K.R. Lakshmanan vs State Of Tamil Nadu (Supreme Court Ruling), 1996
: en.wikipedia.org, Sports in Tamil Nadu, 2015
: en.wikipedia.org, Gurunath Meiyappan Cricket Betting Case, 2015
: indianexpress.com Alleged Lottery Smuggling Kingpin Santiago Martin, 2015
: archive.indianexpress.com, Lottery Baron Santiago Martin Arrested, 2011
: timesofindia.indiatimes.com, Tamil Nadu Bans Rummy for Stakes, 2012
: glaws.in Madras Rummy Supreme Court Appeal, 2012
The purpose of this article was to introduce the Tamil Nadu gaming industry and to discuss laws. Nothing in this article should be constituted as legal advice. This is a layman opinion only regarding Tamil Nadu laws and history. We do not guarantee its accuracy or validity in anyway. If you have a question about gambling law, we suggest contacting a legal professional.