In Tamil Nadu, nearly all forms of gambling—including lottery—are prohibited by law. This is quite unfortunate, as it is the second most developed state in India with a high GDP of $280 billion in 2020. Tamil Nadu is just behind Maharashtra in the national rankings.
And they also have the example of Kerala, a highly developed state with a very successful lottery commission as their close neighbor. But Tamil Nadu has opted to ignore this and has banned both lotteries and casinos.
The only legal form of gambling available in Tamil Nadu as of 2020 is horse race betting. This has led to the rise of a massive underground market for other types of gambling and betting, which remain quite popular among the public.
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.
Several things need to be clarified first – Tamil Nadu was named Madras State until 1969, and capital Chennai was also called Madras 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 the state, does not apply to the most populated urban areas. This is explained below.
The core objective of these ordinances is to make gambling in public 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 the 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. It is on the business side of illegal gambling that the penalties get harsh and prison time is very common. Arrests of Chennai bookies and broken up Flush games are common news topics in the 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 offences 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.
Horse racing is very famous and has a long history in the state of Tamil Nadu. According to official sources, in 1777 the Colonial government allocated 107-acres of land in Chennai (then Madras) to be used to conduct horse races. The modern Guindy Racecourse still exists today on these grounds, which makes it the oldest racecourse in India. The state also has another track – the Ooty Racecourse in The Nilgiri Hills. It has conducted seasonal races since it opened in 1886.
Documented history suggests that while racing began here in the 1770s, the custom of spectators placing large numbers of bets until much later. This was largely restricted to the privileged classes. It wasn’t until 1837 that a proper turf club was established. Even this was closed in 1875 due to financial difficulties.
Modern horse racing industry in Tamil Nadu truly began in 1886/1887 when Ooty Racecourse was established, along with the Madras Race Club. 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.
In its first century and a half in Tamil Nadu, horse race betting had a mostly unwritten exemption from the state-wide ban on gambling. It simply wasn’t targeted by the authorities. Later, it obtained legitimate status with the passing of the Tamil Nadu Betting Tax Act, 1935. With it being the only form of gambling legal in the state, popularity soared to 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 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 is treated for legal purpose as a skill not chance. As most states, including Tamil Nadu, exempt such wagering from their gambling laws, this legitimised horse racing betting almost everywhere in India.
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.
The second track is Ooty Racecourse which is located on the other side of the state. In fact, it is closer to Karnataka’s capital Bangalore (about a 5h 30m, 265km, drive) than to the capital Chennai (about a 9h 548km drive). This is a beautiful location not far from Coimbatore. 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.
Many different sports are played in Tamil Nadu including cricket, hockey, squash, boating, swimming, tennis, motor racing, volleyball and archery. There are also some traditional sports and games in which the laws that prohibit sports betting are practically ignored. The most famous example is cockfighting in Karur.
Cockfighting in Karur is not just a bloodsport, but an ancient tradition. The roosters fight until one falls to the ground, is unable to continue, or runs away. 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.
There are many conditions that must be met, including adherence to animal welfare laws. 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 cockfights.
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 anti-corruption policy of the ATP. The same principles also apply to other South Indian sports such as Rekla race, Uriyadi, Ilavatta Kal and there are likely no consequences when the wager is between competitors.
In most other cases, especially cricket, the police actively work to shut bookmakers down. Despite this, cricket betting is in huge demand. The state has the Chennai Super Kings, one of the most successful teams in the history of the Indian Premier League (IPL) with three titles.
But the team was also embroiled in one of the worst betting scandals in IPL and Indian cricket history when main team officials were implicated in making bets in violation of the laws. As a result, the Super Kings team was banned from IPL for two years in 2015. This incident shows how prevalent illegal sports betting is in cricket in Tamil Nadu.
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 ban does not have any practical effect, as already most Indians bet on cricket. They just do so via hundi and mafia gangs, many of which are involved in corruption. The match-fixing scandals make games less enjoyable for the true fans too. Going after bookies drain 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.
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. Yet we often see news of illegal casino busts in Chennai and other major cities in Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Nadu residents interested in playing live casinos legally will need to travel out of the state. They have two main options in India. The easiest to visit is Goa which has 16 casinos and is relatively close by in peninsular India. It is about a 12-hour drive from Chennai or is a short flight. For the flights, Spicejet and Air India offer the cheapest flights.
The other option is Sikkim. They have three casinos, including Casino Mahjong – a Tibetan spiritual themed enterprise located in the Mayfair Hotel in Gangtok. But Sikkim is quite far away from Tamil Nadu, in the northeast part of the country. Flights are the best option, and there are closer overseas options as well.
If you prefer to travel out of the country, Colombo, Sri Lanka is probably most recommended. 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 obtain one in advance,, one can also apply for the ETA on arrival at the Bandaranaike International Airport.
Another place Tamil gambling enthusiasts 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 boarding their flight to Malaysia.
Although prohibited under both the Madras City Police Act and the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act, the 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 Minister 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, organized, conducted or promoted by every state, including the state of Tamil Nadu.”
That 2003 ban continues unabated in 2020. But there is a huge demand for illegal lotteries in the state. Santiago Martin, an international lottery tycoon with a business empire worth 7,000 crores, has been implicated in running illegal lottery rackets in many Indian states. One of his main bases of operation was Tamil Nadu. Before the 2003 ban, Martin had a thriving lottery agency business in the state. Even after the ban, he allegedly had over 2,000 employees in Chennai alone.
Despite the arrest of Martin in 2011, the racket continues unabated in the state. The presence of thriving legal lottery business in nearby Kerala makes it easy to for dealers to sell these online to Tamil customers. They buy the tickets in bulk in Kerala and sell the individual numbers to customers through mobiles and WhatsApp. .
Another interesting topic related to the lottery that is worth mentioning is the Tamil Nadu Prize Schemes (Prohibition) Act, 1979. This specific law is the reason many major retailers exclude Tamil Nadu from their giveaways. Various promotions run by Pepsi, Nestle, Sony and other companies involve texting a code found on a purchased product for a chance to win a prize
Such schemes are available in all states, except Tamil Nadu. That 1979 ordinance makes it illegal for companies to give away prizes to encourage purchases of their products. The punishment for violating it is up to 3-years in prison. Tamil Nadu is the only Indian state that has this law.
One thing needs to be made clear- it is not a crime for individuals to buy a Kit Kat candy bar or a Pepsi bottle to find a code that gives them a chance to win a TV or iPhone. It is, however, a probable crime for the company to offer such a promotion.
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 is 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 this argument holds no water. The Tamil Nadu 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 case State 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 of Dr K.R. Lakshmanan vs State Of Tamil Nadu the same court reiterated that point.
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 in Tamil Nadu, but only until the summer of 2011.
On 10 August 2011 police raided the Mahalakshmi Cultural Association in T Nagar, found 56 people playing rummy for stakes, 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 an 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 added: “… 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, especially to the many clubs in Chennai that host 13-card rummy tournaments. But relief arrived in 2015, after the Cultural Association appealed in the Supreme Court, along with appeals from online rummy sites whose business was also under risk due to the High Court ruling.
The twist here was that The Mahalakshmi Cultural Association had already been acquitted by the trial court by 2015. And the case there had been about hosting an illegal game called ulle veliye, not rummy. The Supreme Court ruled that due to the acquittal, the High Court ruling would not stand, and the appeal did not have any use anymore.
The result of this judgement was favourable for rummy, as it continues to be considered as a game of skill. In 2019 December, Rummy received further support from the Madurai Bench of the High Court in Tamil Nadu. The court quashed a batch of cases against individuals in many parts of the state, all of whom had been arrested for playing cards. The court observed that playing rummy for stakes is not an offence under the Tamil Nadu Gaming Act.
But proper legislation is required in the case of poker if the legal betting industry is to flourish in Tamil Nadu. This is especially true in the case of games like Texas Hold’em, Omaha, Stud, Badugi, Triple Draw, etc. Their legal status is still unclear. Without proper legislation, they will probably be considered illegal if and when a case gets prosecuted.
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 the minor penalty that legal interpretations are made.
As for online websites and apps offering card games and betting, Tamil Nadu does not have any laws banning them as of 2020. Players can access and place bets on these sites with relative ease. Nobody has ever been prosecuted for gambling online.
We hope the above guide provided all the information you need to be informed on Tamil Nadu betting laws.