These Guys Are Breaking The Taboo Of Online Card Games In India, Making It Safe & Responsible
Ask someone if they play cards, and you don't know how they will respond. Maybe because the association of card games with gambling is just too strong.

When does playing cards for fun -- which you might have done in your childhood, during simpler non-Internet times -- definitively crossover into a frenzied addiction that society looks down upon as a taboo? More importantly, why does it have to be that way?

These were some of the questions on the minds of Deepak Gullapalli and Trivikraman (or Vikram) Thampy, founding members of The Rummy Federation. Two regular guys who decided to start their independent online gaming portals, Ace2Three and Games 24x7, over 10 years ago, which specially cater to card games like rummy.

Until their paths crossed and they decided to work together and dispel certain age-old myths surrounding card games in India. And there's plenty of myths here, of that you can be certain.

Playing card games online isn't gambling. Period.

"So back in 2012 in Chennai, in a case where people running a brick and mortar rummy club were arrested, they appealed to the Chennai High Court arguing that rummy is a game of skill," Vikram recollects. "You'd be surprised to know that the single division bench of the Chennai High Court actually ruled in the favour of the rummy club operators." But the police contested the judgement and appealed where a division bench said while rummy is a game of skill, playing it for stakes would be gambling.

"This didn't make any sense," Deepak says while throwing his hands up in the air, "because the Supreme Court had ruled half a century ago that rummy, which is a game of skill, for stakes isn't gambling." That's where Deepak and Vikram decided to get involved in the case -- over five years ago -- because it directly impacted the legitimacy of their business.

Thanks to their efforts, in August 2015 the Supreme Court reaffirmed the well settled legal principle that playing skill games for stakes does not amount to gambling.

Winning at rummy takes skill

Having played rummy and other card games while growing up, I can certainly attest to the fact that rummy isn't a game of chance or lucky guesses -- it takes some serious skill to win a hand at rummy. Deepak and Vikram agree.

"I learned to play rummy from my grandmother," Vikram remembers, when I ask him about his influences. "We'd always go to Delhi in the summers, that's where my grandmother lived, but it was so hard because of the hot weather. Thank god for coolers! So you'd sit inside the house and play cards with my grandmother. That's how I learned to play. I love playing cards. I don't have time to play cards anymore," says the Founder and CEO of Play Games24x7.

Vikram tells me about how while studying for his PhD in Economics at NYU, him and his company's founding partner decided to dip their toes into online gaming. Deepak on the other hand comes from a strong technical background, and his approach to setting up an online gaming business is more like setting up a world-class online IT service.

The Rummy Federation

"According to the law, we are 100% business," says Deepak, CEO of Head Infotech, which operates Ace2Three and WittyGames. "Yes, we're not regulated from a view that people don't monitor that we are following certain rules or guidelines like the SEBI for the stock market or banks operating under RBI guidelines. And that's what we're trying to form here with The Rummy Federation."

Sitting side by side, in no uncertain terms, Deepak and Vikram speak about how through TRF (The Rummy Federation) they want to make the whole online card playing vertical operate responsibly and self-regulating to ensure there's nothing for anyone to complain about. Within TRF right now, there are six online rummy gaming portals which forms close to 90-95% of the rummy games marketshare online.

The Rummy Federation, recently released common standards for participating gaming companies to follow, which include having maximum deposit limits, an option for players to self-exclude for certain periods, and a minimum age limit of 18.

"The bigger plan is to get more partners and take this into different parts of the skill gaming industry," says Vikram.

Tackling problem gaming

One of the reasons why online rummy -- which is the only game legally allowed by the Supreme Court to be played with monetary stakes -- carries a social taboo is because of the association of playing cards with gambling. And this rooted apprehension often surfaces whenever there's instances of players playing for too long or above a certain monetary limit. Both Deepak and Vikram tell me that these are always fringe cases, and never the larger norm.

Vikram explains, "Yes, a tiny fraction of the population does succumb to problem gaming, but that is true everywhere. I don't know if you have a drink once in a while but I do, however a small tiny fraction of the population succumbs to too much drinking or too much video games or too much of anything." In this case, is it fair to let the exceptions define the norm? It's something that all of us have to think about.

Vikram talks about some of the self-regulation steps they've taken to ensure players' well-being. "It's rather unprecedented in India that we as an industry have actually come forward and said, you know what, we're going to tie our hands behind our back, we're going to give players the tools to lower their playing limits, allow them to exclude themselves, and in extreme case we are going to talk to our players and tell them hey, you guys are doing too much so take a break." Which online gaming portal actually has all these limitations to protect players' interests, he asks me. I can't think of any off the top of my mind.

"Yes we are a for profit company," Deepak joins in. "Yes, we're here to grow our business, but in a way that's responsible and offers healthy entertainment for people." If they weren't a profressional, well-oiled online machine, why would Canadian private equity firm Clairvest Group invest $73.7 million last year in the online rummy business spearheaded by Deepak's Head Infotech? It's something to think about.

Attracting new audience and thoughts on the future

Right now online rummy gaming portals are investing in getting a lot of sophisticated data science algorithms in place, where gaming patterns and data on hundreds of millions of players can be collected to learn from and create customized gaming experiences for gamers of different skill level.

There's also a danger of rummy as a game being popular in a more elderly demographic of gamers. How then would TRF get young gamers to play rummy online, people who aren't necessarily used to playing card games? It's definitely a challenge, Vikram and Deepak agree.

"To attract younger gamers, we are changing our branding in terms of our marketing to make it seem like a challenge," says Vikram. "But also at the same time, we are insisting on not pushing players too hard to play for money. Right? Let them just enjoy it."

Source: www.indiatimes.com, August 14, 2018