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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Clandestine texts, briefcases with cash: Inside the illegal pop-up casinos of NCR

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Erric Ravi
Erric Ravihttps://www.gurgaontimes.co.in
Erric Ravi is an entrepreneur, speaker & the founder of Storify News and Recent News He is the Co-Founder of The Storify News Times. Forbes calls him a top influencer of Chief Marketing Officers and the world’s top social marketing talent. Entrepreneur lists him among 50 online marketing influencers to watch. Inc.com has him on the list of 20 digital marketing experts to follow on Twitter. Oanalytica named him #1 Global Content Marketing Influencer. BizHUMM ranks him as the world’s #1 business blogger.

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It’s a few minutes past midnight on a chilly November day in Sector 79 on the fringes of Gurugram. The neighbourhood is sparse, with tracts of farmland to the west and the expanse of the Aravallis to the east. A few sprawling farmhouses dot the quiet landscape. Outside one of these, four burly men stand guard. Sporadically, a guest makes their way up to this farmhouse. The bouncer frisks them as an usher cross-checks their IDs with a short guest list. Once through, they take a short walk to a four-roomed bungalow, shrouded by tall trees.

A pop-up casino in Sector 79 that was busted by Gurugram cops. (HT Photo)
A pop-up casino in Sector 79 that was busted by Gurugram cops. (HT Photo)

Each guest walks into an otherwise unremarkable living room in the bungalow. Unremarkable, except for a roulette table, with poker chips piled across its surface. Each table is helmed by a croupier, or a dealer, in a red dress. On either side of her, 20 people pack the table. Each of them is carrying a briefcase bursting at the seams with the cash. It should, they hope, last them the night.

Welcome to an illicit pop-up casino in Gurugram, one of many that thrive in the city’s dark spots past midnight throughout the year, but come into their own just before Diwali.

Over the course of a few hours, usually between midnight and before sunrise, these makeshift casinos in these farmhouses are taut with tension. Not only do the bets stack up past the eight-figure mark, the risk of getting caught is rife. Casinos are illegal in most states, including Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

But the risk is not enough of a deterrent.

Over the past year alone, the Gurugram police and the Haryana chief minister’s flying squad have busted 16 casinos on the margins of Millennium City. Seven of these were stopped over the past three months, and police except this number to shoot up over the next few days, as residents mark Diwali around poker tables.

“Most of these casinos operate out of farmhouses in sector 79, Sohna, Badshahpur, and Bhondsi. More than 100 people have been arrested in the last three months,” said Inderjit Yadav, deputy superintendent of police of the CM’s flying squad.

Details of the clandestine night are shared on WhatsApp groups and Instagram messages, to a select few aficionados. These lists are pruned carefully, to keep spies at bay.

HT got into a casino party at a Gurugram farmhouse one November night, and watched the night unravel, as men and women from upper-middle class families, dressed unsuspectingly in casuals, drove in from Delhi, Noida, Chandigarh, Jaipur, and Faridabad.

The casino experience

An organiser of one of the pop-up casinos in Gurugram told HT the bets often touch 4 crore.

“Each table has more than 15 people at a time,” said the organiser, who asked not to be named.

Only three states or Union territories in India allow casinos: Goa, Daman and Sikkim. The illegal, makeshift units in Gurugram help service this void, especially during the festive season, when demand is steep and the money flows.

“Gambling goes up before Diwali and people start preparing for casinos months in advance,” said Vijay Pratap Singh, deputy commissioner of police (crime), Gurugram.

Just this September, 40 people were arrested for allegedly running an illegal casino from a farmhouse in Gurugram. “The transaction was of over 5 crore. Casino tables and tokens (chips) were recovered from the accused,” said a Gurugram police officer who asked not to be named.

At most of these makeshift casinos, at least a dozen bouncers keep an eye on the guests. Each room is watched closely by CCTV. And, of course, no photos or videos are allowed. Two people roam the rooms in these farmhouses with the express aim of ensuring no phones are used, and all the games played fairly.

These casinos pop up twice a week, and each party has a cover charge of between 20,000 and 30,000, which includes four to six drinks — single malts, whiskies, and vodka — and snacks. Guests pay 25,000 for a stack of 50 poker chips.

One of the rooms in the farmhouse also doubles up as a bar, with bartenders – men and women – dressed in black at the counters.

The croupier, true to script, wears white gloves, and maintains a stoic expression on her face as she asks the players to place a bet.

Police have found that organisers spare no expense for an authentic casino experience.

A police officer aware of such cases, told HT that interrogations of arrested suspects revealed that croupiers are called in from Goa, while experts travel to Gurugram from Bangkok and Macau to set up the casino and engage with the guests.

Tough to crack downFor years, a 44-year-old resident of Gurugram travelled to Goa around the festival season for a few full nights at the casinos there. Each time, he returned home with his loot, and an adrenaline rush.

The Covid-19 pandemic was the spanner in the works, as travel restrictions played spoilsport. But then, an idea took root: Why not bring Goa to Gurugram?

He decided to come up with a makeshift casino each year during the festive season.

“We got the roulette tables made by a carpenter in Delhi who used to work in Goa earlier. He is an expert and knows which polyester and speed cloth to use to give it a perfect look. I got three sets made, and I change the cloth each year, and get the tables polished,” the 44-year-old told HT.

The risk of getting arrested is high, he admits. “But the stakes are higher,” he added.

The farmhouses have, for the past few years, posed an unusual challenge for law enforcement.

DCP Singh said police form teams that recce the areas, before they burst into farmhouses or neighbourhoods where they suspect casinos exist.

“We rely on a network of food delivery agents, residents, shopkeepers, and security guards to tip us off. But nowadays, people have gotten smarter and know how easily information can be passed on, so they prefer farmhouses and manage their own catering. This way, no strangers can enter their space,” said the DCP.

Cases are filed under sections 13A, 3, and 67 of the Gambling Act. The law attracts a punishment of one year to three years of imprisonment and fines from 1,000 to 1 lakh for owners of gambling centres.

A 42-year-old resident of old Gurugram, who was arrested under the Gambling Act in September this year, and soon let out on bail, told HT, “I played in Gurugram for a week recently, and then went to Goa for four days as it involves no risk. The only challenge is that family members do not allow me to travel during festival season, so now I am back to playing in Gurugram only.”

Apart from the men, several women participate in casino nights. In fact, a 48-year-old Gurugram resident who has been a part of kitty parties in the city for 18 years has been organising roulettes at makeshift casinos since 2014.

And now, insiders say, there’s a new kid in town, threatening to eat away at Gurugram’s illegal business – Faridabad.

“Following regular raids in Delhi and Gurugram, many organisers have shifted base to Faridabad, and occupied residential places on rent. Rentals and security deposits are low in Faridabad, and it’s also well connected with Delhi and Gurugram,” said Amit Yashvardhan, deputy commissioner of police (traffic), Faridabad.

For gamblers in the National Capital Region (NCR), even when the chips are down, it’s clearly all-in or nothing.

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