OFF the coast of the river Mandovi, regarded as Goa’s lifeline, a cluster of giant ghost barges stands deserted. These grim-looking vessels once muscled Goa’s cash-rich mining operations, which fetched the state exchequer Rs 1,250 crore in 2011-12. However, a Supreme Court ban in 2012 brought that to a halt.
But in Goa, you can’t keep business away from the water. The big lucre is now concentrated in a ritzier class of vessels—the likes of Deltin Royale, Deltin Jaqk, Carnival, and Casino Pride—anchored further down the river. Welcome to India’s Las Vegas. These liners may appear as boring and lifeless as the mining barges during the day, but come sundown they are a riot of light and colour. Three long toots—the call of vice if you will—mark the onset of evening. Expensive cars pull up at the jetties to drop off sharply dressed men and, occasionally, women, ready to gamble.
Goa, besides Sikkim and union territory Daman and Diu, is the only place in the country where gambling is legal. Even as the Goa state assembly building overlooks the four barges from atop a hill, as if lawmakers are always keeping a close watch, there’s been no argy-bargy till date—not with the casinos contributing Rs 90 crore to the exchequer as taxes for FY13. In fact, Goa was the first to legalise gambling, handing out 20 licences to casino operators in 1999. Little wonder that the state has the lion’s share of the market.
There is no accurate estimate of the market size in India, but in 2010, consultancy KPMG pegged it at $60 billion (Rs 3.76 lakh crore). Since most of this market (including gambling, betting, horseracing) operates illegally, the government loses taxes worth Rs 12,000 crore to Rs 20,000 crore.
The biggest organised player is Mumbai-based Delta Corp, owned by Jaydev Mukund Mody, husband of renowned corporate lawyer Zia Mody. It is the only publicly-listed company that operates casinos in India and declares revenues and profits from its gaming division. Mody, a horseracing enthusiast who loves to gamble once in a while, has attracted shareholders like billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala (who holds 6.8%) and private equity firm ICICI Venture (5.99%). The company owns three offshore casinos. Deltin Royale and Deltin Jaqk are in operation while Deltin Caravela is drydocked. (If you haven’t figured it out by now, Deltin is a play on ‘dealt in’.)
Delta Corp has interests in real estate as well. It has a 40:60 venture with Reliance Industries and has invested Rs 200 crore in a location in Nairobi, Kenya. “By 2015, 95% of our business would be gaming and hospitality, with real estate winding down significantly,” Mody says, adding that Daman is the next priority. He has already invested Rs 250 crore on Jackpot, a Daman-based, 10-acre onshore casino. It will be the largest integrated casino (187 hotel rooms and 60,000 sq. ft. of gaming area under one roof) in the country. Sikkim, Sri Lanka, or any other geography with favourable regulations is on his expansion radar as well.
MEANWHILE, THE going’s good in Goa. Most of the patrons are regulars with deep pockets and high credit limits (around 45% of Deltin’s business happens on credit cards). The glitz is sufficient bait for first-timers as well. A major group comprises novices out to test their luck.
It all begins at one of the jetties. Though offshore, the casinos don’t sail. Regulations don’t mandate the casinos to be stationary, though the distance from land at which these ships should be anchored isn’t clearly defined. There are casinos on shore as well, but these are smaller and less grand. And, of course, the excitement of boarding a ship to play is more exciting than just walking in. Think Mel Gibson’s Maverick or Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale. Okay, the engine smoke from the chimney or the paddling of a Mississippi boat may be missing, but hey, the thrill is no less.
At the Deltin Royale, ticket prices start at Rs 1,500 and could cross Rs 35,000 depending on the package, each of which has some free playing chips—these cannot be encashed and have to be spent on either playing, drinks, food, or live performances (an entry fee of Rs 500 and a 15% entertainment tax). The price goes up on weekends and festivals.
Then there are the deals and privileges for the regulars: dedicated car parking, tables of their choice, and, of course, a higher credit limit.
Don’t forget the strict dress code. “No miniskirts, revealing clothes, or flip-flops. It’s not a black tie party, but you should be smartly dressed. Other casinos might cut some slack, but for us it is a filter,” says Dexter Pereira, who is in charge of the gaming floor on the ship. No cameras or photography either.
Once the customers have been tagged, they hop on to a speedboat heading to the ship. The ushers at the entrance guide them to the tables. The glass doors are flung open to the world of cards, dice games, roulette, and slot machines. There’s a mixed spread of games on each floor. For local flavour, there’s also an Indian-style taash corner.
Altogether, the Royale boasts 850 gaming positions, 123 tables, and 250 slots spread over four levels. But it’s the decor that immediately grabs you—not flashy with contemporary designs, but more a mashup of bold hues like purple, blue, green, and red, laced with golden patterns. “The science behind the colour combination is that it should relax the customer and tingle his senses to play,” explains Jurate Bitinaite, Deltin’s vice-president, marketing and sales.
The number of pillars supporting the ceilings are kept to a minimum to make surveillance of the floor easy. There is possibly no corner on the ship that is not being watched and recorded through the 850 cameras onboard. “Pillars create blind spots,” explains managing director Narinder Punj, who was one of the core team members deciding the Royale’s design and decor. An industry hand since 1980, he was chosen by Mody in 2007 to run his gaming business from Casino Austria, one of the largest casino operators in the world.
Fortune India also gained access to two secret rooms hidden from customers. The first: a 10-by-10-foot security centre that doubles as the IT room, from where the ship is monitored. The other, called ‘the vault’, is open only to authorised personnel; no one, not even Bitinaite, is allowed in there.
As one shift ends, small black metal boxes and trolleys with cash are rolled into the vault. The cash is counted. This includes the tips to the dealers, who promptly shove them into metal boxes below the table without disrupting the games in progress. At the end of the month, the tips are aggregated and divided among the employees, including the casino manager, as part of their incentive.
THE LONGER A customer plays, the better it is for the casino. Hit-and-run customers aren’t in favour with the management. “A casino works on the customers’ psyche of taking a chance to recover what they lost or win more. The more this plays out, the better,” says Punj, pointing to a table where the patron, a Delhi-based businessman (name withheld for confidentiality reasons) and regular at Deltin’s casinos, is going strong after 72 hours straight.
For dedicated players like him, there are four rooms on the VVIP floor of the ship. Each room has all the amenities of a luxury hotel—including massages for those tense muscles, fine whisky, and expensive cigars.
But the indulgence is tempered. The rooms aren’t too cosy; just enough for a bed, because the casino wants its customers to spend less time relaxing. But yes, they come attached with a playing room just in case the patron wants to continue betting.
As the crowd swells on the floors, the dealers and supervisors get busy. There are 120 dealers and 60 supervisors on Royale, and on average they handle 400 to 450 customers daily. (This, apart from the international tournaments it hosts in the winter.) Of these, 99% are Indians, almost all of them from outside Goa. On average, a customer spends Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 in one visit.
The onus is on a dealer to keep the customer engaged, enticing him to spend more. Where it differs from casinos abroad is that there are no automatic dealers. “Indians still like to interact and deal with a person. They want it live rather than play with a machine, which is more prevalent abroad,” says Punj. This is what makes casino owners confident that the industry will reach Rs 4,600 crore by 2016, despite the onslaught of online gaming. However, Delta Corp is keeping a close watch on online gaming too and is looking to invest in opportunities there.
Today though, Punj is busy training his staff. He holds 20 chips between his fingers. “You need to hold these between your fingers, recognise patterns, and do basic calculations to become a dealer. And you can’t be colour blind,” says Punj, who started as a dealer.
THE MANDOVI MAY boast four operational casinos, but it has also been a graveyard for failed ones, with Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, and big Goa groups like the Salgaocars exiting the business. The most recent casuality: Casino Rio, owned by Gopal Kanda, the politician from Hisar, Haryana, currently serving time on the charge of abetting a suicide. Even media mogul Subhash Chandra’s Maharajah Casino has failed to start operations.
Clearly, it takes more than a ship, playing tables, and dealers to run casinos. And not many have mastered the art of number crunching, efficient management, and handling customer egos. But Delta Corp’s bet seems to have paid off.