The story of single-digit lotteries in India dates back to 1854 when the country was still under the dominion of the British East India Company.
The newfangled textile mills in Bombay - a bustling city in the State of Maharashtra, were going great guns. The market rate of cotton was being regularly exchanged between the New York and Bombay Cotton Exchange via teleprinters.
For the sake of entertainment, the mill workers had come up with an interesting pastime - to bet on the possible opening and closing market rates. Whoever predicted the rates correctly, won the game.
The winnings were measly, but enough to keep the workers engrossed. They had even coined a term for it - Ankada Jugar, which means figures gambling in literal translation.
Everything was going great despite the movement for an independent India gathering steam in 1857. Even when the Crown rule was brought in 1858 and the country put under the British Raj, Ankada Jugar continued to run in full swing.
The predictions were now made using a lottery system that involved pulling numbered chits, which were put in an earthen pot. Thus, the game earned a new name - Matka, which is the Hindi word for earthen pots.
Then came the Public Gambling Act of 1867, which outlawed running, managing, and visiting public betting establishments of all forms. Any person breaking the law was now slapped with a monetary fine or a jail term or both.
Matka thrived nevertheless, although this time in secret. In fact, it boomed right after India got its independence in August 1947. A major reason was the Central Government’s decision to give individual States the freedom to authorize and regulate gambling within their jurisdiction.
But perhaps, it was too much of a good thing.
Matka took a hit in 1961 when the New York Cotton Exchange put an end to the practice of transmitting the rates of cotton. There was chaos in the world of the punters who desperately sought alternatives.
Kalyanji Gala Bhagat, a migrant farmer from Gujarat, tapped right into this desperate population who would do anything to keep the lottery-based betting game alive.
He had migrated to Bombay in 1941 and was successfully operating as a Matka bookie after doing odd jobs as a spice trader and grocery store manager. The New York Cotton Exchange’s abrupt termination of the operations had shaken his business, too.
However, he had found a way out of the dire straits.
Bhagat was a visionary in this regard. Not only had he noticed the increasing predictability of cotton rates way back in the mid-fifties, but also studied the American numbers game to come up with a replacement.
Operating from the compound of Vinod Mahal - his home in Worli, Bhagat started ‘Worli Matka,’ in 1962, which became all the rage in a flash.
His version of the game included pulling cards instead of numbered chits. No physical matka was used. However, the word was retained for old times' sake.
The whole deck of 52 cards minus the Jacks was used for Worli Matka. Aces were valued at 1, cards 2 through 9 at their face value, 10 at 0, Kings at 11, and Queens at 12. Players needed to guess two numbers between 00 and 99. Those who predicted correctly took away the moolah.
With Worli Matka, single-digit lotteries had officially started in India!
Matka enthusiasts were overjoyed because Kalyanji Bhagat had breathed new life into their old favorite. Soon, Worli Matka traveled from Vinod Mahal to Zaveri Bazaar, which was the hub of gambling dens. Bets poured in from not just India, but the Middle East and even the US.
Bhagat was raking it in, but strapped for time. To streamline the betting process, Ratan Khatri - a Sindi migrant working as a retailer in the area was assigned as the manager. Little did he know he was putting his business in the hand of a soon-to-be rival.
After learning the trade and building his own nexus, Khatri broke away from Kalyanji Bhagat in 1964 to start his own Matka. He called it the New Worli Matka had made a small change: he dismissed all the Kings, Queens, and Jacks from the pack of cards.
This, in turn, put the odds of the game in favor of the players who found the new Matka game more transparent and convenient. Bets were now being placed over the telephone via trunk calls.
Results were being announced using amusing ways such as placing an ad in a leading daily where a man showed the winning numbers with his fingers. Those who played the game knew exactly how to interpret the results.
The New Worli Matka was renamed Ratan Matka and then, Main Ratan Matka. At this point, the craze for these single-digit lotteries was at its peak. Betting volumes crossed ₹500 crores every month. Matka was no longer confined to the streets of Bombay; it had entered Bollywood.
Celebrities were now betting their money. Movies were being made based on the fascinating game and its purveyors. Khatri was given the sobriquet of Matka King, although he was second in the line after Bhagat.
Of course, the lottery format of Matka didn’t go down well with the legal system of India. The additive nature of single lotteries, the economic and societal threats they pose, and their lack of contribution to the Government exchequer marked them on the radar of the law.
Matka received its first blow when the Kerala State Lotteries were introduced in 1967. The Government of Kerala banned all other private lotteries to promote the sale of their own lottery, which was the first of its kind. This new Government-approved Kerala lottery inspired many other States to follow suit.
Then again, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975, Matka operators and bookies were arrested. Their business tanked during this time. Some like Ratan Khatri were able to revive it, others had no other option but to shut shop.
The final nail in the coffin for Matka was the introduction of the Lotteries (Regulation) Act in 1998, which outlawed not only private lotteries, but single-digit lotteries of all forms. Alongside, the Mumbai Police carried out crackdowns on Matka dens which chased away a lion’s share of bookies.
From more than 2000 big and medium-time bookies in 1995, the numbers had fallen to fewer than 300 by 2000. The average monthly turnover, too, had reduced to roughly ₹100 crores. Matka, and thus, all single-digit lotteries in India, had finally run out of road. Well, at least in the legal sense.
Cut to the present, Matka is illegal nationwide in India. Even double-digit lotteries are illegal now. Government lotteries legally run in 13 States and are banned in the rest. However, there’s something every Indian lottery lover can try their luck on - world lottos!
These lotteries can be played online from India via international lottery sites, which act as either ticket messengers or betting portals. The top legit sites are easy to find using lottery site comparers.
One such site is OnlineLottoBaba, which helps Indian lotto players find the best world lotteries in the market and the sites selling entries to them. Whether you are nostalgic about single-lotteries that once prevailed in India or a newbie player, their guides are worth reading by everyone.