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The poker boom of the early-to-mid 2000s was primarily a US centric event. Chris Moneymaker’s landmark WSOP win, coupled with the increasing competence of online poker sites, came together in a critical mass that saw millions of Americans learning the game. A few years later, with a helping hand from the UIGEA, Europe caught up and established itself as an equally fervent hotbed of online poker activity. With those two markets thoroughly cornered, online gaming operators are looking to spread their wings into hitherto unexplored territories.

The latest untapped area to draw the attention of the online gambling industry is India. The Himalayan state of Sikkim is offering up the country’s first ever online gambling license to the company who can make the most impressive bid. Among the frontrunners are bwin, Austrian gaming giants who have been aggressively expanding their product into Italy and other territories in recent months. They face stiff competition from the likes of William Hill and Betfair.

The Independent reports that a collection of firms have submitted an offer, with a decision expected in 2 weeks. Every company is keen to have their operations established by April 2010, in plenty of time for the soccer World Cup – held in South Africa over the summer. The tournament occurs every 4 years and is the focal point for the world’s most popular sport. The deal will also reveal the world of internet poker to many Indians, opening up the potential for a whole new raft of high-stakes professionals.

As yet, it is unclear how limiting this first license will be. Strictly, it will only allow online gambling firms to offer their services to Sikkim residents, but the nature of the internet means that the sites will be accessible from all over India. Online gaming is illegal in the majority of India, but the burden rests with the individual user and not with the firm providing the service. At the moment, the only legal gambling are trackside horse racing wagers and land-based casinos in Goa and Sikkim. Under the surface however, there is a flourishing black-market gambling industry. Cricket, India’s most loved sport, accounts for most of the illegal wagering.

Whether or not bwin and their competitors will be able to cater to the whole of India makes a big difference. The population of Sikkim is only 600,000, compared to the 1.2 billion people resident in the whole of India. India’s gambling industry is estimated to be worth around $60 billion. However, it is unlikely that India will undergo the kind of online poker explosion that the U.S.A. experienced. There are only 6.8 million broadband users in India, compared to the 38 million with fast internet connections in the U.S.

Regardless, Europe’s online gaming heavyweights clearly see this as a lucrative market with huge potential. The Independent reports that bwin “have had teams on the ground in India for some time.” There are also rumors that Ladbrokes and 888 are prepping their own bids. The future of online poker in India is still unknown, but this could well be the first step towards a fully legal Indian based industry.