A stupid gamble on evil machines
The Guardian, by Victoria Coren Mitchell
The government’s failure to clamp down on fixed-odds betting terminals must be down to stupidity or corruption and I’m not sure which of those I hope it is.
Which is better? Idiots or crooks? It would make a good parlour game.
It’s possible that I’ve spent more time among sick gamblers than you have (and if that’s not the case, we probably know each other). But if you’ve popped into a friendly high street bookmaker’s any time in the last 10 years, to bet on the FA Cup final or get some change for the parking meter, then you’ll have seen a “FOBT”.
A FOBT is a sort of glorified fruit machine with a choice of games (roulette, virtual sport, novelties) and a massive possible loss rate. The biggest difference between the old fruities and these devices, waved through by the Blair government of 2001, is that you can lose £300 a minute on a FOBT (or £600, if you play two machines at once).
And people do.
How many times, in the year ending September 2016, do you think somebody lost more than £1,000 on one of these machines?
Have a think. We aren’t talking about rich people, glitzy casinos or friends having a big night out. We’re talking about people on their own, playing the slots on regular, trafficky, local streets. Poor people. Bored people. Sometimes desperate, sometimes ill. Lonely old men. Women with their babies locked in the car outside. The average national wage is about £25,000. How many times, over a year, do you think £1,000 or more was lost in a single gambling session, on a local high street, in these circumstances?
No. You’re wrong.
It was 233,071 times.
I mean, for fuck’s sake.
Let me confess: I myself have, often, lost more than £1,000 in a single gambling session. But when I’m losing £300 a minute, this is what I’m getting:
A high-end Las Vegas casino has sent a limousine to collect me from the airport. I’ve got a complimentary hotel room with a view of the iconic Vegas Strip. I’ve got free meals, free cocktails and a cabana (a sort of shady little house with loungers and a drinks cabinet) by a luxurious swimming pool.
This doesn’t make me clever. It makes me a mug. This is what casinos give you if they think you can afford to lose the money. But your man down the Kilburn High Road, losing at the exact same rate because he’s depressed, lost, stuck, sad and has nowhere else to be, gets the square root of sod all. He gets monotony, shame and kicked out at 10pm.
This guy (or girl) hasn’t opted in consciously. They never meant to get involved for those hours or play for those sums. They didn’t join a casino, they wandered into the bookies: outlets once considered cheery and welcome on British high streets because betting on horses is traditional, fun and, to a great extent, social. But in 2001, a black hole was unrolled in the middle of them. FOBTs are demons, succubi, squatting between the chemist and the bus stop like a pile of heroin on a cheese trolley.
UK city dwellers complain that there are now dozens of bookies in their nearest shopping street where there used to be one. But most don’t know why that is.
It’s because the government capped the number of FOBTs at four per shop. But these things are free money to their owners. Punters lose and lose and lose. And when they disappear, or kill themselves, or their child is taken into care and they start self-medicating with drugs instead, someone else steps blindly up to feed the monster. So, if you’re only allowed four per shop, open more shops!
What optimistic fool, no doubt some well-meaning MP or civil servant, thought up that “four max” rule? Did you think you were smarter than the bookies, love? We’ve all been there. That’s the fast route to eating cat food out of the tin.
But the latest government move can’t be about optimism. Everyone was expecting the betting cap (or possible loss) on these machines to be slashed. Labour and the Lib Dems went into the election actively promising it; the Tories hadn’t yet committed, but John Whittingdale warned the Association of British Bookmakers: “I can’t say I would be surprised if there are quite radical measures produced… You should brace yourself.”
And then, last week, Philip Hammond decided there would actually be no curb at all – because, according to a Whitehall source in the Daily Mail, the attendant loss of tax revenues would be “financially crippling”.
Is this bent or just stupid? The shops pay 25% duty on FOBTs (it’s much cheaper for them than horseracing). In return, we get an expensive rise in crime, theft and embezzlement, family breakdown, costly court proceedings and criminal damage as the machines are often smashed up. Meanwhile, many FOBT addicts are on welfare, so 100% of the money they put into the machines goes out of the Treasury and 25% comes back. Well done everybody.
Let’s say it’s not bent. The lobbying and hospitality for MPs is massive and rising, but I’d hate to suggest any impropriety. So that suggests a moronic misunderstanding of the true maths in play.
The argument is not being had on moral grounds. If our government said they were libertarians, planning to decriminalise all drugs and abolish income tax alongside this invitation to go skint in 10 minutes at teatime in the shop next to Tesco, we could have an interesting debate. We could weigh up that freedom against the depression and suicide, the abandoned children and associated crime, and really challenge ourselves.
But they argue this situation is financially profitable for us, as a nation? They think we make money from it? Jesus. That’s their understanding of economics? As professional gamblers say about chumps: I’d like to be locked up with them.