On Sunday last I was a guest on the BBC debate show The Big Questions, where one of the topics was ‘Should gambling be made socially unacceptable’. It was an interesting and emotive debate, and while only one speaker seemed in favour of an outright gambling ban, it was notable how many had a big issue with the regulations, and the operator’s compliance with those regulations, for online casino games and Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBT). I have some more thoughts on the topic so decided to do a follow up blog. As the show was  UK focused, most of my research was also based on the UK, so while many of the points made will be relevant to Ireland and further afield, most of the figures quoted will be UK based.

The UK Gambling Commission are charged with regulating the industry and they published an extensive survey last year into gambling behaviour in the UK. They describe problem gambling as “gambling to a degree that compromises, disrupts or damages family, personal or recreational pursuits” and use two different measurement instruments to estimate what they deem to be problem gambling.  I will quote the figures that count anyone as a problem gambler if they qualify under either of these measurement scales, which will return higher percentages than either scale individually would, but this might help balance the effect that, as with all surveys, some respondents might be more likely to give socially acceptable answers rather than the full truth.  Based on these estimates 0.7% of the UK population were deemed to have a gambling problem, which doesn’t sound high, but only 57% of adults (16+) were reported to have gambled in the year of the survey (2016). The more interesting figures for problem gambling are those based on the gambling activity, and thus only include people that gamble. Some of those are private betting 2.5%, online betting with a bookmaker 2.5%, Horse Racing not online 3.3%, sports events not online 5.1%, online gambling on slots, casino or bingo games 9.2%, and machines in bookmakers 13.7%.

While the figures for online and offline sports betting are slightly worrying you have to remember that they are for problem gamblers, and the criteria for inclusion is below what you would have for an addict, and as such it’s hard to compare figures to other addictions as different criteria are used. What is notable however is figures for sports betting and betting on casino products or FOBT are drastically different. The first four figures quoted would be largely related to sports betting and range from 2.5% are problem gamblers to 5.1%, but the online casino products come in at 9.2%, while FOBT are 13.7%. There is going to be a change in the regulations for those in April this year with the maximum amount bet per spin reduced from £100 to £2. The difference in the figures for sports  betting versus casino games/FOBT doesn’t surprise me at all. Online casino games and FOBT are all about the win/lose, there is no skill, no video analysis of a horses previous runs, no researching team news and recalling previous matches to determine who you want to back, you just press a button and a random number generator decides if you win or lose on that spin, but probability dictates that you will always lose long term.

Sport on the other hand can be enjoyed without a bet, even more so if you’re a fan of the team, or own the horse, but for everyone else a bet can elevate your interest, and intensify the excitement. It doesn’t have to be a big bet, the main satisfaction when winning for many will be they backed their opinion, and they were right. Should the fact that a small minority have a gambling addiction be a reason to stop others enjoying themselves as they see fit? The problem gambler figures quoted aren’t ideal, but you could say the same about figures for people who have problems with alcohol, video gaming, shopping, sex or even internet use. Are we going to ban all of them just because some can’t do them in moderation?

Charles and Liz Ritchie were guests on Sunday’s show, and they talked about the tragic death of their son Jack, who took his own life. They attribute his gambling problem as the main cause, and while they didn’t want an outright gambling ban, they have serious concerns about online casino games and FOBT. They have a website called Gamble With Lives and they claim research in the UK indicated there are between 250-650 suicides related to gambling every year. Obviously any suicide is terribly sad, but can we really justify banning something because it was a contributory factor in someone taking their own life? Chose Life a north east of Scotland suicide awareness group listed Relationship break up as the main cause of suicide in the area in 2017. A report published by the University of Ulster reported that 78% of men that take their own life had relationship problems. If we were to ban gambling because some people with a gambling addiction take their own life, would we not also have to ban relationships, alcohol, shopping, video gaming and numerous other legal activities that are enjoyable for the large majority that do them, but can lead to addiction for some?

You also have to look at the negative aspects of banning gambling, or any part of it too. The levies bookmakers pay contribute a huge percentage of the total funding for horse racing for example, and it’s very unlikely horse racing would survive without that funding. It’s demise would lead to tens of thousands of job loses across the industry, and leave people without a job, and without a way of life they love. The implications of that would also lead to many serious issues. Banning just casino games and FOBT would also lead to thousands of job losses in the gambling sector.

Personally I don’t think there is either any reason to, or even any appetite to ban sports betting. It brings enjoyment to the large majority that partake in it, and while most will lose money, as long as that money comes out of their entertainment budget then there’s no problem. For example if you bet an average of €200 a weekend on football win/lose/draw markets, which would be a good bit to stake for most, with bookies betting to margins of less than 110%, you wouldn’t expect to lose more than an average of €20 a week, which is certainly not a huge amount, and going to the cinema will cost you more when you add on the inevitable popcorn and soft drinks. Passing the buck, and telling other people how they should live their life, has become far too common and accepted. We should both be allowed, and encouraged, to take responsibility for our own actions, and decide for ourselves if we want to have a bet, or a drink, or even both at the same time.

Online casino betting and FOBT are a different story though, the research shows people who play them are at a  higher risk of problem gambling, and while sports betting can bring enjoyment to many, personally I fail to see the attraction in playing a game with no skill, no need to think logically, and your only input is sitting hitting a button non-stop. I’d be willing to wager if you got a sample of punters leaving a racecourse that had made a small loss on the day, most would still have enjoyed themselves and won’t regret spending the day at the races, but I’d be very surprised if a sample of punters who spent the day sitting at a FOBT, and ended with similar loses would look back on their experience with the same fondness. On balance though, adults should be allowed to make their own mind up if they want to play such games, but I would agree that stakes should be reduced in online casino games to match the reduced stakes coming in for FOBT. It would be very hard to argue that anyone sitting on their own at home playing online blackjack at five thousand a hand doesn’t have a gambling problem, yet stakes this high are currently allowed. At least if they were doing the same in a casino there is some social aspect to it, and the problem they have might just be a sad attempt at an ego boost by flashing the cash.

I do think that an ignorance of probability in the general population certainly hasn’t helped people see through bookmakers clever marketing tricks in the past. Even at yesterday’s debate one member of the audience claimed they’ve often played roulette and done quite well. Now it may be I’m wrong but my interpretation of that comment was he thought he was good at it. Even if it’s not true in this particular instance, I have met people before who claimed the same in various games of chance with a built in operator edge that they can’t possibly beat. It always amazes me how they can think that, the math really is fairly basic, but yet I know from experience of explaining to people how my job works, that probability, for whatever reason, seems to go over most people’s heads. I can only conclude we weren’t taught it well enough in schools, or the examples weren’t good enough to catch our interest.

Probability  should be taught more comprehensively, and gambling should be used as an example, not because I want to teach kids how to bet, but because it’s interesting, and it’s hard to learn with boring examples. It will teach them not to fall for clever marketing which makes it appear like they’re getting a good deal, when they’re really not, and will also leave them armed with the knowledge that you can’t be good at roulette, only lucky, but if you play often enough that luck will even out, and you’ll be an overall loser at the game, just like everyone else who plays it. More understanding of probability will also better enable young and old people alike make better choices in life, as everyday we make decisions when we have to weigh up the pros and cons, but without knowing how to think analytically it’s much harder to break it down so we get the right weights.

A big problem with sports betting, online casino games, and FOBT is the lack of protection over the years for the vulnerable. Yes they can now self exclude but they would have to do it on every site or betting shop. I do believe people have to take responsibility for their own actions, but at the same time it’s morally wrong to take advantage of anyone with a problem, yet the horror stories that have come out over the last few years of bookmakers and online casino operators exploiting people that were often stealing money to feed their habit, tells you a high moral code is not something you’d accuse them of having. The gambling commission now have a very robust set of rules that operators need to abide by, yet the large fines handed out in the past two years suggest bookmakers have had a very lax attitude to those rules. It should be noted that although some big fines were handed out in the past year, the offences mostly date back from a few years earlier. In the past bookmakers have got away with encouraging big losers to keep betting with enticements like free bets, VIP hospitality, tickets to matches or as various betting shop managers have claimed they were told to keep FOBT customer’s playing by offering them free bets, despite the manager passing on concerns about the customers having the money to fund the loses.

The gambling commission has handed out millions of pounds of fines to the firms found guilty of such offences, and each firm has come out and apologized and claimed things have changed. In fairness they have recently agreed on a whistle to whistle TV advertising ban during live sport, which is welcome, as plenty of underage teenagers would be watching such broadcasts. The ads all tended to glamorize gambling, with a come take us on stance from the bookmakers, when the reality is the bookies won’t take anyone with a clue on. It’s hard to believe they have suddenly swallowed a mouthful of morals though, so it is up to the Gambling Commission to ensure the rules are enforced, and that casinos and bookmakers won’t get away with the same stunts they’ve pulled in the past. As long as they do, the current regulations which can be found on the Gambling Commission website with the social responsibility section all about protecting people from gambling related harm, seem sound enough to me, although if they did ban FOBT and online casino games it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest, and it might mean bookmakers have to go back to being bookmakers instead of marketing departments.

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