[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he news broke this week that the government decided that existing limits on machines allowing gamblers to blow up to carpet (£300) a minute are inappropriate. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said the government would cut the maximum bet on the machines from £100 to between £2 and £50 though there was to be a 12-week consultation period before the actual figure is decided. You’d imagine the bookmakers will be lobbying for the max bet to be in the upper bracket. Reading some of the figures from Gamble Aware you can see why, they tell us that 233,000 punters did a grand in one sitting alone with some high-figure horror stories to boot, but of course we don’t get any context of those figures.
Betting shop proprietors must sit rubbing their hands together watching people sieve their money through the machines until inevitably they lose the lot. It’s an easy life for ‘bookmakers’, no need to price anything up, no worry about margins or punters getting good and actually beating them. The fact you can’t beat these machines over a period evidently doesn’t sink in to the thousands of people that prefer to play them than bet on horses or dogs.
As a horseracing fan I hope the machines are restricted to £2 a spin. That’s not because I believe the machines are so wicked that people have no option but to funnel all their money into them and people need to be saved. Grown adults had the choice in the first place, should they walk past the bookies or go in. They were compos mentis enough to make that decision so if they then chose to play a machine and lose it’s nobody’s fault but their own.
Of course, I do accept that a tiny minority of people do get addicted to a lot of things and help should be there for people whose addictive personality manifests in gambling money they can’t afford to lose. But not to the detriment of those do so responsibly by taking away their enjoyment, the same as the way cream cake, booze and smoking isn’t banned, at least not from everywhere, to save the obese, drunk or wheezing.
The benefit to horse and greyhound racing, almost ignored since the FOBT income bonanza, is that with the cash cow machines taken away from them, to survive the bookmakers will have to up get back to work. It may come as a novel idea, but they can start promoting horse racing again, how about that. Spend some money in letting people know what a great sport it is. Tell them that there are plenty of exciting betting opportunities to get involved in on the action that takes place daily on racecourses around the country.
I’d love to see them really invest by going back to the good old days. The days when they were profiting by tempting in those keen to gamble with the lure of money without work and rewarding racing by turning out proper racing fans. Betting shops used to be a community, every shop had their experts, the people behind the counter were racing people themselves. That’s why they were working there, it was the gateway to the game. Lots of people that started as board markers or settlers when on to bigger and better things in racing.
Back when I started losing my meagre poultry processing factory wages on Friday afternoons in the early 1980s, with no help from machines, a betting shop was a meeting point for real racing enthusiasts. We’d have ten to follow competitions, favourite horses and arguments about who’d win the Gold Cup. To a man, the boys I grew up with in the bookies didn’t turn into casualties and compulsive gamblers despite loving a bet, they are still lifelong racing fans though.
I really hope that if draconian measures are taken in respect of the FOBT that the bookmakers take it on the chin, accept that it was good while it lasted and kick on going back to basics bookmaking and promoting the core product. There will of course be inevitable shop closures, but only the ones that were only there because the FOBT existed in the first place. Let’s not forget that betting shops in Eire have survived all this time without them and their UK counterparts will too.
To finish where we started, if the sole exercise of getting FOBT regulated is to protect the tiny minority of people that become problem gamblers, then it’s flawed. I don’t include those stupid enough to do their wages then blame the machines. You took your chances, as I did with the horses and dogs back in the day. No, real problem gamblers are not just going to stop gambling because the machines only take £2. Gambling is available on their phone at their fingertips 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There are countless ways to gamble on-line, in the comfort of your own home, at midnight when you’ve stumbled home from the pub, there’s where the real damage is going to be done and where regulation really needs to be put in place, the Badlands are on-line and much more sinister than on a regulated high street.
As for betting shops, here’s hoping they need to get back to their roots and become sporting places for punters again and not just bargain-basement casinos for gamblers.
Simon Nott is author of Skint Mob!: Tales from the Betting Ring