Two related stories by Alice Ross appeared on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) about the surge in turbo-charged roulette wheels that have transformed UKâ€™s betting industry. We publish both of them (one is an infographic) as a warning in case the thought of legalized gambling is mooted to rid the Cayman Islands of our financial woes.
Are betting terminals dangerously addictive?
Fixed-odds betting terminals bring high-speed, high-stakes gambling to the high street. Their burgeoning popularity among a particular type of gambler, and the profits these create for bookmakers, have led critics to term them the â€˜crack cocaine of gamblingâ€™. But there is still heated debate over whether they are in fact dangerously addictive.
No study has conclusively shown that the machines directly cause people to become problem gamblers â€“ and a 2005 study commissioned by the Association of British Bookmakers found that they areÂ â€™not more associated with problem gambling than any other form or forms ofÂ gamblingâ€™.
But gambling experts and counsellors â€“ as well as a vocal community of former gamblers â€“ believe fixed-odds betting terminals and the digital roulette that is their most popular game are â€˜problematicâ€™, with features that encourage compulsive gambling. And with most of the research funded by the industry it is hard to dismiss
â€˜You lose your sense of money when youâ€™re on the machines â€“ it means nothing,â€™ says David Armstrong, who has battled a destructive addiction to fixed-odds betting terminals. â€˜Itâ€™s so quick, youâ€™re thinking just one more spin, just one more â€“ until you walk out and youâ€™ve lost it all.â€™
At the height of his compulsive gambling, he remembers spending Â£15,000 in a single day, putting up to Â£100 on a single 20-second spin of the roulette wheel. â€˜When you start putting Â£100 a spin on, other people crowd around the machine: youâ€™re on top of the world â€“ youâ€™re buzzing,â€™ he said. â€˜Theyâ€™re all shouting and chanting little rhymes, the buzz is incredible. And then four hours later you walk out â€“ my goodness, what have I done?â€™
The speed with which you can play and then bet again â€“ the â€˜event frequencyâ€™ â€“ helps determine how addictive a form of gambling is, experts believe.
â€˜I could design you the safest slot machine in the world: all you would do is push the button once a week. But on a fixed-odds betting terminal, you can gamble a lot of money in a very short time, and itâ€™s those characteristics that cause problems,â€™ said Professor Mark Griffiths, a machine gambling expert.
â€˜To develop a gambling problem, there has got to be some sort of susceptibility to begin with. But event frequency is the single most important structural characteristic for making fixed-odds betting terminals problematic,â€™ he added.
While no study has yet established that this speed causes normal gamblers to develop a problem, a 2009 study on how people interact with gaming machines found that problem gamblers tend to prefer fast, simple games â€“ such as the casino games offered by fixed-odds betting terminals, which are now available in large numbers on the high street.
The 2010 Gambling Prevalence Survey found that 8.8% of players on fixed-odds betting terminals are problem gamblers, while Professor Jim Orford of the University of Birmingham has calculated that almost a quarter of all money spent on the machines comes from problem gamblers â€“ an amount running to hundreds of millions of pounds coming predominantly from poor, young male gamblers.
And gambling counsellors report that even experienced gamblers can run into difficulties playing the high-speed machines.
â€˜From the experience Iâ€™ve had working with gamblers, itâ€™s certainly true to say gamblers who move onto fixed-odds betting terminals seem to lose far more money than with the previous type of gambling. Because itâ€™s a very fast game, it doesnâ€™t give you much time to stop and think,â€™ said Ron Turrell, a gambling counsellor.
But this speed underpins the machinesâ€™ phenomenal commercial success. One of rouletteâ€™s attractions is it offers a high chance of winning at least some of your stake back â€“ the theoretical â€˜return to playerâ€™ is around 97%. But that leaves roughly 3% for the house. When punters can play up to three games a minute, the house advantage quickly racks up â€“ so much so that the machines make around Â£3.3m a day in profit for Britainâ€™s bookmakers.
â€˜The irony is, it looks like the higher the payback to the punter is, the more that encourages gamblers to chase their losses,â€™ said Griffiths. â€˜And one of the archetypal behaviours of problem gamblers is chasing losses. Theyâ€™re deceptive â€“ you can lose a lot of money in a short space of time.â€™
Another factor believed to encourage compulsive gambling is how often â€˜near winsâ€™ occur. â€˜Gamblers continuously nearly win: the arousal people have when they nearly win can be as powerful as when people actually win,â€™ explained Griffiths. â€˜The more a problem gambler you are, the more you start creating near wins yourself.â€™
Roulette is tantalisingly full of opportunities for near wins: when your chips are on number 6, the ball could skitter into the slot on either side, or into 5, 7 or even 9 â€“ an upside-down 6 â€“ and it might seem agonisingly close.
But while critics of fixed-odds betting terminals have dubbed them the â€˜crack cocaine of gamblingâ€™, addiction specialists point out that problem gambling is a highly complex phenomenon and canâ€™t be blamed on the machines alone.
â€˜People are starting to reassess the idea that itâ€™s the form of gambling that causes addiction: itâ€™s more complex than that,â€™ says Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, who runs the NHS Problem Gambling Clinic in Soho. â€˜An individualâ€™s disposition, the agent â€“ the type of gambling â€“ and the environment can all play a part.â€™
Still, like other gambling experts, she is concerned about the impact of fixed-odds betting terminals. â€˜Are the machines just one more type of gambling, or do they have more severe consequences on the individualâ€™s behaviour, in terms of compulsiveness or money or time spent?â€™
â€˜The thing we have to treat with caution is that players tend to gamble on lots of other things, as well as fixed-odds betting terminals â€“ but my guess is the other activities arenâ€™t the ones that are causing people problems,â€™ says Mark Griffiths. â€˜Even being cautious, there does seem to be a link between fixed-odds betting terminals and problem gambling.â€™
For more on these two stories go to: