Gambling Behaviour Part One – it’s the product stupid!

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Derek Webb, the founder & funder of Stop the FOBTs and the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, explains gambler and product interaction.

You’d probably be surprised to hear it, but there are even some professional gamblers who are also problem gamblers. Sounds impossible, but I must have met around 100 of them. And when I say “professional” I don’t mean someone who espouses their opinion of their gambling history. I mean someone who is known in their peer group to be successful and able to provide a living income solely from gambling.

They have to be gambling at an activity that is beatable. Most non-regulated gambling is beatable if you are stronger than your opponents, for example cash gambling at backgammon. In terms of regulated gambling, it is generally acknowledged that racing, sports, blackjack and poker are all beatable, given the right conditions and the right skills. Whilst there are unusual gamblers who have exhibited unusual skills at certain other gambling activities, they are unusual exceptions.

In respect of race and sports betting, it is getting harder to be a professional in Britain. Legal opportunities to get cash on are diminishing as betting offices routinely refuse even suspected break-even gamblers. Also remote online sites close accounts or restrict bet amounts. Blackjack is becoming harder as casinos have learnt much more about the skill techniques and more shuffling machines are being used to diminish skill opportunities. Poker is still a viable beatable activity.Over decades of successful poker playing I met many proficient winning poker players who had a weakness. More often than not it was just one specific gambling activity, such as sports betting or baccarat (known as punto-banco in Britain) that was the weakness.

Even at poker itself I have met winning gamblers at certain forms of poker who eventually became losers as the preferred poker game variations changed. Some of those unable to adapt even became problem gamblers at poker. I was personally a far better cash game player than tournament player and also a better pot limit or no limit player than a limit player. Also I was far better at omaha, hold’em and five card stud than I was at other poker game variations.

Well over 30 years ago I got lucky and won the first international no limit hold’em tournament held in Ireland. I was the only Brit against around 11 or so of the top Irish and American players. The following year I could only persuade four other Brits to join me. As pot limit was played in Britain and the event was no limit, many British players were deterred.

The game structure, the compulsory antes and blinds relative to minimum cash buy-in amounts also influence player behavior. In the early days the poker circuit was small with many overseas events not attracting many players. It was important to determine the right game variation, the right buy-in and the right structure to get the greatest player participation.

Much of the above is fairly common knowledge to those who understand gambling. Unfortunately many people who do not understand gamblers or gambling somehow seem to think they are qualified to pontificate about gambling behaviour.

One of the concepts used to try to prevent to the success of the Campaign is the falsehood that all problem gamblers will gamble at anything and will be problem gamblers regardless. The problem gambler who engages in more than one gambling activity is then used as an excuse to do nothing about any gambling activity.

The reality is that, irrespective of the number of gambling activities that problem gamblers engage in, some have a problem with only one activity, and some have one activity which is far more problematic than their other activities. Because the current misplaced gambling establishment philosophy in Britain is that it is the gambler who is problematic, rather than the product, this has prolonged the delay in action against FOBT stakes.

With FOBT estimated losses from vulnerable at-risk and problem gamblers staking over £2 per spin running at over £500 million per year, there has now been over £1 billion lost by vulnerable persons since the DCMS 2013 triennial review of stakes and prizes failed to reduce FOBT stakes. This is a run rate of over £1.5 million per day.

Yes, individuals have a responsibility. Yes, some individuals are more prone to addiction than others. But every day, vulnerable persons entering betting offices for the first time, are still being exposed to the evidentially proven most addictive form of gambling – FOBTs.  How much longer can this illogical and destructive anomaly of machine gambling at stakes over £2 in easy access premises continue?

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