In the United States, people who want to gamble must travel to a casino or visit an online site to enjoy slots and other games. In the United Kingdom, citizens have only to set foot inside one of the many betting shops lining the city streets to get their gambling fun. Betting shops are commonplace in the UK; some say it's almost as if there's a casino on every corner. Not everybody thinks that UK betting shops are a good thing, however. This is largely due to a type of machine found in the shops called a "fixed odds betting terminal," or FOBT. A research group called Fairer Gambling surveyed the UK betting shop scene and found 1250 shops available in the 50 constituencies with the highest unemployment. Under 300 such shops were found in the 50 UK constituencies with the lowest unemployment. In the entire UK, nearly 10,000 FOBTs exist altogether. Fairer Gambling and other advocacy groups have expressed concern about this high number of UK FOBTs, saying the games frustrate gamblers and lead them to violence and other negative behaviors at a much higher rate than regular casino gambling.
FOBTs: The Neighborhood Slot Machine of the UK
An FOBT is an electronic gaming apparatus that looks much like a regular casino slot machine. The device was introduced to the UK 12 years ago and has experienced a steady growth in popularity since that time. Roulette is the most popular game played on FOBTs, but customers also enjoy bingo, simulated horse races, and traditional slot machine games. Betting shop customers can wager as little as one pound, but they frequently wager much more than that. Some bet 100 pounds at a time, which can be lost in a matter of seconds. Winnings are capped at 500 pounds.
Like casino slot machines, FOBT odds are forever poised in favor of the house. The house, in the case of FOBTs, is the betting shop. A person's chance of winning money on an FOBT is predetermined, meaning the games are chance-oriented, not skill-dependent. Nevertheless, FOBTs continue to draw a steady stream of starry-eyed gamblers hoping to strike it rich.
Why FOBTs Are Dangerous
Due to their addictive nature, FOBTs are frequently described as the "crack cocaine" of the gambling world. Former Treasury Minister Stephen Timms has said that these machines frustrate people so severely that their losses often send them into an uncontrollable and violent frenzy. Timms has linked FOBT betting with public drinking, broken homes, and property loss. Reckless gambling was not the original intent of the FOBT, of course. Eight years ago, Timms actually supported the Gambling Act of 2005 which included provisions for sensible and responsible FOBT gaming in the UK. Today, however, Timms says the use of FOBTs has crossed the line of sensibility. He would like the practice to be stopped.
Speed: Why FOBTs are Worse than Regular Slot Machines
Gerda Reith, a professor at Glasgow University, postulates that FOBTs are more addictive and destructive than regular casino slot machines and games because they move at a much faster pace. Large stores of money can be wiped out in seconds by an FOBT, whereas the same amount of cash would take minutes, even hours, to burn up at a casino slot machine or table game. Because personal losses can add up so quickly and dramatically, FOBTs can have devastating emotional and financial effects on gamblers. Reith believes that gambling addicts are not born, but created, and that the FOBT, with its lightning-quick positive and negative reinforcement scheme, is the creator of many a devastating addiction.
Preying on the Poor
Part of the public outrage against FOBTs is the fact that, as Fairer Gambling has pointed out, the majority of these machines are positioned in the poorest areas of Britain. Where unemployment is higher, people are often more interested in fast money. Unemployment can lead to desperation; desperation can lead to risky behaviors like wagering one's entire savings account or mortgage on the outcome of a video game. When people who are caught in the clutches of financial and emotional despair lose their last pennies, frustration burns like wildfire. With this frustration comes the inevitability of violence.
Growing anecdotal evidence suggests that the people who work in and around FOBTs no longer feel safe in their environment. When a customer loses 100 pounds in a span of 20 seconds on an FOBT roulette game, for example, frustration occurs. When losses like this happen again and again, pent up feelings of anger can explode into violence. Losing gamblers are often seen swearing, spitting, kicking and punching FOBT machines in their frustration. Because UK betting shops are so close to downtown business areas, this frustration is often taken out into the street, bestowing a sense of danger and instability on the entire community.
The parent corporations of UK betting shops typically do not want FOBT-related violence reported to the police, as too much legal interference might shut their businesses down. According to inside sources, William Hill, a British bookmaker, instructed its betting shop employees to report incidents to the police only when absolutely necessary. Less than 70 incidents were reported by William Hill employees in 2011, although anonymous individuals have indicated that the rate of violence was actually much higher than that.
Government Control of FOBTs
Although the British government has considered limiting the number of FOBTs in any given area, steps have not yet been taken to make this a reality. For now, many betting shops are attempting to quell their protesters with promises of enhanced security. Time will tell if more government intervention is necessary to keep the people of Britain safe from financially and emotionally frustrated FOBT players.