Monday Musings: Beating Addiction

Last September – it seems as though it was the other day, but actually it’s half a year ago – I enjoyed a wonderful few days in Ireland over the Champions weekend with Harry Taylor and Alan Newman, writes Tony Stafford. We raced at Leopardstown and the Curragh, and at Newbridge and Shelbourne Park greyhound tracks on the preceding evenings.

At Shelbourne, where the Boylesports Greyhound Derby semi-finals were the highlight, Leon Blanche of the sponsors kindly invited us to dinner. There we met Sarah Kinsella, a devotee of the track and also Irish horse racing for many years.

It was not until that day that I learned there are no FOBT machines in betting shops in the Irish Republic. Leon told us that and reiterated forcefully: “And there never will be!”.

I must declare an interest. I’ve probably put around a tenner lifetime in betting shop machines, solely on roulette and in casinos, hardly anything. They just don’t interest me.

I’ve seen the damage they can cause, though. In a lifetime, the largest portion of it, I had an opinion on every race when I was the tipster on the Daily Telegraph, and most days I’d want to have a bet on all my tips. I could never operate betting accounts. Many good judges – i.e. those who get some help – find themselves being closed down by bookmakers. I used to get closed because I failed to pay and haven’t had any credit accounts for almost 40 years.

Soon after my first marriage ended, my son suggested I go along to Gamblers Anonymous. I found one in Leyton that operated every Monday night in a church hall. When they work, it’s because gambling victims respond positively to a number of crucial points with the fundamental being that they accept they are addicts, in the same way that Alcoholics Anonymous attendees must do.

I’d like to say I’m cured and believe I am, but not because of the golden rules or whatever they are called. No, it’s because after remarrying in 2008, my second wife who is from Russia, finally got me to have internet banking.

She waited until her English was good enough to understand what was on the statements and when the first one came online, she asked the obvious question: “What is Betfair?”

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At the time I was having a good run and maybe it’s the self-deception of the punter that made me believe it, but I was actually a little in front. Unfortunately the statement would have a dozen amounts of deposits and three or four of returns. For someone who grew up in Siberia during the latter stages of the USSR, this was impossible to understand. I’ve not had a bet on the Internet since after her predictable reaction.

But returning to that GA group, I went along to the church hall for much of that summer, meeting a range of people, but the single-most memorable encounter was with someone who only came along a couple of times.

Fellow sufferers – you’ve seen umpteen images on the screen of people sitting around a circle – take turns to open their hearts and reveal the scars. Here it was around a rectangular table with up to a dozen people. But the lasting memory from more than a decade ago was of a 40-ish year old woman, very quiet and polite with three children. Her weak spot was bingo, with presumably the machines that go along with it.

She was in a position of responsibility within the accounts department of a small firm and embezzled tens of thousands of pounds to fuel her obsession. Luckily for her and her family her employers didn’t prosecute her, merely asking her to pay the money back, which she was in the process of doing with her husband standing by her.

I was regarded as a good judge of horses throughout my time in newspapers, but I must have been one of the worst punters around, often going skint before I could benefit from the later good thing I’d unearthed in my obsessive research. If I’d have added FOBT machines to my list of money-wasting schemes, I’d probably have ended even worse than I have, but when the mainstream credit ran out, the loan sharks stepped in to fill the void and magnify the agony. That’s when you really have to pay, and I did.

Another experience shared with Harry involved an evening in Cirencester two years ago next week when we wanted to watch a Champions League game during the Cheltenham Festival, but no pub in the area was showing it. A major bookmaker in the town was showing the match on one of the many screens. Apart from one other punter, partaking of the fare from Newcastle night racing and some stuff from tracks far and wide around the world, we were the only inhabitants.

Halfway into our hour in the shop, the manager started clearing the cash from the FOBT machines, and there were handfuls of £20 notes in all of them. I understand there is supposedly a maximum of four per shop, but by artificially creating an area within the overall area, I believe there were eight. Maybe unwisely he revealed the shop made around £6,000 a week from the machines, so £300,000 a year. That represents a fair amount of misery.

In a few minutes’ early-morning survey on my 73rd birthday this morning, I read that FOBT machines are not “rigged” but scrupulously monitored to take 2.7% profit from stakes. The snag is with the £100 maximum as has been allowed and spins taking only seconds, punters can and do lose thousands in minutes.

Bringing down the maximum to £2 per spin might well cause more betting shops to close. So what! I’m pretty sure that the big betting firms are increasingly less bothered by their shops than their online gambling, be it racing, football or gaming. People will always find a way to lose their money. No matter how much people are encouraged in television ads only to “lose what you can afford” the primary objective seems to be the creation of gambling addicts, especially among young people.

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ARC is deservedly being targeted by racing professionals, trainers and owners leading the way with support promised from jockeys, over its anticipation of future further falls in betting shop numbers, to justify immediate cuts in prize money.

The simplest way to react to that was what has already been done – make the racing uncompetitive and some races failing to have any entries, then the large amount of money ARC and other racecourse owners get for staging the races is reduced.  If that were to fail, the obvious remedy is to ensure there are no jockeys to ride the horses that are entered. ARC ‘s last-minute decision to increase prize money for certain races at the lower end, thereby also triggering Levy Board support for those races, proves the point.

Let’s hope the dispute ends swiftly. Racing is a wonderful sport and as I’ve discovered recently, you don’t have to bet heavily all the time to enjoy it. The days when I went racing looking for the nearest person to “nip” for £100 to have a bet are fortunately long gone. But my betting was on the horses and those races only come along every few minutes. The machines are far more unrelenting.

By the way, for anyone who might have been expecting a call from me over the past couple of weeks, I managed to damage the sim card along with my phone and it took a week for the replacement to come along.

In the manner of the true techno idiot, the phone numbers were never “backed up”, I think is the correct term. So anyone who hasn’t heard from me but expected a call is perfectly welcome to let me know their number. There is no need for any Happy Birthdays, the Racing Post do it for me. Hang on, I’d better check they haven’t assumed I’m no longer around!

Tony Stafford

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