Two years ago, Terry White, now 54, returned home after spending the day in the bookmakers around his hometown of Barry, Wales. He had been playing on the fixed odds betting terminals, commonly known as FOBTs, and had lost £41,000 in a single day.
“That was the night I decided to stop, I sat down and realised I had lost of a quarter of a million pounds, lost my home, and I only had thirteen pence to my name,” he said, “and it was all because of the FOBTs.”
Terry was not a naïve gambler, in fact, he had grown to become a fairly wealthy man from his career as a professional poker player and had a keen eye for horse racing and sports betting. His problem with the FOBTs escalated beyond control when his daughter died in a tragic accident.
“When you can lose £300 per minute, and £41,000 in a day on these machines, you can see how you can lose your house,” he said, “but it’s not just the financial implication, it’s a complete life breaker.”
FOBTs have been under scrutiny in recent years, and in May the maximum stake was cut from £100 to £2. Whilst it was expected there would be a transition period for the bookmakers until these regulations would come into place, last months’ budget announcement left a blow to campaigners. The date was once again pushed back, until October 2019, six months later than the expected April start date.
The row over these machines hit the headlines once again, as MP Tracey Crouch decided to resign from her position as sports minister, she described the pushbacks as “unjustifiable” and urged the prime minister to “support vulnerable people against the power of big business.”
“Politicians come and go but principles stay with us forever,” she tweeted following the announcement.The statistics around gambling in the UK are stark, with Lord Chadlington, a key donor to the Tories and a high profile campaigner in recent months, recently revealing that there are two gambling-related suicides a day. A report by The Gambling Commission revealed that there are more than two million people that are either problem gamblers, or at high risk of becoming one, and the number of young people with a gambling problem has grown by a third in the past three years.
In May 2014, John Myers found out the devastating effects of gambling problems, when his 27-year-old son Ryan took his own life.
“He was a lovely lad, he was very happy-go-lucky, very self-effacing, could always laugh at himself, the life and soul of the party, always in a good mood, had loads of friends, he held down a good job,” John said. “Just your ordinary, everyday lad.”
Ryan had been gambling across multiple platforms, including FOBTs, however, his parents are still unsure about the full extent of his gambling. “We know there was a number of times where he gambled all his wages within a matter of hours,” John told us. “We know he had payday loans, he had an account with the pawnbroker too, but I don’t think we’ll ever really know the full amount of it.”
Whilst it may seem hard to believe that someone could keep such an all-consuming addiction a secret from those they are closest to, the secretive nature of problem gambling is a distinctive feature of the illness.
James* developed a gambling problem at university whilst working part-time at a Ladbrokes. “If someone has an alcohol problem or a drug problem, you can see it, from the physical signs or the smell on their breath; apart from my girlfriend no one had any idea for a long time,” he said. “I felt I had to keep up this front that everything was fine when actually things had spiralled completely out of control and I couldn’t stop.”
James was forced to come clean to his family when the debts became unmanageable, and he is now seeing a counsellor once a week to deal with his problem. “It’s hard knowing that once the addiction is within you, it will never be completely gone, there’s always a worry it is going to happen again,” he explained.
Unfortunately, for Ryan, he never had the chance to come clean to his parents. “It is hard if our Ryan had spoken to me, I believe I could have sorted it out,” John said. “It is a very hidden thing. If you are in the pub, you can tell the drunk, and you can tell the guy on drugs, but the guy sat in the corner on his phone being nice and quiet, could be gambling his life away and you would not know.”
Terry White, who is now in recovery from his addiction, spends his life campaigning to make gambling fairer and mentoring those who had similar experiences to himself. “When you get people at the age of 20 to 30 who haven’t really lived, and it’s got so much for them that they have taken their own lives, I think we’ve got a due obligation to see what we can do to help people,” he said.
“No one who is emotionally stable and happy wakes up one morning and thinks it would be a good idea to gamble like that.”
However, even though he is outspoken about his addiction and recovery, Terry still struggles: “You are always in recovery, and you’re always worried that you are going to relapse, and gambling is actually one of the worst addictions to have,” he said.
“The fact that the accessibility is there on your phone, on your laptop, on the high street, and then how easy it is to get into financial problems and then hardship, it is really quite a scary addiction to be afflicted with.”
Callum, now 41, from London, also suffered from a serious gambling addiction, which peaked when he discovered the FOBTs. At his worst he was “struggling to go an hour without betting on something, playing machines or going to the casino,” but he believes the FOBTs to the most toxic form of gambling. “The algorithms and the pretty pictures are designed to hook you in, everything about them is destructive,” he said.
The speed at which you can lose money on an FOBT at the moment can reach up to £300 a minute. When approached for comment, the Association of British Bookmakers told Artefact: “Bookmakers will continue to provide a safe place to gamble, with staff interaction and industry-leading responsible gambling measures.”
However, none of the former addicts believes there is any kind of responsibility in the services offered in the shops.
Callum, who works in finance in the city, would often use the machines on his lunch breaks at work: “I got offered free drinks, even for someone to go and buy me lunch so I could sit there and play these things for longer,” he said. “I once lost my temper and smashed the terminal, the next day I returned, and they said no problem you can play.”
James’ addiction started whilst working at a betting shop, when asked about what measures they had to protect customers he rolled his eyes: “I knew what it was like to be in their position, I’d ask if they were sure, because I wished someone would have done that for me,” he said, “but people go into a zombie-like state, unless someone refuses to serve them they won’t stop.”
With the rise in addiction and gambling-related suicides, it’s quite startling that so little training is offered to staff, “we weren’t given any training with how to deal with potential addicts unless they self-excluded we couldn’t try and stop them,” James said.
Self-exclusion raises its own set of problems, Callum said he self-excluded multiple times and it would not be enforced, and James said they often were not sent photographs so did not have any way of knowing if someone had self-excluded.A recurring issue that emerges when speaking to those afflicted by gambling addictions, is the relentless marketing used by the gambling companies. Watch any prime-time football match and the number of advertisements for bookmakers, online casinos and promotional bet offers is unabashedly frequent.
John has been campaigning for the regulation of this advertising: “It is a big, big problem, when I was looking on Ryan’s Facebook he was talking to another gambler,” he said, “and one of the things he said was that he was trying to give up, but he just couldn’t get away from it, it was everywhere he looked, billboards, TV, radio, they were even sending him texts.”
Even now, when John checks Ryan’s inbox, it is still full of promotional emails from various gambling companies.
Terry also believes that the marketing is a serious problem: “It’s just too much, it bombards people, it gets them to bet, your spam box is full,” he said. “It’s a bit overwhelming for people who are trying to break out in the recovery and they find themselves lured back.”
It often takes an addict to reach absolute breaking point before they will manage to stop. With Terry, it was the loss of his home, for James it was crippling debt before reaching his 24th birthday and for Callum, it was the breakdown of his relationship.
Jane Fahy is an expert in gambling addiction treatment, working as a clinical services manager for the Gordon Moody Association, who provide some of the few residential rehabs in the UK for problem gambling, delivering one-to-one therapy as well as for groups.
“It is really quite shocking how it affects all backgrounds, every age, it really doesn’t seem to have a preference at all,” she told us. The organisation has been around for forty years and was founded by the Rev. Gordon Moody, who brought Gamblers Anonymous to the UK from America.
“He found that for some people weekly GA sessions just didn’t seem to be enough, which is why he established the residential setting,” she explained. The program has moved away from the twelve-step format of GA and is predominantly CBT based (cognitive behavioural therapy).
With a two-week assessment process, twelve weeks in the residential setting and then an option to stay in a half-way house for up to three months, the association is the most intensive of its kind.
“I would be using payday loans to chase my losses.”
Jane believes that this is necessary, “due to the nature of the addiction I believe you need that length of time to be taken out of your real life,” she said. “If you are addicted to something like alcohol or drugs you can continue to exist without the need, whereas if you are a problem gambler you can not get away from money.”
The clinic aims to completely re-boot the patient’s mindset around money: “They are in a protected bubble,” as Jane describes it. The service is free, however, it is clear that it would only be realistic if the addict can leave their job or home for the period of time.
“We have to focus on the feeling of the individual, gambling will have taken them to some very low and very dark places,” she said. “We have to help them come to terms with that.” But whilst problem gambling continues to grow in the UK, she believes there is always a trigger, beyond just the desire to gamble, for it to lead to an addiction.
“No one who is emotionally stable and happy wakes up one morning and thinks it would be a good idea to gamble like that,” Jane told us. “It devastates them, devastates their families, it is not something that they would do out of choice.”
The Gordon Moody Association is “gambling neutral”, however as a professional Jane acknowledges the challenges of overcoming the problem in our society. Whilst the regulations that will eventually come in on the FOBTs will undoubtedly prevent these colossal losses happening, there is certainly further reform to be made if the government are serious about preventing harm against customers of gambling providers.
“The industry constantly refers to responsible gambling, but to me that has to be mutual, it has to be the operator and the client,” says Terry. Like Callum and James, he has taken responsibility for his own mistakes, but with all of them reaching such dizzying levels of debt and despair it’s hard for anyone to describe the companies offering these services as responsible.James believes that whilst the FOBTs introduced him to high stake gambling, when he started using online casino games his problems worsened. “I was only a student, and I did not once have to declare any form of income status or provide evidence of where the money was coming from, when I’d gamble online,” he said. “I would be using payday loans to chase my losses, money that I could not afford to borrow, let alone lose on the roulette wheel.”
John’s son had also been gambling online before he committed suicide: “With online, there’s no real money, just numbers on a screen,” he said. Ryan had always been careful with his money until he developed the problem, and not having to part with physical cash online could be partly to blame. “That was one of the really big shocks, this thing had completely taken over him, he was spending all his money on it,” John said.
Whilst there is a unanimous feeling among addicts and experts that the new FOBT regulations will help, once they eventually come into action, there is still a long way to come for the gambling industry if they truly wish to be responsible providers. With the accessibility of online gambling proving a serious problem, regulations applied to the high street ought to be applied there too.
Hearing the stories of addicts, bookmakers staff and even more so with John brought home the heartbreaking realities that a gambling problem can bring. As John said, “the FOBTs are getting gambling addiction in the media, but we have got to remember there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.”
* Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees
Featured image by Alan Stanton via Flickr CC.