Fluttering in the British Isles

Understanding another culture is nearly impossible, but it is far more difficult when you are thousands of miles away with nothing but a few scattered newspaper articles for information.  Even when the culture is your mother culture, it is a challenge; Great Britain, the United Kingdom – dear ole England – gave the United States a great deal; it handed us our language, the foundations of our constitution and legal system and possible a bit of their sense of humor.  But the English do not seem to have passed on to us their propensity to make a wager – a flutter.  The word is actually perfect and something we should have adopted; the word hits at the core of gambling – putting one’s self or one’s possessions at risk does tend to make one’s heart flutter.  Current data suggests that over 70 percent of the adults in Great Britain like to make their heart flutter, at least occasionally.

Although gambling is certainly alive and well in the United States, it does not quite reach the depth of our national character the way it does in England.  The English bet on anything and everything; they bet on sporting events, horse races, chess matches, political campaigns, the gender and name of heirs to the throne and the longevity of just about everyone.  They bet on the Oscars, Nobel Peace Prizes and of course, like the rest of us they bet on bingo, blackjack and roulette; craps is an American game and has never really caught on outside of the United States.

And like us, the English occasionally play a slot machine, often called “fruit machines,” but those fruit machines are being supplanted by “fixed odds betting terminals.” The FOBTs are like a slot machine, but offer a wider variety of wagering options, some of the games are uncommon to traditional slots, like horse or dog races.  English law permits four slot machines, FOBTs or a combination of the two in pubs, bingo parlors and betting shops.  The name is so unassuming, one might not pay them any heed, but the devices themselves seem to be transforming the high streets of the British Isles.  There are in excess of 30,000 FOBTs spread across the land, and according to the press they are spreading like wildfire.

The spreading is only part of the problem as seen by the British media, for each four terminals there needs to be a new betting shop. The betting shops with the attendant betting terminals are arousing a storm of criticism.  The critics say they are changing the character of the high street; by replacing the tradition shops with FOBT betting shops there is little left but clusters of betting shops.  Secondly the FOBTs are arousing criticism because they are said to be highly addictive.  The term being used is the same one being used for the pokies in Australia and video poker slot machines in the United States – they called are the “crack cocaine” of gambling. The implication being they are highly addictive and very destructive to the individual addict and to society over the long term.

The words are easy enough to understand, but the underlying reality is not easy for me living thousands of miles away.  From this distance, I can only read the online media reports; to get a grasp on the issue I would have to walk the high streets, talk to people and see what changes are occurring.  According to the reports, the high streets, the main streets, the down towns of England are in decline as they are here.  Many of the traditional businesses are no longer viable, but gambling is viable, very viable. So, the “bookies”, Ladbrokes, Gala, Rank, William Hill and the like are slowly buying up all of the available business locations and altering the character of the “heart” of English community life.

The changes are partly due to societal changes that have led to the decline of town centers in many countries.  Another part of the problem is the law, it restricts each location to four machines – which means the operators need lots of locations. The terminals are becoming the core of the bookie business, equal in importance to the other forms of gambling. So much so, that when Rank reported lower results for the last quarter it blamed the weather and its impact on the FOBTs.  According to Rank, the FOBT players were outside enjoying the warm weather instead of being inside playing the machines. There is another major story imbedded in the FOBT betting shop story – the consolidation and expansion of betting franchises in England.  The major players have thousands of outlets and are in constant search for new locations or smaller operators to purchase to grow their revenues. There are said to be 9000 betting shops generating $6 billion in net revenues in Great Britain.

The constant expansion is creating a backlash; many cities are starting to restrict the number of betting shops allowed.  There is also a great deal of talk, but no action to date, about changing the laws again to limit the number of betting shops.  There is one other bit of news that rarely makes it into the debate, but probably should.  Every week there are robberies in betting shops.  They have few employees, little security, but enough money to attract street criminals.

The shops and the FOBTs are also the focus of anger; players become enraged at losing and destroy the machines, at the same time the press is enraged over their impact on English society.  There is even a touch of Broadway, Hollywood and Damon Runyon with an article expressing concern that the betting shops will be competing with the Salvation Army for the souls of the citizens of Inverness. In the Guys and Dolls of Inverness, I wonder who will play Sky Matheson and who will play Sarah Brown?  All in all it is fascinating to watch, but very difficult to understand for an American living in the outback of Nevada.

Labour’s rising star Chuka Umunna was accused of hypocrisy for accepting a £20,000 donation from a gambling tycoon while publicly attacking the number of betting shops. Mr. Umunna has run a campaign to stop the spread of bookmakers in the local streets, promising “new powers to control the number of betting shops”. Joe Murphy, London Evening Standard, 8-8-13

Profits at Ladbrokes, Britain’s second biggest bookmaker, have almost halved in the first six months of the year, as the hot weather in July exacerbated a slowdown in revenue growth from gaming machines at its high street betting shops.  …gaming machines, which have been a major contributor to its high street business in the last three years.  Ladbrokes led the way in rolling out controversial gaming machines to high street betting shops but has seen increased competition from rivals. Nathalie Thomas, Telegraph, 8-10-13

City bosses are blocking plans to open a betting shop at the heart of Liverpool’s shopping district as part of its ongoing battle against bookmakers… At the same time, they are still resisting Ladbrokes’ attempt to open up directly across from the town hall, in the former unit of Starbucks.  Liverpool Echo, 8-12-13

The Mail has learned that a government review will conclude that until at least 2016 bookmakers cannot put up the stakes or the prizes on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), where punters can place bets of up to £100 a turn.. Tim Shipman, London Daily Mail, 8-13-13

The Leeds Central constituency tops the Yorkshire region, with an estimated £143 million gambled…Campaigners say that with over 771 betting shops and 2,819 roulette machines, Yorkshire is estimated to have contributed £106 million to the betting industry’s £1.5 billion profits from the machines. Yorkshire Evening Post, 8-14-13

A new betting shop is set to open in the city centre, taking the number of licensed bookmakers in Inverness to 12.  Paddy Power intends to spend £250,000 renovating premises in Queensgate… the addition of yet another bookmakers is prompting concern. with the Salvation Army fearing it will encourage more gambling. Inverness Courier, 8-14-13

The group, which operates 55 casinos in Britain, said the recent hot weather had “adversely” impacted trading in the first few weeks of its new financial year, which started on July 1…Earlier this year Rank acquired 19 casinos from Gala Coral, making it Britain’s largest operator…a change in the tax regime for games machines also boosted group revenue by £8.6m.  Nathalie Thomas, Telegraph, 8-15-13



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