The machines that ate my life

Forget super-casinos: worry about the brash "virtual roulette" in the high street

Three days ago, I got paid and put all my money into a machine in a Coral's betting shop around the corner from where I live. I didn't mean to. I didn't want to. But I did. It's called a "virtual roulette" machine; the gaming industry calls it a "fixed-odds betting terminal", or FOBT. Walk into any bookies in the country and you'll see several, all with the sounds and effects of a real roulette wheel, usually with a crowd around them. It took less than an hour to lose my money. I walked home, sat in front of my window and wept. Occasionally, the word "probation" crossed my mind and I found myself slamming the window sill.

That is the word that our Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, used during the second reading of the Gambling Bill in November to describe how the government views the 20,000 unregulated roulette machines that have been in betting shops up and down the country since 2001. Frankly, it was nothing more than an aside. Last month, during the third reading, she didn't even mention them. The remainder of her speech - indeed, the rest of the near-six-hour debate - concentrated mainly on the issue of deregulating casinos.

This is nothing new. Over the past several months, I have listened to politicians, journalists, editors, bishops, social workers, experts, members of the public and even a "professor of gambling" talking or writing about the consequences of relaxing the gambling regulations. Talk has centred on the so-called super-casinos and fears that this country is about to be turned into Las Vegas. The debates on the Gambling Bill have followed the same pattern.

Why is no one talking about this or showing what is happening? This government has already relaxed the gaming laws to such an extent that there are now thousands of "mini-casinos" in the country, and each one houses one or more of these roulette machines - a far more addictive and lethal game than anything you will find at a "proper" casino.

Put simply, you can now walk up any high street, in any town, on any day of the week, at ten o'clock in the morning, and be able to feed - literally feed - anything up to £500 into a machine for one spin. A few seconds later you can do it again. If you are short of ready cash, no problem, because you can use your credit card. If you find feeding £20 notes into a machine a bit laborious, just give the cashier your money and she will "top up" the machine for you, automatically. And if you find it a bit tedious having to press the start button for each game, there's an auto button, and then a repeat button. The cumulative effect is that there can be only seconds between each spin: exactly the formula for turning anyone into a potential addict. You can win or lose thousands of pounds in minutes.

Jowell calls these machines "very popular". That is an understatement. British gamblers are staking more than three times as much money on them (£290m) as they bet every week on the National Lottery (£88m).

This new betting craze, the annualised turnover of which is estimated at more than £15bn at the "big five" bookmakers, has become far and away Britain's most popular gambling product. Since the machines were introduced in 2001, betting-industry turnover has had a fourfold leap to £29.4bn. Gambling addiction has leapt, too. Only this month, GamCare, the gambling addiction charity, linked the rising number of calls to its helpline to the spread of roulette machines in betting shops.

Gambling in general has cost me dearly, but these machines especially so. A few years ago, I moved to a town that doesn't have a casino. This meant I would have to travel for miles to get to a roulette machine.

It was a good disincentive. Then the virtual roulette machines arrived and my world fell apart. I was like a heroin addict who suddenly could get a fix five hundred yards from his front doorstep.

It's what I did again this week. And it is why the debate over the Gambling Bill, again, has left me close to tears with frustration. You have got to understand that for me - and thousands like me - it's personal.

James Burton will be the subject of a 90-minute documentary special, The Confession, on BBC2 in April this year

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Condoleezza Rice

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Living the Meme: what life is like for the internet famous

A series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral.

Memes are many things to many people. They are screenshots, videos, pictures, cartoons, sayings, catchphrases and, most importantly, dogs. 

But more often than not, there is a real human being behind each of the memes we come to know and love. How does it feel to have your face unwittingly thrust in the limelight, available online for all to see? How do children who go viral online feel as they grow up? When does the internet fame end and normal life resume? Just how much money can a meme make anyway?

"Living the Meme" is a series of articles in which I interview the stars of viral images and videos to find out the answers to these questions, and more. 

Check out the individual stories here:

What happened to Azeem's flute recital?

In 2015, over 100,000 Britons RSVP'd to a University of California student's flute recital. One year later, he discusses how life has - and hasn't - changed. 

What happened to One Pound Fish man?

Muhammad Shahid Nazir Ahmad appeared on The X Factor after his song about "very, very nice" fish went viral. But are rumours of his deportation true?

What happened to that guy who filmed a double rainbow?

"What does it mean?" asked Paul Vasquez when he filmed a double rainbow in the sky. Seven years later, he's still asking the same question. 

What happened to David after David After the Dentist?

How does going viral aged seven affect you as you become a teenager? David DeVore explains.

What happened to Success Kid?

Nine years after his baby picture became a meme, Sammy Griner says he wants to be known for more than just the photo.

What happened to the Ermahgerd girl?

Maggie Goldenberger reveals that she is not the Ermahgerd girl - not really. 

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.