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We can’t let fixed-odds betting terminals keep ruining lives

The goverment must cap maximum wagers at £2.

I know how addictive and harmful fixed-odds betting terminals are – they nearly cost me my life. Since 2012, I’ve been campaigning for a reduction in the maximum stake, which is the amount the machines allow you to bet in one 20-second spin.

Permitting the current stake of £100 on easily accessible machines in betting shops has been an unmitigated disaster. Machines in all other venues on the high street are capped at £2 a spin, but bookies introduced higher stakes by exploiting a loophole in the law, which allowed them to claim these weren’t machines but “betting terminals” – as the server determining the result of each spin is located outside of the premises, similar to a race or sporting event.

Labour’s Gambling Act later legitimised fixed-odds betting terminals, or FOBTs, calling them “B2 machines”, but capped the number allowed in each betting shop to four. So what did the bookies do? Opened more shops in clusters, leading to the phenomenon of an operator opening two shops within a stone’s throw of each other.

In London, each machine generates around £1,500 profit a week, so for every betting shop there is £6,000 is sucked out of communities every week by those machines alone. Alarming when you consider that there are more than twice the number of betting shops in deprived areas compared to the most affluent.

The government today announced a consultation on reducing the maximum stake, offering options of a cut to £50, £30, £20 and £2. This will run for 12 weeks, with a final decision due in the new year.

It is the roulette and casino games on FOBTs that are the most addictive, as they are played up to five times faster than the live table game in a casino. A reduction to anything other than £2 a spin would mean roulette remains on the bookies’ machines, a game which entices players into staking up from the minimum of £1 a spin to the maximum of £100 every few seconds.

The impact of higher stakes goes beyond simply the speed with which people lose money. While one fifth of FOBT users wagering up to £2 a spin were identified as problem gamblers, this rises to two fifths for those who gamble at £20 a spin or more. Stake reduction has been shown time and again to be the most effective means for protecting players.

However, it’s not just gamblers who have experienced harm, but staff in betting shops who have lost their jobs due to automation driven by FOBTs. The bookies have driven down wages in the betting industry, made thousands of staff redundant while opening more shops, and forced the ones who are left to work alone.

This carries huge health and safety risks, particularly when staff are told to “interact” with customers who have lost more than they can afford. There has already been a murder of a betting shop worker and a serious sexual assault since operators moved to a policy of lone working.

Paddy Power’s CEO has noted the toxicity of FOBTs, calling for a reduction in the maximum stake to “less than £10”. As £10 is not an option, presumably Paddy Power will be joining the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, the Labour Party, 93 councils, the Royal Society for Public Health, the Church of England Synod and the All Party Group on FOBTs in backing a £2 cap.

Matt Zarb-Cousin is a former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn, now spokesperson for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling

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A group of men united only by sport was once my idea of hell. What changed?

It struck me, during the course of our team’s annual pre-season dinner, how much I like my team-mates. 

To the cricket team’s annual pre-season dinner. Although I’ve been playing for them for ten years or so, I’ve never been to one of these. This is because when I say “I’ve been playing for them for etc…” you’re probably not getting the right picture. What I mean is: I have played ten matches for them, and last year not at all, with a highest score of 22, and an average of 10.17. If you think that’s unimpressive, it’s a lot better than when I was a schoolboy, and I am just 26th placed out of 50 people who have played ten or more matches for them. Last year I was 25th, I see. Well, I’m going to have to do something about that.

The idea is that if I go to the dinner this time, it will inspire me to get in shape and play a game or two this season. I almost invariably enjoy it when I do, especially the time I was in a record-breaking tenth-wicket partnership of 72 while batting with a broken hand. (Well, finger. But a finger’s a part of the hand, isn’t it? Even the little finger.) I suppose there are times when I don’t enjoy it so much, such as when it’s raining hard enough for the cows in neighbouring fields to sit under a tree, but not hard enough to send us back to the pavilion or, better still, the pub, and the opposition are clouting us all over the ground despite the weather, and if we’d batted first – we never bat first, in my (limited) experience – the other lot would have polished us off about an hour ago, and we could now all be cosily inside the pavilion or, as I said earlier, even better, the pub. Then again, the team is called the Rain Men, so what did I expect?

So signing up for games involves considering a number of factors: some kind of mystic calculation about what the weather will be like, an assessment of how far away the ground is (we’re a nomadic team, so we don’t have one of our own), and how fit I think I’m going to be on the day. That’s the troublesome part. There is, of course, the melancholy of coming back, aching and knackered, at what is usually well after nine in the evening on a Sunday, lugging a cricket bag, like someone who has not been able to let go of his childhood and is out after his bedtime.

The fitness, as I said, is problematic. I got slightly out of puff going for a pee between the second and third paragraphs of this column, so I think there is going to be a lot of tedious spadework in store for me. My dumb-bells are in East Finchley, which I don’t go to, although as my cricket stuff is there too I suppose I’m going to have to bite that bullet sooner or later. If I eschew the dumb-bells then there will always be the floor, gravity, and push-ups. There will always be stairs, somewhere, I can run up and down, while I have the use of my legs. While there is an earth I can walk upon, I can walk upon it. The upper body strength, so I can pick up a cricket bat without falling over, is the thing to aim for, but right now the main goal is to be able to get out of bed and go to the loo without getting winded.

Anyway, the dinner. I decided that I’d walk to the restaurant. This was largely because the restaurant is about 200 yards from where I am holed up at the moment. There is, literally, only one restaurant closer to me. I walked a bit more than 200 yards because I had to swing by Sainsbury’s to pick up a couple of bottles of wine (the McGuigan’s Reserve Cab Sauv at £6.50 a bot, special offer, being the sedative of choice these days), as the restaurant is unlicensed. We met at the pub first, of course.

It struck me, during the course of the evening, how much I like my team-mates. I am by no means the oldest, so many of them are rich in wisdom and experience. (Amazingly, the team won more games last season than it has in its history, but that might have been because I hadn’t played for them.) Two of the people I am particularly fond of couldn’t make it, but at least I got to have A Long Rant About Life In General with Marcus Berkmann, author of two extremely amusing books about the team (Rain Men and Zimmer Men), as well as the greatest book about Star Trek ever written (Set Phasers to Stun).

Imagine: a long table sat at by a group of about 15 men, united only by a sport. It would once have been my idea of hell. So why is it not now? Is it because I actually like these guys? They’re not the typical idea of a cricket club gang, I have to say that. And we do, admittedly, talk about cricket a fair amount. But still. (I even liked I—, who gave up smoking and then had a rush of blood to the head last year and sent a round-robin email to the team saying how much he hated A—, one of our most lovable players. I— couldn’t make it to the dinner, largely on the grounds of not having been invited.) Or am I that lonely? 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war