Before reading this, an explanation is warranted, this post is longer than usual but is an in-depth look at my own moment I realised Gambling was a problem, but also reflects on the bigger picture from what I have discovered since. Feel free to read, share and give any feedback, we are all on our journeys, the way we share these memories can have a huge impact on changing the next persons journey.
There’s a tale I’ve heard told about a teenager who was addicted to gambling. He was a bright kid from a good family but became addicted to the arcades and rather than going to school, would bunk off and make his way down to play the slot machines. To begin with, he got away with it, keeping his life on track while continuing to gamble. But as his addiction got hold, he missed more and more school and needed more and more money to fund his addiction. Eventually, he got caught stealing, which was when his parents found out what he had been up to.
“Thank goodness,” they said in relief when the police turned up. “We thought he might have been a drug addict.”
Gambling is, in many respects, the secret addiction. If you’re a heavy drugs user or an alcoholic, it’s pretty difficult to disguise what you’re up to. Your physical appearance will quickly offer up some tell-tale signs. Your ability to function normally at work quickly becomes badly impaired. But if you’re addicted to gambling, then the situation is different. You don’t have the battles with hangovers or bad comedowns after the highs. The day after a gambling session you won’t look any the worse for wear. You can carry on with your job or your relationship or your home life without any immediate external warning signs. As such, the social stigma of being a problem gambler is nothing in comparison to being an alcoholic or drug dependent. And as such, gambling as an addiction is often seen as somehow less serious.
I know from bitter personal experience that the opposite is the case.
* * *
Blackpool. The self-styled Las Vegas of the North. Like many people who grew up in the north-west, the city holds fond memories of childhood holidays—the beach, the pier, the donkeys, the amusements, the trams, the tower, the illuminations. These days, the seaside resort has attempted to both grow and develop while keeping hold of its traditional routes.
The seafront boasts a Pleasure Beach full of the latest rides rather than rickety roller coasters you worry you might fall off. The Tower Ballroom plays host to one of the biggest shows in television in Strictly Come Dancing. In 2018, even Britney Spears came to town as part of her latest tour.
Britney isn’t the only part of Vegas to touch Blackpool. Gambling has always been part of Blackpool’s make-up, but these days, the amusement arcades sit side by side with a number of casinos. You can see why Blackpool might want a piece of that—the original Vegas makes a mint out of gambling. In October 2018, its casinos raked in over $1 billion, the fifth time that year the monthly revenue had topped a billion. Out of this figure, $693.5 million comes from their slot machines.
Back in Blackpool, step away from the bright lights, and the city tells a different story. You only have to walk back a few streets from the seafront, and the mood and feel quickly changes. This is a resort where tourist numbers might be on the rise but where the locals have been hit hard by austerity. As with many seaside towns, drugs are an issue. In 2018, it was revealed that Blackpool has the highest rate of deaths from heroin and morphine in the country.
Away from the seafront, Blackpool has a gambling habit in marked contrast to the glamour and glitz of its destination casinos. There are forty-four betting shops dotted around the city, and the strongest pull of these is the Fixed Odd Betting Terminal, or FOBT as they are known in the trade. In 2016, Blackpool’s FOBT machines took in an extraordinary £175 million. The UK’s 30-odd thousand FOBTs are controversial to say the least, they have the unenviable reputation for being used by a higher number of problem gamblers (14%) than any other form of gambling. They are easy to rack up heavy losses on. A 2016 survey by the Gambling Commission found that over a ten-month period, individuals lost over £1000 on these machines on more than 233,000 occasions, one gambler lost almost £14,000 on a machine in seven hours.
I hadn’t gone to Blackpool to gamble. I’d booked myself a weekend away there to go on a drug binge. Drugs were a habit I’d gotten into and had been struggling with for a while. Going away was my way of dealing with its self-destructive side. I didn’t want to become the addict who falls through the cracks, ends up struggling, and putting their job and home life on the line. I’ve always been a hidden person and went to lengths to keep my drugs that way. I couldn’t take drugs like I really wanted to in front of my friends and family. I couldn’t do drugs and go to work. And so, my conclusion was that I had to get away to do it—to hole up in a hotel room with a load of speed and get as high as a kite.
Part of the kick for me with the drugs wasn’t so much about the high as it was the control, or at least that was how I saw it. The fact that I could maintain this secret, to live a normal life but escape to take them gave me this strange sense of achievement. And so, while I’d climbed up the ladder of drugs to a point that I was buying security style locked bags, and even got to the point of using used needles, it was the control rather than the high that I chased. I could have my weekend away, get as high as I wanted, and no-one was going to know anything about it.
The B&B I booked myself into wasn’t anything special. It was away from the seafront and didn’t have a sea view. All I saw from the window looking out was a brick wall opposite. I arrived prepared. Rather than going down to breakfast to eat, I had a supply of Nutri-shakes to drink. Everything you needed in a day in a can. They were there to keep me going. I had my bag packed with my can and my cigarettes and the speed. The final piece in the jigsaw was the argument. I’m not proud of this, but I’d engineered a falling out with my partner to hide where I was going. This wasn’t the first time I’d pulled such a stunt, often, it was something small, the stupidest thing like what was on the telly, but I’d ensure it blew up sufficiently to allow me to grab my bag and slam out. I’d tell him I was moving back to my mum’s, whereas in fact, I was off somewhere completely different. At the end of the weekend, I’d return with my tail between my legs, all as though nothing had happened. It’s a cold, calculated, selfish way of behaving, but that’s what the craving dose to you—nothing else mattered, and even those closest to you are collateral in satisfying that need. Whatever it took, whoever it hurt, that was a price worth paying.
So, I had the argument. Packed my bag. Slammed out. My big weekend was on, but not in the way I’d planned it.
* * *
On my first night in Blackpool, I left the B&B to go for a walk. I’d been planning on going down to the seafront to soak up the atmosphere and the lights. I wanted to lose myself in a place full of memories for me, to help me feel better about myself. I was going to have this weekend, I told myself, and then I was going to go home and get a life again. I was aware of all these life milestones I was missing—I’d never had a driving lesson, had no chance of saving up for a deposit on a house, even going abroad on holiday seemed out of reach.
As I walked past families and groups of friends, I felt lonely. Yes, I had my own family and friends back home, but I couldn’t talk to any of them. Couldn’t tell them what I was up to. It felt like I’d gone so far down the path that it was no longer possible to confess what I was up to. The shame was too great. It was my problem and my problem alone.
My plan was to head for the seafront, but as I weaved through the backstreets, deep in thought, I came across a Coral bookmakers. Why not, I thought, I’ll just slip in for a quick game on the way.
Unlike the casinos and the arcades down the front, the Coral was no different to anywhere else in the country. I could have been back home. I saw one of the Fixed Odd Betting Terminals by the door, and honed straight in. These machines have a number of a different games that you can play. Everyone has their favorite. When I was on the machines, I’d always see a number of people who’d play roulette on them. They were convinced that they’d play these machines so many times they could read the video—as soon as the wheel started spinning, they believed they knew from the hours put in studying the fractionally different video clips which number is was going to land on.
Back in Manchester, you’d always see the same people on the machines, the same familiar faces. Bookmaker tourists, I’d call them, because they’d have their days planned out to go from one bookie to the next. They’d be convinced that once a machine had paid out, it was better to be on to the next one. There wasn’t any truth in that. The machines have a random number generator, and so every roll or spin is a new one all over again. There is a promise on the machines that the jackpot would be paid out on average two million times. So, if a machine pays the jackpot, then yes, the odds are fractionally, fractionally smaller the next time round. But it’s nothing to do with how much has been pumped into the machine. They’re not like those penny cascades games where the coins are stacked in anticipation of the big payout. But most gamblers have their theory and stick to it—win on a machine, move on to the next.
The FOBT machines offer you all sorts of games to play on; scratch cards, virtual dogs, virtual horse racing. There’s one with beetles racing down a track. I’ve always liked the slot machines because there’s a bit of chance on them—I’m pressing a button, rather than auto-play. I prefer that to getting hit up on a fixed number on a roulette machine. I don’t see any fun in thinking you can read the statistics of a roulette board.
The game I played on the machine in Blackpool was a simple old-fashioned slot machine. Red Xs, circles, and 7s. Three symbols, three Xs or 7s in a row, and you won. Win, and you got dealt four playing cards one to represent each suit and one blind card. Pick the matching one before the blind card is turned—match them up, and you’d win big. Every time you won, there was a chance to win more—rather than claim your winning, you could gamble it again. You could go for red or black and double your money. Choose a suit of cards and quadruple it. Or select one of the thirteen possible cards that made a suit (from ace to King), and your money would go up thirteen times. That tenner you won was suddenly £20, £40, £130. The number of times I’d hit collect was rare—even as the Xs and 7s were spinning, I had already planned my order to gamble my spin win, Red, Red, Club. £10 times two, times two, times four—£160. Looking back, I guess this was my way of convincing myself I could beat the system. I was no different than the people playing roulette, convinced of the number before the ball landed.
To start with, I didn’t have that much money on me—I’d taken a few hundred quid with me for the whole weekend, and I think on that first machine I spent around £55 quid or so. But what I got out—wow. I was winning and winning big. I was high as a kite on speed and so everything I was winning I was putting back in the machine. I was playing so much that the finger I was using to press the button was starting to hurt. I was winning so much that I was aware that other people were stopping to watch me. That wasn’t great with the drugs I was on—I could feel myself starting to get a little bit paranoid.
I decided to cash out. The wodge of notes in my hand felt thick and heavy. £1200! My initial £55 had blossomed and bloomed. The guy who’d been sat next to me at the next machine couldn’t keep his jaw shut. Inside, I was all over the place. I was high from the drugs and buzzing from the wins. I bundled the cash into my pocket and headed back to the B&B. In my room, I opened the bathroom window, perched on top of the toilet cistern and had a cigarette, blowing smoke out into the alley beyond, small clouds dispersing against the brick wall opposite.
I felt good. I felt great. Here I was in Blackpool, on holiday and away from my regular life. On speed. And winning. I felt the pulse of the drugs coursing through my body, but also the pull of the gambling as well. My luck was in. That machine. That bookmaker’s. It felt as though this was my day. Maybe I should go back, a voice in my head said. Continue that winning streak. I sat there, smoking and mulling. I could feel myself tingling at the anticipation. £1200 was a lot of money to me. But if my luck was in, I could turn that into even more. Sod it, I thought. I’m going to continue. I’m going to leave half here, that would be sensible, I decided. Go back with half my winnings and see what happens.
I went back. The same faces were there. This time I wasn’t anonymous. They had all clocked me and were waiting to see what I was going to do. What I did was sit down at the next machine. Logically, I knew that it didn’t make any difference, but psychologically, having won on one machine, it made sense to move on to the next one. Same set up, same modus operandi. Press press press. Play play play. And, to my amazement, win win win. This time, I won even more. After a couple of hours, I’d turned the £600 I walked in with into £1600. It was nuts. By now, the manager had come out and was watching me, he couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it either. The paranoia from the drugs was really starting to trickle through—what if they thought I was cheating? What if someone tried to steal my winnings off me? I cashed in again, and hurried back to the B&B, constantly looking over my shoulder to check there was no one there following me.
I was too wired to sleep. While the rest of the B&B slept, I was wide-awake, pacing back and forth across the room to the window to smoke away. There was nothing on the TV, it was so late that my Facebook newsfeed had dribbled to a halt. The floorboard underneath me was creaking, and I half expected someone to come in and tell me to stop. But no one did. I paced on, could feel the heightened blood pressure thumping through my veins.
I spread the money out on the bed. With what I’d won from the first session, there was now over £2000 there, all in notes. It looked the like the scene from a film. The sort of moment when the lead character swoops it up and hurls the cash up in the air, letting it cascade down around them. This, though, was real life. I just stood and stared at the money. I hadn’t felt a buzz when I’d been playing the game, winning the money. But seeing it all there, it did give me quite the kick. I was glowing, my mind racing through all the possibilities of what I could do with the money. I could buy stuff for the house, a state-of-the-art TV or something like that. We could go away on holiday. Maybe be sensible, pay off some debts or put it toward a deposit for a house. It was one of those moments where you really felt your luck was about to change. This could be the start of something.
* * *
The next day, I was back in the bookmakers. I had a system when I went into a bookie’s with a wedge of money, I’d fold the notes up into different amounts with an additional note over the top. I’d then keep all the piles in different pockets, all zipped up. It was an early warning system for me. If I went through all the notes in the first pocket, it was time to walk away. That was the theory, anyway. In reality, it was an attempt to control my behaviour that usually ended up being ignored. But given how my luck had gone on my previous visits to Coral, that didn’t feel as though it was going to be an issue.
Once you’re gambling, once you’re in the thick of it, the value of money loses all meaning. They aren’t notes, they’re just paper, something you feed in to carry on playing. Back in the betting shop, the manager clocked me immediately. I went to the third machine, having already won on the other FOBTs. I knew it didn’t make any difference, but still. I slid the notes in and started to play.
I stuck to the game I’d been playing all weekend. I needed to press the button myself, personal input rather than auto-playing. As the hours went on, my finger started to hurt again. Repetitive Strain Injury. I worked my way through the pile of money in my first pocket. That, I knew, was the time to stop and walk away. But I didn’t. I unzipped the next pocket and pulled out the next pile of cash. I was aware of people looking at me as I pulled the notes out. I must have looked like a drug dealer or something. But I didn’t care. I had to feed the notes into the machine, to carry on playing, to win my money back.
I went from a few hundred down to a thousand. Half the cash gone. But I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. In my head, it was like there were competing voices. One was telling me how much I was going to regret this, the other saying I had to keep playing, I was going to win and wipe my losses out. It’s a horrible, edgy, nervy feeling. I felt really jumpy and anxious—I had this habit of repeatedly clicking my fingers or tapping on the side the machine. The more wound up I got, the more I’d tap or click.
I unzipped another pocket, pulled out more money. Play play play. Spin spin spin. Lose lose lose. The manager, who’d been taking an interest in me as my winnings had gone up, now started to walk away. He knew my sort. There was nothing funny going on here, no cheating of the system or anything he needed to worry about. He knew how this was going to pan out. I knew how it was going to pan out. There was a crushing, deadening inevitability to how this was going to finish.
I got down to the last few notes. My pile of over two grand had been reduced to less than a hundred. Everything I’d won in that bookies, I’d fed straight back into its machines. I finally saw sense and went back to the B&B.
When I’ve got a small amount of money left from gambling, I sometimes finished things with really stupid spends. I get a bit impulsive, feel like I’ve got to do something to make this whole thing seem worth it. So, I rang up and booked myself a taxi back home from Blackpool. The guy quoted me £80, which was pretty much all the money I had. But I didn’t want to go back on the train, even though it would have cost me a fraction of that. I didn’t want to be around people, anyone. I just wanted to be on my own.
* * *
Fixed Odd Betting Terminals were originally introduced into the UK in 2001. At the time, the betting industry and bookmakers in particular were struggling. A mixture of bad weather and the Foot and Mouth crisis had led to a successive number of cancellations of horse races—bookmakers were keen to find another way of keeping their punters in their shops if the race was cancelled. The FOBT—pronounced Fob-T—seemed as though it could be the answer.
Right from the start, their introduction proved controversial. By introducing games such as roulette on to the high street, to some, it felt as though casino-style gambling was being slipped in by the back door. Casino gambling is much more tightly restricted than betting. Under the 1968 Gaming Act, there are stricter rules on such gaming, and more rigorous training required for staff to deal with those playing and losing.
For everyone involved, the stakes were higher. The maximum that someone can win on a single go on a FOBT machine is £500—that is twenty times the jackpot on a fruit machine. The most someone could put on at once is £100—twenty seconds later, you can put the same on again. For bookmakers, the money made from the machines is substantial. By 2017, it was estimated they accounted for over half their revenue. The government, too, do well out of them. The Office of Budget Responsibility’s estimate for the money raised from gambling duties for 2018-2019 is £3.1 billion. Machine Game Duty, under which FOBTs fall, raised £712 million for the government in 2017-18.
But the step-change in profits for the likes of William Hill and Ladbrokes from the introduction of FOBTs was quickly matched by a rise in gambling problems. In 2005, a few years after their introduction, a report for the gambling charity GamCare noted a rise in the number of callers to its helpline (a 4% increase), in the number of callers contacting about FOBTs (up 22%), and an increase too in the average amount of debt among these first-time callers (£25,700). Despite these concerns, the government’s appetite to tackle the issue was limited. In 2001, the then Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown abolished the then betting duty on gambling (gambling organisations now pay a 15% levy on their earnings instead). In 2005, the Gambling Act deregulated the industry still further, making the UK one of the most liberal gambling markets in the world (and also extremely lucrative: in 2017, the UK government received £2.7 billion from gambling levies, double the figure from a decade earlier).
Meanwhile, the profits from FOBTs and the problems they caused continued to soar step in step with each other. Regulations restricted bookmakers to having no more than four such terminals in a single store. The result was an increased number of shops to counter this—because betting shops are classed as a financial service, every time a bank branch closed, a betting shop could open in the same location under the same license. As well as getting round limitations this way, some bookmakers were also accused of deliberately targeting more vulnerable groups—in 2014, a report for the Responsible Gambling Trust noted that ‘the odds of being an at-risk gambler were higher among non-white ethnic groups, being 2.6 – 3 times higher among those from black/black British and Asian/Asian British groups.’ In 2016, it was revealed that almost two thirds of Paddy Power’s branches were located in areas with above-average levels of non-UK born population. Their average weekly profit per FOBT machine (£1300) was substantially higher than the industry standard (£1000). Sadiq Khan, then running for London Mayor said, ‘Almost every area of London with high non-UK born populations has been targeted by them—not just one or two shops, but dozens in the same areas and in some cases on the same high street.’
Rather than tackle the issue, the rise of FOBTs saw the gambling industry turn in on itself. Fearing that the success of FOBTs would lead to an overall crackdown on gambling, those parts of the industry which didn’t benefit from FOBTs campaigned against them: amusement arcade organisation Bacta, Hippodrome Casinos, and JD Weatherspoons (who make money from fruit machines) jointly lobbied MPs to reduce the maximum stake on FOBTs. In response, the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) fought back, citing research that claimed there was ‘no consistent evidence that particular gambling activities are predictive of problem gambling.’ And all the while, the problem gamblers played on.
In 2018, the government finally decided to take action of FOBTs, agreeing to cut the maximum stake on the machines from £100 to £2. But even this decision proved controversial. Tracey Crouch, the Sports Minister who had ordered the original review into the machines, resigned when the date to introduce this was put back from April to October 2019—a decision, Crouch claimed, because of lobbying by MPs with ties to the betting industry. Bookmakers claimed they needed the additional time to prepare for the move. Campaigners suggested they—and the Treasury—were more interested in banking another six months of profit. In a letter to the Chancellor Philip Hammond, Gambling With Lives claimed that, ‘Every month the stake implementation is delayed sees tens of thousands more young people becoming addicted and dozens of gambling-related suicides. The Chancellor would be morally bankrupt, should he continue to side with the bookmakers.’ In the end, it took a threatened rebellion of over 100 MPs which led to the delay being dropped.
Will the reduced maximum stake make a difference? Clearly, if you’re betting £2 rather than £100 a go, that will change things for some people. But the fact remains that each go still only takes twenty seconds. If you’re hooked into these machines, you could still be pumping in £6 a minute, £360 an hour, over £1000 in a three-hour session. And from what I’ve seen, people don’t play for the maximum amounts but for what they’ve got. For those players, playing for smaller amounts, the pull of FOBTs will continue.
* * *
The taxi back home from Blackpool was one of the worst rides of my life. I could feel the cost of it as we drove, that I’d spent eighty quid I didn’t have on it was just a waste. I remember the taxi driver putting the radio on and having music blaring out while I sat in the back, not speaking or making eye contact. I was coming down from drugs, and that didn’t help my mood.
I didn’t want to go home. I’d left by setting up an argument and was going to have to go back to my partner and pretend that none of this had happened, that I’d been staying with my mum as I said I had, and that everything was fine and I was really sorry and I was better now. I couldn’t tell him that I’d been to Blackpool, that I’d done a shitload of speed and that I’d won and lost over two grand. I couldn’t tell him that I’d gone to the seaside to remind myself of happy memories of childhood, to see the sea and wander on the beach and eat chips, but all I’d done instead was to sit in a backstreet bookmakers the entire weekend, never even made it to the seafront. I couldn’t tell him about all the things we could have done with the money. The new TV, or something else nice for the house. The holiday. The loans we could have cleared. These were just possibilities, fleeting thoughts that for a few hours had been real, sat there spread out in notes on my bed, but which I’d opted instead to spend on tapping a single button again and again and again and again.
At moments like these, I’d withdraw within myself. I just wanted to curl up and disappear. The loneliness, the isolation from my addiction was absolute. Not only was there no one I could talk to about this, but I was going to have to gear myself up to pretend as though everything was okay. Behave in a way that was the complete opposite of how I was feeling.
How I was feeling was on edge. I could feel this massive build-up of pressure pressing down on me, squashing me, pinning me down. I felt trapped, as though there was no way out. The thought of coming clean, revealing how deep in I really was, made me feel cold with humiliation. I felt sick at just the thought of it. The only choice I had was to carry on—to work out how I was going to borrow more money and gamble my way out of the hole I was in.
I’d gone to Blackpool worried about my drug habit. Even when I was in the bookies, winning and losing that money, I was more worried that people might think I was on drugs than them thinking I was gambling. But in that taxi on the way back, as I watched the headlights and red lights zip back and forth on the motorway, I had one of those moments of clarity. Drugs, I realised, weren’t the problem. The fact that I’d gone to Blackpool to binge, that I had the foresight and planning to do that, showed I was in control of the drugs, rather than the other way around. I had the power to stop taking them whenever I liked.
But gambling. Like a car undertaking on the motorway, it had slipped up without me even noticing. Counting up my losses, I realised that I had been gambling away values ten times what I was spending on drugs. I thought I might have been a drug addict, but it had never really crossed my mind that my gambling was a problem. I knew people who were drink and drug addicts—people who talked about their battle with the bottle or with the needle. But no one ever talked about gambling. And so it wasn’t something that I had ever particularly considered or worried about.
Blackpool was a terrible experience in so many ways. But it was an important one too: I went thinking I was one sort of addict and came back realising I was another. I wanted to take drugs, but I needed to gamble. That was the difference. And though getting off drugs if you’re properly addicted is no easy thing to do, I was about to discover that a gambling addiction was every bit as insidious and that quitting it could be even harder. The fact that society didn’t recognise this, the fact that you could live your life without people knowing you even had an addiction made it all that more difficult. It was a secret, private, lonely addiction. And I was extremely adept at keeping secrets.