Online is the scariest.

by | Apr 14, 2020

Online is bloody scary, it’s a lonely, hectic littered environment of huge amounts of different operators—all faceless profiteering beasts. Around 2,860 different licenced domains in the UK, each for different gambling operators. Many operators ‘spin’ up many brands, each aiming for a different type of gambler.

Gambling online and the laws it has to follow was introduced back in 2005. Leading up to this, Tessa Jowell, the then Culture Secretary, described what is today a soulless profiteering beast of an industry in a very different light, “Our gambling laws date back to the 1960s. Since then, attitudes to gambling have changed and the law has failed to keep pace with rapid technological change. Gambling is now a diverse, vibrant, and innovative industry and a popular leisure activity enjoyed in many forms by millions of people. The law needs to reflect that.” It was the bill that passed following this that resulted in the epidemic of gambling addiction we have today.

The act set had three basic principles. The third is failed on an hourly basis—protecting children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling.

If a person was to visit a casino every night for a few hours, it would soon be noticeable. Questions would be asked into where you were going, relationships would be strained with accusations of cheating being likely, for example. Online gambling is the solution to all your addiction needs. It’s open 365 days a year, even Christmas day (I’ve been there Christmas morning, spinning the slots, as all the football matches are off). You don’t need to speak to a single person, just complete a form. You can stake up to £2,000 a spin on a slot machine, you can even stake a higher value than your mortgage on a single roulette wheel spin, it has to cater to millionaires after all. 

They will educate in the addictive traits it can beget through support pages, ensuring to teach you it’s all about self-awareness, self-control, and self-set limits. You can do it, it’s all on your shoulders to make sure that their flashing lights, spinning wheels, and ever enticing promotions don’t keep you hooked. 

The way that gambling is looked at still with a stigma as a self-inflicted addiction is a huge factor in the mental effects, often giving you even more pressure to never tell another soul. It’s all done to yourself. This needs to change, operators need to become more transparent and honest, we as a whole need to learn to support any addiction with understanding.

Online Operators are unique in their nature, they make the most profit from those most vulnerable and addicted. Often, losing the most money turns you into their biggest VIP customer. The industry continues to reinforce this vision that there is a bold border between the majority of the ‘players’ and those of us referred to as ‘problem gamblers’. I passionately disagree with this. If we asked an operator how they spot a person who is an addict, we would likely get a rehearsed response I’ve heard many times before about responsibility being your own. I do not disagree with this, but my biggest irritant with this attitude is they develop their sites and gaming to be addictive by design. They purposefully design every new product with a crib sheet that has bullet points encouraging further gameplay and keeps customers spending more. When staring at your computer screen and waiting for the result, that flashing light on the screen, that animation of the ball moving, or the slot wheel slowly stopping were all coded and designed by a human with the aim to keep you staring and wanting more. 

A closing remark from a well-known operator to me in a recent email reads, “To maintain a safe gaming environment, we offer various responsible gaming tools such as the self-exclusion feature, take a break feature, deposit limits, and reality checks. All of these tools can be accessed from the responsible gaming page on our casino.” All this sounds great and like another way to pass the buck back to the player. 

‘Responsible Gambling’ is the buzz term. Why don’t we have any Responsible Operators? Battling addictions often fed by their own developer’s latest release to keep the spins going.

The internet, and technology in general, are astonishing and growing at a rate which gives a playground for many operators to continue to push more games and new ways to ‘enhance gameplay’. Technology now offers In-Play betting, Maximum stakes that are in the thousands for each spin of a slot, Virtual reality Poker through a VR headset, and even sites offering you ways to play the lottery on any country’s draw worldwide. The technology behind every game is built on the same principle—a random number generator that is set to allow gameplay to pay out a set amount. The problem with this simple, logical way is—gambling is addictive, as we know. Let’s imagine playing £100 on a slot if the ‘Return to Player’ is 96%, it means they will guarantee £96 is paid out during the lifecycle of the game. If you decided to continue playing with winnings, you would get 96% of this returned. So, every time, for entertainment, we get a small payout, and keep playing for that amount to recoup our losses, the odds are definitely not in our favour, it’s okay though, you can just walk away and never place another bet again…

I have gotten to know a gambling addict’s Dad who contacted me to speak about a ‘caring’ online casino operator who had presented him with an ultimatum of turning his son into the police or never see his £27,000 again. His son had used his Mum’s bank card during an overnight gambling spree. The situation was an awful battle of addiction, family, love, and uncertainty of how to get out the mess left behind from a few presses of a button on a website loaded onto a mobile phone whilst the ‘player’ was sat alone away from any other human contact. This ‘criminal’ was his son. An addict. He had been lured in since eighteen into online gambling and had found himself in a position not too distant from mine—payday debts, working overtime, and, worst of all, holding the weight of his secret online gambling.

 His Dad explained to me that his son has been battling with gambling and getting out of debt for a couple of years and that he had already paid a considerable amount of money to clear payday loans for his son once before. The problem this time was his son had stolen his Mum’s bank card, and within five short hours had been able to deposit £27,000 onto a single website, without a single human message, ID request, or even raised eyebrow that the card name didn’t match his account name. Oh, and to add onto this, the operator had many sites, the son was already self-excluded from many of these, but as this was another ’brand’, another domain, but going to the same server, in the eyes of regulations and public perception, it’s another place. Imagine your local nightclub having twelve entrances, each with another name above the door on a sign, but all lead to the same dance floor.

 The responsible gambling section of their website states that they ‘recognise that a small number of players struggle to control their gambling and we have a commitment to protect this vulnerable minority’. 

 The operator started to put up barriers to this family. First, refusing to speak to the Mum whose card had been used, advising her this was under data protection. They repeatedly told the Dad the only route was to report to police and to get the bank fraud investigation launched. What a position to be left in? The Dad was very clear when we spoke that it was his son, he understood that addiction had struck but really didn’t know what to do. There is no help for the parents, they are left outside. He was at breaking point with his son, going down the route of serious consideration to get police involvement. His dilemma—caring and help his son and losing the money, or brand him as a criminal.

He chose to stick by his son, starting by finding local support groups and going about this whole sad situation in a positive way. He took on the operator and continued to challenge them. If anyone was the criminal, surely the operators are just as bad, accepting unverified large sums of money, then withholding them from the card which deposited, as they knew how to play their own industry regulations. After some time and having to involve the media in what should have been a closed personal battle, the operator agreed to refund the deposited money. The Dad is now a proud campaigner against this murky industry that will always need addicts to survive. The son now goes to support groups and is also starting to stand tall and speak up against how he got into this situation and became addicted so young. We all have the same end goal—fair protection for the customers. You will only get responsible gamblers the moment you get responsible operators.

In 2017, £4.5billion was generated in online gambling, a hefty £2.6billion came from casino games, £1.6billion from betting on real-life events such as sports, £152million from betting exchanges, a new approach using technology where the customer can be the bookmaker and set the odds—peer to peer gambling, £153million from bingo and £26million from pool betting. Slot machine games alone were able to generate £1.8billion. This whole set of income statistics shows me one thing, the most profit is being made when there is a developer creating a new set of code, a new way to feed an addiction, a slot machine set to tingle the brain and cause the addictive traits to feed and grow. 

Sports betting is human nature in some ways—in case I sound bitter—I have never once said to ban gambling, I respect that many people enjoy a bet on a real-life event, my issue starts the moment a game is created purely to find a way to increase the income and includes the magical elements needed to make not spinning that one more time more difficult.

* * *

It’s the night before payday, alarm’s been set for an extra early start, it’s a big day ahead. I am going to change my life. Alarm is set for 03:55, five minutes before my hard-earned salary hits the bank. Lying in bed, I take a quick scroll through the matches coming up in the morning, see matches in distant lands of a vast array scheduled, from an under 15 football match to a tennis trophy match. I only need to find a way to get a single big win. Not a greedy amount, £10,000, and I’ll clear all my debts. 

I was under the illusion that one-month, things would be different. I wasn’t gambling to be greedy or for entertainment, I just thought it was a quick win solution to all the other burdens. I didn’t have a problem, I was in control, if I really wanted to, I could stay in bed until at least 7 am. The saddest part of talking about my ritual is, at the time, I would have thought every word of it was true. It took a long time to accept I actually was completely addicted. I always believed I had a bit of control. The reasons I didn’t think I was as extreme as many—I held a full-time job, I still could get out of bed, I hadn’t committed any crimes, and I didn’t think my depressing mood was affecting anyone else around me other than myself.

 The alarm is ringing, I’m quickly trying to turn it off as everyone else is asleep. I walk down to the front room in the dark and get perched on my chair, login, see that currently, I can bet on a handful of teams I don’t even know. The most ironic thing about this part is I dislike sports, I couldn’t watch an entire match if you paid me. I thrived in my head that I could get statistics and make decisions to bet on outcomes without emotional attachments. I almost felt in control when sports betting. 

I get my five accumulators set, each with a payout of around £5,000 for £100 stake on each. All I need is a single one to come in and I can make a considerable notch in my debts. I go to log off and start getting ready for the day ahead. I’m now thinking of gambling, I have awoken my urges, I nearly always decided to deposit another £200 and test my ‘luck’ on the slots, I started to spin, and it’s the same situation as every other time, I win money, but then I never can stop. I keep on playing until my balance is at zero. Now I’m frustrated and thinking how daft I’ve been, plotting how to get back the £200 I’ve lost. It’s coming up to 6 am, already £700 has left my bank account.

On the bus to work, I’m still thinking about each spin, wondering why I didn’t stop when I was up. I convince myself it must have been luck against me, the jackpot is still there just waiting for my moment. I justify in my head to put another £200 on, just to try to win back what I’ve deposited so far, giving me chance to start this month fresh with no losses to bets. As the bus goes along the route to work, the balance gets lower and lower. I’m now feeling stupid more than anything, I told myself last month never again, I start to think about the bills that still need to be paid with the money left.

I get off the bus and start the walk to work, another moment I hate, on payday especially, I have to pass thirteen different bookies just to get to my desk. I walk past the first four and I’m winning, I haven’t gone into a single one. My head is thinking about it and is telling me a quick ten minutes on an FOBT, win back some of what I’ve placed online. Cash point ahead, I decide to just get another £200 out. I walk into the next bookies I see, smile and say “good morning” to the person behind the counter, it’s only 7:30 am so it’s still fairly quiet, two other people are there, both staring at the screens on FOBT’s. I stand beside them on the third, start to press, press, press. Shit, the £200 is gone in minutes. The battles are now starting in my head, £1100 gone, cannot afford any more. I go to leave, and without fail, I get the overwhelming justification from my own mind telling me how daft I would be to leave now, I walk up to the cashier and ask to put “£200 on machine 3 from my card.” The same situation again, within minutes at all it’s all gone. I walk toward the door, face down, each step feeling heavy, knowing I’ve got eight and a half hours in the office to go.

I get to my desk, everyone else is happy, it’s payday. I’m now sat thinking about my bets online, they’re my only hope of getting some money back. I’m £1300 down, and it’s still not even 9 am. Well over 200 hours of work last month, near enough gone in less than two hours.

The morning ticks away, and one by one, each sports bet I placed looses, a match ends in a draw, or somehow the 6/1 outside team managed to score the winning goal. I am now depressed, skint, and still only able to think about a single thing—gambling. It’s thoughts mixed with anger at how it gets me every time, mixed with just as loud thoughts of thinking how to get more money to bet more, my luck must be in soon.

It’s the “routine” every month, I end up spending most of my day at work sneakily trying to apply for different loans, lying through my teeth to make my income and outgoings looking healthy, each one asks for a bank statement though, many refuse me, but then a new lender each month welcomes me and gets more money sent over. I would try to get all the minimum paid on the debts and bills, then be left with money in the bank… an addict can never have money left in the bank without the addiction putting pressure on to thrive more, I never went to bed with money left in the bank.

* * *

People often make the conclusion that to be a gambling addict you need to be betting throughout the entirety of every day. A problem gambler can bet occasionally, and still be causing just as many problems to their life. If you cannot afford to gamble and you still do, then it is a problem.

The headlines are always glorified with gambling horrors, talking about huge robberies to fund a gambling binge, a huge value lost in minutes, homes lost. All of this is scraping off the back to the front surface. The more worrying side of gambling in my opinion is the person who is depositing a few hundred pounds a week/month, it’s money they can’t afford to lose, but despite all the sanity and preparations, the urge overrides. Placing a bet can become an autonomous task, deposit, spin, bet.

Gambling—the social phenomenon human nature desires to do—is a bit of a sneak when it comes to online. It’s by design a pastime to be done alone, a pastime that can be hidden easily, a pastime that is there twenty-four hours a day, a pastime that can be done without a single interaction with another human. Research has estimated that there could be anywhere between 250 and 650 deaths in the UK each year related to gambling, the issue is, gambling has no physical side effects directly, if the next person sadly takes their own life but has told no one and doesn’t leave an explanation, we will never know. Gambling is ironically secretive in nature and always will be.

* * “

Currently, it is legal for any operator to treat the biggest losing customers as VIPs, to give bonuses out as they feel fit, to offer match tickets, and to give them a personal member of staff who provides all communications with this person. The operators know what they are doing—the addictions need feeding. 

The have data which would astonish us all on betting trends, the type of player each of us are, and when we are likely to come back. Think of your gambling profile being the same as a credit score, they are more likely to be able to predict the moments each one of their addicted customers is paid, what time they will next be logged in. They have a marketing email with your name on it already generated, ready to be sent if you do not log in at the time their system predicted to give you a bonus to get you online.

I sound bitter about the process, but it really annoys me how we live in a country that says it’s legal for data powerhouses, 3rd parties to the gambling operator, to number crunch our data from credit files, previous bets, and other sources we are oblivious to be being held about us to enable operators to profile us better than a tesco clubcard algorithm can.

With any other addiction, if you were seen to be at the grasp of it’s hold, you would be given a way to break the habit, reduce your intake, or be given routes to get support. With gambling, all support is always started and finished by yourself. Never would an operator step in, the people who are addicted are their profit margin, a ‘successful’ gambler costs them money. 

I don’t hold many good memories of online gambling, each time I started a ‘session’ I would be on my own, ensuring no one else knew. I would finally log off the site once I had no money left in my bank. I would then quickly sink into feeling panicked about how I would get through the rest of the month. I would be unsure of how I would cover this up to my partner, yet again. I would be thinking about getting to work, unsure how I could unless I got up extra early everyday to walk the five miles. I would leave myself in a position where I would be unsure how I would even get food for the month if I found myself alone. I was lucky to be living in a house with my Dad and my partner. Between the two of them, I could think of enough excuses and lies every month to borrow money, get my tea on the table, and sneak through another month without anyone knowing I was an addict.

About Danny Cheetham…

I am a Manchester-born previous disordered gambler which brought much pain and destruction to my life. I aim to never bet again. I believe gambling operators, financial lenders and banks, need to adopt more responsible safeguards. I feel that the current attitudes towards gambling and being in debt are due a change; too many people are left stigmatised or battling for longer than deserved.

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