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UK Politics

The great pub gambling machine ‘rip-off’

Digital games haul in cash for pubs, but what are the odds of a win? Ten times worse than in a casino…

Thousands of roulette, poker and blackjack gambling machines in Britain’s pubs are offering vastly lower returns than their real-life casino and betting shop equivalents, The Independent can reveal.

Digital gambling machines are an increasingly lucrative revenue stream for the struggling pub industry, but fairer-gambling campaigners have warned that tens of thousands of gamblers are being “misled” into wagering their cash at terrible odds in pubs.

An investigation by The Independent has uncovered casino-style games, including roulette, poker and blackjack, being offered at inferior odds at pubs operated by J D Wetherspoon, Enterprise Inns, Punch Taverns and Spirit Pub Company, which operates the Taylor Walker pub chain. Machines in other pub chains are also likely to be offering similarly inferior odds.

Roulette and blackjack are often favoured by gamblers because they offer a reasonably gamer-friendly “edge” – the term for the margin the casino or machine operator takes from each bet. However, digital gaming machines in pubs offer far inferior odds, sometimes up to 10 times worse than in a casino.

The so-called mathematical “edge” in roulette in favour of the house, when played correctly, is 2.7 per cent over a long period of betting. This means that the house keeps £2.70 for every £100 in bets.

Digital games seen by The Independent and operated by major high street pub chains work with margins of up to 24 per cent, often with little hint to gamers that they are playing at such inferior odds. In cash terms this means the games-machine operator keeps £24 for every £100 in bets.

These touch-screen games are regulated by the Gambling Commission as “Category C” gaming machines – the same class as traditional fruit machines in pubs – and offer a maximum £100 return with a £2 maximum bet. There are up to 50,000 Category C machines in the UK.

Until now, pub machines have escaped criticism directed at higher-stake Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) – the so-called “crack cocaine of gambling” found in betting shops – but campaigners argue that they act as a “gateway” to harder forms of gambling.

These odds are perfectly legal under Gambling Commission rules as long as the operator makes it clear the “chances of winning differ from an equivalent real game”. Often, though, this takes the form of an on-screen message buried in a machine’s help pages.

Adrian Parkinson, spokesman for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, said: “If a player tries their hand at roulette thinking they are playing the same game as in a casino or on a betting-shop machine, they are very much mistaken. In fact, they are being ripped off.”

A spokesman for the Gambling Commission said: “Manufacturers, suppliers and retailers should assure themselves that the rules of any casino-variant-style games are transparent, to ensure customers understand them. Failure to do so could lead to formal regulatory action for breaching the Gambling Commission’s technical standards.”

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is responsible for gambling legislation, refused to comment.

Clive Efford, the shadow minister responsible for gaming, said: “If Labour wins the next election one of the first things I will be doing … is making sure we start a discussion with the Gambling Commission to ensure we make people more aware of the odds of these games.”

Campaigners are calling for firmer action, fearing that the pub industry is using these casino-style games to “test the water” before lobbying to allow even FOBT  games in pubs.

Few gaming-machine operators or makers responded to The Independent’s request for comment. But the IOA Group, which represents 14 gambling-machine operators, supplying more than 25,000 machines to the pub sector, defended the industry. Chairman John Powell said: “Every supplier would probably have a game that features roulette … but roulette is always a secondary feature of the machine, which you may be offered … I’m not going to tell you how machines are programmed. That is commercially sensitive information.”

The major pub chains insist they work within gambling regulations; J D Wetherspoon and Punch Taverns told The Independent that digital casino-style games form a minority of their Category C machines. Spirit Pub Company says it abides by all regulations.

A spokesperson for Bacta, the trade body representing parts of the gambling industry, said: “Games machines in pubs are exactly that – games machines. They are designed to be played as a form of amusement, where users pay a small amount to play a game with a small chance of winning something back.“