Chips with everything

Next month, the Government will publish a new bill, opening the way for walk-in, Las Vegas-style casinos on high streets around the country. But are we ready for such high-rolling entertainment? Malcolm Macalister Hall went to meet the likely winners and losers in Britain's gambling revolution
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It's 10pm - early, really. I slick back my hair, stuff some cash in my back pocket; Francine puts on her tartiest dress, and we're off. At the Barracuda Club in central London, the sharks are already snapping and the fish are in a feeding frenzy. There's so much action on the roulette tables that it's hard to push in. The chips are stacked high in little coloured towers all over the tables, and wads of £20 and £50 notes are tossed urgently across the baize to buy even more, taller towers. The ball skips and clicks merrily as it finds its slot in the roulette wheel - 0 to 36, red or black, odd or even, win or lose.

The punters - a United Nations mix of English, Middle Eastern, Asian and the obligatory betting-mad Chinese - show no emotion as the losers' towers of chips, worth hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds, are summarily demolished and swept in armfuls down the chute into the club's coffers. There's no time for regrets because the next spin of the wheel is coming up in a moment, and everyone's stacking chips as if there's no tomorrow. Maybe there won't be a tomorrow. You give me odds on that? Whatever, be lucky...

The Barracuda's basement gaming room is open until a wallet-draining 6am. Are there many people still here at dawn? "You'd be surprised," says the barman, mixing a double vodka and tonic. "We do breakfast from 2am..." In the Barracuda's atmosphere of easy camaraderie, men with expensive-looking watches and girlfriends greet each other, lounge on sofas with silk cushions, and drift from blackjack table to roulette table and back again. A belly dancer does a turn. And even idiot rookies like us are given a proper welcome. A helpful manageress walks us round and shows us the How to Play Casino Games touch-screen. It seems to work. Breaking all the rules of gambling, we quit while we're ahead and cash in our roulette winnings - a heady, dizzying £19.

At 1am, a mile away on the Edgware Road, the Grosvenor Victoria Casino - until recently Britain's biggest - is going like a train. A plaque in the foyer ostentatiously proclaims that one player won a £265,000 jackpot in June. It's the same United Nations line-up on the two floors upstairs. After the plush intimacy of the Barracuda, this place's harsh lighting and industrial styling are a jolt. Monte Carlo it isn't: more motorway service area meets Gatwick airport, complete with nasty aroma of burger and fries. But all around, the cards and chips and wads of twenties and fifties are flying across the tables: blackjack, poker, punto banco, roulette. The dice are tumbling at a craps game in one corner. The wheels and cherries are spinning on roulette and fruit machines. And beside the Super Stud Poker tables, an electronic display linked to all Grosvenor's 31 UK casinos races higher and higher, showing the winner-takes-all jackpot for a royal flush. It's at £29,890 and counting - fast.

"How do you play this?" says Francine, to no one in particular. "You don't play it," replies a man at the table, chucking in his hand. "It plays you. Somebody won £198,000 last week - just after I left," he says, with a rueful smile.

Nearly all the figures and statistics indicate that Britain has caught gambling fever, and caught it bad. Some numbers: earlier this month the bookmakers William Hill announced profits of £101.9m in just six months, on a turnover of £2.7bn, up 72 per cent on the previous half-year. In 1997, Britons gambled a total of £24.8bn; by last year this was up to £31.9bn. A report from Mintel, the market research company, shows that between 1997 and 2001, the total spent on betting at high-street bookmakers was up by 33 per cent to £9.1bn. Money spent on bingo was up by 14 per cent, and at casinos, up by 31 per cent. And Britain's slot machines swallow £8.4bn a year. In its survey of nearly 2,000 adults aged 18 and over, Mintel found that 70 per cent had taken part in some form of gambling, including the national lottery.

And with the publication of the draft Gambling Bill next month, Britain appears to be on the verge of a gambling revolution. The arcane restrictions on casinos - dating from the 1960s, when gambling was regarded as one of the direct routes to Hell - should, it is proposed, be mostly removed. Under the current laws, Britain's 123 casinos cannot advertise, are permitted only in certain areas that were prescribed in the 1960s, and must enforce a 24-hour waiting period between registering new customers and allowing them to play. It's hardly surprising that very few Britons have ever been to a casino - only 6 per cent, according to Mintel - and many of those visits were made on trips abroad.

Under the Bill, which is expected to become law by summer 2005, all these restrictions will go, opening the way for huge, walk-in Las Vegas-style casinos. One estimate suggests that deregulation could lead to 450 new small casinos, or 250 larger ones, in Britain (although the British Casino Association says that, given the huge investment required to build a new casino, this forecast is way over the mark).

Blackpool, for one, is betting on the Gambling Bill to revive its fortunes, and to make it a European Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Leisure Parcs, which already owns the town's piers, the Winter Gardens and the tower, submitted an outline planning application in 2001 for a project called Pharaoh's Palace, an Egyptian-themed casino hotel on the promenade. Councillors have voted to support casino hotels as a route to economic regeneration. Here and elsewhere, big American corporations look certain to move in. A Las Vegas casino operator has reportedly already approached a string of Premiership football clubs with proposals to open casinos in their stadiums. And another US company is said to have plans for a string of regional casinos in cities such as Sheffield.

Under the Bill, a new Gambling Commission will replace the hotchpotch of archaic-sounding bodies (such as the Horserace Totalisator Board) which control different areas of betting. Already, on the internet, you can see why the 1960s legislation is hopelessly out of date. There are thousands of ways to win - and lose - money. Some are weirder than others. Alongside the football and online casinos, you can bet or lay odds on the capture of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein (last week you could get 9-1 for Saddam to be collared this month); or on the 2012 Olympic host city (Paris 15-8, London 2-1, Havana 100-1); or the next General Election (Labour 2-11, Conservatives 3-1, Lib Dems 40-1); or on whether the American basketball superstar Kobe Bryant will face trial for alleged sexual assault; or whether Hillary Clinton will be the Democrats' Presidential candidate; a truly bewildering array of sports bets on everything from darts and hurling via US motor racing, cricket, dogs, baseball, boxing and poker, to Gaelic football; and even the weather. You can choose scripts in Chinese and Japanese, and bet on the geekier aspects of Premiership football: total number of corners, total goals, time of first goal, the half with most goals, and more.

Most of these sites ­ with names such as TradeSports, Betfair, Betsson and Betdaq ­ are online betting exchanges, which are themselves revolutionising the market (there are a reported 12,000 bets laid or placed every minute). Here, site users bet against each other, with the option to act as either a punter (and place a bet); or as a "bookie", where you set your odds and wait for someone else to put money on them or "match" them. As of yesterday, on Betfair, more than £2m had been matched on the outcome of the 2003/04 Premiership. And it's only just kicked off.

In the Government's response to the Gambling Review Body's 2001 report ­ on whose 176 recommendations much of theBill will be based ­ the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, notes in her foreword that "the law on gambling is now out of date. It no longer reflects the society in which we live". (For example, all the internet betting sites are based offshore ­ many in the Republic of Ireland ­ as they cannot currently be operated legally from the UK.)

The policy background statement talks of a "shift in public attitudes towards gambling. It has become more socially acceptable, with about two out of three people playing the National Lottery [Lotto] regularly". Both critics and supporters of gambling say that the lottery has done more than any other single factor to popularise and destigmatise gambling in Britain.

The Bill's stated aims will be to prevent gambling being a "source of crime and disorder"; to ensure gambling is conducted in a "fair and open way"; and to "protect children and other vulnerable persons from being harmed or exploited by gambling". The current laws impose "unnecessary restrictions on the ability of business to meet consumers' wishes", and Jowell notes that "properly managed and run, gambling can create wealth and jobs... in modernising, we need to strike the right balance between economic gain and social protection".

But many hardened gamblers are not convinced. They believe that the effects of deregulation will be that more people will lose more money, and more people will become addicted. One member of Gamblers Anonymous warned: "Back in the early Seventies, when bookmakers weren't around, people were anti-gambling. Now, with the lottery, it's become acceptable ­ it's on TV several times a week. Ladbrokes has even set up coffee-shop-style branches to try to attract women and get away from the old-men-in-raincoats image. But gambling is a black hole. The profits of bookmakers ­ that's money taken out of the community."

And Blackpool, he says, should think hard about its dream of becoming the Las Vegas of Europe. "Blackpool's got its problems already, but add in people going up there and losing all their money. Two weeks' holiday with the family and it's raining ­ and you go in the casino for a laugh. And you lose your money. And there's a hotel bill to pay. What," he asks, "happens then?"

Loser: 'One day I went to William Hill and lost £4,000. But only £800 of that was mine'

A "risk assessment" appended to the draft Gambling Bill documents notes that "extending choice and availability could lead to an increase in problem gambling", and adds that there are estimated to be 275,000 to 375,000 problem gamblers in Britain (fewer than 1 per cent of the population). Now aged 47 and a market stall holder, Patrick was one of them. In 16 years' of gambling he says that he lost close to £500,000.

"It got to the stage that nothing else mattered ­ nothing else got paid. If you've got £200 in your pocket and a final demand phone bill of £100, every normal person would pay the phone bill. But not me. That £200 is my stake money. I go into the bookmakers with it to win £100 to pay the bill. Sometimes I would win it ­ and sometimes I would even pay the bill. But the problem is that even when you think you've hit rock bottom, you find you're just on a ledge ­ and you can go down further."

He says his gambling had its genesis when, aged 13, he picked the 1969 Grand National winner. He can still remember it all ­ the horse, the odds, even the trainer. "I'd picked a winner with my first-ever bet. There was the thrill of getting 16 weeks' pocket money in one go. More than that, no one else in my family had got it ­ I was the clever one."

Later, as an accountancy student in London, he went to a bookies one day with friends ­ and got four winners, and £150; not bad, in 1975. "Soon I wanted to be in the bookies more than at lectures," he says. He left college without a degree, and worked in a series of office jobs.

"Gradually the gambling was taking over. Relationships were coming and going because nothing was as important as the gambling. It got to the stage where I got £5,000 redundancy, and I got through that, and an extra £3,000, in the next eight weeks, all on horses and dogs. That's when I should have realised I had a problem, but I didn't because I thought I was just working hard and playing hard. People take holidays ­ but not me; I told myself I didn't need them because I was having so much fun."

In his next job, at an accountancy firm, he was ­ fatefully ­ put in charge of the petty cash. "There comes the day when a guy pays in £3,000 in £50 notes, and it gets put in the box. I insisted on it being put in a separate safe ­ but unfortunately I had the key to that too. So on a Saturday morning in 1991, I went into William Hill and lost £4,000 in one day ­ the problem being that only £800 of it was mine. The other £3,200 was the firm's petty cash. Even though at one stage I was £1,100 up after a good win, that wasn't enough. I'm a compulsive gambler ­ I can't stop when I'm winning, and I can't stop when I'm losing.

"Then you walk out into the sunshine and see everyoneenjoying themselves, and you've just thrown your life away. You're feeling like death. You stagger home with £10 left in your pocket, and try to pass the bookmakers..."

Patrick got two years' probation, and lost his job. "My giro turned up four days after I'd been sentenced, and I gambled that away within half an hour. A couple of days later a friend asked me to pick up £40 he was owed for a tax disc refund on his car. I go into the bookies with it. And walk out with nothing."

Finally, he locked himself in his north London flat and called Gamblers Anonymous (GA). Now, he hasn't had a bet for nearly 12 years. He also acts as a spokesman for Gamblers Anonymous. "GA does not wish to ban gambling; we recognize it's fun for millions of people," he says. But he adds that GA believes the Government has not properly assessed the risks of deregulation.

"What we ask is that the Government and the public recognize that up to 3 per cent of the population have the potential to have a gambling problem. That's from studies in the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand ­ they're all coming up with 2.5-3 per cent. And they've had liberalised gambling for far longer than we have. They've also done far more research into it."

One German study has claimed that gambling is as addictive as smoking ­ but Patrick indicates it's worse. "It takes over your life, full stop," he says. "It's the thrill of being in action. Even the super-rich still gamble ­ they've got all the money they're ever going to need, so why are they gambling to win more? Because it's not about the money, in the end. It's the thrill. It's the danger of having everything on the line. And you don't even realise it at the time."

Winner: 'I paid my wife's credit card, did the house up and went on holiday'

Colin is 33 and works in a central-London advertising agency. He says that in the last two years alone, he's stung one of the big bookmaking chains for £12,900 by exploiting a time-lag between the odds and the scores on golf tournaments in the USA.

"I used to do the horses a lot, then I started getting interested in golf," he explains. "I used to watch on the internet, updating the scores. And when I went to the bookies I noticed that because of the time difference between here and the States, they still had the starting prices up even though the tournament was under way, and I knew one player was already six shots ahead of another player. I used to just lump on them ­ and it was all cheats," he grins.

"Then I started getting a greedy and laying out big amounts; and they started querying it. I learnt that they only ring head office if a bet's over £300. So I always made the bets come to about £298.27, or something. I had the sums worked out in my head as I put the bet on ­ I'd put on silly amounts such as £13.25 treble, because I knew that would come to just under £300.

"Then I found out where every one of the chain's shops were in London, and I'd go to every one because their screens were all out of sync with the US golf. All the other bookies were fine, but this one wasn't ­ so I was all over London.

"How much did I make? It's been £12,900 in the last two years, but before that I never kept a tally. But it was a lot of money. I paid my wife's credit-card bill off, about six grand; I did the house up, spent another four grand on that; we had a two-grand holiday; and I went to New York and paid everything cash. It was brilliant, and the best thing was that this chain even let me do it on account as well, so I opened up five different accounts, in five different names ­ my brother's, my wife's, and so on ­ and with five phone calls I'd put the same bet on the golf, £100 to win five times ­ and it was as good as won already!" he laughs, still finding it hard to believe.

"I had my brother running for me to a shop nearby, and we had them over, big time ­ three grand in about two weeks. Then I got caught badly, so I offered the bloke £40 and he just ripped it out of my hand and gave me the rest of my £300 win. Some managers are aware of the time lag, but some just think if the price is up there, it must be right. It's not their money, so they don't care. They just want horses coming in and a bloke with £100 on a loser, and in a minute they've made £100. They don't want all these complicated golf events. They can't be bothered to work it all out."

After four months, he got a letter about his account. "It was from the big boss, saying, 'We have shut your account for commercial reasons', but really I'd ripped them off big style, and they'd found out," he smiles. "And now I'm banned from about 25 of their shops. But their screens are still rubbish. There's a four-day tournament on right now, and there's one guy who's five under par. He was 100-1 at the start, and now he should be about 33-1. But this chain has still got him at 100-1, the same price as yesterday before the tournament began.Why? 'Cos they're thick."

He now has 10 accounts with various other bookmakers. "I once thought, should I go to Gamblers Anonymous? But I've never not paid my bills, I've always had money for the family. But it's on my mind every day."

So what are the odds?

Roulette

The basics: a game of chance played on a wheel with 18 red and 18 black numbers, plus one or two zeros.

The technique: look for a table that has one zero (the zeros are how the casino makes its money). The advantage for the house in this case (more common in Europe) is only 2.7 per cent. US tables with two zeros give the house a 5.26 per cent advantage.

The result: over time, you will lose money, whatever your strategy.

Blackjack/Pontoon

The basics: draw cards that add up to 21 or as near as possible without "busting".

The technique: experienced players get a feel for when the odds favour a hit (be dealt another card), stand, double down (double your bet, receive another card) or split (play and bet on each of two same-value cards). The dealer plays their hand last, after all the players at the table. This rule creates the house advantage, which is 5.9 per cent.

The result: don't expect more than 1 per cent profit, even if you're very good.

Dice, Craps, etc

The basics: throw two dice and predict the outcome.

The technique: the house takes a percentage or cut out of every bet using a variety of methods. In some cases, you are paid odds that are less than true. For example, if you make a straight wager on the number 8 (a "place" bet), instead of paying true odds of 6-5 (or 1.2-1), the house pays adjusted odds of 7-6 (or 1.167-1), for a 1.52 per cent advantage. In other cases, the house pays true odds but only after an up-front commission (called vig) has been paid. For example, you may buy a bet for a 5 per cent vig. In others, you first make a "flat" bet that pays even money before you may place what is called an odds bet that pays true odds.

The result: unless the dice are loaded in your favour, you will ultimately lose.

Poker

The basics: a card game in which players bet on hands held, relying on bluff to outwit opponents. The player with the highest hand recognised in the game wins the pool. Many variants, including Texas Hold 'Em, Six Card Stud etc.

The technique: years of practice in smoke-filled rooms. Learn which initial cards are worth betting on and when to fold. Learn probabilities of various outcomes; in Five Card Stud, the probability of a royal flush is 1-649,350; of three of a kind, 1-47.

The result: a game of skill at which you could grow rich.

Lotto

The basics: players bet £1 on outcome of a national draw of six balls, numbered 1 to 49.

The technique: odds of picking all six numbers: 1 in 13.98 million. Odds of five correct and the Thunderball: 1 in 3,895,584. Odds of being hit by lightning: about 1 in 750,000. Odds of winning any prize: 1 in 57 (that is, a £57 investment will on average net £10). Odds of winning prize on Firework Fortune instant game: 1 in 4.

The result: fat chance of winning.

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