James Moore: Bookies are on a winning streak, but it might not last much longer

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The Independent Online

Today's gambler can access a bewildering array of betting opportunities at the click of a mouse from a vast selection of online bookies, each touting better odds and more exciting promotions than the last. Maximising one's returns with the aid of price comparison sites is child's play. And yet the popularity of the betting shop endures.

Part of its appeal is social: misery loves company and if you're going to lose you might as well do it among like-minded friends. And the modern betting shop is no longer the slightly hostile, cigarette smoke filled, spit and sawdust affair of yore. The big betting companies have spent millions refurbishing their estates. Their modern gaming emporia are likely to have shiny imitation wood floors, as opposed to mildewed carpet, and to offer a range of snacks and soft drinks. This isn't Las Vegas. There are no scantily clad cocktail waitresses to bring drinks as you play, but the last time I entered a Coral shop, I was at least offered a free cup of tea by a smiling shop assistant.

And in recessionary times, should we really be so surprised that people seek a little escape from the gloom with the odd punt? Since the downturn, smaller stakes, placed more often, have become the order of the day.

Another reason for the shops' popularity, however, is darker: the spread of the fixed-odds betting terminal, once dubbed the "crack cocaine of gambling". All flashing lights and electronic bleeps, they present a irresistible allure for some, an irritation for the traditional punter, and a worry for those who deal with the impact of gambling addiction.

But the tax upon them is rising, and they are making less money. In fact, betting shops in general are feeling the squeeze. William Hill is likely to close unprofitable shops this year. Others may follow. Tax and sharply rising costs are taking a big chunk out of their earnings. The betting shop's high street renaissance may not last much longer.