Why prolong this losing streak?: David Spanier deplores Britain's outdated and obsessive controls on casino gambling

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BRITISH love to gamble. Dogs, horses, football, almost anything that moves attracts the public's betting fancy. What is less celebrated is their enthusiasm for casino gambling.

In the last financial year gamblers staked pounds 1,525m at roulette, still the most popular casino game in Britain. The overall 'drop', or money exchanged for chips, rose to a record pounds 2,230m, a rise of 8 per cent, according to the Gaming Board for Great Britain's annual report, published yesterday. London's 21 casinos took two-thirds of the money, or pounds 1,486m, a rise of 10 per cent.

After paying out the winners, the casinos' overall 'win' was more than pounds 400m - not bad going, one might say, in a time of recession.

Yet, despite years of handsome wins, casinos in Britain remain a secret society. Hardly anyone knows what goes on behind the elegant facades of those half-dozen Mayfair town houses which offer some of the highest stakes gaming in the world.

For in gambling, the besetting English sin is hypocrisy. Nowhere is the pretence that gambling is not really part of our culture more suspect than in casino regulation. Its motivating spirit stems far more from mandarin ideas of protecting people from themselves than from popular taste.

Thus, in Britain's casinos there is no entertainment, no music, no slot machines (apart from two per casino), no drinks at the table, restricted hours of play and, above all, the absurd rule that you must sign on 48 hours in advance if you want to play, in case (perish the thought) someone might walk into a casino off the street just on impulse. This rule is particularly irksome to overseas visitors.

The regulation of casino gambling by the Gaming Board, which comes under the Home Office, is not open to scrutiny or debate. In its strictness and privacy the board has resembled a Star Chamber - not an inappropriate comparison, given that until the Gaming Act of 1968 most regulations followed the prohibitions to protect archery dating from Henry VIII. And the casino industry itself, though it turns over millions nightly, and in its huge earnings of foreign currency might be considered a national treasure, it is so scared of speaking out that it has almost lost its voice.

Recently, however, the Gaming Board has begun to ease its application of certain rules, most significantly on licensing. Previously, if a casino was judged by the board not 'fit and proper' to hold a gaming licence, it was equivalent to the death sentence. The whole operation was liable to be shut down, lock, stock and limousines: the managers were barred for life, staff lost their jobs, and the casino premises might be disqualified for a period of years.

Such sentences were handed down even for technical (as opposed to criminal) offences, such as infringement of cheque cashing procedures, credit regulations and so on; such reasons were behind the closure at the start of the Eighties of the Playboy casino. The only appeal was to the courts, but this was a long, expensive and very uncertain remedy. The board was invariably backed up by the police.

However, the circumstances surrounding the threatened closure of one of the most successful casino groups in the country seems to have prompted a significant change in procedure. In 1992 London Clubs, which owns about 40 per cent of the business in London, was declared 'not fit and proper'. The verdict followed a dawn raid on its Mayfair casinos by a posse of police and gaming inspectors.

Although the then managers of London Clubs strenuously denied the (undisclosed) charges and prepared to defend themselves in court, they never got their say. The executive directors of the company, representing the interests of the banks and other investors, struck a secret deal with the Gaming Board, whereby the top management of London Clubs agreed to resign their positions and the company surrendered its licences.

In return, the board and the police agreed not to oppose the restructured company (now thriving again) in securing new licences. It was a murky deal, the details of which have never been properly aired. But the net result was to save the clubs and their employees and, above all, the investors, at the expense of the former managers.

At the climax of this drama, a new chairman of the Gaming Board was appointed. Lady Littler decided, on the advice of her officials who had instigated the London Clubs investigation, to clarify policy. The board 'does not seek the closure of casinos', she explained, 'with all that that would entail, merely as a punitive measure, if problems can be eliminated effectively and propriety restored by less draconian means.'

This seemed to offer a middle way between closure and the courts, and was welcomed by many in the industry. But the process of change is evidently to be closely controlled. Yesterday's report says that the board is sympathetic to proposals for increasing the number and payouts of slot machines in casinos, introducing new games, and changing the parts of the country where casinos are permitted to reflect shifts in population. The trouble from the casinos' point of view is that all these changes would require legislative decision, and there is little political impetus among MPs.

The advent of a National Lottery in Britain, however, gives the state a direct stake in gambling. Down the ages church and state have always been opposed to gambling. Now, for the first time (no matter how ministers may protest), the Government will be encouraging people to gamble. This should open up the debate.

Gambling used to be condemned as a sin. Then it became tolerated as a sort of social offence (like prostitution). Nowadays it is seen, all round the world, as part of the entertainment business. If people want to gamble, they should be allowed to do so. Setting the limits is the trick.

The writer is poker correspondent of the 'Independent'.

(Photograph omitted)