Addiction accepted but give us gamblers better service!

THE JONNY GOULD COLUMN: IRC NEWSLETTERS ON WEDNESDAYS:

What was it I said in my last article? “My New Year’s resolution is not to be a grumpy old git”… Oh well – I lasted a fortnight! Apologies in advance IRC Newsletter Patrons, but yet again I’ve got my Soap-Box ramped up to the max.

This week I bite the hand that feeds me. This week I am taking a pop at the Gambling Industry.

I’ve gambled my whole adult life, and like 99% of gamblers I’ve lost way more than I have ever won.  I was once asked why I gambled. God knows to be honest, but I think it’s a combination of factors. Firstly I clearly enjoy it, I’m also an eternal optimist, but mainly because as a non-smoking, never stoned drinking minimalist I have always feared being the world’s most boring person if I didn’t have one naughty habit. I did once consider trying to be a sex addict – but couldn’t handle the mess!

Sadly and inevitably there is a dark side to gambling. Anything that becomes addictive will destroy lives, so if the industry wants to survive – let alone flourish – then it has a huge responsibility to at all times encourage a fun and healthy experience. And in fairness it seems most gambling organisations now take the issue of “healthy” gambling seriously.  But though I support these measures wholeheartedly, I also fear that the ordinary punter has been trampled on in the rush to satisfy the demands of governments and all anti-gambling lobbies, paired with the inevitable greed factor so prevalent in the industry.

Back in the ‘90’s I worked most Saturday’s as the Board man at the Clapham South I. Morris Bookmakers. I was paid about £30 for my troubles, which I would almost always lose before the shift had finished. Yet they were happy memories with a cast of characters worthy of any classic sitcom. Almost all of them punted money they could ill afford, but they were a happy bunch, content to be in the company of like-minded friends.

This was of course the pre-digital days when all runners were on posters attached to the wall that I would write up the odds on by hand. If you wanted to know the results of previous races they were there on the Board for all to see all day. There was no virtual racing to distract you or waste your money on, and you had time to chat and laugh and engage. By comparison Bookmakers now are soulless places. A wall of screens sells you products you more often than not don’t want, and the information you do want is almost impossible to find. Managers of Bookmakers rarely engage voluntarily, and God forbid they should venture out from behind their screens to update the Dog Form. Is it any surprise then a once booming High Street business is now for the most part a mere shadow of its former glory?

Back in 2015 the Cebr Study recorded that betting shops contributed £3.2 billion to the UK GDP, employed a workforce 100,000 strong and paid £1 billion into Her Majesty’s Government coffers.  Betting Shops also employed a significant percentage of women long before it was fashionable. But sadly, what at first glance appears to be a significant success story, in reality just concealed the poison behind the numbers, because this was the era of the gaming machines. These machines  proved so (unhealthily) successful for the Bookies, that nothing else mattered.

Greed totally overshadowed compassion. Figures from the Gambling Commission confirmed that Bookies made a £1.56 billion profit from these machines in 2013-14, compared with £1.48 billion from over the counter bets on horses, dogs, football and all other sports, but they also gave rise to an explosion of problems and a generation of addicted gamblers. This trend was only halted when the Government stepped in to limit deposits to just £2 per spin back in 2019. Inevitably overnight profits plummeted, and Bookies were left to rely on the traditional punter returning to their shops – only why would they? The environment was no longer welcoming, and Punters couldn’t ignore the feeling that technology was not there to improve their experience but just rip them off quicker.

Not that the Casino industry is any better. Do you (like me) long for the days when you had to be a member to attend a Casino? Do you long for the days when punters were expected to dress up for the occasion? And who ever thought it fair to ask punters to play roulette with a double zero? Can you believe some Punters actually opt for that wheel over the traditional one Zero wheel – go figure.

I’ve been a member of the Sportsman Casino just off Marble Arch in London for some 25 years now. I’m not a regular but I almost always lose, and for the most part lose with good grace. Just the sort of punter a Casino would cherish I’ve always naively assumed. Yet on my last visit a while back I was abruptly informed by the attendant on the door that I couldn’t enter as my account had been frozen. This he relayed unexplained in front of a number of fellow punters behind me, all of whom were waved through unimpeded. When I asked for an explanation he wouldn’t offer one, only telling me to wait at the side as a Manager would need to speak with me. I was genuinely made to feel that I had done something wrong.

HELLO AND WELCOME!  Well, one needs a lot of clout to be a sportsman these days!

I waited impatiently until a junior Manager finally arrived to inform me that the General Manager would be with me as soon as he was done talking with another customer. Not surprisingly I asked her what this was all about. The Junior Manager wouldn’t clarify, but suggested it was probably to check on the source of my funds so that they could satisfy the latest Anti-Money Laundering legislation. She said she hoped I was ok with waiting. So I told her – “No I’m not ok with waiting!” Bizarrely I didn’t enjoy being made to feel like a criminal. If I was money laundering then clearly I was really bad at it given the amounts and the regularity of my visits. I told her I thought it was a disgraceful way to treat a 25+ year Member who had never taken out credit, never caused any problems, and who almost always lost. I promptly left and I’ve never been back.

And what about US racing on Sky Sports – have you ever checked that out? The coverage is excellent but the racing is a joke.  Why do US racetracks not give a flying monkey about keeping to their schedule times? And how do you have a handicap over 5 furlongs where the field can be separated by 20 lengths with 2 of the 5 furlongs still to run? And what is it about the US Jockeys’ obsession with racing wide round every corner? Did you know US racing officials rarely penalise their jockeys for not riding a finish – hence you will see horses run who were clearly never given a chance to compete – and there are little to no consequences? How does that breed Punter confidence?

Mind you, none of this compares to my favourite memory of the infamous Ngong Racecourse in Nairobi, Kenya. Once the prettiest track in the world, you’ll remember I was not only the Course Commentator, but the Kenya Times Racing Correspondent within 7 weeks of arriving in Kenya in 1985. One of the first races I commentated on was a small field sprint over 6 furlongs. There was a huge punt on one horse that ended up going off odds-on. Also in the field was a monster of a horse –  all muscle and intent – generally on offer at about 4/1. It was clearly the value bet so I duly backed it with my lowly 100 bob note (now worth about £1). The favourite won as expected but I inevitably only had eyes for my horse.  The poor thing did everything in its power to win the race, only to have a jockey holding the reins as if he was doing bicep presses with a dumbbell. He was also standing up in the saddle with his knees locked. He made no effort to disguise his intent, and of course there were no consequences. Rather wonderfully he also almost failed, as my horse was so strong that it still almost won despite running the whole race with a human hand-brake on full lock.

I know it’s a mug’s game… and for the most part we punters accept that. But don’t treat us like mugs or I might have to give that sex-addiction thing another run-out!

Until next time. – IRC.

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