One of the Paddy Power shops in Newham, East London.
Apparently, there was a time when betting shops weren't the eternal roundabouts of despair and futility that they are today. At one point, they supposedly resembled something more celebratory – like the stands at the races without all the fascinators and more emphysema. Racing pundit, reality star and redundant misogynist John McCririck remembers the day bookies were first legalised in 1961: "It was glorious bedlam, packed out with punters shouting their horses home," he recalled a few years ago. "The place was filled with cigarette smoke, but that day a breeze of fresh air wafted into the lives of British punters."
Whether or not that's true, it's hard to think of a more depressing outpost of the modern British high street than the bookies. But one company who've fought hard to change that image is Paddy Power, the Emerald Isle's most successful foray into the gambling world. Their wacky deals and convenient machines, where customers are encouraged to blow their JSA on computerised roulette and simulated greyhound racing, puts their outlets somewhere between the traditional betting shop and an arcade. And when their Twitter account is so packed full of fun (not to mention timely) gags about Only Fools and Horses, SuBo and Stan Collymore, who in their right mind would ever question Paddy's status as the loveable leprechauns of British betting?
Well, it seems Newham council in East London would, considering they recently took Paddy Power to court for the proposed development of two new shops on Green Street. Of course, businesses trying to exploit poor people is nothing new, but Paddy Power’s methods of doing so are particularly sinister. Newham claimed that local residents, comprised of a high concentration of illegal immigrants, are particularly vulnerable to the high number of fixed-odds, high speed gambling machines – also known as FOBTs (fixed odds betting terminals) – that Paddy Power had planned to install in their new shops by the shed-load.
More akin an itbox than a fruit machine, the low-cost, easy-to-use games make them perhaps the most addictive form of gambling to hit the British high street, with a survey showing that 8.8 percent of FOBT players are problem gamblers. This, coupled with fact that they make an estimated £3.3 million a day in profit for Britain's bookies, has given rise to a phenomenon that is adding further devastation to lives that already seemed pretty fucking devastated before. Newham eventually lost their case, meaning the betting company now have the greenlight to plant more FOBT machines in what is one of the top ten poverty-stricken areas in both London and the country as a whole.
A map showing the number of existing Paddy Powers around Green Street.
Shops are currently limited to four FOBTs per site, but Paddy Power has cleverly got around this by – and it's a sophisticated concept, so bear with me – opening more sites. While I was hunting illegal immigrants with the UK border police in Newham last month, I noticed the number of betting shops along Green Lanes straight away. There were no fewer than three Paddy Powers, the third of which – a massive superstore – was being constructed on the corner of a road at the centre of the border police search.
Considering Paddy Power are able to dodge the laws surrounding FOBTs so easily, you might be wondering why the government haven't stepped in to regulate the machines – perhaps by reducing the maximum number in any one shop from four to one and the maximum stake from £100 to £2, as suggested by Robert Flello, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent.
Well, between them, FOBTs on UK soil drive £300 million into HM Treasury every year, according to a document sent to me by Newham council. If those betting companies that operate online obtain their licenses offshore, then they aren't liable to pay any tax on UK profits whatsoever (although that's due to change soon). So, for now, the government need to extort some kind of income out of high street gambling, which is what's led them to say they have no plans to restrict the machines unless new evidence emerges that proves they cause "serious problems".
With that in mind, the Newham council representative said that these machines have led to more anti-social behaviour and more violence than ever before. As you'd probably expect, the reality of the situation isn't particularly exciting, and more just very depressing. At the Paddy Power on Holloway Road in North London last week, eight men sat patiently waiting for their turn to play one of four FOBT machines, as the players ahead of them gradually drained their money and moved on. After an hour-long wait, and once the last person in front of me had been serenaded off by the machine's fairly unnecessary horn of defeat, I stepped up to play myself.
Initially, the only difference I could see between FOBTs and the pub quiz machines haemorrhaging the loans of students up and down the country was that the games were 20p a pop, and required you to know less about the third season of Blackadder and more about stabbing a screen quickly and repeatedly. Weirdly, once I'd put my money in, the 20p I'd been asked for didn’t even register. From over my shoulder, another punter offered to help.
“This is not enough,” he said.
But the games were advertised at 20p each.
“This is not enough.”
I put a pound in and selected the roulette game (other options included a game called Lucky Charms, which involved four-leafed clovers and leprechauns, and a version of Deal or No Deal). "Pick four," he instructed, so I placed my chips on the board. All this took a grand total of 16 seconds; money in, one spin, gone.
The man told me to put more in, which I did, before he suddenly seemed to be hit with guilt pangs. "No, no, no," he said, shaking his head. "Sorry, this game is very bad." I tried to explain my reasons for playing, but he didn’t seem to follow. Looking over his shoulder, he turned back to me, lowered his voice and said, "This game – it will make life very bad."
While I'm aware that one measly hour spent in a bookies can never be truly representative, I can see why people have called these machines the "crack cocaine of gambling". I had a blast on both Lucky Charms, which was basically a glorified fruit machine, and Deal or No Deal. In both cases, there was no language used at all – a testament to the esperanto of bright pictures and loud noises.
Of course, it would be stupid to assume that any part of the gambling industry was more concerned with being morally upstanding than making profits. But at least the agenda of companies like William Hill isn’t buried beneath the guise of all this craic hospitality. There's little gold at the end of Paddy Power’s marketing rainbow; in fact, they've miraculously found a way to debase high street betting even further, by adding deceit to an industry that has always traded on exploiting the vulnerable.
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