When I was 14 my father took me to a bookmaker’s and encouraged me to place a bet. He wanted to show me the futility of gambling, I think. Big mistake. I picked a horse called Maroof at 66/1 in the Queen Elizabeth II stakes at Ascot. My father put on 50p each way. Maroof romped to victory, no problem. ‘I think I’ve just ruined your character,’ said my father, not entirely joking, as he handed over the winnings. He had. I’ll forever associate betting with that triumph – the rush of joy I felt jumping up and down on the cruddy red carpet surrounded by Irish drunks and cigarette smoke. Heaven. We should have put more on.
That was 1994. Britain changed a lot in the years that followed. Along came New Labour, laddism, the rise and rise of the Premier League, the retail internet and smartphones – all of which contributed to an extraordinary explosion in gambling. As Rob Davies writes in Jackpot, the industry ‘inserted itself into so many aspects of our lives’. Britain, he points out, has ‘found itself in thrall to gambling, where it once was not’.
British gamblers now lose around £14 billion every year: that’s four times the annual gross domestic product of Burundi, where funnily enough most forms of gambling are illegal. Gambling now dominates British sport, especially football, because, as that insidious Sky Bet advertisement said: ‘It matters more when there’s money on it.’ We also bet on almost every other human activity: reality TV, Eurovision, politics, financial markets, online gaming and even the war in Ukraine. The gay sex app Grindr, Davies reliably informs us, profits from online casino ads because its clientele is ‘an audience of men often in something of an impulsive mood and literally seeking pleasure’.
Problem gambling is primarily a male thing, and it’s a sickness – perhaps a spiritual one. Our dopamine-reward systems have been so brilliantly scrambled by IT developers that many of us have become addicts without altogether realising it.
Davies is good at describing how technology has made gambling ubiquitous. Betting apps are instantly available on almost every device and the difference between betting and investing has become for most retail punters pretty much invisible. What are meme stocks or cryptocurrencies or NFTs if not pot-luck wagers dressed up as informed speculation?
Jackpot is a serious attempt to grapple with the extent of Britain’s problem – although, as Davies admits, ‘we have no reliable means of gauging the harm being done’. There is an increase in related suicides in this country, and of people reporting problems with addiction. And gambling can be a particularly pernicious vice because, unlike alcoholism or drug abuse, its victims tend to show no outward signs of their destructive behaviour.
Davies takes us through the history of British gambling and the way various bits of legislation have expanded rather limited the harm that gambling does. He’s a Guardian reporter, so there is certain amount of leftie anguish over the role that the Labour party played in facilitating Britain’s monstrous habit. We had the 2005 Gambling Act, which came into force two years later and did almost nothing to stop the stampede towards deregulation. We had the silly row between Gordon Brown and the Daily Mail over ‘Super Casinos’, which the government eventually gave up on as it became clear that far more tax could be raised through the less visible and more powerful world of online gaming. And we had the rise and fall of fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), which the tabloids seductively labelled ‘the crack cocaine of gambling’ and the government finally restricted.
Davies insists he is not puritanically opposed to gambling: ‘I have no problem accepting that it is a leisure pursuit that has its place in our culture.’ But his prose is sometimes too plonking, which makes the book earnest to a fault: ‘This is a sector that was once soundtracked by the call of the croupier, or the drumbeat of hooves on turf, yet which now echoes with the jangling sound of online slot machine sound effects.’ He starts Chapter 8 declaring: ‘Anyone who has read this far probably has a high tolerance for detailed narrative about a single subject’, which hardly inspires confidence.
He is passionate, however. He holds the avaricious gambling companies in contempt, as well as their wicked libertarian enablers in the press. Brendan O’Neill, a Spectator contributor, seems to live rent-free, as they say, in the author’s head. Davies is clearly appalled by the prevalence of gambling advertising in sport, online and on television. He suggests that governmental attempts to work with the industry to ensure people gamble ‘responsibly’ are wrongheaded, since that puts the ‘onus of responsibility... primarily on the gambler’. At the risk of sounding like another libertarian ideologue, isn’t that precisely where the onus should be?
Might Bite is a more gripping and harrowing book. Patrick Foster was a talented cricketer who probably could have turned professional but found his life destroyed by his mania for gambling. He got bitten by the betting bug at university, as many young men do. The habit spiralled into addiction when he had an early big win. Having been given his first ever bonus while working in insurance, he decided to stick £500 on an accumulator bet on six Champions League football match results. At 70/1, it came in, and he won £34,977.61. He blew the lot in six weeks.
Foster, helped by the sportswriter Will Macpherson, recounts in often excruciating detail the depraved depths to which he then sank. He ended up in colossal debt, borrowing or stealing from just about anyone he could find. Rock bottom came in 2018 in Cheltenham week, when he staked £50,000 on a horse called Might Bite, which finished second. He came very close to suicide. It’s a terrifying story – enough to make any gambling enthusiast think carefully. That said, the Grand National is coming up, and I like the look of Dingo Dollar at 50/1.