Stephen Brookes reports on the problems to be faced by Blackpool with the increasing problem of Las Vegas style casinos and fruit machines and their creation of profits funded by benefits cheques.
There were not that many people in the pub, but seats were a bit scarce so I was at a table near to the bar next to the fruit machine.
Illuminated by the machine's bright warm lights, a man was playing it, his back bent over the controls and buttons. Every so often he leant
forward to look at the screen to judge the numbers available if nudge
options came up. John, (not his real name) about 40, thin, and slightly drunk, was in a small pub in Blackpool, the town where, it is thought, the new Las Vegas will be created, and small fortunes made, or more often lost over gambling tables and machines.
But this story is not an indictment of Blackpool, for the scene could have been in any village, town or city in England; rather it is a cautionary tale about the massive profits being made by the leisure industry and the insidious addiction caused by the increasing numbers of fruit machines in pubs, clubs and a range of public places.
John looked at me, and grinned as he put one more £1 coin in the slot; it was soon lost.
‘Oh well, that’s it. No more today.’
I asked how much he had won.
But in the time I had watched him, he had put at least £12 into the machine. I hadn’t the heart to ask how much he had spent winning that £4.
Now, before we go any further, I am not writing this as a non gambling perfectionist, as I have, until now, put the odd pound I may have had in my pocket into such machines. Maybe that is why I noticed John. But, after listening to him, I feel very different, and concerned about the ‘problem’ of fruit machines.
‘Want a go?’ he asked.
I declined, but, keeping the conversation going, I asked how he managed to understand the complications of this particular machine.
‘I watched the kids play it. They know the time to play, when machines are full.’
He was right, because over the other side of the bar, 4 ‘kids’ of about 19, were feeding a coins into another machine, and judging by the noise, they were having some success, at someone else’s expense.
‘Trouble is. I seem to get it wrong. Wish I could stop’ Perhaps John felt in need of a chat to vent his frustration. ‘They seem to have enough to make it pay.’
He sat at the table, and continued talking.
‘That’s the trouble, it’s mainly people who can throw money away who seem to win. I don’t.’
He looked at my crutch and asked what had happened. I explained my problem and how it affected my standing and sitting.
‘Do you work?’
He was at that stage of alcohol where inhibitions have departed.
I told him that, now, I write, and do research.
‘Well write and tell people to keep off these things.’
I asked him what he did, and, frankly I was not surprised at his reply.
‘I’m out of work. Use to be in engineering. A machinist. The factory closed twelve months ago, and I can’t find anything. On the dole.’
I did buy him a drink, but that was not a financial bombshell as he was on half pints, and even though he was tipsy, he was clearly a slow and regular drinker, and not a raving alcoholic.
‘Real problem is that I try to win money because I need it for this’ he tapped the glass.’ nothing else to do, and I know mates who do the same. Spend a lot of money trying to get a bit more to live on. Can’t win really.’
He went on to explain that, for him, the little spare money he has is used up in machine gambling. Not that the sums would be a major problem for any one with a normal average income, but for those like John, the machines eat up any reserves he has.
‘And I fund those sods.’ he said, looking at the ‘kids’ who turned and took their winnings out of the pub, without buying anything.
I was left with a feeling that there is a major problem which is not being treated as seriously as it should. John is an addict of sorts, and for almost understandable reasons, although to suggest to him that he go to Gamblers Anonymous would have gained a very rough reply. For John does not see his situation as a gambling problem (although it clearly is).
If people like John are using their ‘benefit’ or low income wages to try to gain a few extra pounds out of fruit machines, then the whole issue of the way these machines are allowed to be put in places where the vulnerable go needs examination.
I was not aware of the large amounts paid for licences for these machines, which show that there is good profit to be made from them. What I am now aware of is that many people who use them don’t consider themselves as gamblers, but often spend more money than those who bet at or on race meetings.
The new legislation on fruit machines may see them removed from certain places Under the new rules, the top limit for fruit machine jackpots, currently £100, is expected to be scrapped. In return, the gambling industry will be told to remove fruit machines from cafes and other venues where children might use them. While jackpots on machines in pubs are likely to remain modest, casinos are expected to increase them to hundreds of thousands of pounds, perhaps a million.
There should be a crackdown on "ambient gambling" in places where gambling is not the main point of business. "We propose that gaming machines be banned from premises such as cafes and taxicab offices," says the Department for Culture Media and Sport.
But when large and flashy gaming arcades offer a ‘Cash Back’ service (after charging commission) on benefit cheques, to allow access to these machines, for John and others who are financially adrift, and vulnerable, Support agencies, The Government and the Leisure industries need to look closely at what is a growing problem, for as John said ‘more of my mates are spending their money on these. I wish I owned a few.’