Conor Spackman investigates the controversy around fixed odds betting terminals, which have been dubbed the 'crack cocaine of gambling'.
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Are these machines a social menace?
They're called fixed odds betting terminals,
or FOBTs, normally found in a bookmaker's shop.
They're not like old-fashioned fruit machines,
taking 10p and 20p coins.
With these, you can feed in notes,
and bet £100 every 20 seconds.
Campaigners say that's harmful for problem gamblers,
creating a dependence like crack cocaine.
The FOBT gambling is the most addictive form of gambling.
It should never have been allowed in Britain.
The betting industry, which makes huge profits from the machines,
says most people enjoy them responsibly.
Tonight, I'm going to be learning more
about fixed odds betting terminals.
What I'm going to do is take £300 of my own money,
and play them.
Who knows, maybe win enough for a trip away in the New Year,
or end up contributing my hard-earned cash
to the bookie's Christmas party.
There are believed to be more than 600 FOBTs in bookies here,
about double what there were six years ago.
An average of about two in every bookies.
Like in Great Britain, all the big bookmakers here
have fixed odds betting terminals in their shops.
In GB, the machines were legalised in 2005.
But gambling law is devolved,
and that legislation doesn't apply in Northern Ireland.
In fact, gambling legislation hasn't been updated here
since as long ago as 1985.
And that law says the maximum stake in a gaming machine is 30p.
But the maximum stake in a fixed odds betting terminal is £100.
Derek Webb is a former professional poker player,
who now leads a UK-wide campaign against FOBTs.
He's convinced that FOBTs should be regarded as gaming machines,
and, because the law hasn't changed here,
that they are illegal in Northern Ireland.
It isn't just my view as well.
I had a top QC in London
prepare an analysis for me.
And the QC's analysis was
pretty much on board, exactly, with that notion that they are illegal.
The NI Turf Guardians Association represents
most of the bookmaking industry here.
It's adamant that the FOBTs used by its members are legal.
But if Derek Webb's lawyer, a QC, is right,
it would mean all the big bookmaking chains here are breaking the law.
There's two FOBTs in that one.
Another three in this one.
And four FOBTs in there.
There's three more in that one.
And four more in there.
And another four in that one.
We wanted to ask the bookies
why they say their profits are obtained legally.
They wouldn't do an interview.
And it's not just the fact that some think the machines are illegal,
which makes them controversial.
Even in GB, where they have been legalised,
there is huge controversy around them.
About the speed of the games, and the sizes of the stakes.
Last month, the government in Westminster acknowledged the danger.
We believe that the current regulation of FOBTs
is inappropriate to achieve our stated objective
of protecting consumers and wider communities.
The government said it would cut the maximum stake in GB
from £100 every 20 seconds to somewhere between £50 and £2.
Even this limited reform won't apply here.
Gambling therapist Peter Pallin says something needs to be done.
He says half his clients here, over the past decade,
have been addicted to fixed odds betting terminals.
People just gamble and gamble and gamble while there's money there.
They won't feel hungry because...
because what's going on is going to override that. Like...
..spend everything they've got and more,
but they just couldn't believe that they'd kept going and going,
and kept going back, kept going back.
But the win, when they win, is electrifying.
And the fact that they've already lost money, you know,
they'll have lost money, cos even if they win,
they've actually, you know, they haven't really won,
they're only getting a tiny wee bit of their money back.
Derek Webb agrees that the problem is the speed of the FOBTs
combined with the most popular game on them, roulette.
Electronic gaming machines are up to several times faster
than if you were playing the real, live game in a casino.
At a busy table, which is when most players are playing,
it can take up to two minutes to do a spin, yeah.
But here you can bet every 20 seconds, so...
..it's very fast.
I'd be seeing how fast,
playing the fixed odds betting terminals myself.
I told Peter about my plan.
I was surprised by the strength of his reaction.
I think it's...
..a really terrible idea.
Well, if you win, it won't be the last time you play.
If you're not someone who has previously gambled,
and you then win,
then you go away with a distorted sense of your capacity to win.
Certainly, I wouldn't be giving you any advice beyond - do not do it.
As time passed,
I began to wonder more about what he said.
Was playing them a good idea?
Back again, to McConville... What a goal!
It started from McCann.
Former GAA star Oisin McConville
lost hundreds of thousands of pounds, gambling.
People find it very difficult to understand, you know,
the concept of somebody who's gambling
because coming towards the end of my gambling,
people were just saying to me, stop!
Just stop, just cop on.
And there is a little bit of that in it, but...
I was in an addiction and, you know,
I found it very difficult to get away from that.
The best way I can describe it is if we see very vivid images on television
of people who are strung out on drugs, in particular heroin,
and they'll do anything to get that next hit.
The hit for me was getting the money to have that bet.
Oisin is now an addictions therapist.
As well as the speed of FOBTs,
he feels the amount of cash involved makes them very dangerous.
What do you think it is about them...that makes them so addictive?
I think they're quick.
I never would have had a bet that would have lasted a day,
or even a couple of hours,
it all had to be quick, it was horse racing.
And then that maybe took a little bit too long
and then it was dog racing, towards the end,
because it only took 20 or 30 seconds.
£300 a minute, you can bet on these.
Yeah, which is absolutely crazy, when you think about it.
I told him about my plan to play them.
I think for somebody like you,
that's...probably a good idea.
From somebody who's never experienced gambling,
I think it's a brilliant experiment.
I think you should go in with the frame of mind that I'm going to win,
and see how that thinking changes within a short period of time.
I'd be playing roulette on a FOBT,
the game where more than a billion is lost
in bookmakers in GB every year.
I met up with Derek. He agreed to show me how to play them.
First, he told me to expect something very different
from the machines of my youth.
No luck that time, Derek,
but this is the type of fruit machine
that people might be familiar with.
Yeah, this is the real old-fashioned type of thing.
What we're talking about in a FOBT
-is a completely different type of game.
The main game on the FOBT is roulette.
Well, I'm going to be having a go at a FOBT, but first of all,
I need to know how to play roulette,
and I have come dressed for the occasion.
How about that?!
And you're going to tell me how to play roulette over here.
Absolutely, let's do it.
Well, an even-money shot is an easy way to start.
So here we have got red and black,
you can choose to bet one of those.
And that would be an even-money pay-out,
because there are 36 numbers,
and 18 red numbers, 18 black numbers.
So it's a bit like betting heads or tails, really?
Yes. However there is the zero, which is the green number,
and that is the house advantage.
So there's a total of 37 numbers, rather than 36.
What I'll do is... These chips are worth a pound each.
I'll take five of them.
And I'll bet on red.
And if I win, how much do I get?
Well, you will win £5, so your total payback will be £10,
including your stake.
And if it comes up black?
Then you'll lose. You'll be £5 worse off.
OK. Well, we'll have a go at that.
£5 on red, please.
It's come up black, I bet on red, and my money's gone.
Gambling should not be regarded as a way to win money.
It should be regarded as a way to pass the time, it should be
regarded as entertainment.
If you're gambling to win money from disposable income,
you're making an error.
I expect to be lucky.
That's a perception,
that's not a mathematical reality.
So, the time has come for me to experience playing
one of these FOBTs myself for the first time.
The idea is that I'll start off with about £50,
and if I win £20, that'll do me for today.
Sorry, but your journey stops here.
Even though the bookies say the machines are fun,
they won't let us film me playing.
I'll let you know how it goes.
So, I've just finished playing, and the upshot is,
I'm afraid I've lost the £50.
I was trying to play conservatively, I was playing just red or black.
£2 every time on red,
I got up to... I think £8 was the biggest profit I had at any point.
And then, the wheel of fortune just turned against me.
£50, enough for a few drinks and dinner, had gone in 30 minutes.
I still felt in control.
Some are not so lucky.
An estimated one in 50 here is a problem gambler.
People become very skilled at covering their tracks and will go
to extraordinary lengths to make sure that nobody finds out.
You can't pick a gambler. What does a gambler look like, walking down the street?
Because it's anybody. It's you, it's me, it's everybody.
I went to Davina's Ark, an addiction recovery centre in Newry,
to meet a group of people fighting gambling addiction.
Due to the stigma that surrounds gambling,
the group wanted to remain anonymous.
The session started with a talk on the psychology of gambling.
This evening, we're going to be looking at gambling and the brain.
And just like individuals with alcohol or drug dependence,
who develop tolerance for the alcohol or drug,
you need higher doses to experience the desired mood or feeling.
Members of the group were encouraged to talk about
their own experiences of gambling.
14, I started gambling, just going to bingo halls,
just the odd time and stuff. Then I started playing roulette.
You know, hit the button one time and won.
And I was hooked.
People wonder how you spend 12 hours in the bookmakers.
Not a problem, not a bother at all.
Not feeding yourself or nothing, you know.
But you love that, it's a love affair.
And they say to change your life after that there,
it's very hard to. Every day's a struggle.
I was just constantly trying to scheme to see how
I could get out of this, because I couldn't bring
it in my heart to come out with the embarrassment of - I'm a gambler.
Of course, not everyone who gambles becomes an addict.
The betting industry says that FOBTs are usually harmless fun.
I'm going to try again.
So, it's time for another go on the FOBTs. Started off with £300.
As you can see, my bundle of notes is slightly slimmer now,
I've lost £50.
I'm going to trying get that £50 back this evening.
Wish me luck.
So, the upshot of that session is that I've lost another £10.
I was nowhere near getting my £50 back that I lost the other day.
Now I've lost another £10 on top of that, so I'm now £60 down.
I think I'm playing too conservatively, I'm playing
red or black, I'm not really getting the full FOBT experience.
It might be time to take a few more risks.
The money I lost could have been put towards Christmas presents.
Now I'm chasing my losses.
Oisin McConville explains
how gambling differs from other addictions.
The difference between the addictions is, like, for a gambler,
he thinks the way out of his gambling addiction is one big win.
So, in other words, gamble.
Whereas an alcoholic or a drug addict knows that he has to stop,
there has to be cessation, there has to be abstinence.
Oisin also tried to solve his problem with one last bet.
I had a loan which was guarantored by somebody.
I went and had it on a horse.
I think it was £20,000.
-On one horse?
-Do you remember the name of the horse?
-Did it win?
The horse was beaten and
the insanity of where I was at that time meant
that I went to the car and I got £6, £7, £8 together,
and I went in and had another bet.
And that was it.
Because I truly believed, this sounds insane,
but I truly believed that £6 could get the 20 grand back
and get the 100 before that, and the 50 before that.
But also the feelings and the emotions and the self-respect,
the self-esteem, the relationships and the friendships
and the family members.
I believed I could get all those back with that six or seven quid.
I'd heard how severe a gambling addiction can become.
It certainly made me pause for thought.
But I still felt in control and wanted my £60 back.
Derek was on hand with another lesson.
How can I win more?
How can I take more risk?
The next type of opportunity is the 2-1 opportunity.
So here, that's a bet on this column.
So you've got three bet opportunities there,
one on each column.
And three bet opportunities here,
one on each of the three dozens.
Right, OK. And if I were to put £5 on that one, for example,
how much would I get back?
Well, that's a 2-1 pay-out,
so you're trying to win £10 for your £5, a total of £15.
-So, I'll have a go at that then.
Let's have a try.
So, effectively what I'm doing, I'm betting £5 at 2-1,
on the last 12 numbers.
-Is that right?
-OK, let's have a go.
Oh, that really couldn't have been further away from where
I wanted it to be.
It's at the other end of the board, so, again, £5 gone.
So, Derek has shown me the 2-1 shot,
so I'm going to take £90 of what I have left,
and I think if I double that today, I'll be happy.
Remember, you're not allowed in.
You have to wait here.
20 minutes later, and I'm afraid the £90 has gone.
I was playing £5 a spin.
I won on the first spin, and I had a profit of £10,
and that was as good as it got.
It was absolutely relentless.
It was rapid, the money just went.
In just 20 minutes, I donated £90 to bookmakers' profits.
In GB, the regulator, the Gambling Commission,
publishes how much bookies make from FOBTs.
£50,000 a machine in the last year.
There's no equivalent regulator here.
In Northern Ireland,
the profits from fixed odds betting terminals are a secret.
The profits are good news for the shareholders,
but potentially disastrous for those losing the money.
Like Martin Paterson, a taxi driver from Glasgow.
I was out to do a 10-hour shift in a taxi,
and within half an hour, it would all be gone in a machine.
How much are we talking?
Maybe my day's shift would probably be about £80-90,
if I'd had a good day. And a bad day was, like, 60.
And all that money was going straight into a FOBT
-at the end of the shift?
-Straight into a machine, mate.
You walk out the bookies and you'll stand there in total bewilderment
that you actually done that, after promising yourself
so many times that you would never do that again.
Until he quit the machines in 2014,
Martin's favourite game was roulette.
I played roulette based on numbers, based on...
I don't know what possessed me,
but zero, everybody seems to chase the zero. So I chased the zero
with numbers round about the zero, which happened to be birthdays.
28, 29, 7, 14 - they're all birthdays,
and they were all the numbers that...
And it gets to the stage that nothing even matters,
numbers doesn't matter, it's...
It's the fix. It's horrible, horrible.
Even when his money ran out, the taxi driver had
ways of getting more cash and came up with excuses to hide his losses.
I would tell my wife that the taxi had broke down, I needed to
put the money to a new wheel, a new tyre, it needed a gasket.
Do you know what I mean? It was always an excuse after an excuse.
And then you've got to tell the taxi company as well, when a Monday comes
that you've got to give them £150 for your weigh-in, for the radio,
and I never had that.
Many times, I had to go to the owners of the taxi company
and say, listen, I'll pay double next week, I'll sort it out,
I'll try and give something during the week, just to keep me on the road.
Martin's experience with fixed odds betting terminals has led him
to believe that they should be formally banned.
-Personally, I'd like to see them out the door.
Banned completely, and that's just the machines. I'm not talking...
I'm not anti gambling.
If people want to gamble on horses and dogs and football,
that's fair enough.
These FOBT machines are designed to addict people.
They addicted me and they've addicted thousands of others.
It's a view shared by Oisin McConville.
You think they're so dangerous,
bookies should be made to take them out of the shops?
Absolutely, and I think that should happen immediately.
People like Martin playing FOBTs give the bookies in GB
almost £2 billion a year.
The equivalent figure here would add up to £30 million.
Bookmakers here, say that's not a fair comparison
because FOBTs aren't as popular as they are in GB.
But they still wouldn't say how much they do make.
As we know, Derek Webb's QC thinks any profits are unlawful.
On the other hand, the bookies say they comply with the law.
But Spotlight has obtained this letter, which indicates that
another senior lawyer shares the view of Derek Webb
and his lawyer and not the bookmakers' view.
The letter is from the Attorney General, John Larkin,
and it's to an MLA, Lord Morrow, earlier this year.
And in the letter, John Larkin says he believes it's highly likely
that fixed odds betting terminals are unlawful in Northern Ireland.
Now, at the time when he received the letter,
Lord Morrow was a backbencher, and that means that this is not
a formal legal opinion to a government minister.
And it's also important to say that the issue of whether fixed odds
betting terminals are legal or not, has not been tested in the courts.
We showed the letter to Derek Webb.
We have obtained this letter.
It's from the Attorney General, John Larkin, to an MLA,
and he says, at the end here,
that the use of such a machine on bookmakers' premises
exceeding the maximum limits in terms of stake
and pay-out, prescribed by the 1985 law that you mentioned, would not
be lawful under the present legislation,
-that's under the 1985 legislation.
-I'd go stronger than that.
I'd say they're engaged in criminal activity by obtaining profits
illegally and then, when they legitimise those profits,
they are engaged in money laundering.
All the big bookies have them.
They're all over Belfast and across Northern Ireland.
William Hill, Ladbrokes, Sean Graham, Toals, McLean
and Paddy Power - all of them, based on the views of some lawyers,
at least, breaking the law for years. So, what's been done?
Spotlight can reveal that the PSNI have now taken action.
Yesterday, they told us
that a bookmaker had been arrested in connection with operating
a fixed odds betting terminal with a maximum stake
and prize in excess of what is permitted for a gaming machine.
A file has been sent to the Public Prosecution Service.
Any trial is likely to be a test case of
whether the machines are legal here.
We tried unsuccessfully to contact Lord Morrow to ask why
he was receiving a legal opinion about the machines.
John Larkin declined to be interviewed.
He said we shouldn't have his letter.
My own journey playing FOBTs was nearly over.
I wasn't happy contributing £150 to bookies' profits.
And meeting people like Martin had definitely affected me.
Reluctantly, it was time to experience the more volatile
game of playing the numbers, as Martin had.
Derek gave me another quick lesson.
Well, we're going to talk about the numbers,
and the numbers are the individual bets.
So, you can bet one number or more and,
if your number comes up, you're going to get 35-1.
So, if I put £1 on a number and that number comes up,
-I get £35 plus my £1 back?
OK, well, I'm going to be a bit more adventurous than that.
I'm going to put £5 on four different numbers.
-And we've lost 20.
-So the 20's completely gone.
You can run out of money at roulette very quickly.
So this is the last day's betting, and there's part of me
that's quite glad, to be honest. I've had no luck at all.
I started off with £300. I've already lost half of that.
And I think, if today, I could get that money back, look,
that would be enough.
Good news - I got the money back, £300. £150, I won in ten minutes.
It was exhilarating and, at the same time,
it was worrying because I was able to win £150 in just ten minutes.
All the money I've lost over the last week,
I got back in just ten minutes.
And I'd said beforehand that, if I won that £150 back, I'd stop but,
of course, when you're winning, you don't want to stop,
you want to keep going.
And having spoken to people like Martin, I have to realise
that there's another side to these machines.
Yes, I'm sure that some people do enjoy playing these machines
and can play them responsibly,
but I have felt that I've got my money back, I'm happy
and I don't think that this is something I want to continue doing.
There'll be no contribution from me to the bookies' Christmas party.
Meeting people like Martin, means I've seen enough.
Once you're addicted to these things, it's horrible.
It's like any addiction.
I just think people don't see it as a problem
because it's a machine as such.
It's not a substance, it's not an alcohol, it's not a drug.
But me, personally, I call it a Class A drug -
it's the top kitty, it's the bhoona.
And the industry know that, and that's why they're doing
everything in their power to make sure that they stay.
The betting industry says it's not aware of any proven link
between FOBTs and problem gambling.
The six biggest bookmaking firms here all refused us
access to their shops to film fixed odds betting terminals in action.
And they even refused to talk to us on camera about the machines.
And this e-mail, we have obtained, may explain why.
It's from the Northern Ireland Turf Guardians' Association,
which represents most of the industry.
In it, they say,
"I am writing to inform everyone that the NIGTA shall not be
"supplying a representative for interview and that any question will
"be addressed by written statement through our media advisors.
"Should individual bookmakers be contacted,
"I would advise contacting either myself or our chairman,
"and we can put them in touch with the media consultants."
So the bookies, who are making huge profits, perhaps unlawfully,
stay hidden and quiet.
But FOBT addicts are starting to speak up,
while counting a cost not only measured in pounds and pence.
It was such a relief.
It was such a relief one day that I thought that I was going to end it.
I feel as if the weight was lifted off my shoulders, I wasn't going to
harm anybody else, I wasn't going to have to borrow money.
And then you start thinking about the long-term effect
that would have on your family and stuff like that.
That's what sort of brings you round a wee bit.
You thought that the only way out of your FOBT addiction was to end your own life?
-And that seemed like a relief?
Over the past decade,
the number of machines has risen rapidly in Northern Ireland.
Increasing just as swiftly, are concerns that, for some,
the fun of fixed odds betting terminals stopped long ago.