Skip to main content

Over the last several months, fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs), electronic gambling machines which lurk in betting shops, have been the subject of deep opprobrium, from the puritan left to Guido Fawkes. They are addictive and harmful, goes the charge, and finally the government has proposed a set of restrictions on them.

Yet from a liberal perspective, driven by the harm principle (Mill’s dictum that people’s actions should be restricted only when they harm other individuals), it is not obvious what the problem with FOBTs is. Is it reasonable to restrict the ability of adults to spend their money as they will, even if they are pouring it away? It’s not easy to make the case that FOBTs should be regulated, or even banned, without swallowing a large dose of paternalism.

Whether or not the harm argument can be made out successfully, it seems to me that the strongest arguments against FOBTs come from a conservative perspective. This perspective allows us to see what the real harms of FOBTs are, even though they are invisible from the liberal individualistic point of view.

There is nothing wrong with fixed odds betting. “You can’t beat the house” is a well-known saying in casinos. Yet no-one thinks of banning roulette, say. There are FOBTs that play roulette, where the long term fixed odds equate to 97% of the money staked, but these are clearly more offensive. Why?

The reason is that the essential gambling elements, the stake and the choice of a coloured number, are only a small part of real-world roulette. Roulette is a world of ritual, of tuxedoed croupiers saying things like “rien ne va plus”, chips being placed on a green baize table, the gambler weighing up his luck. Players can smoke or drink, but not eat at the table. It is a little world, a way of life that has been written about by Dostoyevsky and George Eliot, and played by Humphrey Bogart and James Bond.

Because of these rituals, it is possible to beat the odds – you don’t play very often, because each spin of the wheel is a set of behaviours that takes time to unfold. You might make six bets in half an hour, and you might be up at the end of it. Reduced by technology to its essentials, in an FOBT, the stats mean that it is practically impossible to play for half an hour and come out ahead.

Gambling is often associated with such modes of being. Another example is horseracing, a fascinating milieu in which one can find the high and the low coming together in appreciation of beautiful animals, adorned with details such as the gestures of the tic-tac men, the jockeys’ colours and the parade before the race. There would be no horseracing without gambling, which sustains this entire industry and the associated rakish way of life.

These gambling practices underpin what Wittgenstein called forms of life, artificial but not altogether arbitrary sets of behaviour and conventions which bring people together to entertain and bring a little frisson into the quotidian round. Crucially, these forms of life are ones which support the ability of relatively poorly-off people to gamble. Of course fortunes or life savings can always be lost, but a social background of checks and balances provides many mechanisms for keeping a gambling habit sustainable. FOBTs jettison the form of life, replacing it with an input-output function programmed into a machine with flashing coloured lights. To use the jargon, FOBTs disintermediate the gambling. Out go the support mechanisms for the losers.

The reason that FOBTs are bad is not that they encourage losers to lose – rather, they destroy forms of life by reducing them to what might naively be supposed to be their essentials (there is nothing essential to a form of life – in which all is important, even, or especially, the pointless rituals). Forms of gambling practice tend to provide glamour, and its aesthetic flipside sleaze. These values make life more interesting. FOBTs are neither glamorous nor sleazy – they are simply boring.

An engaging form of life will provide a context in which people can fulfil themselves and excel. People with very little interest in statistics or current affairs or academic topics in the abstract become incredibly knowledgeable about horses, or football tactics. I am reminded of a friend of my mother’s many years ago, a cashier for the bookie round the corner. She wanted a professional qualification, but couldn’t handle the maths, particularly multiplication of fractions. My mother, a schoolteacher, coached her through her exams. What intrigued me was that if you told our friend, who had no idea what three quarters of two fifths was, that you had put one pound four shillings and tenpence each way on a horse at 11-8 which came in third, she would tell you to a farthing what you had won – multiplication of fractions, in bases 20 and 12 no less, but in a context she understood and related to.

And when a form of life is disintermediated, it suffers. Match-fixing has always been a problem, but it is much harder to prevent when gambling has become an immediate abstract function. Fixing a cricket match used to involve quite a few bribes and a large risk of being found out. Of course it happened, but online gambling allows you to place bets on events of such little significance they are easy to fake and hard to spot – a tennis player serving two consecutive double faults, a bowler bowling a no ball at the beginning of his tenth over. The cost to the player, and to his team, is minimal; the potential gain enormous, and all because the gamble has been reduced to some irrelevant micro-event that will have little effect on the important sporting outcome. And these micro-events are fundamentally uninteresting – someone gambling on them gets no sensation beyond the success or failure of his bet.

It is said (by them) that the big gambling concerns will go out of business if FOBTs are regulated. Parenthetically, we might point out that FOBTs themselves arose because of a typical New Labour modernisation/rationalisation of the tax code. Tax used to be paid as the bet happened, or as the winnings were collected. That in itself rendered FOBTs too complex to administer. Blair’s government switched to taxing profits – much more up-to-date, and no thought of the unromantic, displeasing loopholes the bookies would find.

Well, poor old William Hill and Paddy Power, losing their FOBTs. Do I care? They have coarsened our high streets in their search for profit. The lovely, sleazy little turf accountants (splendidly idiotic phrase!) have been turned into brightly-lit amusement arcades that blight our public space. When gambling is disintermediated to an abstract input-output function and technologized to shrink time (so you can bet lots of times, making it more likely that the fixed odds will find you out), the beauty of the forms of life with which it was associated is lost. If you take something apart to isolate, monetise and weaponise its essence, you will smash up the whole thing. We have known that since Aesop, who gave us the fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs.

FOBTs are bad things, full stop. This is not a fine balance of arguments about harm to individuals, it is a clear cut case of the destruction of the ways of life that make fixed odds betting sustainable, while also making our daily experience rather more interesting.

Kieron O’Hara is an associate fellow of Bright Blue and associate professor and principal research fellow at the University of Southampton.The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Raquel Sherman]