Have you ever felt the ‘buzz’?

Panorama on Monday evening showed that opinion is split on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs).  Post programme coverage seems to suggest that well over 90% of people have major concerns about them and fewer than 10% don’t.  We are leaving the EU based on a majority of 4%, yet we continue to allow easy access to play FOBTs based on a minority view of fewer than 10% (of those who’ve expressed a view – always fair me and an avid viewer of cat food advertising).

A common theme of those supporting FOBTs is the ‘old chestnut’, of it all being the gambler’s fault.  Excuse me for yawning, but why are mental health issues always the person’s fault, whereas a physical problem is faced with supreme effort and great grace (no criticism to the latter group inferred).

I’m a gambler; so far I’m lucky, as I bet in amounts that do not affect my quality of life, but I would never be arrogant enough to suggest this may never change, because I’ve felt the ‘buzz’ on many occasions.  Panorama touched on the ‘buzz’ using good neuroscience.  ‘Ka-Ching’ a programme produced in Australia covered it in more depth.  The latter can now be rented around the world and is worth a watch (https://ka-chingpokienation.vhx.tv/buy/ka-ching-pokie-nation-test).

A story often retains interest better than science, so here goes, as this story helps to explain the science from Panorama.  For many years I was part of a group of friends from all over England who met in the Shamrock pub in Cheltenham on Champion Hurdle day.  The pub wasn’t called that then and it certainly wasn’t frequented by major owners who had runners at the festival, but the Guinness was good and served at a price that was acceptable to a car full of Yorkshiremen.

Every year we felt the ‘buzz’ in the Shamrock.  I love Cheltenham racecourse, but the ‘buzz’ of expectation was just as good as the ‘buzz’ of the actual experience.  We sat in the pub and after the usual pathetic attempts at discussing the last 12-months, e.g. how are you?  Family alright?  Won ‘owt worthwhile recently? Within 10 minutes we were into the discussion of what really mattered, e.g. what would win today and how for the first time ever our shared 256 line ‘Placepot’ would win this year.  My suggestion, one year, of having a last time out winner at Sedgefield as part of our ‘Placepot’ was met with abuse and no doubt a check on my sanity when I went for one of my ever more frequent visits to the toilet.  The horse was not placed that day, it won, but that’s horse racing for you and the horse became a story I dined out on for at least the following five years.

Panorama featured this ‘buzz’ as part of its neuroscience angle, i.e. the MRI scans presented before and during the roulette spin were very similar.  The ‘buzz’ of anticipation being as strong, if not stronger, than the ‘buzz’ during a race or roulette spin is fact not conjecture as the gambling industry would like you to believe.  Is it a problem though?  Probably not in the Shamrock pub once per annum, but every 20 seconds it can and does ‘change brains’ as Professor Nutt outlined.  With a surname like that he had to become a neuroscientist.

Our brains are incredible, so do not believe the rubbish being promoted by IT geeks that we are close to manufacturing computers that will replicate the human brain.  It’s utter nonsense.  However, like legs, kidneys and hearts the brain does go ‘wrong’.  The outcomes of these problems are often treatable, but sometimes devastating, e.g. motor neurone disease or the dementias.

Our understanding of what happens in the brain is improving, but it is imperfect; an understatement.  Over the last two decades we have begun to understand more about neurochemicals and their affect on how brain cells communicate.  Panorama, understandably, did not have time to cover neurochemicals in-depth, but if you don’t recognise that the gambling industry is using this new knowledge and expertise to extract more money off gamblers, some of which are vulnerable, you are living in a fantasy world.  For me, this was the most sickening part of the programme, e.g. the complete denial by the Association of British Bookmakers that anything untoward is going on, but as a trade body and lobbyist, we should not expect anything else.

It is fact that FOBTs are designed to increase the ‘buzz’ (neurochemical surges).  Software developers and game designers openly admit this.  It is also well known that the ‘buzz’ is more likely to contribute to addiction if it is frequent and if a false belief can be propagated that the expectation of a big win is higher than the reality.  Panorama touched on this and so did ‘Ka-Ching’ where a software developer admitted that he encouraged ‘pokie’ providers to pay small wins more regularly, because the profits in the long term would be higher.

Our knowledge is such that we now know what neurochemicals we need to produce at higher levels in the brain to increase the likelihood of people gambling longer and thus losing more.  A new generation of anti-Parkinson’s drugs gave us improved insight into this concept by chance.  Some of these new drugs were producing better outcomes for people with Parkinson’s, but it became apparent that a side effect for some was to decrease social inhibition.  This manifested itself in varying ways; some were embarrassing and some were financial, problem gambling being one, even in people who were not gamblers previously (if you want the references I’ll provide them).  Most people would read this research and use it for good; however some have taken the other option and used it for dubious reasons.

What I’ve briefly outlined here is not rhetoric similar to that espoused by industry lobbyists who should be ashamed, nevertheless it is not perfect science, its science in development.

As I like a bet, especially based on some evidence, is there a bookmaker out there who will lay me an even one hundred that in the next decade all FOBT promotion will be banned, because the developing scientific knowledge will be even more strongly suggesting that high speed gambling games, designed to provide regular small wins are damaging to some individuals and in such numbers for it to be deemed an unacceptable danger for society.  My hundred quid is waiting.

Brian Chappell

Founder, Justice for Punters