Why I’ve changed my mind on Fixed Odds Betting terminals

As a liberal I have some rather quaint ideas, one of which is that I generally don’t like the state banning things, because generations of governments have shown they don’t know better than the people, but I make an exception for Fixed Odds Betting Terminals.

The hard wall of my instinctive view has been destroyed by the cold reason of my personal experience, the very process that powered liberal progressiveness for generations.

I began a new, and comfortably the most prestigious, job of my life in July 2017, it was akin to being flung into a scalding vat of water such was the pressure.

My way of dealing with it was, at the end of the day, to adjourn to a betting shop between my workplace and the train station, where I bet tiny sums on the outcomes of horse races.

The amount I have bet in the last nine months is comfortably less than I have spent on being a member of the Liberal Democrats in that time, and I win more often.

But while those of us betting on horses have an easy after work camaraderie, a dull intensity pierces the betting shop in the form of those huddled over the terminals, feeding wads of cash into the machines, convinced they have cracked the game of chance


If I or another of the horse players lose, there is a brief moment of cursing the horse, the jockey, and the grass they ran on, before returning to the normal optimism of the next race.

But if a player on one of the terminal machines loses, the swearing and angst is akin to what I feel when I see the Lib Dems poll rating.

This creates an unpleasant atmosphere for those of us engaged in the passing of an after work hour in the diversion of our hobby, and occasionally putting staff in physical danger.

My understanding is that every Lib Dem leader is presented with a copy of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Within that book is the Harm Principle. Those us betting on horses or dogs are harming none but possibly ourselves, those who use the terminals are harming others, and themselves.

I cannot offer much explanation as to why the reaction of the terminal punters is so different, but I know enough not to like it. If banned they may find another form of self destruction, but at the moment they are a nuisance to the law abiding, the machines’ addictive qualities are not healthy, and should be banned.

I never thought I would have to urge this incarnation of the Liberal Democrats to ban something, but then, I always did like a long shot.

* David Thorpe was the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for East Ham in the 2015 General Election

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  • @ David Thorpe “Those us betting on horses or dogs are harming none but possibly ourselves”. Seriously ? You’ve got to be kidding.

    “Number of problem gamblers in the UK rises to more than 400,000. Gambling Commission report finds more than 2 million people are addicted to gambling or at risk of developing a problem”. The Guardian 24 August, 2017.

    “the bereaved parents taking on the gambling industry – The Guardian
    15 Jul 2016 – Ryan Myers killed himself after struggling with a gambling addiction. Now, his family are fighting adverts that lure people back in.”

    Gambling Related Suicides | Help Stop Gambling UK
    Sadly there are many gamblers who commit suicide over the shame and guilt of building up huge gambling debts or stealing from friends and family. Here we feature stories of gambling related suicides reported in the UK alone.

  • Geoffrey Payne 3rd Apr '18 - 1:07pm

    I am sorry that this is something you had to learn from experience.
    I think the key word here is addiction. If we think rationally then gambling establishments cannot possibly exist if they give out more money than they receive. So on average if you use such a place then you will be a loser.
    Consumers rarely think rationally, as the advertising industry understands.
    Some argue that such places provide jobs. But if they did not exist the money would circulate round the economy in some other way. And there would be fewer broken marriages and suicides which disrupts the economy in some other way.
    Liberals in my opinion should rely less on economic determinism and more on the other social sciences such as psychology and sociology in order to understand people better and develop policies more on evidence rather than ideology. For me personally evidence is an essential part of my ideology.
    In that sense I think from your personal experience you have crossed the rubicon.

  • I think its the party president who is presented with Mill’s ‘On Liberty’. Otherwise I agree with every word of this article.

  • As a long term gambler who does not suffer from a gambling problem (despite the moralists claiming it’s not possible) I absolutely agree. My gambling flicks between two modes – the bets I put a lot of effort into researching (which I have done in the past, but now finding it more difficult to find proper edges in a maturing industry), and the bets I have for entertainment (watching sport etc). I’m fully aware that the second category is at best break-even – that I’m buying a little bit of interest in a sporting event for entertainment purposes and I will not make money, on average (although I am at least price/probability sensitive).

    Anyway the FOBTs are a different category altogether – they are the Wonga.com of betting, deliberately targeting the people with the least ability to delay gratification. With something like a Premier League match the bookmakers will be falling over themselves to compete on price to the point it’s very hard to lose much over the longer term if you simply shop around for best price (like anything, a competitive market reduces margins) – whereas the FOBTs are guaranteed inbuilt high margin, they don’t care about being competitive as the users can’t determine payout values, and won’t walk to another shop – they can just go again and again without restriction until their money is gone.

    Restricting the most harmful forms of a vice (whether it be alcohol, drugs or even pornography) from the most vulnerable members of society is a pretty standard incursion into individual liberty in a modern social democracy – the most harmful forms of gambling should not be exempt.

  • david thorpe 3rd Apr '18 - 9:35pm

    David-any evidence those people are betting or horses, rather than on the machines? of course there are problem gamblers on everything, including no doubt political outcomes, but shop staff in my multi-decade experience, do not feel threatened very often by horse players, but it happens every day with the guys on the machines.

  • Tom Papworth 4th Apr '18 - 12:10pm

    David Thorpe: The typical problem gambler has six to seven outlets for their addiction. The idea that you can draw a neat dividing line between those gambling on horses and those using machines is naive.

    Geoffrey Payne: “gambling establishments cannot possibly exist if they give out more money than they receive.” That’s also true of theatres and restaurants. It is a mistake to think that people are gambling in the hope of making money. They gamble for the thrill, and if they end up paying a few quid for a bit of entertainment then they are thinking just as rationally as you are when you buy beer.

    More generally, while I can see that there are arguments for banning FOBTs, “These oiks are upsetting my horse-racing friends” is hardly a compelling one.

  • sorry LDV, I dont know why my name keeps appearing in blue with a link. I keep deleting the field with website info and it keeps putting it back in when ever I come back to an LDV before i notice it has done it. Apologies.

  • @David Thorpe

    After reading through your article again,
    I have to say, the last impression that I have, is that you are more concerned with these “nuisances” who impact the enjoyment of your “hobby” of betting on horses than you are about any addiction and social consequences that they might have.

    “This creates an unpleasant atmosphere for those of us engaged in the passing of an after work hour in the diversion of our hobby”
    “If banned they may find another form of self destruction, but at the moment they are a nuisance to the law abiding”

    I am surprised that your priority for banning these machines appears to be so that other gamblers of a more socially acceptable nature can continue to do so with out these “annoyances” from less desirable sorts

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