Punters at a betting shop in the heart of Yorkshire’s gambling capital have told how they’ve witnessed thousands of pounds being frittered on machines whose addictive quality has been compared with crack cocaine.
Leeds has been named as one of the country’s hotspots for losses incurred by people who use fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).
Unlike fruit machines, where stakes are limited to £2, gamblers can bet up to £100 every 20 seconds – more than four times the rate of play in an actual casino.The maximum payout is £500.
There are four machines at independent bookmakers Liles, in Middleton, Leeds – the maximum number allowed in any one betting shop. The premises are a far cry from the grubby, smoke-filled dens popularised by gritty 1970s television dramas. It’s brightly lit, clean and inviting. Those inside are quiet, focused. There is no sense of hostility, no-one appears down on their luck.
However, warnings that periodically flash up on the displays of the FOBTs are an indication of the potential risks they pose.
‘Stay in control,’ says one. ‘If you feel you are gambling at levels with which you are not comfortable, please speak to a member of staff.’ The warnings disappear when the machines are in use.
Lee Taylor, a former member of the armed forces now working as an electrical engineer, is concentrating intently on a horse race.
But the 35-year-old admits to enjoying playing roulette on the FOBTs from time to time. He says he never lets that enjoyment get out of hand – but he’s seen others who lack his ability to rein it in.
He said: “I’ve won some, I’ve lost some, but it’s about self-control. I’m the sort of person who can walk away. I’ve friends who use them all the time. They get their wages and this is the first thing they do.
“I think the machines can be a problem because it’s quicker to put money in. I’ve seen people put in hundreds of pounds and they’ve only been in 20 to 25 minutes. I’ve seen one person walk away from a roulette with £8,500 – but on the flip side I’ve seen someone lose £2,000.
“It can be addictive and a lot of people are getting into debt.”
Ronnie Childs, 65, is playing on a classic fruit machine-style game. A retired bus driver, he is philosophical about the roll FOBTs play in modern gambling culture.
“I never come in with a lot of money, so I never lose a lot, but you see some people putting loads in,” he says. “There was one lad who was a real gambler who I saw win two or three grand, but he’d lose as much at other times.
“It can eat up your money, and it could be addictive, but to me it’s a bit of fun. As long as the wife’s got enough money for the kids and the grandkids, it’s not a problem.”
Richard Liles, manager of Liles, says the machines are still less popular than over-the-counter betting, and believes their malevolence has been over-stated.
“There has been a lot of hype over these machines and a lot of political manoeuvring,” he says.
“As in any part of the industry - and any part of society - you get people who have problems, but the way betting shops are run and the procedures we have to go through are tighter than ever. We’re one of the most regulated industries in the country.”
Betting shops have powers to intervene if customers display worrying behaviour. Mr Liles claims there is no difference between the addictive potential of FOBTs and other forms of addiction.
“There are always going to be people who have a problem,” he says. “Some who drink too much, some who eat too much, some who gamble too much. But that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water.”