I continue to read with interest the musings of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling (CFG) on Politics Home. Having worked for the CFG between 2012 and 2017, to see Derek Webb and his purported “campaign” losing the plot over the Government’s proposed transition arrangement for betting shop gaming machines, if not for the thousands of jobs at risk, I would find hugely amusing.
“Despite FOBTs being server based, requiring only a software update…” write the CFG as they explain just what needs to be done to reduce the stake on FOBTs. I can feel Webb’s keyboard rattling as he angrily bangs down on each letter after being told by another of his “anonymous sources” it can all be done in 8 weeks. CFG write about so many “anonymous sources” it’s a wonder they haven’t formed a new group – for “Anonymous Sources Anonymous”. Unfortunately, I’m not there now to tell Webb and his Casino allies they’re talking tripe. It doesn’t take 8 weeks, it doesn’t take a couple of months and Webb of all people should know better.
Not many are aware of this, but the founder and funder of the CFG aside from his casino card game inventions has a bit of knowledge about gaming machines, specifically through his attempts to invent one. Back in the early 2000’s “Webb tried to introduce gaming machines for casinos. Prime Table (Webb’s company) even applied for an American trademark, Vidiceo, for the devices ” wrote Matthew Goodman in the Times, obscurely at the bottom of a piece in 2014.
I met Matthew Goodman at a Hilton Hotel in London to answer his questions about the campaign and had been working with Webb for 2 years by then. Yet, this little matter of inventing a gaming machine was never mentioned or referred to by Webb. That is until Goodman pulled out a copy of the August 2004 Playboy magazine along with copies of patents for a gaming machine known as Vidiceo and plonked them between 2 coffees sitting half empty on our table. After getting over the shock of having a battered copy of Playboy brandished in front of me in the middle of a Hilton Hotel, it suddenly dawned on me that Webb hadn’t been completely honest. I knew nothing about his foray into gaming machines and couldn’t explain why the same man now campaigning against one gaming machine had previously tried to create his own.
It’s from Playboy you get an insight into what Webb was up to before he launched his FOBT tirade – “Then his face brightens: “If you want to drive out to the Airport with me…” he had yet another invention the Vidiceo slot machine. Webb apparently in an if you can’t beat them join them mood, had figured out how to take the elements of a table game and put them inside a slot machine”. Coincidentally, this was about the time the bookmakers in the UK (and me) were developing their new machine – Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs). Again coincidentally, those nasty bookmakers put one of Webb’s games on their machines, renaming it Joker Poker – a game not widely remembered as, like Webb’s gaming machine, it was a flop.
What was Webb’s explanation – “Vidiceo was a game based on a patent designed for machine use” he told me. “No machine was created it’s just software“.
So you were going to take your Playboy interviewer to the Airport to see your software Derek? “Some buddies [in the US] presented the game in a machine box at a trade show – I didn’t even go to the trade show“. Maybe he didn’t go to the trade show, but he certainly exhibited a lot of enthusiasm for his “software” to Playboy (excuse the pun).
So, Webb does know a little bit about machines and software albeit based on a failed attempt. He also knows the normal timeline for the implementation of changes following stake and prize adjustments in a Triennial Review is circa 12 to 18 months. This isn’t a normal stake and prize adjustment. This isn’t a simple download to a hard drive that easily adjusts a single game overnight. It is much more than that. There are 2 separate companies supplying and maintaining FOBTs who between them provide over 450 games. Those games sit on a hard drive that allows 2 different categories of game content to operate side by side – B2 and B3 games. All but ten of those games will need changes to the way they operate and the way the margin works and most importantly they will need to be compliance checked before being “downloaded”.
On top of this, all the major UK bookmakers have integrated their till and central reporting systems with their FOBT network of machines. So, there isn’t just a huge amount of work to be done by suppliers on the machines and the games – there are major changes to be made internally by bookmakers.
Webb, who likes to do a bit of political spread betting with his financial donations, rants via his keyboard about bookmakers taking just 6 months longer than would be expected to manage the most significant state intervention in gambling for decades. Yet, he and his allies continue to say nothing about the fact that casinos and arcades have still not introduced adequate Responsible Gambling measures across their premises. Their approach to RG is appallingly lacklustre and John White the CEO of BACTA (amusement machines trade body) like Webb is still focused on running a grudge campaign against betting shops using the same spin and hyperbole they’ve used for the last few years.
White finds little to say about the fact that his members approach to responsible gambling is still in the dark ages, but finds time to tweet about FOBTs that “it is a software update that can be done at the flick of a switch“. I guess Webb has been showing off his software to John White as well.
Question for you John White – how long will it take your members and your friends in the casinos to reach the same standards regarding Responsible Gambling on their premises as in betting shops? It’s just the “flick of a switch” isn’t it?
White may not be too worried about his members inadequate approach to problem gambling for the moment because they are being shielded by their very own All Party Parliamentary Group led by Carolyn Harris MP who also refuses to say a solitary word about anything other than FOBTs. I’m told that a blank expression sweeps across her face when questioned about the activities of those companies financially backing her APPG. She’s enjoyed private dinners at Casinos, with one casino operator in an email to me describing dinner with her as “excellent” and applauding her “focus”. Harris enjoyed that Casino steak dinner so much she went out of her way to suggest that Tom Watson MP should head over there and guess what, he did!
She’s had dinner with Webb in her South Wales homeland and more recently joined a BACTA dinner (see below) – not to discuss the many issues relating to problem gambling in their premises, but to talk about FOBTs again. All this facilitated by her lobbying friends at Interel and all of whom fund her All Party Group. It couldn’t get any murkier, could it? Let’s hope the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards doesn’t ask her any more questions!
While Harris dines with the casinos and arcades, shielding BACTA and their members from proper scrutiny and Webb continues to bang on his keyboard – betting shops are not just having a quick “download” and everything is “fixed”. The betting industry is going to be subject to major structural changes, shop closures, acquisitions, mergers, redundancies and more over the coming couple of years as a consequence of the decision to slash stakes to £2
Webb, his casino and arcade allies will continue their “campaign”, herding sheep like Harris into the Parliamentary FOBT ring to fight out their grudge for them. There’ll be more stories of heartache emanating from FOBT play involving the same old problem gamblers we’ve seen wheeled out time and time again. There’ll be another FOBT APPG Inquiry with all the credibility of the last one which, like the bookmakers, I refused to give evidence to. They suspected it was a kangaroo court – I knew it was.
And the bookmakers? They were asleep in 2012 when I joined Webb to give them a kick up the backside. They woke up, started to get their act together certainly on responsible gambling and taking the issues around FOBTs more seriously, but I fear they’ve gone back to sleep again. Wakey, wakey, rise and shine – you lost the battle on stake, but don’t let Webb et al destroy betting shops completely, because that’s what they want.