the inside story of how the uk’s big bookies really treat the vulnerable

In January 2015 I had what should have been a life-changing phone call from Nancy, a woman I hadn’t heard from in ten years. We had been co-directors at Tote Bookmakers until 2004, when I left to try running a business of my own. 

I’d been in the industry since I was 17 and had enjoyed 95% of that time. But things were changing. I became commercial director at Tote Bookmakers in 1998. Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) were introduced in 1999 and it was one of my duties to oversee their rollout into around 400 Tote betting shops.

Within a year or so, evidence was growing that these machines were dragging some people into the depths of despair. I felt uneasy but I chose to take at face value the data trotted out by the retail betting industry as a body: only a tiny minority of punters were affected, and they were already prone to addiction.

As stories of hardship, depression and wrecked lives grew, I became increasingly uneasy.  But my hypocrisy kicked in, as it tends to do when my conscience is looking for a way out, and I stayed with it a couple more years. Even then it wasn’t the FOBTs alone that made me quit; they were a factor, but stronger motivators in the shape of a reduced appetite for bullshit, backstabbing, and lack of any corporate vision told in the end, and I parted ways with the Tote.

The first business I set up – Lazybet – failed inside two years, and in 2006 I started Gamtrain Ltd to provide web-based training to betting shop staff – delivered through the shop tills to save buying standalone PCs 

At that time, when training of shop staff was needed, the Tote and some other companies had to hire training venues and take shop staff away for days, leaving the operational side of the business to find replacements. It was a costly, clumsy process, which my Gamtrain software could render obsolete.

The Gambling Act

The 2005 Gambling Act would become law in 2007, and a large part of our training content at Gamtrain accounted for every legal requirement in-shop. Most of the rules covered protection of the vulnerable – under aged, and problem gamblers. 

We added a suite of reporting tools so that all aspects of the behaviours of vulnerable customers could be gathered and reported on automatically by the Gamtrain system. There were highly detailed Gamtrain Incident Reports for every category governing the vulnerable, and had the software been adopted nationally, it would have provided a trove of data on which to base future plans about treatment of the vulnerable.

Our other modules offered comprehensive training on every aspect of the betting shop worker’s job.

We didn’t bank on training alone, and added a suite of  ‘apps’ that would help greatly in the operational side of running a betting shop estate. I believed that with everything we had, I could earn a few quid while making the industry better for operators and for punters.

I was wrong.

In the next year or two I gave Gamtrain presentations to some very senior figures in the industry, up to MD level. The initial response, without fail, was enthusiasm. The final response was invariably, ‘no thanks’. 

I persevered as various companies changed staff at the top level, but the only interest came from small independent bookies, of which vey few remain. One that does has remained loyal to the Gamtrain software for over ten years, and still runs it now. They’re one of the better known small groups and had upwards of 100 shops before the FOBT rules were changed.

So, why did the initial warm welcome for the Gamtrain software invariably turn to dust with Hills, Ladbrokes, Betfred and Coral? Coral in particular had a group of head office staff who seemed committed to the point of obsession and kept asking me back to present to ever more senior execs. Anyway, it came to nothing and I moved on.

Nancy knew about the Gamtrain software and that was what prompted her to contact me with the new proposal. I was grateful to her then and still am for at least giving me a chance

By the time she called me in January 2015, I was much poorer financially than the last time I had spoken to her, but much happier with life away from corporations. Nancy too had left the Tote and set up a gambling consultancy business. She told me she had just been appointed to help the UK’s major bookmakers meet a target that had been set by the industry regulator, the Gambling Commission (GC), a body that had been formed as part of the 2005 Gambling Act.

MOSES

The major bookies – Ladbrokes, Coral, William Hill, and Betfred, controlled among them about 4,000 High Street betting shops in 2015 – around half the total shops in the UK. They’d been ordered by the GC to come up with a system to allow a troubled punter to visit just one betting shop to self exclude from all the betting shops in that area, or indeed, betting shops anywhere in the UK. The task became known as the Multiple Operator Self Exclusion System – MOSES.

Nancy said to me, ‘We have two companies tendering so far, would you be interested in being the third and pitching to the MOSES group?’

‘Of course!’

Nancy explained the brief: the MOSES group was looking for something digital (paperless), ideally running on an Android tablet, inexpensive and effective. And they wanted it fast. 

The Group choosing the winning tender was made up of fairly senior execs, most of whom specialised in delivering the Gambling Commission requirements for each respective company. I knew one of the MOSES guys well and was on nodding terms with a couple of others. I was pretty confident we had a major chance of winning the contract.

Tom Hall, boss of web designers Katatomic Ltd, had, years before, brought my sketched out original Gamtrain structure beautifully to fruition, and had become a friend. Tom agreed to the new deal I proposed on this MOSES app and took on the development.

Tom and his team in Macclesfield worked relentlessly in the following weeks to meet changing deadlines. There was much back and forth with Nancy, alongside meetings with the Moses Group, initial presentations, feedback, changes to the app – everything you would expect in delivering something new, but under severe time pressure.

In late March I went to London to present what we had. All members of the MOSES group would be at the presentation. Two members of the Gambling Commission would also be there. I learned late that one company who had tendered had dropped out.

That left just one rival between me and finally taking my company to where I believed it belonged.

I would make money, but equally important I’d see years worth of my ideas, and Tom’s work, in use nationally by an industry I’d been born into.

On presentation day, my rival group presented first, and I had no idea how their proposal had gone down. What I did know was that within minutes of me starting my presentation, the MOSES group members and the Gambling Commission guys were excited and enthusiastic.  I will come on soon to what our app offered.

The upshot was that the MOSES group wanted live trials of the app in a pilot group of betting shops in Glasgow.

The Glasgow shop trials went ahead in April 2015. I was there, in-shop, at the start of each trial to make sure staff were familiar enough with how it worked. Again, staff were upbeat and optimistic about this solution.

Over the next six weeks or so, there were very positive reports, talk of trial extensions, supposed costings projections – our charge was £3.50 per week per betting shop for us to provide and run the system nationwide, support and maintain the software, and do all admin work on the data. 

Not once were we asked to improve the software. We’d anticipated and covered everything. The trials were pronounced a success … and then everything seemed to begin steadily falling apart. 

My emails and messages were being returned very late or not at all. The shop trials stopped. At some point in late May, Nancy finally told me that our pitch had been rejected on cost.

That cost, remember, was £3.50 per week per shop, which is, I believe, about half their toilet paper weekly spend, and about 20% of the weekly cost of their newspaper order. I’d say it was about a third of their cost for the throwaway pencils they provide to punters.

And what were we offering for £3.50, aside from support, maintenance, and organisation and reporting of all the data? Well, here is what the app itself gave them …

Gamtrain’s solution app presented to the MOSES group.

Customer asks at the counter to self exclude

Staff member takes his photograph using the camera built into the tablet.

Customer completes the form on the tablet and chooses the shops he wants excluded from, then signs (stylus or finger)

Staff member clicks save and the details plus photo immediately go out to all the chosen shops

Exclusion achieved and live in two minutes and customer now has protection.

Further … when an exclusion appears on a Gamtrain tablet, it is added to a picture carousel of people who have excluded in that shop. The carousel runs constantly on the tablet out of sight of the public, allowing staff to become very familiar with the images of the excluded.

The order of photos appearing in the carousel is controlled by a Gamtrain algorithm based on how far that shop is from the excluded customer’s home or office. So, the photo of someone living a hundred metres from the shop will carousel, say 20 times more often than one living 1 mile from the shop.

If an excluded customer does manage to breach his exclusion by placing a bet, his file on the Gamtrain tablet is marked accordingly and a breach alert goes out immediately from the tablet to all associated shops.

In short, we delivered a solution exactly to brief. It was simple to operate and the key task was achieved in a couple of minutes. The geo-referenced photo carousel gave overworked staff the best chance of monitoring (helping) excluded customers, and there was a quick and easy way to register and transmit breaches.

What the bookmakers decided to use rather than Gamtrain’s tablet solution:

Having rejected us on cost, this is how UK bookmakers delivered the requirement to meet the Gambling Commission’s new rule of Multiple Operator Self Exclusion … and this, five years on, is what you will find this very day if you choose to enter a betting shop and try it out.

Customer tells shop staff he wants to self exclude from numerous shops. Shop staff tell him to phone 0800 294 2060 and speak to staff who handle multiple operator self exclusion

Customer phones the 0800 number and is given a postal address and email address. 

He’s told to get a photo of himself and a copy of his passport or driving license and send those to either address.

If and when the customer sends the required documentation, admin staff create a self exclusion form. This is sent to the nominated head office section of each company that has shops involved in the case.

The support team at each company then makes sufficient copies and sends them to the shops nominated by the customer. 

Staff in the nominated shops are expected to ‘register’ this exclusion and monitor the customer for possible breaches. If a staff member notices a breach they must communicate back through the chain mentioned above.

So, you might know nothing whatsoever about the betting industry, but I suspect you know which of the above systems of self exclusion is the more efficient. 

But that in itself is not the  whole point. The Gamtrain system takes two minutes to get a self exclusion live and protecting the customer. The MOSES system currently in operation might take two weeks to do the same. That is not good, but it’s not the worst part of this by any means.

In the days before camera phones, it was distressingly common for a customer in a betting shop to ask for self exclusion when at his lowest and most vulnerable, then be told he must provide a photograph so the exclusion could be monitored by shop staff. 

Many would leave the shop, and either the motivation to exclude would fade, or the nuisance value of finding a photo booth and paying the cost for pictures would prove too much of a barrier, and the customer would fail to return and complete what he started to try to get his gambling under control.

So common is this occurrence that it is a requirement in Gambling Commission rules for each betting shop to register such events as an ‘interaction’ and include the totals in their quarterly/annual report. 

Now, you will think it’s quite likely that by forcing the customer to provide a photo and a copy of passport/license and not just bring them in to a shop, but send them to an address, requiring the assistance of the Royal Mail or having sufficient technical knowledge to be able to scan, attach and send an email, you might further discourage would-be excluders from doing anything more after making the original 0800 call. 

You could also reasonably assume that the Gambling Commission, as regulators who demanded the set up of this current MOSES system would, as they do in betting shops, closely track the number of vulnerable gamblers who make that first call for help and are then discouraged by the system to go through with it.  

As the number of non-completes mounted the Gambling Commission would then, surely, take action?

This time you’d be wrong. Very badly wrong.

The Gambling Commission doesn’t have a clue about how many vulnerable gamblers do not complete multiple self exclusion after ringing that 0800 number.

In a response to my FOI enquiry a few weeks ago the Gambling Commission told me they do not keep those numbers. In surprise, and to double check, I emailed them back; they confirmed they do not have a single piece of data on one of the biggest barriers vulnerable gamblers face.  

Let me remind you that a major part of the Gambling Commission’s remit is to protect the vulnerable. 

What conclusion would you draw based on what you’ve read here? Did that MOSES Group turn from an open-armed welcome and live trials of Gamtrain’s self exclusion app to throwing it in the bin because it would be £3.50 a week on each shop’s costs? 

They knew that cost before the trials started. 

Or did someone higher up reckon that Gamtrain’s system was way too efficient at excluding what they see as cash cows rather than vulnerable gamblers?

The Gambling Commission reps who attended my presentation liked it a lot when they saw it. What happened afterwards? What input did they have?  

Those two reps must not only have been aware of the system that was eventually set up, but must have approved it and marked it fit for purpose. They are experts after all.

The Gambling Commission believes this telephone/paper/copying/posting self exclusion system is fit for purpose, even though they haven’t a clue how many fail to complete the exclusion process.

The Gambling Commission is happy that this current, vital first line of defence for any vulnerable betting shop gambler is perfectly fine.

So, why have I waited five years to expose this? Well, naively, at the start I simply believed what I was told, that we had been rejected on cost. It seemed crazy, and I also thought that the cost of what they have ended up with was likely more than they’d have paid with Gamtrain.  Mainly, I never believed that decision makers in the industry I’d been in most of my life would favour fleecing vulnerable gamblers instead of helping them.

I’m now quite convinced that is what is happening. The sick-making pleas of the industry to be allowed to continue their toxic, horrific VIP scheme finally turned me, and turned my stomach too.

Laughingly labelled VIPs are customers who lose an awful lot of money to the big bookies. The major companies all have schemes for ‘looking after’ such punters. Invites to the races, football matches, concerts, … why, they will be so concerned if you don’t have a bet for three or four days that they will put a ‘gift’ of five grand or so in your account!

If someone losing tens of thousands of pounds a week gambling is not in need of protection – whatever their resources – I don’t know who is. Yet the bookies will battle to the end to keep courting them … no, courting is the wrong word; they are grooming them.

The major bookmakers in this country talk a good game about protecting the vulnerable. Cutting down on TV ads, spending more and more on ‘education’ and ‘treatment’ But actions always speak louder than words. 

If they truly want to help the vulnerable, they must start with a decent, efficient self exclusion system in-shop and online (you can be assured after this article they will not be running to my door for it!). 

And if they don’t abolish these toxic, obscene VIP schemes, they should all lose their operating licences. The Gambling Commission have swingeing powers; as yet, they have not used them.  From my own experience, the relationship the Gambling Commission has formed with the major bookmakers is much too cosy.

Many troubled punters might have an addiction problem, but perhaps the big bookies have an addiction of their own; maybe they cannot stop them themselves milking the vulnerable.

Joe McNally

November 1st 2020

Edited to add a screenshot from Twitter. Michael Dugher is head of the Betting & Gaming Council. Mister Dugher is the betting industry spokesman, and has appeared numerous times on TV and Radio, speaking on the industry’s behalf. The BGC is a relatively new body, and Mister Dugher, a former Labour MP who was  Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, seemed a new broom when he took up the Chief Executive position at the BGC in February this year. I had quite high hopes of him and contacted him to tell him what I have told you in the main article in the hope he would make his members see sense.

Here is what seems to be the BGC’s mission statement

In response to my main article and to a tweet I made about one of his earlier announcements today he came back with this:

So, there you go. The first formal comment on the issues raised in my article by the man the industry appointed to sharpen everything up and represent it in public. That is how much they care.

Notes

I have used the gender pronoun he as most betting shop customers are male.

Here is a link to a basic video showing Gamtrain’s Moses App in operation. On this site you can also see how Gamtrain’s original software works.

Here is a link to the current Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice (LCCP) issued by the Gambling Commission.

Nancy is a pseudonym

13 comments

  1. Thanks for putting this out in the public domain. For me it’s easy to believe your conclusions & online it’s even worse. I have a lot of respect for what you tried to accomplish both with your business & by writing about your experiences here.

    Like

  2. A very disturbing account of the scandalous failure of the industry to protect vulnerable gamblers effectively. The Gambling Commission Website offers a set of data which should be collected to evaluate the operator’s schemes under “Multi-operator self-exclusion schemes (MOSES) evaluation and impact assessment principles”. Yet, it appears there is no mention of the datum you have identified, i.e. how many fail to complete the exclusion process.

    This yawning gap needs to be publicised further to interested M.P.s and to the Press.

    This is an excellent post which will hopefully be disseminated on a wide scale.

    Thank you.

    Like

  3. Joe , I feel so sorry that you had to watch the system chosen over you, fail so completely.
    In this time of Covid , would it not be the ideal opportunity to get a pool betting system rolled out , look at the riches France and America receive from Paris Mutual etc .

    Like

    1. I sent a new ‘superbet’ to the Tote a couple of months ago. They said they didn’t want to pay anything for it as ‘Inventors don’t deserve any payment as it’s not them that puts the work in’. So I never showed them it. More fools them as it would have changed their business hugely.

      What’s the needed in the betting industry are brains and integrity

      Joe

      Like

  4. Great article Joe.

    A real eye opener. Sadly I’m not surprised. I’ve worked with large retailers and profit making businesses all my life and have seen how many will cut corners to turn a buck.

    Large bookmakers should be looking at their internal culture and overall Morality. I for one would not want to work for a business that treated vulnerable people with such contempt. I’m sure many feel the same within their business.

    At the same time it does not look like the government puts Nearly enough focus on the Bookmakers practices . How many people’s life’s are ruined by problem gambling/ suicides that could have been prevented etc. That is the Real tragedy.

    Keep up the good fight!

    On another note -good to see the Jumps back in swing.
    Cyrname caught us all by surprise. I wouldn’t have backed it at 5-1.
    Kildesart is still one to follow for the season – ran a respectable race – I wasn’t expecting as much as you from its first run of the season.

    After a rewatch of the RSA I have come to agree with you on Champ as a contender for the gold cup. If he can get his jumping a bit slicker and progress naturally this year he will be bang there.

    Willie Mullins has still to Unleash most of his good horses. I think Allaho could be a contender for your Ryanair bets. He didn’t look the finished article last year and I don’t think he wants the gold cup trip.

    I followed Infatiguable till the end of the season after some of your blogs. Couldn’t resist the price at Cheltenham and thought she had a squeak of winning. I’m glad I did!
    Il keep half an eye on her this season also. Maybe stepping up in trip as her best work was at the end. Looked outpaced most of the race.

    Good luck with the rest of the tips/blogs.

    Lewis

    Like

  5. I work in the casino industry, i will remain anonymous.
    Your model is virtually the same as the SENSE scheme we use, its instant and simple for the vulnerable person to enrol.
    The Gambling Commission will be aware of this – how are they accepting of two very different schemes.
    I’m embarrassed by this.

    Like

  6. Hi Joe,

    Tried to comment on the blog a few days ago; comment doesn’t seem to have appeared; spam filter might be on overdrive. Just in case, I wanted to say/reiterate:

    This is an excellent, eye-opening, and in some ways brave piece. I very much appreciate it. The response from Dugher is contemptible.

    I wonder whether you caught this special edition of the Guardians’ football weekly podcast:

    https://www.theguardian.com/football/audio/2020/oct/13/football-and-its-relationship-with-gambling-football-weekly-special-podcast

    It is related to your post, and they seem keen to pursue their questions further, so it might be worth making contact.

    The spokesperson for the industry who they have on, by the way, is not so stupidly dismissive as Dugher, but comes across as quite the PR robot, repeating the prepared line that “safer gambling is at the heart of everything we do” without much regard for whether it actually answers the question. PR is as PR does, I suppose.

    Thanks again for the article.

    Nick

    Like

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