You’ve probably read about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. Or FOBTs. Or the gaming machines, tucked neatly behind the poster plastered windows of betting shops. You may have read that they are like crack cocaine and a scourge to our society, causing the proliferation of seedy bookmakers who sidestep the limit of four machines per establishment by simply opening more establishments.
If you have read about the FOBT, then you have no doubt also read that they are the “crack-cocaine of gambling.” This, of course, is not an official title. Each terminal, visually akin to a supercharged self-check in machine at Heathrow Airport with a swivel stool, (is not proudly emblazoned “Electric Roulette: The Crack-Cocaine of Gambling.” Rather, if you read the myriad articles declaring them as such, you will see the descriptor is often attributed to “critics,” “researchers,” or even “experts.” Which critics? Which researchers? Which experts?
The reality is that who says it doesn’t even matter anymore. It is a soundbite, an easily repeated cliché that is self-fulfilling through its constant repetition and reinforcement. Fixed Odds Betting Terminals are the “crack-cocaine of gambling” because everyone keeps declaring them so.
It doesn’t take much circumferential research to find out that the term has been oft employed to describe a variety of gambling practices around the world.
So, what do we deduce? Perhaps gambling is the crack-cocaine of gambling? Perhaps gambling is just crack-cocaine and we’re all desperately confused. (NB: It isn’t.)
We know what people mean when they say it. The roulette games on FOBT allow big wagers on rapidly repeating games with flashing lights and digital fanfare that make it an immersive, and thus reality obfuscating experience. This, they say, is a form of gambling that appeals to the punter’s inner problem gambler or, most cynically, targets problem gamblers directly.
This contrasts the benign faces of gambling such as the National Lottery, a one pound a week pool, that brings communities together and helps Britain win more gold medals than it used to at the Olympic games.
In the evermore ludicrous web of clichés and euphemistic analogies, if FOBTs are the “crack-cocaine of gambling” then perhaps the Lotto is a slice of a Union-Jack frosted cake that your grandmother indulges in once a week (probably with your date of birth). Comforting. British.
But even the National lottery was met with suspicion initially by the British public.
Lest we forget, however, that Camelot and the National Lottery have their own crack-cocaine of gambling: scratch cards. And this is the sort of crack-cocaine that 16-year olds can get their hands on.
There are those that fightback against this prevailing public opinion. Christopher Snowdon, conservative columnist, is so incensed by the FOBT hyperbole that he’s written a research paper. Philip Davies MP often seems to be a lone crusader in the House of Commons for the rights of the FOBT user, the normal British man of normal British man urges and pursuits.
Are both of them in the pockets of Big Gamba?
In Davies’ case, the answer is absolutely, to the extent an enquiry was launched. He’s loud and proud.
One of Snowdon’s most cherished nuggets, the sort of ‘did you know’ nugget you whip out at every dinner party, is that the term the “crack cocaine of gambling” was first invented by Donald Trump in the 1980s.
Yes, property magnate, casino plunderer and now President of the United States. The story goes that Trump termed it in response to a video Keno product that launched in New York State. At the time, Trump was still a darling of Atlantic City and he saw such a game as deleterious to his business interests.
It is a brilliant fact. Topical and particularly pertinent given the Donald’s prominence in the contemporary moment. So, is it too good to be true?
Examining Snowdon’s sources, you discover that he attributes this tidbit to a fairly obscure Canadian Senate committee hearing from 2005 that was in the midst of a debate as to whether to curb the propagation of Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) in neighbourhood bars and restaurants. The Bill, to amend the lottery schemes clause of the Criminal Code was tabled by Jean Lapointe, a legendary Quebecois stage actor turned socially concerned politician. VLTs are similar to video slot machines in the USA and certainly look quite a lot like FOBTS and yes, you guessed it have also been called the crack-cocaine of gambling.
Bill Rutsey, President of a gaming operator at the time, was called to the committee hearing as an expert witness. During his opening address to the room of Canadian senators, he explained: “Senator Lapointe’s research assistant referred to VLTs as the crack-cocaine of gambling: You play them once and you are instantly hooked. I will start with crack-cocaine. The term was actually coined by Donald Trump in an attempt to limit competition to his casinos. Instead, he succeeded in providing a great shorthand term for all opponents of gambling.”
He was certainly right about that.
But as affable a fellow as Mr. Rutsey appears, you must ask the question:
Can you take the spoken word of a gaming operator in a room full of traditionalist senators from the transcript of an obscure committee hearing in the recesses of the Canadian parliament over ten years ago for a bill that was never even voted on? Probably not. I would have to substantiate the claim.
Delving into the newspaper archives of the late twentieth century, the answer appeared. Were the rumours true?
This is the story of Quick Draw. You’ve probably never heard of it. If Donald Trump had had his way, you wouldn’t be reading about it now.
Manhattan. August 1995. Humidity rising. So, too, were the hairs on the back of the Donald’s neck. The New York State government resolved to introduce Quick Draw, a keno like lottery game popular in states like Massachusetts, into many of its bars, grills, and bowling alleys in September of that year. The idea was to pad the coffers after a difficult fiscal year. The game was simple and popular with old-timers. You simply filled in up to ten numbers on a piece of card. The waiter or bartender would take your card and your wager, feed it into a machine, which would enter the numbers into the New York State central lottery database. Then, every five minutes, twenty of the eighty possible numbers would beam onto a video screen, one by one. The more numbers matched, the more money won up to $100,000 on a ten-dollar bet.
Donald Trump was outraged.
“I doubt that more than one in a thousand New Yorkers know that the video equivalent of slot machines soon will be located everywhere – in their neighbourhood bars, restaurants and bowling alleys – maybe even next door to their child’s school, their church or synagogue… With Keno in your neighbourhood, you could lose your paycheck on your way home from work. And the Keno machines are highly accessible to young people… And the record shows that the biggest losers of all will be the poor and minority communities. When you add it all up, the social costs far outweigh the potential tax revenues from legalizing this video crack.”
First, drink it in. Trump as moral crusader. He really will say anything. You can marvel at his concern for our communities, our children, our poor and our minorities….
“because players get a continuous and addicting series of hits,” Trump clarifies.
In order to protect New York’s future generations (and his three Atlantic City casinos?), Trump filed the “crack-cocaine of civil litigation,” a lawsuit, against the New York State Lottery. And, by jove, he won. For a while at least.
An acting New York state supreme court justice, Louis B. York, ordered a temporary restraining order on the game’s rollout, so he had adequate time to study the filing. Unfortunately, he couldn’t study the documents that weekend because it was the Labor Day holiday and if he cancelled his vacation plans his wife would “surely divorce him.”
Trump lost his appeal a few days later and 1,800 bars and restaurants opened their doors to Quick Draw up and down New York state.
“It’s a game that a lot of old-timers really like,” the owner of a shoe shop on the upper east side of Manhattan declared. “It’s kind of like horse racing for them without the trip.”
Quick Draw never brought in the revenue that the state government desired, languishing well below the gilded figure of $200 million dollars a year. Eventually, the state stripped the game back from the state’s bars and restaurants after a heated budget dispute in 1999.
Frank Padavan, Trumps mentor in crack-cocaine based analogies, celebrated the game’s demise but was wary of future revival: “Like Dracula, this monster may yet rise from its coffin.”
These are only ever short-lived victories for the Senator Padavans of this world, as these monsters, the video crack-cocaine’s of gambling do indeed keep rising from their coffins; the FOBTs, the Pokies of Australia, the Pachinko Parlours of Japan, even the pocket monster mobile phones connected to the internet in New Jersey.
Legislators are wrestling with it all over the world, knowing that if they cannot drive a stake through the monster’s heart they can at least tie a leash around its neck. In South Australia, the maximum stake in pokies has been halved and in Britain, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has announced a review of stakes and allocations of FOBTs in betting shops. To coincide with the review, the FOBT APPG parliamentary group has recommended that the maximum stake be slashed from £100 to £2.
Most intriguingly of all, Donald Trump is no longer just the windswept casino magnate armed with a pen, a lawyer and billion dollars to influence gaming policy in the US and around the world. Now, mostly free of his casino holdings and the President, it is unclear which direction gambling policy will go, especially with regard to Internet Gaming. Early indications have suggested a fence straddling manoeuvre for the immediate future; “I have friends on both sides of the issue.”
Casino plunderer or no, Trump is the first elected US president with a background in the industry, and it remains to be seen if he finds himself enchanted by the promise of exponential revenue opportunities through a liberalisation of internet gambling, or beholden to old school bricks and mortar moguls like Sheldon Adelson.
As these debates ride furiously into the night, it is worth us all taking a deep breath and thinking.
The crack-cocaine of gambling, the monster, the Dracula; will we keep it in the Coffin? Will we let it free? How best do we regulate the monster? With mobile casinos on smartphones, do we all have monsters in our pockets?
As he opened the door to his home, Dracula said, “Once again… welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.”