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Tony Keenan: Why I’m Worried About Gambling

I’m worried about gambling. Not my own gambling per se, though a couple more winners would always be appreciated, but where the whole pursuit is going, writes Tony Keenan.

The 2010's were the decade when gambling in Ireland and beyond became normalised. It was hardly an illicit, back-street hobby in the early 2000's but recent years have seen it become utterly mainstream through its ubiquity, from TV ads to football sponsorship, odds making their way into conversations like never before. Technology was the great enabler of this expansion: why go to a betting shop when you could have ten of them in your pocket?

Today, where there is sport, there is betting. It was ever thus for racing and indeed this has been its primary attraction for many (myself included) but it is something new for many sports. This normalisation of gambling may have been the greatest achievement of betting companies, opening up markets and customers that were hitherto unavailable to them, but it seems that a tipping point is about to be reached if we are not already there; have they been too successful in this process and about to be hoist by their own petard?

Sympathy for bookmakers has always been in short supply, the profession ranking close to politicians and solicitors in the public’s eyes, but the last few years have seen a sharp swing in sentiment against them. Our society now demands transparency when much betting market activity is cloudy but campaigners like Brian Chappell and Paul Fairhead, and newspapers like The Guardian, have done sterling work in bringing abject abuses into the light.

They are to be commended for this and have played their part in forcing welcome regulatory changes in the UK, from reduced stakes on FOBTs to banning the use of credit cards for online accounts, with limitations on VIP programmes perhaps to come. Self-regulation by betting companies doesn’t work, such attempts inevitably at odds with commercial concerns and there has been a certain acceptance of this from the firms themselves, publicly at least. They have had to take some pain and there will be more to come but while they needed a kick, a kicking even, do they deserve to be kicked to to the kerb?

Punters need bookmakers unless the whole model of betting in these islands is going to change drastically, and my worry now is that gambling will be used as political capital by those who don’t really understand the area. Gambling and betting companies (and, by extension, punters) are the easiest of targets for politicians looking to score points.

To the forefront of all this is the very real issue of problem gambling. It is a difficult topic to write about, not least because I have thankfully never been there and hope I never will be. The fear of losing everything is something that lurks in the background with most if not all serious gamblers. That fear is not necessarily a bad thing either; fear can be a great motivator first of all but also act as a regulator if tempted to stake too heavily when we may believe we have a huge edge; racing punters are still betting on animals running around a field.

Nor am I any expert in the statistics of problem gambling which seem to throw up mixed messages and, in any case, those numbers could be wrong: losing a lot of money, often in the most private of fashions, does not seem like something people would want to disclose. It is a concern for society as a whole, perhaps even a public health issue, but most figures seem to bear out the truth that it affects a minority of gamblers and how we deal with the whole gambling area should not be dictated totally by the few when the many it brings joy to many.

I love gambling, particularly gambling on racing, which remains the ultimate betting puzzle with all its variables. I won’t pretend that every aspect of it is good. It can be a self-inflicted emotional roller coaster with losses hard to take, while it comes at a significant time cost if doing it seriously; there are other more productive and beneficial things we could alternatively be at. But, for me at least, the positives outweigh the negatives: among other things, it teaches us how to lose (frequently) and can make us learn to be disciplined, while I have made some of best friends through gambling and racing.

There is also the issue of freedom. Irresponsibility is present in most aspects of life from eating to drinking to driving to internet use; there are many things that aren’t particularly good for you when done to excess and a life spent gambling is hardly contributing much to society. But it is fun and if the majority of people who partake are enjoying it without doing significant harm to others, they should be allowed to continue.

This freedom may well be curtailed in the near-future however, perhaps significantly so. Unlike the UK, Ireland has no Gambling Commission yet but it is coming in some form and how quickly it is expedited will be determined by the next government, which may be less than sympathetic to betting interests. The most popular party in the most recent elections on some measures, Sinn Fein, stated in their manifesto that they would "conduct a short review of the gambling sector and introduce reform to the sector", allowing that these manifestos are often not worth the paper they are printed on after the voting is done.

Any new laws would surely aim to protect the vulnerable which is both a worthy and necessary goal, but should also be cognisant of the fact that not all gambling is problem gambling. The concern would be that regulators could be people with an anti-gambling agenda or may have no grasp of the area and thus the rules could be badly thought out or too draconian.

What form these regulations may take is unclear. An increase in betting tax (perhaps passed on to the punter) would be an obvious one, especially as Horse Racing Ireland have been lobbying for it for a while now. But any new rules seem likely to be more wide-reaching than that - some sort of source-of-funds/affordability check perhaps on the cards. This could be applied on or soon after registration for an online account or appearance in a betting shop and would make it virtually impossible for people to bet beyond their means but at the same time prevent people betting at a scale they are comfortable with.

The amount a punter can bet may be linked to their salary. So a person earning €39,000 (the average industrial wage in Ireland at the end of 2019) may be allowed to lose 10% of that in a year; I am guessing completely here, the figure may be much lower or higher. There is obviously a big difference between turning over that €3,900 in a given period and actually losing it all, but would the regulators know that? A punter can make a tank of that size go a long way in terms of time and they might, heaven forbid, even increase it.

Staking is a very broad church and I would not describe myself as remotely high-staking but nor do I want to do this for fivers and tenners at a time; there has to be some tangible reward for success. I realise gambling regularly can inure you to the value of money and you probably need to be a little loose, not thinking about stakes in terms of cups of coffee, nights out, even holidays. Bookmakers telling you what you can and cannot stake is one thing as there will always be ways and means of getting around their restrictions but government regulation might be something different entirely.

One thing that seems certain is that winning punters of any sort, whether they be making a living or simply getting a few quid, won’t be considered in this. That group have a tendency of finding a way but this could present yet another stumbling block with any sort of increased customer due diligence likely to work against them.

Ultimately, these laws in some form seem inevitable. One would hope that they will be constructed by people who have a real sense of subject matter and that punters won’t get caught in the crossfire between politicians and betting companies where betting volume just gets driven underground, which brings a wealth of other potential problems. Perhaps gambling should never have been allowed to become so utterly normalised but I would not want to see it demonised either.

- TK