The Perfect Sweepstake

I love a special market. By that I mean anything you can bet on that isn’t regular sport. As even the government are smart enough to realise; gambling is a legitimate way to make a fun thing even more enjoyable.

An election is a typical example, but most of those don’t lend themselves all that well to betting. There are usually not that many participants, and even fewer with a chance of victory. Plus the visual action is dryer than a mouthful of plain crackers. Overall, it lacks aleatorial richness.

But, as I write here from breezy Liverpool, there is an event brewing with lots of runners and no obvious winner. There are also unisex hot pants and an uncountable plethora of sequins. That last observation doesn’t impact the gambling market, but it does contribute to the base level of fun.

Oh yes, Eurovision is in town.

I can’t think of many events that are as well-suited to a punt as Eurovision. In some ways it’s as rigged as professional wrestling, in other ways it’s as gloriously unpredictable as the World Cat Herding Championships.

I don’t have much data to fall back on for that assessment, but I know that Blue went into 2011 as the favourites and they came 11th. Thankfully I live in a world where you can forego proper research and instead make sweeping generalisations from the tribulations of a 90’s boy band.

In the Eurovision final there will be 24 entries, all of whom are sort-of in with a chance. That number nestles nicely into the Goldilocks ‘just right’ sweetspot for possible outcomes. Plenty of choice with scope for juicy odds.

Importantly, Eurovision also offers suspense. In my experience, the best gambling formats last long enough for an emotional rollercoaster. There has to be enough time for the possible outcome to swing in several directions, but not so much time that the swings are meaningless and negligible.

TV producers understand the importance of suspense for keeping people tuned in. The event is literally designed to maximise it. Points are drip-fed for an hour to give us an idea of who might win, and then at the very end a final mystery avalanche of points (the public vote) decides the winner.

All of that takes place over a single sparkly night of musical action. It’s the perfect duration.

So am I saying you should stick a pin in a map of Europe and get down the bookies? Absolutely not. A quick calculation of the current market (pre Thursday night’s semi final) shows they’re offering staggeringly poor value. For every £1 you bet with Bet365, they will get to keep (on average) 37p of it. Yuck.

As the blog title suggests, I have a better idea. A good ol’ fashioned sweepstake.

Usually I wouldn’t recommend them, because there’s no thought or skill involved. As I’ve written before, my favourite form of home-gambling is a Calcutta auction, but that inevitably gets out of hand and is better saved for professional degenerates.

That’s a poor fit here. First and foremost, Eurovision is a celebration of music and solidarity. Sam Ryder tells us that Eurovision is a festival, not a contest, and now I’m witnessing it first hand I’m inclined to agree. Any betting element should be a bonus bit of fun, not the raison d’etre. Therefore, keep it simple, stupid. A sweepstake is the way forward.

Stock up on alcopops, drape yourself in a foreign flag, then go around a friend’s house. Put the 24 qualifying countries in one glittery bucket and the names of the 24 participating players in another. Then draw them out one at a time like you’re doing the FA Cup draw at a discotheque. It’s all part of the fun.

Here’s my recommended prize structure:

£5 entry fee per country (totals a £120 prize pool)
£40 goes to the winner
£25 goes to 2nd place
£15 goes to 3rd place
£10 goes to 10th place
£10 goes to the bottom country (to be shared in the event of a tie)
£10 goes to the winner of the public vote
£10 goes to the country to whom Ukraine awards 12 points

That should keep pretty much everyone interested for most of the proceedings, and no greedy bookmaker get to see a penny. Just the way it should be. Enjoy and good luck!

About Bloody Time

It’s been nearly a year since I last posted. I took a job in the gambling industry and it didn’t seem right to be throwing rocks around while I was in my shabby little greenhouse. I’ll tell that sorry tale in time, but for now self-indulgence can wait, because it finally happened…

The government actually published their white paper on gambling! And you know what? It’s actually pretty good.

The folks behind it have clearly paid attention to the clamour of competing voices and have largely come up with a comprehensive, common sense and coherent set of recommendations. The fact that there have been very few loud dissenting voices suggests that everybody is grudgingly satisfied with the outcome.

The only substantial losers are the online operators, who (according to the paper) stand to lose between 8-14% of their revenues. That is mostly comprised of the profits from problem gamblers they’ve been mercilessly squeezing, so don’t let your heart bleed too heavily for them.

They haven’t really piped up, because the damage could have been a lot worse. Their shareholders obviously don’t seem to mind this outcome because stock prices of gambling firms have barely moved on the news.

My main complaint about the legislation is that it took 18 months longer to produce than it should have done, but I have a few other quibbles:

Q1 – Max stakes of up to £15 for slot machines remains obscene. You could easily spank through a week’s wages playing at £2 a spin for an hour. That has to be much lower.

Q2 – Advanced affordability checks kicking in at a daily loss £1K is also far too casino friendly. Most people in the UK cannot afford to lose a grand in a day, so coming to their rescue once they’ve exceeded that threshold would be like popping an extra lock on Shergar’s stable door.

Q3 – Stop singling out 18-24s for special treatment. That adds confusion and complexity for all concerned. If there is a rule or restriction that makes sense for young people, then it makes sense for everyone.

Q4 – A favourite phrase of the paper is “when parliamentary time allows”, which suggests this could take some time to implement. Seriously, hurry the fluck up.

Q5 – You cannot let the operators decide how much of someone’s disposable income they should be allowed to lose. That libertarian loophole stinks of the BGC and their happy gang of stooge MPs. The answer here is simple – set a sensible percentage and massively fine anyone that exceeds it.

Need help with that? Okay, 25%. Done. No-one should be spending more than a quarter of their disposable income on gambling.

Now to some positives – because this is a piece of work that should really be celebrated.

P1 – A proper ombudsman. Obvious and easy, but well done for listening and including this. Do let me know when you begin hiring. I’m happy with hybrid work, but I would prefer a four day week.

P2 – More power to the UKGC to police and punish. Hopefully the additional levy will mean they can get the quality of staff required to perform the role properly.

P3 – Allowing live casinos to be a bit less rubbish. Most of this legislation is about addressing issues with regulation of online, but it’s good that brick and mortar has not been forgotten. I don’t go to those miserable places any more, but I’m glad they’re being given the platform to compete.

P4 – Encouraging a non-invasive approach to affordability checks. As a consumer, I hate being required to provide documentation when all the relevant information is in the public domain (e.g. goverment databases and open banking). As an operator, I hated inconveniencing customers with onerous paperwork and procedures. Administrative sludge is not the answer to safer gambling.

P5 – Addressing addiction at source. By far the biggest problem with the most damaging games is the way they are being built to exploit. By recognising that this can be tackled, and giving regulators the power to do so, the most poisonous products can be de-fanged.

It’s that last point that gives me the biggest cause for optimism, and for me it’s the piece of evidence that the authors really have been listening carefully. It’s a tricky area to fix, but with good people and the right tools, huge progress can be made. If I haven’t already made it clear, I am available.

Overall, a giant leap forward. Let’s not leave it another 18 months though, eh?

Dear Denise

Let me start by saying I’m a fan of your business, and I have been a happy customer for many years. While at times it will not seem like it, I promise that I write to you today from a place of hope and positivity.

I don’t generally endorse gambling companies on my blog, but I have frequently (albeit reluctantly) endorsed your brand, and I would like to see it continue to thrive.

I’ll pause there, Denise, because I already sense your hackles of suspicion rising. I won’t insult your intelligence by continuing with this obvious subterfuge, you are too successful not to notice when you are about to be fed a sh!t sandwich.

Yes, I’m afraid that opening paragraph was the first delicious slice of fresh-baked sourdough before I start to spread on some thick brown layers of displeasure. I’m sorry, Mrs Coates, but that filling isn’t Nutella.

Let’s start with your recent lobbying attempts. I don’t mean the handful of greedy second-job-having MPs that you’ve gathered on your books and in your pocket as “consultants”. That is a transparent and (inexplicably) legal ploy to influence the law. It has all the laughable subtlety of a child breaking the rules of a backyard ballgame when their little monkey brain senses defeat.

I’m actually referring to the much more underhanded attempt to influence the law by circumventing elected officials and talking directly to tax people in the civil service. Those were meant to be secret meetings that did not have to be declared. You are trying to get your dirty way whilst ostensibly keeping your mucky little mitts clean. Naughty, Denise, very naughty.

Essentially your company is conspiring (alongside the flotsam at Flutter and Entain) to commit espionage against society. Your people snuck into Whitehall and whispered “be nice to us or you won’t get your taxes”. It is not very far short of extortion, and it comes at the direct expense of the British public.

Now this may seem unfair, Denise, but I hold you to higher standards than your competitors. As PLCs they are legally bound to try to maximise profits for their shareholders. That doesn’t make the behaviour any less abhorrent, but it does give them an exasperating excuse.

You, on the other hand, are in charge of a private company – it is within your power to pursue good or evil as you see fit. Not only that, but you and your family are also extraordinarily wealthy.

I love that you willingly pay so much tax and can afford to donate generously to good causes. Why waste hundreds of millions on building a good reputation and then stoop to these levels?

If safer gambling regulation hit your bottom line to the tune of say, £200M, then nobody would need to lose their job or bonus, and you would still have enough money to fill up your stadium with pound coins and Scrooge McDuck money-swim until next season kicks off. Even better, the poorest in society would still have £200M in their pockets to spend on food and shelter.

Okay, let’s pause for breath and slap down another slice of that tasty sourdough. I am, after all, a fan, and I don’t want you to feel that I’m being overly negative.

Your commitment to improving the lives of the people in Stoke is truly admirable. When living in a cesspit, there is only so much comfort that can be gained from being quite near Alton Towers and hosting that Channel 4 show about pottery. Plus whatever benefit is to be gained these days from association with Robbie Williams.

Trust me on this, I’m from High Wycombe. We would love a wealthy benefactor to make the town less crap. Nobody is about to make a light entertainment TV show about the defunct chairmaking industry and our celebrity claim to fame is James bloody Corden. We would kill to finish 14th in the EFL Championship table. Stoke owes you an enormous debt of gratitude.

That said, what the f#ck happened on Grand National Day?! When I finally managed to get a response from your website, long after the race had finished, I was told I was in a 15 hour queue to access my account. Did you not anticipate a bit of extra traffic and make plans for a spike in demand?

The failure of your servers on the gambliest day of the year was absolute. And that was after a day where all the favourites only looked fit for a Tesco lasagne. How bad would the issues have been if the good horses had won?

I’m minded to think that it wasn’t technical issues at all. Maybe the office just shut down for twelve hours so you could all jump in champagne-filled Swarovski hot tubs bought with the day’s profits.

The morning after I had hoped there would be some acknowledgement and apology for the issues, maybe even some compensation for the inconvenience caused. It is possible to turn these little disasters into positive experiences given the will to do so, but alas no. Your leadership team were clearly too busy having pillow fights with cases stuffed with £50 notes.

I’m ranting now, aren’t I? Sorry Denise, I had meant to be constructive. For the sake of brevity I’ll spare you the final layer of bread-flattery. After all, if I make this metaphorical faecal butty too big then you won’t be able to get your mouth around it.

Let’s talk about promotions. Now, I’m going to get a bit more technical here because I’m afraid I’m a bit of a CRM geek.

I recently asked your Support Team to remove me from whatever marketing program was giving me free bets for Saturday horse racing. You see, while I like to bet on the two big races, and occasionally take a punt on a dodgy insider tip, I don’t actually like horse racing. Hence, I prefer not to be encouraged to bet on it, even with your money.

I was told I could either receive all promotional offers or none, and there was no way to select which I received. That may indeed be true, but it surprises me that your technology is not sophisticated enough to handle that minimal level of complexity.

Given the choice, I’d only really want to receive promotions for football, cricket and golf. By opting in for those, I don’t think you should have carte blanche to send me any other offers you fancy. To be fair, you haven’t really abused this privilege, but now I know that you could, and I don’t like it.

I also don’t like your Bet Boosts. Initially I was a big fan, because I’ve previously written about the benefits of enhanced-odds promotions. I was excited to see the concept extended to existing customers and installed on a permanent daily basis. What a clever way to indirectly encourage daily play, I thought. You crafty minx, Denise, bravo.

But, within months, it’s all gone rubbish. At first I noticed how the prices for your Bet Boosts would gradually drift in as an event got closer. A result that was increased from 10-1 to 14-1 would become 10-1 from 8-1. What was initially a boost was now just the original price being labelled as a boost. Not cool, Coatesy, not cool at all.

It’s gotten worse though. The boosts are gradually being replaced by a selection of shonky accumulators. I don’t use emojis when I’m writing pretend letters in my blog, but if I did you could be sure there would have been a little vommy face after that last sentence.

Previously I could get a bit of extra value on a plausible final score. Now you want me to back Harry Kane to score 2.5 times with exactly eight corners in each half and more than 5mm of total rainfall. You and I both know that they are readymade mug bets and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise.

Okay, that’s it. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read my gripes. I realise that as Chief High Empress of Sportsbetting you don’t have a lot of time to read fan mail.

I hope you are inspired to make a few changes to keep a long term customer and occasional advocate happy, because you should know that my loyalty is not unshakable.

I can often be found in Argos paying 10% more for stuff I don’t need because I refuse to give Jezz Bezos any more money, and I’ve turned down holiday opportunities if the only flight option involves squeezing into one of Ryanair’s blue and yellow misery tubes.

Please don’t make me gather up my scattered principles and go elsewhere.

All the best and warm regards,


PS Say hi to Ray Winstone for me!

Quickfire Catch-Up

I still haven’t finished writing up a proper blog, so here’s a patchwork of random industry news and opinion.


Last week the gambling industry finally got back together for their annual London jolly. I’ve never been before and I was hoping to attend, but circumstances contrived against me.

From the outside it looks like a lot of schmoozing, boozing and back-slapping, but I figured it would be a good opportunity to see what everyone is doing. Then I could report back once I’d hosed off the sugary glaze of the PR departments.

I was also keen to meet some of the responsible gambling leaders I’ve encountered over the last year. That would have been easy because they were all shoved together in a corner of the conference where they couldn’t poop on the party.

I don’t think I missed much though. Other than the usual slew of small deals, nothing groundbreaking seems to have come out of the event. There are other shindigs on the calendar (including one dedicated to ethical gambling), so perhaps I’ll turn up in future for a surprise inspection.

Isai’s Outstanding Achievement

At the nearby and concurrent International Gaming Awards, my old former mega boss Isai Scheinberg was recognised for his contribution to growing poker and protecting the game’s reputation. It was a thoroughly deserved award and I would have loved to be there to offer my applause and congratulations.

I owe him an enormous debt for the life I’ve enjoyed off the back of his labour, and probably an apology for being a frequently difficult and angry employee. If I seem outspoken and opinionated now, then just imagine me ten years ago when I was overflowing with youthful passion and ambition.

In recognising Isai’s achievement, I hope the gambling industry takes a moment to reflect on his philosophy. The players always came first, and the product was primarily provided as an entertainment option. Somehow, in doing things right and eschewing profit, he and Mark became incredibly wealthy and well-respected.

The greed and short-termism that now predominate are not the only way.


Credit is due for the way gambling companies have re-located their staff from the warzone. Ukraine is pretty much the first stop for anyone hiring skilled and affordable developers, hence gambling companies have a large presence there.

I know many companies have spared no expense in keeping their people safe, despite the huge logistical challenges involved. Playtech alone had to move hundreds of staff, then shared their learnings with other operators.

For balance, it’s important to point out that doing nothing wasn’t an option here. Development personnel are critical staff, so these poor people had to be moved to safety. It is the manner of the operation that is worthy of praise. Fast, efficient, sensitive and collaborative – all things untypical of gambling companies.

On the flip side, I’m cynical of the motives of operators who have curtailed business in Russia. It has been the grayest of gray markets for years, and the Russian government have been persistent in their efforts to bar gambling in the country.

To stop trading now is to give them, however inadvertently, something that they want. I appreciate the purpose of the war is a disgraceful land grab, but I’m sure Putin will be happy with any tangential wins he can get. They are wins he should be denied.

More than anyone else, the gambling industry has developed ninja-like expertise for circumventing the Russian sensors. That back door into the country could be used to educate players about what is really happening in Ukraine, because they have little or no other source of reliable information.

If the gambling companies feel uneasy about taking money from Russian customers (they obviously don’t, this is a pure PR gambit), then they could always invest any profits from the market into humanitarian charities doing crucial work on the ground.


I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading the latest papers of Michael Auer and Mark Griffiths at Nottingham Trent University. Michael is leading the way in providing data-based solutions for identifying problem gambling through his company Neccton, and Mark is the world’s leading academic for practical gambling research (based on my experience reading for a Psychology MSc).

One recent article has shown that an enforced hour break in play is highly effective at disrupting dangerous loss chasing behaviour. Presumably, that length of time is enough for the hot emotions of a bad session to dissipate, thus reducing the likelihood of continued negative behaviour. That is an important learning for any casino that is genuine in its desire to offer a safer product.

A different paper has shown that gambling companies can use machine learning to predict which customers are likely to set their own deposit limits. This should make it possible to tailor safer gambling messages to improve take-up and effective usage of safer gambling tools.

I tend to think that the upside of such fine-tuning would be marginal, but it is an area worthy of further exploration. I know they have two other papers under consideration that will deal more directly with predicting problem gambling, and I feel that has greater potential for positive change.

If I ever decide to pursue a self-funded gambling-related PhD, then these are the gentleman I’d be hounding for help. They’re safe for now though. Until I see more industry appetite for doing things better, I’m not prepared to waste my time.


It’s good to see the Committee for Advertising Practice taking some positive and practical steps while the rest of the UK regulatory machine sit in a state of permanent stasis and disrepair.

From October, gambling companies will no longer be able to use spokespeople or brand ambassadors in the UK that have a strong underage following. That seems a little tricky to enforce, but it’s a well-meaning common sense rule to have in place, i.e. don’t let entertainers flog gambling to kids.

Preventing underage gambling is not straightforward, and I fear these steps alone won’t make a huge difference, but it’ll help. Now for the government and UKGC to get their arses in gear.

Grand National Nonsense

I’ve struggled to blog recently – mostly because I’ve been a bit busier with life. I have drafted a few articles since I last wrote, but they were abandoned because the topics were heavy and I couldn’t seem to strike the right tone.

So, to regain momentum, and because it’s early April and I live in Liverpool, I thought I’d write about the Grand National. Locally, the weekend is so notorious that only the hardiest of alcoholics dare venture into the Mersey melee. They are the battle-hardened alco-warriors that survived St Patrick’s Day and still want more.

In this blog I’m going to tell you about one of my biggest and, perversely, funnest gambling losses, courtesy of the Grand National. But first, some background and a muddled point about underage gambling…

The Grand National was the first thing I ever knowingly bet on. Granddad Dix put together a £1 family sweepstake which I believe took place at my cousin Alan’s wedding reception. The details are blurry enough that I couldn’t have been more than seven.

I remember my horse falling early and the race seeming to take about four hours. Ten minutes is a long time when you’re little.

Only a few years later my memories are much clearer. I recall Esha Ness “winning” the false start Grand National in 1993, and my mum winning on Party Politics the year before (her bet that is, she wasn’t the jockey). The bomb scare Grand National of 1997 seems positively recent, but it was the year before I fluked an adequate batch of GCSEs.

The point is, as the UK’s biggest horse race, the Grand National is a cultural institution, deeply woven into our national psyche. The domestic TV audience is about 10M (with as many as 500M watching worldwide) and we will bet over £100M with official, licensed UK bookmakers.

It is probably a big contributing factor to why we are the most advanced, and socially normalised, gambling market in the world.

Now I know I have called out gambling companies for targeting underage gamblers in the past, but when it comes to the Grand National, I don’t mind the limited participation of minors. To my mind, it’s the same as the French letting their children drink wine with meals from a young age.

The Grand National is the one day of the year where some responsible family gambling should be tolerated, if not encouraged. It’s better to educate the next generation ahead of time than to turn them loose unprepared at eighteen to get drunk, pregnant and bankrupt (all possible in Liverpool on National day).

To be mega-clear, I’m not saying that PaddyPower should get dispensation to take bets from kids on one day a year. Greedy arsehole bookmakers shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the education of our children. I’m *reluctantly* saying a friendly pocket money sweepstake can provide a positive long term lesson if done right.

Speaking of greedy arsehole gambling operators, let’s get back to the main point of this blog. The time I lost a load of money being a dubious unlicensed foreign bookie.

At some point during my career wilderness years, I worked in a sports pub in a country that had prohibitive attitude towards gambling. As there was a lot of demand among the staff and trusted customers, I decided I would take bets myself.

Knowing there would be an extortionate edge built into the high street bookmaker prices, I simply quoted their odds at the time it was requested. As I write, this year’s market has a margin of around 35% (about triple the normal level), so it should have been a sound strategy.

Unfortunately for me, and somewhat inexplicably, just about everyone wanted to bet on Rule the World. He was 50-1 on the morning of the race and steadily came in to 25-1 in the build-up to the race. With an hour to go, I knew I was overexposed and seriously considered laying off some of the action.

But looking down my spreadsheet of bets, I knew that was the only horse that I could lose on. Any other winner and I would make a nice profit. Given the treacherous hurdles around Aintree, I decided I was probably safe and I’d let it ride.

As the race unfolded, I was completely unperturbed. Rule the World had been way back in the pack and seemed to offer no threat whatsoever. He’d been mentioned so infrequently by the commentators that I thought he must’ve been an early faller.

But then, as if from nowhere, he came romping through. The picture above was taken (without my knowledge) about a furlong out, when it became clear that everyone in the pub was going to be a winner, and I would be a big fat loser.

My total losses were over €1000. It took me four days to get enough money out of the local ATMs to pay off my patient punters.

It may sound strange, but even though it stung a bit, I never lost a moment’s sleep over the whole thing. All the winners were my friends, and they had a great day. One couple both got on early at 50-1 and had enough winnings to go on their first proper holiday in years. I found it hard to be unhappy under the circumstances.

Did I learn my lesson and stop doing it? No, I carried on. Every other time I made money, although I don’t think I did it enough times to cover my initial losses. On one occasion Tyson Fury won in the only round that nobody bet on, so I scooped the whole lot (a few hundred Euros).

Anyway, it goes to show that the house doesn’t always win. Sometimes they’re too stupid and greedy to balance their books.

You Are Betting Wrong

I hate inflammatory clickbaity titles that brazenly claim you’re doing something wrong, but it’s now been a year of ReluctantGambler so I thought I’d allow myself one. Besides, you almost certainly are betting wrong.

There are several reasons why – a few of which I’ve covered before. These are the main three:

You’re betting to win money

Most academic surveys into gambling motivation find that people are doing it primarily to win money. It’s unsurprising, but it’s also stupid. You will not improve your financial situation by playing an openly rigged game.

You’re betting with your heart and not your head

Your brain is lazy and it doesn’t want to do calculations. In some forms of gambling that doesn’t matter because it is a completely skill-less pursuit (e.g. lottery, slots, roulette, bingo). But any time there is any degree of player control, you have the potential to make a bad decision. And you probably will because analysis is hard.

You’re betting with a scumbag bookie

This one is hard to avoid, because most of your options have the moral fibre of Machiavelli and empathy of a pre-spooking Ebeneezer Scrooge.

BetVictor were recently fined £2M for multiple basic failures, Ladbrokes rinsed the government furlough scheme even though their profits were unaffected, as did BetFred, who were also court-ordered to pay a £1M+ jackpot they welched on. PaddyPower have a record of encouraging underage gamblers and SkyBet are apparently on a mission to exploit and destroy every vulnerable gambler on their books.

Those are all examples of supposedly good and responsible, licensed UK operators. It’s hard to know how the ‘dreaded’ blackmarket could be much worse.

For the last couple of years I’ve been betting with Bet365, and while their conduct isn’t spotless, at least the owner pays loads of taxes, invests in their community and does a bit for charity. Importantly, I’ve never felt pressured to gamble more or play any of their riskier products.

But it was while enjoying their recently implemented Bet Boost offers that I realised there is another, subtler, way to bet wrong.

Don’t Bet on Lots of Stuff at Once

The human brain is incredible, but it has limitations. This touches on a broad and amorphous area of psychology called the working memory. It is essentially the stuff that you can sense (see, hear, smell, etc.) and mentally track at any given time.

Probably the most famous research in this area established the Rule of 7. On average, a person can remember about seven things (give or take a couple) before they start to make mistakes. That’s the reason that it’s hard to remember a whole mobile phone number in one go (unless you break it into memorable little chunks).

The limited capacity of the working memory is also why you can’t follow two conversations at once. You can certainly hear all the sounds, but there isn’t enough cognitive bandwidth to process everything. You can switch your attention between multiple conversations and get the gist of them (a pretty amazing skill in itself), but you can’t take in both simultaneously.

You also can’t daydream or let your mind wander when listening to a single conversation. The brain isn’t able to go on its own little journey while also following an external stream of thought. We tune out because we have to ration our limited processing power.

Taking it a step further, researchers have shown that our concentration is badly affected by having a conversation while driving. While chatting your field of vision narrows significantly, because the brain can’t expend it’s energy on peripheral vision whilst there are audio demands to deal with. The result is that your hazard perception drops to the equivalent of having had two pints before setting off. That’s particularly dangerous if you already had two pints before setting off.

Finally, a piece of research from one of my psychology professors looked at the performance of the agents working on airport security scanners. He found that people were generally very good when looking for a single specific threat, like a gun. But as soon as the agent had to examine images for more than one type of object (guns, bombs, drugs), the results dropped off a cliff.

That’s a highly relevant finding when looking at the fine art of Martin Handford. If you try to find Wally and the Wizard Whitebeard at the same time, then it’s going to take you longer and you’re also more likely to miss out on the hilarious antics in the rest of the scene.

Now let’s apply that high brow observation to betting. If you’ve got five different bets on in the same game, how are you supposed to follow them all properly? You can’t. The brain can’t handle it. If you can’t follow the bet, how are you supposed to gain enjoyment from it? Again, you can’t. By hedging your bets, you’re actually getting less overall entertainment.

That’s what I found when placing bet boosts across six simultaneous Premier League fixtures – I couldn’t remember them all (the Rule of 7 at work). I might’ve been getting some promotional value for money, but I had no opportunity to enjoy the wagers. Ultimately, that makes it a pointless exercise.

You could get around this issue by making the same bet in every game. If you have the home team to win 2-0 in every fixture then you really only have to remember one thing. But then you fall foul of the Bet-with-your-Head rule. If you’re only picking 2-0 for convenience, and not because you think it is a sound bet, then you’re betting on auto-pilot with your heart.

So my newest piece of betting advice is this: Place one bet at a time. Win or lose, that is the only way to maximise the fun.


In December I tongue-in-cheekedly suggested that the gambling industry should create a mass-participation event that is televised nightly for our punting pleasure. You can read more about Total-Wipeout-Squid-Game-Butlins-Olympics here.

That same month I temporarily turned tipster and gave my suggestions for value bets in the upcoming Ashes cricket series. Today I’m going to bring those forgotten pieces together, along with re-visiting a dash of proper psychology, to create an unholy Monster Blog.

Let’s start with the cricket, and I’ll keep it mercifully short. All of my tips were wrong.

In my defence, I got the overall result correct and foresaw the abject pitifulness of England’s performance. I also rightly reckoned star batsmen Joe Root and Steve Smith would be mediocre. England were so bad though that Root still managed to be the team’s top scorer.

My value prediction of Ollie Robinson to be leading wicket taker for England was solid, and he led the way going into the last test before shoddy fitness got the better of him. I picked Hazelwood to lead for the Ozzies and he got injured in the first match.

So in summary, if you’d bet on all of my tips, you would have returned £0. However, if you adopted my proposed strategy of low-stakes betting, you’d have lost a small sum and had a great time sweating the results. That is an enjoyment win even if it was a financial loss.

In hindsight, the outcome is a perfect example of the Near Miss Effect (NME) in action – that’s when you get a dopamine hit from almost winning. It is a counter-intuitive neurochemical boost that encourages you to carry on even though you lost.

As I wrote the first few paragraphs of this blog, I legitimately couldn’t help but think how close and clever I had been. Like I had done my sums right and just accidentally come up with a slightly wrong answer. There might be some truth in that, but it doesn’t change the fact that I won absolutely nothing.

To be fair, in this case, the NME is working correctly. The best explanation for this phenomenon, is that our brains evolved to reward perceived progress/improvement. If you do something well enough that you almost did it successfully, then it is adaptive for your brain to give you rewarding encouragement.

The opposing alternative would be for the brain to respond flatly to anything other than total success. If we were built like that then any form of practice or experimentation would be miserable. We’re not like that, because a civilisation that doesn’t strive to improve gets wiped out.

The presence of the NME does mean my gambling habit will continue, but in my case, that it isn’t a terrible thing because sports betting is arguably skill-based, and therefore a winnable endeavour. Perhaps with a few tweaks I could turn a profit. I have, after all, been playing with the same £20 deposit I made right after the Euros last year.

Unfortunately, most cases of the NME in gambling are not helpful, because there is no skill involved. Falling one number short of a bingo, missing a jackpot reel on a slot, or getting 22 on Blackjack are not failures of skill.

The problem is that our monkey brain stem (where these neurological rewards occur), can’t tell the difference. It only sees an almost-win and releases the chemical rush. It is a dangerous cognitive flaw that gambling companies can and do exploit to encourage further play where no improvement is possible.

But that’s enough psychology for one blog. What does all this have to do with a mad betting TV show?

Well, the gambling industry is notoriously slow to innovate. As Graham Cohen quoted on a recent Gambling Files podcast “Nobody wants to be first, but nobody wants to be last”. My idea was far too outlandish for any gambling company to adopt, but that doesn’t mean it was without merit.

I haven’t given up on advertiser-funded programs (AFPs) for sports betting, because there are lots of examples that the concept works.

The European Poker Tour was a brilliantly run live event series, but it wasn’t conceived for that purpose. It was built as an authentic way for PokerStars to get on TV. The company didn’t just run the tournaments, they paid for all TV production costs too. Channel 4 just had to find a slot for this ready-made gift.

You could argue the same is true of modern horse racing. There are plenty of wealthy people involved, but it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the backing of the bookies. They sponsor most of the races/meetings because it gives their customers something to bet on.

The toy industry has been smashing out AFPs for years. He-Man didn’t start as a cartoon – Mattel had to create something to rival Star Wars and had their alien barbarian toy line made into a cartoon. Hasbro repeated the trick with Transformers and, more recently, Spin Master (first and foremost a toy company) have done it with Paw Patrol.

The reason I’m re-visiting and expanding on this topic is twofold. Firstly. I don’t think anyone read the original blog, so this is a shameless bump of that content. But secondly, I think the concept could save test cricket – a criminally neglected and underwatched sport.

Cricket itself has had a resurgence in the last decade because the authorities invented a version that was more palatable to the general public. The problem is that version is now attracting all of the money and a majority of the talent, so traditional longer forms of the game are dying.

It’s the equivalent of proper football being gradually eaten alive by a half hour 6-a-side beach kick around. The latter might be legitimately more fun to watch, but it won’t accurately reveal who is the best. For that, you need the real thing.

So, harnessing my inner Barry Hearn, here is my AFP idea. A new franchise-based cricket league of test matches, containing the best players from around the world, all funded by a gambling company.

The games would take place over four days, running from 1pm until 10pm every day, thus making it ideal for spectators (live and at home), and simultaneously great for betting on. The matches would be scheduled so that they are on every single day over the course of the season. That way, fans of the game simply know to tune in at a certain time, and the media always have fresh content.

The most recent England cricket tour of the West Indies was sponsored by Betway, so it’s not like there isn’t already a huge betting presence on screen. Inviting a gambling company to be involved has the potential to evolve the presentation of the game whilst also taking a more transparent and responsible approach.

I appreciate there are campaigns to get gambling advertisers out of sport, and while well-meaning, I think they are taking the wrong approach. That however, is a topic I’ll have to take on in another blog.

A responsible sports-betting broadcast has the potential to educate viewers and change betting behaviours. That cannot be done if you push gambling off-screen and into the shadows.

For instance, you could prohibit in-action betting. If all wagers must be placed before the start of a session then the focus is on the sport – as it should be. Having betting windows of opportunity every couple of hours will prevent high-pace slot-style gambling, which happens when you allow customers to bet on a ball-by-ball basis.

You could also formally limit the bet sizes to force punters to play within their limits. Mostly because it is responsible to encourage smaller wagers, but also because moderate bets cannot hurt the integrity of the sport. Nobody will be tempted to match fix (or spot fix) if there’s only a tenner on the outcome.

In return for these concessions, the gambling company gets exclusive rights to the action, and uniquely close integration with the product. Cricket is a slow game, and commentators always need something relevant to talk about. In many cases, conversation about betting markets would actually raise the quality of the coverage.

I don’t know of any other mainstream sport where this opportunity is so pronounced. You couldn’t just set up a new football product and expect it to catch on. The big European clubs tried and were flayed for their audacity. The Saudis are having a similar level of success in their efforts to buy international golf.

But in this regard cricket is different. There is massive global demand for the game, and a recent history of the game evolving into something new. The Hundred proved last year that even a seemingly confusing and unnecessary new game can get an immediate audience.

Test cricket is ripe for redevelopment and a new era, and in my view, is one of the better vehicles for responsible betting. There just needs to be a brave and innovative gambling company ready to lead the way…

The Drugs Analogy

I want to reiterate, because it’s obviously not clear from my previous blogs (or recent tirades against senior industry figures on LinkedIn) – I love gambling.

I love talking about it, I love thinking about it, I love writing about it, and I occasionally enjoy actually doing it. As you can see from the fabricated-but-broadly-accurate data visualisation above, I spend weirdly less time placing bets than on any other gambling-related activity.

Side note: I recently completed the IBM Professional Certificate in Data Science, so I’m internet-qualified to know that pie charts are the worst form of graph. However, they are objectively the most whimsical.

I’m not, at present, paid for any of this obsession – this is an entirely loss-making voluntary exercise. That’s how much I love gambling.

It is very clear though, that I have misgivings. My stance on gambling is nuanced and constantly evolving, and therefore slightly confusing. It is when trying to explain my complex position as a Reluctant Gambler that I increasingly turn to to drugs. As an analogy.

The worlds of gambling and recreational drugs have a lot of overlap. For completeness, let’s include alcohol, caffeine and nicotine within recreational drugs, because they’re known chemical stimulants with long-term negative effects.

On the obvious level, they are all addictive and can therefore be harmful. That’s no coincidence; the research shows that the underlying neurology of addictions is very consistent. They are mechanisms that temporarily improve mental state by tampering with the brain’s reward circuits.

But there is a second similarity that I find more useful. Drugs and gambling are both general terms for a broad range of elements. One drug will have a different affect on mood, behaviour and physiology than another. I have a strong preference for hanging out with a person depending on whether they’re on alcohol, mushrooms, weed, cocaine or ecstasy.

That situation is pretty well understood for drugs, hence there are different classifications and punishments for each. That’s not the case for gambling. Psychology studies have shown that different gambling products come with different levels of risk and harm, but they’re all largely treated the same and are often found under a single roof.

Lottery, bingo and sports-betting are generally low risk (though not risk free) and therefore work quite well as entertainment products. Many casino games, but slots in particular, are much higher risk because the game design and speed of play makes them much more likely to encourage unhealthy patterns of play.

If I were put in charge of legalising drugs, I wouldn’t be following that gambling model. It would seem like madness to sell it all in the same place. I wouldn’t want to drink in a bar where the proprietor can just wander over and try to cross-sell you some crack.

That seems insane to me, but it happens relentlessly on betting sites when a happy recreational bingo player is hounded with offers for free spins in the casino. It is predatorial and exploitative, and purpose-built legislation wouldn’t allow it to happen.

When it comes to availability, I feel the same way about gambling as I do about drugs. Prohibition does not work. Legalise anything that is justifiably entertainment, but have the protections in place to minimise harm and make the operator pay for it with their profits.

Part of that protection is segregating the different drugs. Or as the gambling industry euphemistically calls them, ‘verticals’. No two forms of gambling are the same, and so they should not all be accessible in one place.

With all that said, there is one facet of gambling that differentiates it from its addiction bedfellows. With drink and drugs there usually comes a point when you simply can’t consume any more in a single session.

At some point you are overwhelmed by the effect of your preferred poison and you physically can’t consume any more. Sometimes, tragically, there are overdoses, but they make up a tiny fraction of drug instances. Usually there is an enforced break in consciousness to slow things down.

That isn’t the case with gambling. The only thing that stands in the way of a problem gambler and their self-destruction is the bottom of their bank balance. If you can afford to keep going, then your dealer will keep dealing.

The more a gambler loses, the more desperate and impaired their decision making becomes, and the more they feel like a win is owed or due. It is a sort of generalised Gambler’s Fallacy, where irrelevant past losses are construed as indicators that a win is just around the corner.

That situation is enabled by the fact that only in gambling can all your previous mistakes be erased in one magical moment. If you have lost £50,000 gambling, then you will have no trouble finding a game that can pay off that deficit. Lottery, slots, poker, bingo, sports betting accumulators – all offer massive potentially life-fixing jackpots.

There is no cocaine Willy Wonka who will refund every penny you’ve spent on powder if you find one of his golden baggies. The idea of it is Black Mirror-level terrifying, but it would probably be a very effective sales promotion.

So that’s how I seem to be both pro and anti-gambling at the same time. I endorse people being allowed to bet something to win something for the purposes of entertainment. I don’t care if it is luck or skill, as long as it is enjoyable.

But no industry should be allowed to exploit, and no industry can be trusted to police itself. Gambling laws, just like our drug laws, desperately need fixing. Perhaps in May we will find out if the UK government is up to the challenge.

Dastardly Data

This week I went on the excellent Gambling Files podcast to talk about the recent controversy over SkyBet’s misuse of data – which you can catch here.

I played no part in the activity, nor the investigation by Cracked Labs that expertly uncovered it (on behalf of Clean Up Gambling), but I know data, CRM and gambling malpractice, so I was deemed expert enough to comment.

I tried to listen to the episode, but unexpectedly couldn’t stand the sound of my own voice. So, I thought I’d take the chance to put my thoughts down in the blog without all the ums, ahs and knob jokes.

In short, SkyBet have been sharing their customer information with dozens of third party providers, and some have been returning the favour. That, in itself, is not a big deal. Every app and website does it.

Furthermore, SkyBet clearly state they are going to do it in their Ts & Cs (even if no-one reads them). They are transparent that data will be shared, and if you don’t like it, you can just bloody well go away. However, they are more opaque about who the data will be shared with, and for what purpose.

Some of their data partners are legitimate and of no cause for concern. They have an obligation to prevent money laundering/fraud, and so use agencies for that purpose.

Likewise, there are services that perform age verification checks. There are tens of thousands of underage problem gamblers in the UK, but ‘reputable’ operators are pretty good about checking that stuff when it comes to taking online bets.

There are also excellent services out there that will help a busy operator to identify potential problem gambling behaviour, but based on this sorry tale, I don’t think any of them are involved.

No problem so far. Everything is fine, legal and best-practice compliant.

A little more dubiously though, SkyBet share a lot of information (apparently in real time) with companies that are almost certainly advertising partners. Google and Facebook were listed as recipients and they’re #1 and #2 in the world when it comes to touting products and services for money.

I encourage a degree of precision advertising, but I don’t think social media platforms have any business knowing when I’ve made a deposit to a gambling site. Or, for that matter, if I’ve booked a flight or bought a kettle from Argos. From here on, privacy is being invaded.

But where SkyBet really crossed the line, is in pursuing their own little affordability checks. Not the good responsible gambling kind where less affluent customers are restricted from spending money they don’t have. No, the exact opposite of that.

SkyBet were, and presumably still are, receiving information from partners about how much money their customers can afford to lose. The investigation found they had gathered information on mortgage payments and credit ratings, which allows an algorithm to calculate how much more they might squeeze from you.

That’s a bad enough breach of privacy when you’re talking about regular customers, but this investigation was built on a GDPR request for a known problem gambler. A person who had a history of self-exclusion, and whose pattern of betting was unmistakably that of an addict.

A person who has admitted that their negative relationship with gambling led them to suicidal thoughts. SkyBet almost certainly didn’t know that last bit, but they would have known that this person was vulnerable and what that entails.

At this point, I’m going to take the opportunity to misquote the great moral philosopher Joey Tribbiani: “SkyBet have gone so far beyond the line, that the line… the line is just a dot to them”.

I don’t know how they justify this behaviour, but ignorance can be no excuse. I have been critical of the general standard of CRM activity, both in and outside of gambling, but I have to grimly take my hat off to SkyBet here. The execution of this activity is impressive.

They understood exactly who this customer was and how valuable they could be (much more so than they had any right to). From analytics on their communications, they also knew what buttons to press to elicit further custom. That’s a technical CRM master class.

Where it falls down, is in the complete moral bankruptcy involved in exploiting an obviously troubled person for further profit. Like a maffia thug, SkyBet had worked out exactly how many punches it could land to leave the customer broken but breathing. It’s stunningly poor practice.

The complete lack of compassion and decency makes me think, and even hope, that this is an error of machine learning. Perhaps somewhere in the bowels of a server room in Leeds, an unsupervised algorithm worked out that the most cost effective way to make money is to target players that have self-excluded, because they are the most responsive to communications and tend to spend the most money.

That’s exactly the kind of emotionless and erroneous insight that artificial intelligence might reach. In his excellent book The Data Detective, Tim Harford describes an algorithm that could tell photos of huskies and wolves apart with the same accuracy as any human.

It turned out the computer was ignoring the canids completely and simply looking for snow in the background of the pictures. An ostensibly correct result was being obtained, but the methodology was horribly flawed.

The alternative explanation is that the leadership of SkyBet is evil and greedy. This situation, and their previous (possibly related) disaster of emailing over 100K problem gamblers with a free-spins offer, does hint that Skeletor or Cruella might be in charge.

Regardless of how this was allowed to happen, someone needs to be fired and exiled from the industry. If gambling wants to clean up and improve its reputation, then the bad guys need to go. Somewhere at SkyBet there is a culprit still in a job; and by extension, at Flutter Entertainment too. The master has a responsibility to control its dog.

If the industry needs a mantra to help avoid these problems in future, then look no further than the wisdom of Jon Bruford, the learned host of Gambling Files, who said: “Let’s just not be sh#t”

Well spoken, sir.

Memory & More Slot Talk

This week I thought I’d throw together a follow-up to my recent brag blog about the time I won a slot jackpot. Partly because I had a responsible idea for slots and ran out of room, but also because it gives me the chance to discuss one of my favourite findings from psychology.

I was pleased with how the jackpot blog was received, and with some of the conversations that have resulted from it. I would love it if engagement levels were always so high.

As it is, I got my annual renewal notice last week and, frankly, I’m toying with winding things up. I hoped this blog would lead to some interesting opportunities to make gambling better, but my experience is that the industry’s appetite to improve is 99% talk and a measly 1% walk.

Besides, I’m pretty sure the success of the last blog was attributable to the cover picture of me looking like a fresh-faced d#ckhead. But enough of my wallowing…

Psychology Stuff

When you recall something from memory, you are not remembering the details of the event itself. You are remembering the version of it that you last remembered.

It’s basically your own personal cognitive game of Chinese Whispers. Now that I think about it, that seems to have an unnecessarily racial undertone, as if Chinese people aren’t very good at repeating things heard at low volume. I think Americans call it the telephone game.

Anyway, several people have come to me with corrections for my version of events. Not the main narrative of the story, just some of the details.

Some of those corrections, I’m happy to concede, are probably fair and accurate. After all, I was probably the drunkest person there. I’m also the person who has told the story the most, so I’ve given myself the highest number of opportunities to corrupt it.

But other points I’m confident I’ve remembered correctly, so it seems to me we’re all playing our own private telephone game.

Incidentally, it’s this little phenomenon that makes all witness testimony slightly dubious. We evolved to have incredible skill at recognising faces, but when it comes to encoding the exact details of an incident, we are all fallible.

Slot Idea

To my knowledge, slot providers don’t have any measure for whether their offerings are enjoyable, and I think that’s a problem.

There must have been testing phases and focus groups for brick and mortar machines, but in an industry that is increasingly online and data driven, I imagine the current process is to simply publish and look at the numbers.

I regularly see slot professionals touting an amazingly popular new product launch on LinkedIn, and occasionally I’ve asked them to explain what metric they’re using for the success. The question is normally ignored by the author, but they usually have an unapologetic connection prepared to say it is money/profit.

I think that badly conflates two things that are largely uncorrelated. I think it’s possible to create a slot machine that is very successful at keeping people playing, but that is no fun whatsoever.

Reflecting on my own time playing slots (mostly in casinos), I can only think of a few that I enjoyed – Family Guy (for the cut scenes), Elton John/Queen (for the musical bonuses) and US Deal or No Deal (for the communal feature).

The rest have been fairly joyless. That’s not to say I didn’t stick with them for a while or even go back for seconds or thirds. Sometimes you just want to get a bonus (curiosity) or get a reasonable win (gentle loss-chasing).

I’m inclined to think that judging a new slot solely on financial KPIs only really tells you how addictive it is, not whether it is enjoyable or popular. There are three million strongly-retained opioid users in the US, but I don’t think any of them would tell you they are enjoying it. OxyContin might be highly profitable, but it isn’t ‘popular’.

So my idea is this: Mood-indicating start/spin buttons, just like the ones you see at the end of airport security (really sad, quite sad, quite happy, really happy). The buttons would all do the same thing, it just gives the customer a chance to convey how they’re feeling as they play.

I’m aware that self report measures can be unreliable (e.g. males impossibly report having four times more sex than females), but when you’re talking about slot play, you’re getting enough data points to iron out the quirks.

It could justifiably be framed as a constructive way for customers to provide emotional feedback to the operator. If I have become a loyal and engaged customer, I would be glad to play a part in improving the product offering.

Soon you would get a picture of which slots make money because people love to play them (high average positive mood), and which ones are simply finely crafted addiction misery machines (high average negative mood).

Surely the ultimate goal for a gambling entertainment provider is for people to lose their money with a smile, and this is one of the few ways you can begin to optimise for enjoyment. It would be much easier than hooking people up to EKGs or stuffing them into an MRI machine.

If this already exists then I’d love to know about it. The slot expert I spoke to wasn’t aware of anything like it, so here you go. Help yourself, you slotmongering b#stards. A little gift to help make your product just a bit less awful.