A Special Month

Okay, I’m switching it up. Inspired by the overwhelming disinterest outside of my nearest and dearest, I’m going to try writing shorter and more frequent blogs.

It dawned on me quite early that I was doing myself no favours, and making no friends, by ranting at the gambling industry as an insider. Essentially I’ve been doing a Jerry Maguire, with nary a Zellweger or Gooding Jr to make the whole thing watchable.

Despite that early revelation, it’s taken me 30,000+ words to change tack. You could take that as evidence that I’m a slow learner, but in my defense, I’ve been having a lovely time.

Since I started this blog, the unpronounceable chap that invented the concept of Flow has passed away – and the only time I currently seem to achieve that blissful level of zen-like focus is when I’m slagging off evil slot operators. Thanks Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, your legacy lives on.

And so to this blog’s pithy point. Besides Christmas, what is December actually for?

In October, you give up alcohol and learn about the amazing contribution of black people to human progress. In November, you grow a moustache to raise money for defeating prostate cancer. January is for cutting out the consumption of animal products.

To be clear, I don’t mean to be glib about any of those things. I’m a late admirer of sobriety and veganism, I don’t relish the prospect of pokey-bum time at the doctors, and I’ve always been keen on equality and celebrating great people. So surely we’re missing a trick with December.

Whilst contemplating the utter w#nkfest that was Safer Gambling Week, it occurred to me that consumers should take the issue out of the industry’s hands. We should not allow big betting firms to dictate the terms of responsible operating.

Therefore, as of Wednesday, I’ll be pioneering No-Betsember. A whole month where I’ll be abstaining from any form of wager.

That means watching the Ashes, UK Snooker Champs, PDC World Darts and Christmas football just for the joy of the sport. That might make for quite a nice change. I could even spend quality time with some loved ones.

I don’t expect it to catch on, but it’s a worthy idea. I can’t think of any other way that gambling firms will start to take their social harm seriously.

A small reduction in gambling in December could easily cost the industry £100M. For all the vast sums they are taking in, that is still an amount they would notice. And it would be cash that disproportionately stays in the pockets of the poor.

More important than the money is the message that it would send. Gambling companies need to know that we are not mindless cows to be aggressively milked. Most of us are not hooked on their high, and can take our entertainment budget elsewhere.

If they keep exploiting us then we need to walk away until they do better. I’m going to start by spending my first couple of bets on the new Ghostbusters movie.

Bobby’s Bets

I got to see Liverpool Vs Porto on Weds but didn’t get any bets down before reaching the stadium. By the time 50K people are in Anfield you’ve got no chance of connecting to the internet. I made a couple of props with a mate instead and walked away with a sweet £12 profit.

Dishonourable Mentions

There are a few things that have caught my eye since the last blog, so rather than try to come up with 1000 coherent words on a single topic, I thought I’d do a short rollcall of shame.

Entain – The gambling giant that owns Ladbrokes, Coral, bwin and PartyPoker among other big names. Formally the non-descript and shady sounding GVC Holdings, they deserve top marks for a clever re-branding that positions them primarily as a place of entertainment. If I was looking to give the illusion of respectability, that’s probably what I would do to.

Unfortunately, putting sprinkles on a baked turd does not a cupcake make. In October I was headhunted by an internal recruiter about a CRM role. I was careful to explain that I did not think a job which is fundamentally about maximising customer value would be suitable for an ardent proponent of responsible gambling.

The recruiter was undeterred. They proudly explained how seriously the company take responsible operating and directed me towards the company spiel. I read it, conceded they presented a good face and agreed to talk.

I told them a bit about my past career and reiterated my concerns that I might not be a good fit unless they were proper, for-real serious about responsible gambling. Again, the recruiter was optimistic and ended the call promising to return with further information about the scope of the job.

Then silence. Out of courtesy, I followed up with them.

More silence.

Weeks later, I have been fully ghosted. On paper I was an excellent candidate, with a genuine passion for doing things the right way. That is a perfect fit for the image they are portraying.

But when it comes down to it, they aren’t *really* interested in responsible gambling. They are interested in profit, and my (mostly) ethical position might have impeded that goal. Rather than admit that and apologise for wasting my time, they decided to be rude and unprofessional.

That is the real Entain.

The UK Government – Gambling legislation has been largely untouched since 2005, so a review is long overdue. It was supposed to happen this year, but the talk is now of it happening early in 2022. Fair enough they’ve had Covid and Brexit to deal with, but a lot of the problems there are of their own making.

Speaking as a freshly-turned 40 year old, sixteen years doesn’t seem like that long a time. But it is. The first smartphone only entered development in 2005, and didn’t make it to market until 2007. That means our current gambling laws were drafted before anyone had even conceived of little black rectangles that can access all the world’s knowledge.

So this is now urgent. The laws are not fit for purpose and need changing. What’s the delay?

The current round of sleaze might have something to do with it. According to the Guardian, there are 28 MP “consultants” either on the payrolls of gambling firms or receiving freebies. They know bugger all about gambling so they have to provide value somehow.

A cynic might suggest that they’re simply lobbyists being funded to delay the implementation of new rules and soften their impact. My contacts within the industry confirm that companies are very nervous about new rules and are desperate to keep their exploitatious gravy train on track. That is strong motive for skullduggery.

I really hope the furore over MP’s second jobs genuinely leads to change, and these top-level public servants are made to focus solely on their £82K PA main job. Boris is saying he wants to scrap second jobs, so maybe it will happen. However, it is already far too late for effective, modern gambling legislation.

Flutter – I’ve got a few bones I could pick here. For instance, there was a dubiously opaque trading statement that claimed a £60M shortfall in earnings was due to adverse sports results in October – even though there weren’t any. The way I see it, they either did a crap job of basic bookmaking, or they were trying to mislead investors.

In addition, PaddyPower (probably their biggest brand) were recently named and shamed by Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back as the worst offender for targeting children with their advertising. Any points they get for their ingenious content are lost when the recipients are kids.

But I’ll skim past those despicable actions and get to the worst thing they’ve done recently.

I made it clear in my previous blog that Safer Gambling Week was a pointless industry sham, and the folks at Flutter went out of their way to prove me right. In the middle of their own whitewashing propaganda exercise, they managed to send a mass promotional email to their most vulnerable customers – excluded problem gamblers.

Of course, senior figures did their best to “own the issue” and “do the right thing” because of how they “take responsible gambling extremely seriously”. They did all the things the PR handbook says they should do to limit the damage, and to an extent it worked. A lot of industry lackeys and brown-nosers lapped it up. The head of their UK operations was even being praised for his actions.

That is brazenly and stunningly pathetic.

It is unlikely that the CRM person that carried out this action did so on purpose, but it is possible. I was at PokerStars when the customer survey guy went rogue and sent a mad apocalyptic conspiracy theory email to thousands of customers.

I was also there when the head of the social media poker product decided to bump his KPIs by removing the 18+ restriction on sign ups (that decision was quickly reversed when it was discovered, but the culprit stayed in the job for several years afterwards). It is amazing what people can do if they’re in a bad place, or simply a bad person.

But that actually misses the point. Whether this was accidental scumbaggery or not, it should not have been possible. Those emails should have been ring-fenced and put safe from the reach of marketing hands as soon as they were identified as vulnerable customers.

This was not a case of excusable human error, it is an example of gross negligence. Leaders and CEOs in gambling cannot claim to care about responsible gambling, least of all during Safer Gambling Week, when they are clearly not making even basic efforts to protect players.

Somebody senior must lose their job over this and the UKGC must levy a fine that reflects the severity of this breach. Anything less than eight figures will be a slap in the face to responsible gambling.

Bobby’s Bets

I had a smattering of £5 punts on the finale of the T20 World Cup, and as usual betting against England was a profitable exercise. I’m now up a hefty £15 since the last blog.

I was unfortunate to miss out on a £110 payday when Adam Zampa was pipped as leading tournament wicket taker by Hasaranga’s cheap wickets from the qualifying round. Not to worry, the fun is all in the anticipation, not the reward.

It’s Safer Gambling Week

Where to begin with this pile of public relations rubbish?

I came across Safer Gambling Week last month whilst stopping at a motorway service station on the M1. After the initial sweet relief of starting an overdue tinkle, I noticed it advertised on a poster above the urinal. 

My first response was one of positive intrigue, but suspicion soon followed. There must be very few advertising media that are less effective than the bogs of a fancy petrol garage. Who on Earth would be spending money on such a niche concept in this pointless space?

On the way back to my car, I resolved to find out. Surely not a responsible gambling organisation? They don’t have that much money, and they couldn’t justify wasting it like that. Then who? What could SGW even entail?

As soon as I re-joined the motorway, my point about ineffectiveness had been proven. I forgot all about SGW, just as I have forgotten every other hopeless product I’ve seen promoted above a piss-trough.

That was until this weekend, when I saw the entire window of a betting shop dedicated to SGW. The mystery of who’s-holding-the-purse-strings was solved. Only the gambling industry has so much money they can deliberately buy-up duff advertising channels.

It turns out that SGW is an “industry wide initiative” to raise awareness of safer gambling tools. The ones they are legally obliged to provide.

It’s a bit like British American Tobacco and Imperial getting together to produce a National Don’t Smoke Too Much Day. An event in which they remind everyone they try hard not to sell their death sticks to minors, but otherwise continue their business as usual.

It sounds good, and looks nice, but will achieve precisely flip all (I choose my F words carefully because both of my parents are now regular readers).

I know this, because I recently applied for a role with the Behavioural Insights Team in Westminster. As part of the recruitment process for a poorly paid central London job, they proudly trumpeted their involvement in increasing awareness of said tools. They then quietly admitted that there was no recorded change in behaviours as a result of their fine work.

It might be that exact study that inspired the gambling industry to produce SGW. It empirically proved you could appear more responsible whilst having no impact whatsoever on your bottom line. If that is the kind of work they’re doing, I’m glad they declined my application and ignored my subsequent correspondence.

This whole thing is a charade. If you want people to use the responsible gambling tools (e.g. set your own limits, time outs) then make them genuinely accessible and simple to use. There is no need for a publicity stunt; just be responsible instead of talking about being responsible.

A real SGW would make an effort to actually reduce gambling harms. The most profitable and addictive games would be labelled as such, with stakes reduced and session times deliberately limited. That would be a jarring experience guaranteed to get the attention of players.

There would be a week-long advertising blackout and promotional incentives would be suspended for a week. There would be no communication with players, targeted or otherwise. The email I received yesterday telling me that it is SGW may as well have read “It is safe to gamble this week”. Thanks for the unnecessary and counterproductive reminder.

Furthermore, senior gambling staff would be made to attend treatment centres so they can see first-hand the damage they are enabling. Then at the end of the week, the companies would donate their profits to the participating centres.

If that’s all a bit draconian, then they could just read this blog for ten minutes. That’s enough for a couple of randomly selected articles. I’d be delighted to have a few more readers.  

Anything would be better than the absolute sham that has been delivered. Essentially a website that lists helpline phone numbers. All bark and no bite. Just another effort to whitewash the industry’s image while it continues to target the poor and vulnerable. Pathetic.

I’ve got a better idea, but it’ll have to wait for another day. Sign up and stay tuned.

Bobby’s Bets

I was luck enough to get to go to Anfield on Saturday for the Liverpool Vs Brighton game. As it was a special occasion, I bet a little more than usual on the match, and the preceding one between Leicester Vs Arsenal. Both turned up fairly surprising results, so I was down £20.

Thankfully a cheeky fiver on New Zealand to beat India in the T20 World Cup came in, so I’ve finished just £12 out of pocket. What a highroller!

Crucial Concept, Terrible Name

First, some housekeeping. Congratulations to Simon Young on his recent interview with Isai Scheinberg, and subsequent efforts to support his induction to the Poker Hall of Fame. Both excellent articles about a truly great man.

Secondly, thanks to Baard Dahl for pointing out this Wired article that pretty much confirms all of the suspicions and allegations I made in this blog about Twitch slot streamers. Now to business!

***

Take two rats and give them cute alphabetically convenient names. Let’s go with Archie and Bryan. Now assign each one a food machine that has a manual release mechanism. Rats aren’t very thumb-y, so let’s do them a favour and use a pedal.

Archie’s machine releases a tasty pellet every five pedal-pushes, and Bryan’s randomly releases a morsel one fifth of the time it is pressed. Which rat do you think eats the most?

On average, they’re both getting fed at the same rate, so you’d think Arch and Bry would plumpen at a similar pace. Not so.

Lab studies have found repeatedly that Bryan will go into all-you-can-eat-buffet mode. He’ll gorge until he can barely move.  Archie will get bored soon after his hunger is extinguished. This is a textbook example of a Variable Ratio Reward Schedule (VRRS).

Now obviously the ‘rat food machine’ scenario is a bit like gambling. You don’t need to be switched on to spot a clumsy metaphor about my old nemesis, the slot machine. While that is certainly true, it’s missing the bigger picture.

All forms of gambling rely on the VRRS mechanism. It underpins everything. In short, it is doing something when the outcome is unknown. And you can find it in lots of other places too.

I first met VRRSs years ago in a videogame experiment. Blizzard, the clever people behind World of Warcraft, wanted to work out the best way to keep people motivated in the early stages of the game. For the most part, that involves levelling up your character by killing innocent defenceless sheep.

In the one condition, a player would improve for every ten lambs slaughtered (like Archie). In another, the player had a 10% chance of improving after any muttonous murder (like Bryan).

With thousands of players on their servers every day, the data came in quickly, and the results were clear cut. Players progressing every tenth sheep became demotivated and were more likely to give up on the game. Those facing the uncertainty that the next sheep could make a difference stuck at the task much longer.

It turns out predictability isn’t that fun. The first nine woolly corpses offered a joyless challenge – simply something that had to be done, like work. The tenth butchered baa-baa might offer some satisfaction for a job completed, but no serendipity. You knew the reward was coming and had even come to expect it.

In the variable version, you learn to anticipate a non-success because it is 90% likely. So when the result does go your way, you get a little reinforcing shot of dopamine. You want to feel it again, so you keep on going. Every kill matters.

I recently came across a totally unrelated and unexpected example in the How I Built This podcast; Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

In those early days, Jerry made the ice cream and Ben did the product testing. Incredibly, Ben Cohen is anosmic – he has a very poor sense of taste and smell. That should be a huge obstacle, but he credits the condition as the reason for their success.

For him it was about textures, and for him to experience interesting mouthfeel, Jerry had to include noticeable chunks. The use of big bits was revolutionary because it meant every spoonful was an event.

The most likely outcome is that you get a pleasant creamy tongueload of ice cream, but every so often you’re going to hit the sensory jackpot. When you bite down on a satisfying chunk of cookie dough, you get that extra flood of pleasure, and you’re going to have a hard time stopping before you hit the bottom of the tub.

Compare that to a standard flavoured ice cream, which has been blended to be uniform/consistent. Like Archie the rodent, you probably give up after you’ve had a few mouthfuls because you’ve got the idea and there are diminishing returns in consuming more of the same.

How about a movie example? As it’s Halloween, imagine a horror film where you know to expect a fright every fifteen minutes. It just isn’t as scary when you know something is coming. A really thrilling experience always keeps you on the edge of your seat. You don’t know how many frights there will be or when they will strike, so each is accompanied by a dopamine rush. That’s why people watch those bloody awful things.

And before I tediously bring this back to gambling, here are a couple of personal examples…

I love stand-up comedy, but I really don’t enjoy one-liner comics. Not for very long anyway. Partly because I have a deep aversion to puns and dad jokes, but also because a constant stream of quickfire gags leaves no room for unpredictability. There is no shock or surprise value, and the laughs are correspondingly mediocre.

The most obvious example of this is Tim Vine. He has written great jokes and was excellent on Taskmaster, but when I saw him live at Wycombe Town Hall he appeared genuinely shocked to get an encore. I think his audiences get burned out by the repetitious rhythm of the performance. There isn’t the rollercoaster variability that comes with a story teller.

Finally, and perhaps most weirdly, I embrace the power of VRRSs when I order KFC. I usually get chicken on the bone, and that opens the door to randomness. The meal comes with two pieces of chicken, but there are five bird parts of varying deliciousness, and I don’t know which ones I’m going to get.

I used to ask for specific pieces, but now I throw the fast-food dice and just see what happens. Typically, I’m greeted with either a measly wing or a flavourless crown. But on those occasions where the stars align and I get the dream drumstick & thigh combo, I experience a hit of fleeting joy. Yes, I intentionally tolerate lesser meals so that I can feel that small private high.

So why am I even talking about this stuff?

I worked in the industry for years and I never really understood this fundamental building block. Whether you’re a punter or the house, it is worth knowing what is happening under the hood and why it is effective.

It’s only then that you can come to understand legitimate, necessary uses of VRRSs, and when it is being used cynically to squeeze more money from customers. Most notably, you can see it in loyalty programs and gamification layers, where companies are randomising rewards that should be reliable and transparent. Stop it.

I also thought it would be fun to show how the VRRS pervades life outside of gambling. The same thing that can make gambling subconsciously appealing and addictive might be the same thing that is driving your behaviour elsewhere.

In some aspect of your life, you are probably a gambler and don’t even know it.   

Bobby’s Bets

I’ve nursed the same £20 account balance since the Euros, but I just placed the last £5 on Adam Zampa to take the most wickets at the T20 cricket world cup. The rest was blown on shonky football bets. Looks like I’ll have to reload soon.

EuroMillions Moron

I ran long on my last blog, so today I’ll keep it short and sweet with a tale of my own gambling naivety. I’ve been playing the lottery.

I don’t usually participate because the house edge of playing the lottery is so high and it isn’t really entertaining in any way. The only utility you derive from playing the lottery comes from the how-would-I-spend-it daydreams in the days before the draw. Mine look a bit like a bad re-boot of Brewster’s Millions.

As I’ve previously mentioned, operators typically pay out 50% or less of the money they take from ticket sales, and it can be much lower (ahem, People’s Postcode Lottery). In short, it’s just about the worst deal in gambling, so I steer clear.

But when a jackpot gets really high, as it has with the Euro Millions, it starts to look compelling. It is the magic of a juicy jackpot.

In truth though, it isn’t the amount of £184M that motivates me (although it would certainly pay off a lot of mortgages). My motivation to play was from a legacy feeling that above a certain level (e.g. £120M), the EuroMillions became theoretically correct to play.

To put that another way, I was under the impression that above a certain level, if you were somehow able to buy every single ticket combination, then it would be a profitable exercise. Essentially, that your entry ticket was worth more than the £2.50 you paid for it.

I don’t know if that was just an intuitive guess on my part, or if somebody had told me it was the case, but over time it had become an unquestioned belief. And it’s wrong.

Here are the important numbers:

The current jackpot is maxed out at £184M (€220M) and the chance of winning it is 140M to 1.

There are a lot of consolation prizes too, and they are designed to be worth a stingy 20% of total ticket sales. On Tuesday there were 50M tickets sold, and it’s likely that Friday’s draw will shift 60M. That means additional prize money of around £2.50 x 60M x 20% = £30M.

If you add that figure to the jackpot amount, and chuck in the £1M that is set aside for the Millionaire Maker raffle, you have £215M of winnable wonga. If you divide that by the number of possible combinations, you get a real ticket value of £1.53.

That means in this current best-case, maximum jackpot scenario, you lose 97p for every ticket you buy. In investment terms, it’s only slightly worse than the first time you drive a brand-new car off the dealership forecourt. Pardon my French, but that is a piss poor return on investment.

Just to drill home the point, it’s worth addressing the extraordinarily high volatility of playing the EuroMillions. Even if my prior belief about mega rollovers was correct, it’s still questionable to play. The odds of winning are mind-boggling.

If you wanted to guarantee a win, you would need every human in the UK, Ireland and France to buy a ticket. As a responsible gambling advocate, I can’t condone forcing the children of Western Europe to spend their pocket money that way. Although it is still better than lootboxes.

If you decided to eschew our nearest neighbours and try to win the jackpot on your own, you would wait an average of almost 1400 millennia to hit the big prize. That means, if it was your turn to win this Friday, you would need to have started playing about a million years before we first turned up as a species.

To its credit, at least the EuroMillions raises money for good causes. From the sale of a single ticket, 70p goes towards worthwhile project, including 14p dedicated to developing sport. That is more than the 55p that covers operator costs, commission and government duty.

Does that make me feel any better about my misguided recent participation? Not particularly. I thought I was being shrewd when in fact I was being lazy and stupid, and that makes for a bad gambler.

That said, I will still play this Friday, but it will now be just a single ticket and I don’t care if I win or lose. One entry is all I need to justify the daydreams, and that’s £2.50 well spent.

Bobby’s Bets

I wasted £10 on the disappointment of England vs Hungary at Wembley last night, where I was lucky to get a free ticket, but unlucky to be exposed to such dreary football.

My total losses on the EuroMillions was only £20 before I came to my senses.

Slot Horror

Once again I find myself with too much gambling stuff to talk about and not enough time to cover it.

The last few weeks have seen inquest information on the Football Index fiasco, the release of harrowing gambling biographies from Peter Shilton and Paul Merson, and an episode of Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back where he takes on shoddy gambling industry practices. All are worthy of proper blog attention, but they’ll have to wait.

In my last blog I extended a sugar-coated olive branch to some gambling gargantuans and I finished by promising I would return full of righteous rage. Well, here I am, and my blood is all a-boil. It’s time to talk about the gaggle of soulless sh#tbags that are slot machine live streamers.

Everything about these people makes me angry.

Hopefully my dislike of slot machines has come across on this blog. Even though I might be one of the tiny percentage of winning slot players on the planet. I had a big win early on in my slot career and it’s possible (but unlikely) that I didn’t lose it all back in the years that followed.

By any measure that relates to the health and wellbeing of humans, slots are awful.

Much like drugs and alcohol, there are hard and soft forms of gambling. The harder the form, the more likely it is to result in problems. I will talk more about the distinction another time, but for now just know that slots are the speedball of gambling, and there are a few excellent reasons why…

They are very fast to play (you can comfortably play 1,000 spins in an hour), they offer a continuous gambling experience (i.e. there is no end to a slot game), and the stakes can go obscenely high. That is a phenomenally dangerous combination.

The most popular modern games have extremely high volatility. Big top prizes and progressive jackpots can only be won by one person and are funded by the losses of thousands of others. To make the games somewhat playable between big payouts, the operator has to drip-feed tiny meaningless wins that just perpetuate additional play.

That prize structure makes it mathematically hard to post a winning session. Substantial wins happen very infrequently, and the small interim wins will never get you back above your starting point. Therefore anyone prone to chasing their losses is likely to be dragged deeper and deeper into trouble.

SIDENOTE: Anyone suffering a bad losing session is likely to face personal problems as a result. Research suggests that, on average, six other close contacts of that person will suffer too. 

Am I done yet? Not remotely (Vizzini, 1987).

The games themselves are horribly opaque. It is hard to find out how much of your money the casino is keeping and impossible to know the probabilities within the game. The best “return to player” rate of 97% (for every £1 wagered you lose 3p) is considered generous by operators, but is stingier than single-zero roulette, craps or blackjack (when played correctly).

The lack of transparency and the volume of play leads to the most insidious of downsides; operators have the big data and machine learning tools required to continually tune these machines for profit. You don’t get to see what’s under the hood, so they can do whatever they want.

And make no mistake, profit is all that matters. I recently asked an employee of a slot provider on LinkedIn to expand on what constituted a successful new machine, and I was conspicuously ignored. Other industry figures were happy to chime in though – the only measure was money.

All of that should be bad enough already, but the wretched hive of scum and villainy (Kenobi, 1977) on Twitch (and other streaming sites) have taken slots to reprehensible new levels.

I’ve known about Twitch since around 2013, when it was a fresh platform for fame hungry online poker players, but it’s mainly used for watching people play FIFA, Fortnight and Minecraft. Presumably more recent games too, but I’m about to turn 40 and my frame of reference is limited. In 2015, I forgot all about their service and got on with my life.  

Well, in the interim Twitch has grown and it now plays host to ‘professional’ slot machine players and they are broadcasting 24/7. Sometimes it’s tricky to pick up on tone in text, so just to be clear, the quotations in this case denote dripping sarcasm.

There is no skill to slots. Literally none. They cannot be played professionally.

The only way you can turn a profit is to trick people into playing them, by making the games look glamorous, fun, and worst of all, profitable. That’s what they’re getting paid to do. They are affiliates who are receiving a fee (or share of revenue) for everyone they refer to a gambling site.

In the world of slots in the UK, that commission is worth at least £500 per person (on average). In the US I’ve heard figures around $800.

These Twitch life-ruiners have a few tricks up their sleeves. The least scummy and most impressive, is the way in which they engage their audience of thousands and make them feel part of the action/community. The viewers feel like they belong in the same way that eight million Radio 2 listeners thought Terry Wogan was talking only to them.

There is something to be said for providing a social product, but there is a dark side. Psychology research shows that people can be highly compliant when they are part of a collective. It’s one of the ways cult leaders get people to follow their bonkers beliefs and madcap rituals. I don’t want to alienate any particular religion here, so just pick your favourite, the cap fits for all.

Beyond this superficially positive but sinister inclusivity, the rest of the show is pure deception and turd-glitter.

A common practice of a Twitch broadcast (they take place in shifts) is to begin with a Bonus Open. This is where a selection of slots has been played off camera until the user has earned a feature in each – that’s the bonus round where the biggest prizes are generally awarded. Essentially, they’re skipping all the tedious regular game play, then going straight to the juicy bit.

That would be bad enough practice, but I believe they are lying about how much they have spent to get to the juicy bit. As part of the Bonus Open schtick they publish a breakeven value, which supposedly represents the cost of getting the bonuses. The interactive audience is then asked to predict how much the total win will be.

In the short time I watched, the most popular bracket for predictions was 25-50% above the breakeven value. Just a few percent predicted actual breakeven and virtually none predicted a loss. This is for a game that is rigged to pay out at best 97% of what has been invested.

For an audience to be so confident about a profitable session (when it is exceedingly unlikely across dozens of bonus games), suggests they are either an incredibly optimistic bunch, or they have become accustomed to seeing what they think are wins.

I speculate that it is the latter. Psychological gambling studies have found we are hard-wired to take note of such things, because metaphorically speaking, it pays to know which trees bear the most fruit. People are predicting profit not from blind hope, but from learned expectation.

The obvious explanation to me is that the breakeven value provided is a fabrication, designed to make the games look beatable. They are making slot play seem like a valid career choice.

That is egregious misinformation, but it gets worse still. These people are supposedly playing for real money at the highest possible stakes ($100+) with enormous bankrolls ($500K+). These values make the most generous prime time quiz show prize money look paltry.

And yet, the anger and misery I’ve seen on the faces of people playing slot machines in real life, at a thousandth of the stakes, is nowhere to be seen. You would think a $100K downswing would be cause for some apprehension or negative emotion, but it is only smiles and jokes on Twitch. Laugh it off, profit is just around the corner. Keep gambling.

I can’t say for sure, but it seems to me as if this isn’t real money at all. That would involve some level of collusion between the streamers and the slot providers, which admittedly seems a little far-fetched. But if you’ve stuck with me this far, you must admit that it is plausible. Just a part of the façade to separate people from their money.

And that leads me to the final piece of this ugly jigsaw – the actions of the operators themselves.

In the UK at least, there are some regulations in place that offer a modicum of protection. As of February, slot machine operators should allow their games to spin no more than once every 2.5 seconds. Just about everyone involved in responsible gambling agrees that is not long enough, but it is something, and to their credit licensed UK operators largely abide by the rule.

Similarly, in this country you’re no longer allowed to make gambling deposits by credit card (an excellent restriction). You’re welcome to spaff your overdraft up the wall (Johnson, 2019) via debit card, but you are restricted on how much of other people’s money you can waste.

Neither of these restrictions are present in the slot streaming cesspit. VPNs are routinely used (or encouraged) to virtually locate the customer outside of the UK and bypass speed of play regulations. Payment solutions are knowingly rigged to facilitate deposits by credit card.

All of this goes on under the brazenly unwatchful gaze of tinpot offshore licensing regimes, giving the illusion of integrity and credibility whilst offering no protection or recourse.

Unfortunately, this problem is very hard to solve from the outside; technology has not moved on enough to allow any form of effective policing. The only people with the power to stop this borderline criminality are the companies themselves, who could shut it down at their discretion for being outside their videogaming remit.

There is a tech precedent. Twitter eventually turned off Trump, even though it was bad for their business. But I doubt it will happen because slot streaming must be very profitable, and it would take some moral fibre to stop it. And Twitch are owned by Amazon.

Bobby’s Bets

I’ve had a few successful football bets this week, a very rare occurrence indeed. I had the draw in the Man Utd vs Everton game and that’s put my sports betting bankroll up to a dizzying £40. That’s £20 up since the end of the Euros, so it’s been a bit of a summer long hot streak!

Reluctant Credit

Last week I had the opportunity to nip over to the Isle of Man to catch up with old friends and colleagues. It’s been a few years since I last visited, but to my delight very little has changed.

The landscapes are still stunning, the towns are still charmingly bleak and crumbly, and the karaoke is still raucous. As far as I could tell, the only changes were that the horse tram has been scaled back, and the government has spent millions inexplicably trying to reinvent the roundabout.

Most importantly though, many of the people that made it the best period of my life are still there and calling it home. I had three incredible days, marred only by the absence of Karen and Steve. I can only imagine the appalling hangovers if they were still with us.

Whilst I’m still wallowing in this happy nostalgic mood, I thought I would take the chance to say positive things about some gambling operators. I can’t and won’t pretend that they’re doing enough to tackle the social harms they cause, but they’re getting some things right. Today I’ll give grudging credit, seasoned with just a dollop of scathing scepticism.

When I first got this blog up and running, I had a short conversation with a passionate but slightly disillusioned Head of Responsible Gambling. During our exchange I asked what effort he and his team made to proactively contact the site’s big winners.

I have watched on aghast as life-changing payouts were painfully frittered away in the hours after they were won, and I wanted to know if any preventative measures were in place. Or, far worse, if the company employed the predatory casino tactic of trying to win the money back by technically fair, but morally foul, means.

I know that gaming firms routinely employ VIP hosts whose remit is to do this. They will do all they legally can to keep winnings in play. I have been a part of this problem myself. At the height of my gambling industry scumminess (circa 2010), I frequently pondered mechanics I could introduce to deter cashouts and boost profits. Thankfully I never went through with any of them.

At his company though, it was a laissez faire approach. While he would love to proactively contact winners, the reality was his resources were dedicated to meeting regulatory obligations. Compliance was king, and anything more was a pipedream. Given the dark alternative, I thought that was the best I could realistically hope for and thought no more about it.

That was until last week, when one of my Manx friends told me about a recent five-figure slot win of his friend on 888. Not long afterwards, the friend received a call from the company to congratulate him and offering to cash it out directly. No trickery or hard sell, just a genuine act of good customer service and protection.

In fact, to me, it sounds like a true best-practise act of responsible operating. If 888 are doing this routinely then they get a big gold star, and I hope their competitors find the resources to do the same. There aren’t many big winners among the thousands of unhappy losers, so it’s not asking too much to treat them well and accept the loss in good grace.

Speaking of one company doing a good thing and setting an example to the rest – I’m going to award a second, slightly smaller, silver star to the folks at Flutter Entertainment (the current entity of my former employer).

A couple of weeks ago, they announced they would be capping the amount their under-25 British and Irish customers could deposit (net) per month. If I’m being critical, I think the amount of £500 is too high (it’s well above the median for net deposits), and I don’t think it should be restricted based on geography or age, but it is a start. This should help to protect some of their more vulnerable customers.  

Now, there’s every chance that the motivations are pre-emptive with gambling laws under review in both countries, but to my knowledge, nobody else has taken this step, so it is admirable. It’s a gauntlet to the rest of the industry that concedes they can and will do better.

I don’t think for a second that the other gambling behemoths are going to up the ante and role out more stringent restrictions across more markets, but they just might copy them so as not to be outdone.

And once the technical capacity is in place to manage these types of restrictions, it is trivial to adjust them. If Flutter wanted to up the age tomorrow to 30, and expand it to the rest of Europe, they almost certainly could. Who knows, perhaps this is just a trial and when the data is in, they will take a bigger, more encompassing step.

They also claim they will increase the deposit limit if an individual is prepared to undergo a thorough process of means testing. I don’t have a problem with that. It shows they’ve thought it through and have the processes in place to manage the outliers who can legitimately afford to gamble for higher amounts.

The whole thing demonstrates that what should be done (restricting deposits by default), can be done without badly affecting civil liberty. It proves the protestations of the pro-gambling lobby are meaningless bluster and can be happily disregarded. Well done Flutter Entertainment.

Okay, that will have to do for paying dues to the baddies, I’m starting to feel unclean. Next thing you know I’ll be spouting rubbish like Jimmy Saville did a lot for charity, the Cosby Show is still a very watchable sitcom and Piers Morgan makes some excellent points.

So fear not, I have plenty more outrage saved up for another day. This trip down Manx memory lane opened my eyes to an arm of the industry that had completely escaped me and has me madder than ever. Next time, I bring the fury.

Bobby’s Bets

I was sad but £16 richer to see Usyk beat AJ on points. The odds of 2-1 on an undefeated cruiserweight champion just seemed a little too generous to me.

The win would have been a lot bigger as Usyk was still 11-10 to win going into the twelfth round, when it was clear he was miles ahead and Joshua was out of ideas. I regret to say I failed to get on the bet because at 11pm on a Saturday in a rowdy Liverpool pub, I couldn’t remember the CVV code for my stored debit card.

I have since given £10 back to the bookies betting on Premier League draws and hapless European golfers. A poor return on my Sunday dabbling.

More Interesting Gambling Psychology

A few months ago I talked a bit about the main findings of my MSc Psychology dissertation. I got a good grade for my research, but it wasn’t a top grade, mostly because I tried to do too much. That bothered me at the time but in hindsight it was a fair criticism, because now I’ve happily rustled up another 1200 words on the subject. Sorry!

In the first instalment of academic self-aggrandisement, I explained how we bet efficiently but stupidly by using mental shortcuts. Today I’m going to talk about two secondary themes, which I think are actually more interesting.

The Near Miss Effect

If you’ve ever played a lottery scratch card, then you’ve experienced the Near Miss Effect. Typically, there is a game where you have to match three pictures or prize amounts to win, and the first two uncovered are jackpots. You take a deep breath and slowly scuff away the last bit of silver… and lose.

Similarly, if you’ve spent much time playing slots (or fruit machines) you will have experienced countless spins where the first couple of reels line up for a big win, then the third stops just short or long of where you want it. So near yet so far!

It happens routinely for normal wins but is even more noticeable when it comes to starting a bonus feature. More advanced modern machines slow down the critical moment and play suspenseful sound effects to build the tension… before shattering your dreams.

In both cases, the anticipation of a big win causes a physiological rush of excitement. Although it is disappointing to subsequently lose, the subconscious thrill of the almost-win provides a big incentive to continue playing. Research suggests the compulsion can be just as strong as the effect of an actual win.

I decided to test this effect in my study by using a spinner to determine wins or losses. You can see an example of the wheels I used below. The layout was chosen deliberately so that I could measure how close a participant came to winning or losing. The speed of the spinner was set to run long and slow, precisely to build tension.

Just observing the players, it was obvious that close proximity to the win line caused much more animation/agitation. When there was uncertainty until the last moment, there was invariably a physical response. Conversely, when it was clear that the spinner would land comfortably in a win or loss segment, the participant was usually serene and unflustered.

Unfortunately, capturing data on the physical response of my volunteers was not an option. As much as I would have loved to hook them up to a heart monitor, or have them play in an fMRI machine, budget and logistics did not allow it.

Instead, I used the self-reported enjoyment of the game to determine whether exposure to the Near Miss Effect made a difference. That’s a fairly crude measure, but it worked. The most reliable predictor of participant enjoyment (more than winning or losing, or general progress in the game) was whether they experienced a near miss.

It was this finding that has led me to consistently ponder the role of suspense in our enjoyment. I believe that having a bet that makes you sweat is the most enjoyable element of gambling – when it is a fair and natural part of the game.

The reason I started this segment with examples from scratch cards and slots, is that they are usually engineered to cause the effect. The operators for these games have learned about near misses and are rigging their games to make you feel a false high even when you lose, because they know it improves your chances or trying again. To me, that is despicable.

Heuristics and Favouritism

Firstly, a short recap of the experiment. I asked participants to bet £3 on one of the five warriors below to win a fictional tournament. You get to see the appearance of the characters,  their prize money, and their probability of winning. Who would you go for?

The main idea was to see if the players would make an easy choice based on the pictures and prizes, or a harder one based on the maths. Humans are lazy and the easy option won in a landslide (88%). In a separate article, I further discussed how the bettors didn’t really care about losing the £3, because the amount was small and I put up the money. No loss aversion found.

But there was more. If you’re in the 12% that took the time to study the five characters, you noticed that there were two pairs that had the same prize money and probability – the only difference between them was the meaningless picture. This was a sneaky test of subconscious bias.

One pair was set up to test for gender preference in a betting situation. The second and fifth images above were chosen to look similarly capable of winning, so that gender would be the only determining factor. If you had settled on an £18 prize or the ~13% chance of winning, then it came down to a simple preference between male or female.

Academic research suggests that people can be strongly biased on gender, with both sexes showing varying degree of favouritism depending on the context of the situation. Under these conditions, the female cohort had a slight preference for the male character, although statistically speaking it was not significant. In short, they were balanced in their choice.

The male cohort were not. Of the eighteen males that picked from the gender bias pair, every single one chose the male warrior. If you had a coin that only landed on heads for eighteen flips in a row, you would be rightly suspicious.

I would like to see if this finding holds up in video gaming. How often do male players pick Peach in Mario Kart? According to a study last year she was the joint most popular character alongside Mario (11%), but no gender breakdown was provided. There must be masses of data on this, but I couldn’t dig up anything that addressed the subject.

The other matched pairing was a test of the attractiveness bias. The science shows we have a general preference towards more attractive people. For example, better looking actors tend to be paid more for their parts and hotter hospitality staff usually to get better tips. With that in mind picture 1 was picked to be hansom and picture 4 was chosen for being a minger.

This test didn’t yield such a clear-cut result. There was a small overall preference for the better-looking character, but not one that was significant. Perhaps attractiveness isn’t a big consideration when you’re betting on warriors in a tournament, or maybe the ugly character was just too ugly. There was a notable outpouring of pity for him among his selectors.

My results certainly don’t disprove the existence of this bias. The book and movie of true story Moneyball is based on the idea that people overrate the attractive option. The Oakland A’s built a championship winning team out of supposed misfits who were markedly undervalued based on the metrics that mattered.

It’s perfectly feasible that we do the same with our betting, but I couldn’t prove it here. If you had access to the mountains of data the bookies have, you could easily put it to the test. And if it is the case, it follows that the bookies would adjust their prices, or design their games, accordingly.

If people are backing pretty-boy Jack Grealish to score goals partly based on his appearance (even subconsciously) then you may as well reduce the price a little and boost your profit margins. As a former gambling industry scumbag, that’s the sort of speculative edge I’d be investigating.

Bobby’s Bets

This week I’ve just been wasting free promotional fivers on football matches, but I will be betting on the Ryder Cup at the weekend. I don’t really need to, because it’s so engaging, but I can’t help but try to pick off loose lines (even though I’m a rank amateur in matchplay golf betting).

CRM is Easy…

So why is everyone doing it so poorly?!

I’ll have to start this off with an admission, so that my bias is clear from the start. I’ve applied for dozens of CRM roles in the past few months, and I’ve made it to just two preliminary interviews. Frankly, it’s been a recruitment gut punch.

There’s nothing particularly enjoyable about regular cold rejection but getting knocked back is a part of life. Just lick your wounds, try to improve, and come back stronger. I’m okay with that.

The bit that is rankling with me though…

The thing that is sticking in my gullet…

The part that is winding me up good and proper…

The facet that is really yanking my chain…

The stingy salt in my wound…

…who on earth is actually getting hired when almost every company is terrible at CRM.

I can think of just two companies that are doing it well, and they’re both enormously successful businesses with a clear focus on data-driven decision making. Literally every other company with whom I have interacted in the last few years is apparently clueless.

And I stand by my headline – CRM is a simple thing. Send the right message, at the right time, to the right person, using the right medium. That’s it.

Let’s start with a gambling example. I’m a big fan of my preferred bookmaker, but they show no inkling that they know what I like to bet on. My favourite markets are test cricket and major golf events, but I can’t recall receiving any communication or promotion regarding those sports.

I love a special offer, but I don’t need one to respond to a marketing message. You could send me an email to remind me that the Ryder Cup is coming up, with some salient information and a few select prices, and I will almost certainly open it, read it, click through and bet. I would call that low hanging fruit.

A totally unrelated example of poor customer segmentation and content creation is Wickes, the DIY retailer. I’ve been renovating my bathroom and recently bought timber from them. I’ve had regular emails since, but they all have the same generic subject line. It is nothing relevant or customised to me, so why should I bother opening it.

Credit where it’s due, they provided me with good affordable wood in a timely manner, but now I have a negative view of them as lazy spammers. That’s the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve with Customer Relationship Management. I bought materials to build a stud wall, so I’m probably going to need to decorate next. How about telling me about your paint range?

Recruiters are the worst. It’s an endless stream of barely relevant guesses in the hope that they might get lucky. It’s like playing eye spy with my three year-old nephew. It doesn’t matter that eye’ve spied something beginning with P – he’s just going to guess everything he sees until my brain melts and I give in.

The brute force chuntering of an infant is adorable and weirdly effective, but it should not be emulated as a strategy for precision marketing.  

I appreciate there are challenges to running a sophisticated CRM program. At PokerStars I took the controversial decision to communicate in only eight out of the 29 languages we offered, because it meant reaching more than 90% of the players with around a third of the effort.

Letting people elect to play in their native tongue and then ignoring that choice is bad CRM, but you have to make the most of the resources you have. I ignored Hungarians the same way I never did anything for people that played 2-7 Triple Draw. There just weren’t enough of them to make it worthwhile.  

The point is, there are diminishing returns in trying to serve every niche. There probably aren’t that many people out there betting on international cricket, so it wouldn’t be worth the effort to build a dedicated campaign around it. But if you only ever talk about football then you’re going to alienate the customers that aren’t interested. You need to find the middle ground.

For me, you only really need a few skills to succeed in CRM:

Be data savvy. Then you can identify the opportunities and work out if they’re worth pursuing.

Be creative. So that you are able to try new and interesting messages that engage your customers.

Be methodical. So that ideas are properly tested and implemented.

Looking at my email inboxes, those abilities must be in very short supply. Either that or companies don’t understand how to get the best out of their marketing tools. They’re recruiting for technical expertise with CRM systems they simply aren’t ready to use. To misquote the great monorail salesman Lyle Lanley:

“A company with Salesforce is a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it!”

Unfortunately, my lack of experience with these cutting-edge SaaS platforms is going to hold me back in today’s CRM labour market. And while that is the case, the crisis of crap CRM is set to continue.

Bobby’s Bets

I lost £20 on betting on India in the third test, but then won it back betting on them in the fourth. I probably would’ve done the same in the fifth test, but the Indians decided to use Covid as an excuse to walk away while they were ahead. A very disappointing outcome, but very unsurprising given the weak governance of the sport.

I got a £5 free bet to use on the weekend’s football and wasted it betting on Spurs to win. I am a bad football punter.

Gambling Research Review

You wouldn’t know it, but there’s actually a lot of gambling research out there. The reason I haven’t pulled the trigger on self-funding a PhD is that most of it goes completely unnoticed.

To be fair, that’s because a lot of it is niche and slightly boring. Presumably the richest seams of investigation have been mined and we’re now in the phase of learning more and more about less and less.

Here are three recent examples from the Journal of Gambling Studies:

Some Canadians spent eight years tracking gambler awareness of their equivalent of GamCare (and related services), and they found that there has been a steady increase in knowledge among regular customers. However, most people still don’t really know about them or what they do, so a lot more has to be done to promote harm minimisation.

It’s a bit like how smokers don’t flinch if there’s a picture of tumour-ridden lung on their packet of cigs. It makes the industry feel a bit better about what they do, and appear to care, whilst actually having minimal impact on profits.

Meanwhile, some Australian academics looked at whether the closure of brick-and-mortar casinos during lockdown has had any impact on gambling behaviours. They simultaneously measured states with and without restrictions and found a slight decrease in engagement where live gambling opportunities were limited.

That seems like a pretty obvious finding, because it’s substantially harder to play roulette when the croupier is in the local ICU. Nonetheless, the gambling reduction was only temporary, and problems were found back at normal levels not long after the venues reopened. Also obvious.

Finally, a group of Italians carried out an investigation into loss chasing. The results were still predictable, but at least they were borderline interesting. Firstly, it was found that loss chasing can cause cognitive distortions like losing track of time. Being in a financial hole can be very stressful, so it’s no surprise that brain function becomes impaired.

But they also found that the severity of a gambler’s problem didn’t predict whether they would chase their losses. It seems the presence of the Gambler’s Fallacy or Illusion of Control are a better way to identify if a gambler is likely to keep digging when they’ve got themselves in a hole.

Basically, loss chasers are the ones that don’t realise they have no agency over the game and believe that their luck is going to turn soon after a nasty run of losses. The Italians believe this information could come in handy when tailoring treatment for gambling problems, and I tend to agree.

There are good studies though, and when they come along, they tend to make the news. Just like the one I read about in the Guardian today.

Some folks from the University of Bristol decided to look at how gambling venues are geographically located around the country. They found there is a significant skew towards targeting poorer areas.

The 10% of poorest areas in the country accounted for 21% of the more than 10K gambling premises. So that means Glasgow and Liverpool are the places to go if you fancy doing a high-density crawl of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals.

Conversely, the richest 10% of the country have only 2% of the gambling sites. So good luck if you’re looking to blow your Universal Credit in Beaconsfield or Harpenden.

In truth, this isn’t a surprise finding. It fits exactly with what we know about the psychology of gambling. The people with the least to lose (and most to gain) are the ones that are most likely to seek out risk.

But it’s fascinating to see it quantified so clearly. It’s a great example of how underlying data can reveal the truth if someone takes the time to comb through it. This is clear and compelling evidence that gambling companies are deliberately focusing their resources on targeting the poor.

The response of the industry’s Betting & Gambling Council was defiant and utterly tone deaf. In short: “You anti-gambling people are stupid. We create lots of jobs and pay lots of tax”.

It might seem like it sometimes, but I’m not anti-gambling. I bloody love it. But I am against designing addictive products that disproportionately ruin the lives of people who already have enough challenges in their lives.

Unfortunately, as the Australians found, the solution isn’t as simple as closing venues and making it harder to gamble. Online gambling is so prevalent now, that eventually the customers of betting shops, casinos, arcades and bingo halls will move online.

The government will need to implement more creative (and effective) solutions and prevent this cynical targeting in the first place. I’ve already written about how that might work, but I would go a lot further in terms of product design and availability.

The review of UK gambling laws is due any time now, and as this article points out, is already well overdue. I just hope this latest insight is not overlooked.

Bobby’s Bets

I’ve been pretty slack with my betting in the last few weeks, because frankly the Olympics and The Hundred are rubbish events to bet on. But the Premier League is underway and England still have three tests to endure against India, so I’ll probably be more active now. I already had a £20 win on India in the second test and £7 profit on Lukaku scoring against Arsenal, so I have a little bankroll to burn.