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.

The Best Side Benefit of a Career in Gambling

There are a few fun reasons to work in the gambling industry. If it weren’t for my pesky conscience, there’s a good chance I’d have found my way back by now. Truth be told, I live in hope that a genuinely responsible company will stumble across the blog and bring me on board. Sadly, I’m not sure such a thing currently exists.

There are few businesses with such scope for innovation and improvement. I genuinely miss obsessing over a new idea for a product, promotion, or feature, and it makes me a little bit sad that I probably won’t get to flex those brain muscles again.

And there’s hardly ever a quiet moment. The regulatory landscape of gambling changes so often and unpredictably that you always need to be on your toes to fight a fire. Maybe that sounds awful, but I loved springing into action to solve problems. Even when it happens at peak pub time, like it did when the US Department of Justice seized all of our domains around 6pm on Black Friday.

But I’m not here today to talk about such important and consequential factors. This is a shameless fluff piece. Today I want to talk about the best unexpected side benefit of working in gambling – the celebrities.

In their constant mission to normalise and glamorise gambling, the big casinos and bookmakers have an almost bottomless chequebook for paying famous faces to tout their products.

On that front, I was probably a bit unlucky with the timing of my PokerStars career. Soon after I left the strategy changed to pursuing full-blown A-listers, instead of the mostly F-list poker pros that clogged up Team PokerStars for years.

If I’d stuck around a bit longer, I’d probably have found myself propping up a Monte Carlo bar with Kevin Hart, Neymar, Usher or one of the Ronaldos (fat and regular). Nonetheless, I did okay. Here are some of my favourite encounters.

Becker in the Bahamas: In addition to making me give away a Lamborghini, our German marketing team loved to shoehorn Boris Becker into everything.

On this occasion we gave players the chance to play a heads-up poker match against Boris in the Bahamas. Most of them had earned their place from freerolls, which meant they were a mishmash of rubbish players from all around the world. Most of them were too young and too not-German to know they were up against an iconic bankrupt tennis commentator.

For Boris’s part, he was pleasant enough, but seemed fairly confused by the experience. He had probably been told when and where to turn up, but not what was actually required of him. I don’t think he’d played much poker, let alone heads-up poker, so the quality of the games was dire.

I spent most of my time shuttling back and forth getting him Diet Cokes, like the well-paid professional marketeer I was.

Coren at the Cannon: This one doesn’t get any kudos in the poker community because everyone on the UK circuit must have encountered Victoria Coren at some point. She’s been a successful degenerate gambler for years. But normal people might be impressed because she’s a genuine household name now, married to another household name. Double points.

I came across her a few times during her tenure with PokerStars, but the first time was at a staff party at the Loose Cannon poker room in East London. She seemed a bit rude and disinterested in meeting anyone on that occasion. And all the other occasions.

Herring in Soho: There was a staff tournament in a London nightclub and a few big names were invited to increase the prestige of the event. WSOP champions Moneymaker (lovely guy), Raymer (lovely but kind of boring) and Hachem (funny but irritable) were the headline attractions, but I was more interested in 90’s comedy legend and Serie 10 Taskmaster Champion Richard “Moon on a Stick” Herring.

For some reason, I got each of them to mark/crease a joker that had been discarded from one of the decks in use. I don’t know why, but I was very proud of my weird souvenir. Now I look back and cringe. I haven’t seen that card for at least ten years.

Shane and Jennifer at PH: I got to meet Aussie cricketing legend Shane Warne during a charity tournament in Las Vegas. It was a gratuitous trip to meet our top spending play money players during the WSOP. I was too star-struck at the time to form any meaningful sentences, but he was good enough to shake my hand.

At the same event I was seated next to squeaky-voiced actress Jennifer Tilly at the tournament’s feature table. She was mostly good fun, but constantly live streaming to Facebook, so slightly annoying.  

Alice at the Leonard: This one was not in the line of duty but did happen during a work trip. I’d requested a twin room because I had planned a night out and my friend needed a place to stay. The only place that could accommodate was the Leonard Hotel, and luckily for me, that’s where Alice Cooper likes to stay.

I was horribly hungover at breakfast, but I found myself seated at the table next to the shock rock god, who was happily discussing a movie that he’d seen the night before. The latest horror/thriller/slasher? Nope, it was Toy Story 3. We are not worthy.

He finished up before me, so I wolfed down my fry-up and scuttled after him. We had a very nice ten-minute chat in reception and my hangover was cured.  

Good ol’ JR on the Phone: Finally, a nerdy one, but my favourite. Whilst I was running the PokerStars  Play Money product, I ran an acquisition campaign on the podcast of legendary wrestling commentator Jim Ross.

He spent four weeks promoting an online tournament that he would host and play, then announce the name of the winner the following week. The problem was that he had never played online poker.

So I spent an hour on the phone to a 60 year-old technophobe from a hostel in Copenhagen. We got the software downloaded, got him logged in, then played a couple of play money Sit & Go tourneys. He was an absolute gentleman and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

As a bonus, the podcast production company unexpectedly threw in some freebie adverts on their other podcasts. So weeks later, when I was listening to Stonecold Steve Austin interview Jake “The Snake” Roberts, I was stunned (pun intended) when he performed a live read of copy I’d written for JR. I can’t count is as a celebrity meeting, but Steve Austin has read out my marketing material. Massive.  

Finally: Some other honourable mentions must go to hurdler Colin Jackson (who was wandering around the office for some reason), Comedy Dave (Chris Moyles’ long time sidekick who was in the staff canteen to help celebrate a charity thing), Lee Evans (at the urinals of Ronaldsway Airport) and Usain Bolt (chilling at Heathrow baggage reclaim).

So if you like star spotting, get that CV updated. You could be hanging out with Chris Kamara before you know it.

Bore Draw Snore

I’ve started three blogs this week with varying degrees of success. Or perhaps I should say failure, because none of them are ready to see the light of day. But that’s okay, I prefer to try and fail than fail to try.

Instead, here’s a quick look at the Bore Draw football betting offer, and what I think is a better alternative. Caution: This article contains tedious stats.

The Bore Draw special is a promotion whereby you get a refund on your bets if the game finishes 0-0. It’s still a big part of Bet365’s football offering, but it has been applied fairly widely across UK bookmakers.

Before I get into my trademark whiney negativity, I should say that I actually like this offer overall. It is clean, simple and applied consistently. More importantly, it provides additional value to the customer. Based on the last five Premier League seasons, 7% of games have led to punters getting their money back.

So whether I’m wearing my CRM hat, my responsible gambling hat, or my degenerate hat, this format deserves a passing grade. That’s a rare triple hat success.

The problem, though, is that it isn’t fun.

As I have mentioned before, I believe much of the enjoyment of gambling is in the suspense/anticipation of a possible win. It’s at that point where the brain’s reward system releases a big hit of dopamine (the druggy’s favourite). That’s where the gambling high comes from.

One thing that makes for a good gambling game, is that it maximises that period of jeopardy. You really get to savour the uncertainty and possibility. In most casino games, that period is very short, so the thrill is minor and the utility from each individual game is minimal.

Most of the thrill of sports betting is going to come from your main wagers. That is the bread and butter of your betting entertainment. Rebate special offers are the jam in the gambling sandwich – they just make it all taste a bit nicer.

But with the Bore Draw, by the time your bet has lost, the 0-0 is almost always out of the window too. Any goal at all ruins the jam.

It doesn’t have to be that way. When my former employer launched their scruffy bolt-on sportsbook, I proposed a Goalfest Refund. If there were X or more goals in the game, then losing bets would be refunded. Apologies, I should have mentioned there would be a dollop of algebra.

That way, if your bet looked dead and buried, at least there was still a chance for more goals and a refund. You might not get to taste the sweet jam, but it’s still edible and so the excitement isn’t over. To me, that is a superior gambling experience.

My suggestion for X was six goals. In the last five Premier League seasons, that has happened 101 times (5.3% of games). That’s less frequent than the Bore Draw, so for an operator it seemed like a good solution.

The sportsbook management liked the idea and got the analysts to work on it. They ultimately decided it would cost too much money, because games with a lot of goals are easier to predict than Bore Draws.

I don’t disagree with that assessment, but I strongly disagree with focusing on problems rather than solutions.

The main reason why high scoring games were predictable (at that time) was because Ronaldo and Messi were regularly piling in goals for Real and Barca against the dross of La Liga. I can think of two ways to fix this issue.

Firstly, just offer it on Premier League games, because that’s where the bulk of the bets are anyway. Then you don’t have to worry about Alaves or Elche getting hit for six.

Alternatively, set a line for the number of goals. By default, the promotion works at six, but if a game looks particularly leaky then move it up to seven (2% likelihood). For that matter, when Burnley play Brighton a week on Saturday, set the line at four (29.6% likelihood). You might coax out some extra bets on an otherwise unappealing fixture.

As long as the Goalfest line is displayed clearly and prominently, I see no issue with it being variable. I will concede though, that it becomes slightly less user friendly than the Bore Draw, which lives up to its name by always being the same.

Even without these solutions, I think it’s a promotion that is worth trialling. If a promotion turns out to be expensive, you can always turn it off again. But you’ll never know if you don’t innovate. The sports betting market is hugely competitive, you have to do something to stand out.

Sadly, nothing came of the idea, but I felt like it was worth resurrecting here. Maybe an operator is already doing it, but I can’t say I’m aware of this offer anywhere.

If you work for a sportsbook then help yourself. I’d certainly come over and give your platform a try. I bloody love a bit of jam.

Bobby’s Bets

I’ve been enjoying the Olympics, but it’s not that good for gambling so I’ve kept my hand in my pocket. A new test series has kicked off between England and India though, so if the weather improves there is action in my near future. Oh, and football is almost back. Game on!

A New Poker Contender

About six months ago I was contacted by a former colleague asking if I was available for a project. At that point I had no intention of ever being involved in gambling again, but as I liked and respected the guy, I thought I’d hear him out.

He needed somebody to develop a loyalty program for a well-funded poker start-up keen on recreating the glory days of the industry. I have some deep misgivings about gambling VIP programs, but I like an interesting challenge, so I said I’d take a swing at it.

I didn’t want to produce anything that encouraged an unhealthy volume of play or that rewarded excessive depositing – the two things that traditionally constitute a gambling VIP. Conditioning people to play or spend too much is the biggest sin of irresponsible operators.

Nor did I want to use the cheapskate trickery of gamification. It’s perfectly possible to hijack psychological reward systems whilst offering little in the way of tangible rewards. It might be cost effective but it’s a cynical way to treat customers.

For example, simply displaying a player’s “streak” (the number of consecutive days of activity) can be hugely motivating even if it isn’t tied to a reward. People like to see their numbers going up and, once they’ve achieved a meaningful number, can be manically committed to maintaining it.

I found this the last time I did a weight loss bet. I went to the gym every day for over a month and lost about 7kg in the process. In a classic case of tail-wagging-the-dog, the amount of the wager became secondary to maintaining my streak. The world’s biggest language learning app DuoLingo use this to excellent effect and have written about it on the company blog. It works on me there too – I’ve not missed a day of Spanish in over 50 days.

But that’s fine. Losing weight and learning a language are admirable activities. Using those same data-driven tricks to perpetuate a potentially addictive vice is not something I want any part of.  

So instead I designed a simple program to reward and retain regular customers, with a cap in place to discourage any excessive behaviour. It was a creative solution that sought to reward grinders and recreational players equally for their contribution to the economy. Grinders provide crucial liquidity and recreational players put in the fresh money. A poker site needs both.

Understandably perhaps, nothing came of the concept. I think the company wanted something tried and tested that they recognised from the glory days. Almost certainly a program resembling PokerStars generous old volume-based system. I gave them something new and scary which didn’t fit their vision.

The experience wasn’t a waste of time though. The time I spent reconciling my thoughts on gambling, and trying to solve my ethical dilemma, is what led me to starting this blog. I realised how much I really enjoy the challenge of delivering gambling as a source of entertainment whilst minimising the risk.

After the silence, I fully expected that company to disappear without a trace. For as long as I’ve had any connection with online poker, there is always a well-meaning nostalgic millionaire who wants to produce a poker site by poker players for poker players. Even with money and celebrity backing, they have almost all failed.

Nowadays the challenge is that much harder. The industry is mature, so the survivors are rich and the barriers to entry are high. You’d have to be a genius to acquire players quickly and cheaply enough to have a viable product. And your software must be good enough that your customers don’t just instantly leave. People nowadays are much less tolerant of a poor user experience

So far, the new challengers at Uptick Entertainment have stuck around. They got back on my radar because they’ve been hiring some of my favourite former colleagues. Their payroll now boasts some of the most dependable and productive folks in the industry, covering all the most important areas.

If they give these industry veterans the time and support they need to deliver, then the customers will get great service, the games and promotions will be good, the payment options will be convenient and comprehensive, and the communications will be clear. That is an excellent foundation.

It’s very early days, but on grounds of personnel alone, I’d like to see them succeed. I don’t mind missing out on the ride, but just in case any of them are reading, here’s some unsolicited advice:

Make it social. The rise of modern-day co-operative gaming has shown that people want a sociable experience. Give players a chance to see who they are playing against and encourage them to interact with each other. Poker is a game of people and the nuances between them.

While there needs to be some level of anonymity to protect customer privacy, offering a faceless product would be to ignore one of the main strengths of the game. It is one of the few forms of truly peer-to-peer gambling.

If people know they will see friends online, they are that much more likely to play. Importantly, they are also more likely to invite their friends in the first place. The cheapest way to acquire new players in a cutthroat business is through word of mouth, so do everything possible to facilitate it.

Avoid quick hit poker. If you want to do poker properly, don’t fall into the trap of offering fast-fold, all-in or fold, or jackpot Sit & Go’s. I’m biased from a responsible gambling perspective because they are the most harmful formats. But those games are also a rubbish poker experience.

If a game takes less than 20 minutes to play, then you aren’t getting the best out of what the game offers. You should have time to observe how your opponents are playing and adjust accordingly. That is the complex puzzle that makes poker interesting even after hundreds of thousands of hands.

Besides, everyone else already offers those formats and have had years to refine it. The fight you are picking will not be won by plagiarism. Find a new way to offer the game and you’ll have a chance to grow a shrinking market. There is still so much to do in poker that hasn’t been done, so disrupt.

Focus on your niche. Finally, if you want to be great at poker, then only do poker. The temptation will always be there to expand into other easier more profitable games. Do that, and you’ll be just like every other gambling company taking the easy win for easy profit.

Clearly you believe that the poker industry is still big enough, and sufficiently profitable, to take on this huge challenge. Maintain that conviction and you may well come out on top. Good luck Uptick Entertainment Inc, you’re in for a fun journey.

Sad Euros Round-Up

It’s always hard re-adjusting to normal life after a major championship, but this week has been an absolute kick in the sack. Not only did we manage to lose after a completely dominant first half, but we also chose the biggest possible stage to show the world we’ve still got a load of racists and thugs in our game.

Just for good measure, I also managed to catch Covid, which was almost certainly from watching the game in a busy pub. I’m feeling pretty rough as I observe the best weather of the year from inside my little isolation chamber – please bear this in mind if this summary piece seems a bit bleak.

As this is supposed to be a blog about responsible gambling, I’ll start with my betting efforts.. A quick scan through my online account history tells me that I wagered £142 (mostly on full time results and any time scorers) and had £167 of net winnings, so theoretically profitable.

I don’t like to endorse gambling companies, but I’m going to tip my hat to Bet365, who showered me with free bets throughout the event. They were all offers with clear value proposition, minimal smallprint and no scabby cross-selling to harder forms of betting. There was an early accumulator offer, but otherwise they get my responsible gambling seal of approval.  

In total I received £65 of promotional money, so when you factor that in, it was not really a plus EV performance.

I presume the intense program of retention/reactivation offers was an experimental attempt to build a habit of frequency. I doubt the sticking power of free bets, but my goodwill towards the company is at an all time high. Perhaps the offers are a loss leader and they’ve worked out they can afford £5-10 a time just to get folks logging in. Seems a stretch though, I’d love to see their data.

I also have to own up to my Calcutta losses, which were around £130. It was more than I wanted to invest, but I enjoyed every second of it and regret nothing. You couldn’t ask for a finer group of degenerates to gamble with. I will be doing the auction format again for the Qatar World Cup next winter.

Finally, I came out with £60 profit from my sweepstake pick of England. So, my best result came from the competition that was complete and utter dumb luck. Once you offset that score, I’m down  a very respectable £45. I feel like I got hundreds of pounds in entertainment value though, so I’m going to declare myself a utility winner.

It’s a shame we didn’t win the tournament though.

For that, I can’t help but blame Gareth Southgate. I love what he has done for this England team, and I will gladly support him through the next few major championships – but I’ll have my hopes firmly in check. His man management, diplomacy and selection policy are truly admirable. But I don’t think we are going to win any tournaments while he is in charge.

In the glow of a first final in my lifetime, it’s easy to forget how our journey played out. We were truly awful in the group stages, and poor against Germany for the first hour. We then battered a poor and tired Ukraine team before labouring to a barely deserved win against Denmark.

The only truly stand out period of play for me was the first half of the Italy game, when we produced some stunning football. From halftime onwards, we were poor again, and ultimately we deserved to lose that match.

Tactically, Southgate seems clueless to me. We have some of the most exciting attacking players in the world, and his instinct is to field as many defensive players as possible. Not a game went by when I thought the players on the pitch would beat the guys on the bench over 90 minutes.

We had a phenomenally fortunate run to the final. It wasn’t dissimilar to the way our draw panned out in 2018. It’s no coincidence we got so far on both occasions – we were mostly playing mediocre teams. That luck will run out at some point, and then we will have to beat good teams.

Unless Southgate learns to get his best players on the pitch in their best formation, with the right attitude, we will lose again. Perhaps even more unforgivably, he has resurrected the career of Atomic Kitten.

I don’t think I can add too much to the subject of racism. The guys who have been subjected to the worst abuse seem to be handling it admirably. Presumably because they’ve had to deal with it their whole lives and were already braced for the worst.

There are encouraging signs that the authorities are taking the racist activity seriously. The perpetrators must be penalised in the toughest possible ways. I fear that taking a knee has lost its impact, so perhaps harsh public punishment will make people re-think their negative attitudes and behaviours.

Perhaps more shocking to me (because it’s naïve to think we’d solved the problem of discrimination), were the actions of people breaking and bribing their way into Wembley Stadium to watch the game.

I don’t see these guys as cheeky chancers, blagging a harmless win over the system. I see them as nasty, thoughtless thieves, ruining our chances of hosting future major sporting events. If I were a governing body, I would be very reluctant to award any games to a country whose fans cannot be trusted or controlled.

And speaking of horrible people attending the games, I was disgusted to see nine MPs accepting hospitality tickets from gambling firms. These perks are nothing short of bribery. Elected officials have no business accepting this kind of gift, because there is a clear conflict of interest.

When the review of UK gambling laws is published later this year, what are the chances they support any further regulation of the industry? Almost none. I’ll do my best to hold them to account when the time comes.

My New Addiction

After eighteen long lockdownerous months, it seems like benevolent Boris is finally going to set us free. So I thought now would be a good time to come clean about my new found secret passion. I luuuuurve data.

But when I look back over the various chapters of my life to date, I think I always have. I just never realised it.

A case in point, my favourite sports are cricket and basketball. If you allow either of those games to go on for long enough then you’ll be able to scrape together material for a decent highlight reel, but in their raw, unadulterated form, they are blindingly boring. They are however, two of the world’s statsiest sports. Those numbers are crack to me.

I also love football, but truth be told, my favourite outlet for that sport is old school Championship Manager – a game in which you pretend to have a job that requires you to endlessly pore over numbers out of 20.

If I could take all the hours I have spent on that game and re-invest them in music or languages instead, then I’m confident I’d be able to play trombone and write this blog in Japanese. Yes, both.

It’s for that reason that I can’t let myself get sucked into Fantasy Football or other forms of fantasy sport. I know how much I would love it, and how unproductively my time would be spent honing the skill. I just spent the last ten years shaking off online poker (another haven for the numerically aroused).

I realise most people don’t feel the way I do. They have only a passing interest in numbers and certainly don’t go to the effort of crunching them. Some can’t crunch, others can but don’t want to, and a few reluctantly crunch because their job demands it. But I crunch for fun.

Evolutionary psychology has an explanation for this situation. Simply, our ancestors didn’t need maths to survive. The ability to add and subtract in small numbers was occasionally useful, but no other operators were required for hunter gathering. They had no practical use for standard deviation.

That means our brains are not honed or structured for doing maths. Every numerical skill must be deliberately learned and practised, because almost none of it is built-in (unlike our fear of heights and snakes) and it does not come naturally (unlike eating or face recognition). It is testament to the amazing versatility of our brains that we can do any maths at all.

As I’ve previously discussed, anything that requires mental effort is hard, and we try to avoid it. We prefer mental shortcuts and estimations to precise answers because they’re quicker and usually good enough. Our default brain mode is “do it the easy way”, and beyond the basics, maths always requires some effort.

To illustrate our aversion and general lack of aptitude, I thought I’d discuss a couple of real-life data mistakes from my career in gambling. These involved people who were all intelligent enough to know better.

The Case of the Missing Conversion Cycles:

A common CRM program in the gambling industry is an automated cycle of communications (and promotions) for new customers who are yet to deposit. We called it the conversion cycle. They’re not hugely effective, but they are cheap to run and therefore usually profitable.

The trick with these programs is to innovate, test and iterate. Just keep tweaking and improving. However, for a reason known only to himself, the guy at the company who ran this cycle (his main responsibility) decided to turn it off, and just leave it off. Let’s call him Lazy Paul.   

About a month past before someone from Regional Marketing asked for an update of conversion cycle performance. They were told that they had been turned off, and all hell broke loose. The Regional Marketing folks had been fishing for a scapegoat for recent underperformance, and now they had it. Blame was quickly attributed.

Unfortunately, the furious finger of fault was pointed too fast. The reason Paul hadn’t turned the cycles back on, is that his performance dashboard showed they were making absolutely no difference. This was not the heaven-sent excuse the regional folks were praying for and the whole marketing storm in a teacup was swept under the marketing carpet of shame.

There’s a lot of incompetence in that short tale, but the real crime is that it stopped there. Everyone got a bit embarrassed and moved on before any useful answers were obtained.

Lazy Paul’s findings were only indicative that the conversion cycle was ineffective. There was no clinical A/B test, no control group, no statistical rigour whatsoever. All we knew is that the pre-stoppage numbers looked the same as the post-stoppage numbers, and that is far from conclusive. It’s grounds to dig deeper, not to give up.

The real reason why the numbers were looking bad, is that it was early summer. People are less interested in using computers when the weather is getting nicer. Every year management would forget that simple fact and hit the panic button.   

Not long after that, Paul moved onto new projects, then quietly left the company. Responsibility for these automated cycles fell under my remit, and split testing became standard practice.

Edit: That isn’t supposed to be a boast, split testing is the bare minimum required for getting reliable answers. Any idiot would have made that change, the idiot just happened to be me.

Worshipping a Rubbish Key Performance Indicator

When I took over running the Play Money product, I got a handover pep talk from the guy I was replacing. Let’s call this one Smug Martin. “Freemium gaming,” Martin insisted earnestly “is all about ARPDAU. That is the only metric that matters.”

In normal people words, Average Revenue per Daily Active User (ARPDAU), is how much each of your current customers are spending per day. Making business decisions based solely on the metric is akin to picking a basketball team using exclusively BMI data. You can keep fat lads off the court, but you’re almost certainly going to lose.

But Martin wasn’t alone. His new boss and the top dogs at the company were all on the ARPDAU train. They must have read about it somewhere and decided it sounded clever enough to be useful.

Behavioural economics tells us that people are generally sensitive to their incentives – so they will take decisions that lead to the best financial outcomes for themselves. Based on Martin’s ARPDAU advice, my first decision would be to cut off the 50% least profitable players.

As it happens, at least 90% never make a purchase, so I’ve theoretically lost out on nothing and doubled my ARPDAU. But why stop there? I may as well get rid of anyone that is purchasing below the current average.

With the way purchases are skewed in freemium gaming (most of revenue comes from a fraction of customers known as ‘whales’), that move takes me down to perhaps 2% of my original traffic.

My ARPDAU is now through the roof! I was making $1 per active customer per day, but now I’m making $40. I’ve also alienated 98% of my customers and dropped 20% of my revenue. Based on the incumbent expertise, those millions of lost dollars would be considered incredible success.

I never did pay any attention to ARPDAU, but my superiors did despite my protestations. Thankfully, steady natural attrition meant my denominator kept getting smaller, and my CRM efforts coaxed a little more out of those that stuck around, so it always looked good.

The moral of the story is that numbers are hard, but really important. If you can’t understand them, or don’t want to, find someone you trust to do it for you. I’m available and if your data is any good, I’ll look at it for free. I need a fix.

Bobby’s Bets

Germany and Switzerland have crashed out, so my Calcutta losses are pretty ugly. Spain have also lost so that’s another £7.50 gone. Importantly though England are hanging in there, so my £10 sweepstake entry is live. If that comes in I’ll probably finish up ahead out of pure blind luck.