Graph of Shame

It’s 2022 and our gambling laws remain unloved and neglected, so I thought I’d just kick things off with a simple, depressing chart.

It shows that 60% of the UK gambling industry’s profits come from the 5% most vulnerable and at risk customers. Those numbers are well known because they’re from a House of Lords report last year. It’s the same one that estimates we have 55,000 underage gambling addicts.

Although those numbers are heavily publicised, I don’t think I’ve seen them presented visually anywhere else. I’ve done it here because people are too lazy to process raw numbers for themselves. That’s my key takeaway from months of studying for an online Data Science course – make your information pretty.

I probably should’ve remembered that lesson from the Psychology MSc. For most of human history we didn’t need to count higher than five, so our brains didn’t evolve to deal with numbers naturally or easily. That cognitive friction has tricked a lot of people into thinking they can’t cope with any mathematics and thus switch off the second you stray onto the top row of the keyboard.

That’s a sad state of affairs, and it makes me very grateful to be in the numerate minority. I gobble up data like the Maltesers from a fresh tub of Celebrations (there’s a topical festive reference for you).

Anyway, that’s why I’ve turned this bleak research into a picture. Hopefully I’ve done a good enough job that no further explanation is necessary, but if the different-sized rectangles are unclear, here’s an analogy:

Imagine you have a whipround at the pub to raise £100 for the local foodbank. There are twenty people in the bar and the first nineteen chip in £40 between them. The last contributor is actually the poorest and hungriest person there, but somehow he rustles up the last £60 to reach the target.

Shockingly, that is exactly how the gambling industry’s profits are broken down.

To their credit, I think the big companies realise that it isn’t a sustainable situation. If most of your profits are coming from people who are playing beyond their means, then you are in a deeply precarious position. Particularly with legislative uncertainty on the horizon.

That is probably the main motivation behind their slick “entertainment first” re-brands. At present though, I see all style and no substance.

I am the perfect target for a company that wants to diversify the source of its profits. Betting is purely entertainment for me, and I don’t mind losing if I’m having fun. I could afford to bet twice as much and be no worse off emotionally or financially.

The portion of the smaller orange oblong that represents me could be much bigger. The Graph of Shame demands that you come for my beer money.

But who is reaching out to me? Who is offering the responsible products, promotions and value-propositions that are going to earn a bigger share of my entertainment budget?

In my experience, Bet365 are doing okay on two out of three counts. That’s good enough for Meatloaf, so it’s good enough for me, but I don’t see it from any other big players.

There has been a regulatory stay of execution, but time is running out to do better.

Bobby’s Bets

It’s not December any more, I can bet again! I dabbled across the weekend’s Premier League fixtures and thanks to Brentford winning and Riad Mahrez scoring, I’m only £3 down.

I may have a punt on the PDC darts final and fourth Ashes test if I see some value.

Texas Half’em

It’s too early to be crowing over my Ashes cricket predictions, but I’m off to a good start. Or at least I would be if I was betting, which I’m not, or if I wasn’t an England supporter, which I am. Still, it is nice to be right about stuff.

Instead today I’m going to talk about a fresh poker idea. I don’t really play these days, so I haven’t been able to road test it in a live game, but it feels like it would be fun. Although as you’ll see, the format would be easier to deal online.

From the name of the blog, you might’ve guessed that it’s based on the TV-friendly game of Texas Hold’em. Everybody knows it and lots of people like it, therefore it’s easy to learn and not too scary to try.

The cards get dealt out as normal, with everyone getting two each. There are no blinds though, because blinds are confusing, stupid and occasionally unfair. Instead the game is played with antes.

This is where it goes off-piste, so I’m going to use examples. Let’s say that it’s a cash game with £100 stacks and a 25p ante with eight players. So the start of every hand sees £2 in the pot. The minimum bet in this game is £1 and we’re playing a no-limit variant.

Once everyone has their cards, all players act simultaneously by privately logging the amount they are prepared to bet on their hand (you fold by not betting). In order to see the flop, you must be within 50% of the highest bet. That’s the Halfing rule.

Let’s take a nice easy number and say that’s £5. Anyone that bet £2.50 or more will get to see the first three community cards and so their money goes into the Main Pot. No-one has to pay any more money, the bet you register is the amount you have to pay in all rounds. That means you could be getting a cheap flop, or an expensive one.

Meanwhile, the money of the folks that didn’t reach the 50% threshold gets scooped up and put in the Fold Pot along with the antes. These folks won’t get to play any further part in the hand, but they do get a mini-showdown at the end to decide who gets the pot.

Let’s take the example further. Andy bet the £5, and his opponents Barry and Carl both bet £3. They get to see a flop with a Main Pot of £11. Darren put in £2, Eddie and Frank both bet £1, whilst Gordon and Henry folded. Those three players fell short of the £2.50 threshold so there will be a three-way Fold Pot of £6 (£4 in bets plus the £2 in antes).

At this juncture I’ll apologise to the non-poker people who are trying to read this. I appreciate it is hard to follow jargon, and it isn’t going to get any easier. Poker people, I hope you’re following so far.

The second round of betting now proceeds as before, without the lunacy of the Fold Pot. Again, Andy, Barry and Carl will privately and simultaneously register the amount they want to bet. The same Halfing rule applies. If any player bets within 50% of the highest amount, then they will see the turn and the hand will continue.

Andy follows up with a bet of £10. Barry anticipates the amount and bets £6, but Carl underestimates and only bets £4. Carl therefore loses his £4 and is forced to fold. The Main Pot is now £31 and it’s between Andy and Barry.

Andy is aware he has put in more money than Barry until now (£16 Vs £9), so he decides to low ball it. This time he registers £10, expecting Barry to bet around half the pot, which he does. This time it’s a cheeky £14. Now it’s Andy is getting the value. The Halfing rule is met so we get a river and the pot is £55.

It’s time for the final bets. Both players think they have the best of it and decide to bid a ‘safe’ amount to maximise the chances of a showdown. Andy goes for £45 and Barry registers £40. Andy turns over top two pair and takes the £140 Main Pot.

Among the early folders, Eddie has made a straight so claims the consolation £6, thus concluding the hand.

Here are the reasons why I like this format:

  • Getting everyone to play concurrently speeds the game up. If you’re still in then it is your turn to act.
  • You can always justify making a little bet with crappy cards, so you’re more likely to be engaged from one hand to the next.
  • As long as you make a bet pre-flop, you have something to cheer for. The dullest part of the game (waiting for the hand to finish) becomes more tolerable with the Fold Pot.
  • Position matters less and Game Theory becomes really important. Guessing and second guessing your opponent is everything. The constant uncertainty makes it a much more exciting game.

So what do you think – do you hate it or would you play it? Are there any unsolvable gaping problems that I haven’t considered or addressed? Off the top of my head, I’d say the rules around being “all-in” need tidying up, but it’s not an insurmountable hurdle.

If you have any thoughts, please get in touch. If I ever get around to trying it out (or I hear that somebody else has), I’ll be sure to report back.

Playing Santa

Last weekend I achieved a magical first – I got to play Father Christmas at a kid’s Christmas party.

A dozen infants were told to go out in the garden and shout for Santa. A miscommunication meant I was still sat happily in my warm car listening to the radio as the poor things roared themselves hoarse for ten minutes, but eventually I received the signal and ho ho hoed my way through the back gate.

It was a good costume and a semi convincing performance, because every last one of the little suckers were happy to sit on my knee and pose for a picture without inquisitively snatching the beard. Two of the mums were even hoodwinked when I returned to the party later and they didn’t clock that I’d been the pillow-bellied main event.

At least I thought it was my first time as Father Christmas, until I remembered that I’d played the role for at least five years at PokerStars. I don’t mean the guy at the kid’s company Christmas party, that’s Doug. He’s the Santiest Santa of all the Santas, and I could never compete with him.

For it was said of Mr Doug that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if anyone alive possessed the knowledge. Hopefully I haven’t mangled Dickens too badly from memory.

No, I played the role on the PokerStars client. Back when the company put player experience before all else, it was tradition for someone in the company to login over Christmas and just give money away. It’s not a promotion I came up with, but when I took the job of Online Promotions Manager in the mid-noughties, it was a responsibility I gleefully grabbed.

I call it a promotion but it wasn’t really. There were no terms and conditions, no ROI calculations, no marketing push. It was literally wouldn’t-it-be-fun-if-we-gave-away-a-load-of-money-as-Santa.

And so, while many of my colleagues had shut down for the festivities, I would login in for a few hours a day from the 24th to the 26th and just indiscriminately dish out some dollars. I’d spread my visits out to cover multiple time zones and usually give $20-50 at a time.

In truth, the process was a bit of a ballache. I could have mass-credited players with the money, but that would have just shown up as an unfestive admin transaction. We wanted players to see the name ‘SantaClaus’ appear in their transfer history, so all of the gifts were processed manually.

All the while, I’d attempt to maintain a stream of complete rubbish in the chat window (which is where the above quote is pulled from), so it got a bit hectic and confusing.

As tasks go, it was mostly fun. The majority of players appreciated it for the fun, silly, generous activity that it was. Inevitably some people were greedy and would follow Santa around begging for more money, or would occupy a seat on a table preventing others from getting a gift. It’s in the poker player’s nature to be selfish, so perhaps I shouldn’t have let it bother me.

Over the course of my Santa tenure I gave away close to $20K. That’s not a huge amount as far as PokerStars’ promotional budget went, but they didn’t have to spend any money at all, and I didn’t have to give up my time to give it away. If I’d asked for more I have no doubt Isai would have okayed it. It’s exactly the sort of extra-mile special treatment he encouraged.

I really wish more gambling companies did stuff like that now. Instead we’re subjected to targeted cross-sell crap like Free Daily Jingle Spins. I think I just made that up, but I’ll be surprised if it’s not out there somewhere.

Thankfully it’s No-betsember so I can focus on stuffing down chocolate and Jelly Tots instead. If you know of any remotely similar examples, please get in touch. I love to hear about people doing it right.

Ashes Tips

It’s No-betsember for me, so I won’t be placing any wagers for the rest of the year. However, the Ashes starts this week and by my reckoning there’s value to be had. So, if you’re not on a fruitless one-man crusade to teach the gambling giants a festive lesson, here are a few tips for you.  

I’ve followed cricket closely since about 1990 and England’s progress has been fairly symmetrical over those 30 years. They were terrible in the early nineties, gradually reformed and improved to the point where they were good in 2005, and have now decayed back to being hopeless today.  

If you arranged for the first England test team I ever watched to play the one I watched most recently, it would be a wonderfully even clash of talented underachievers. The modern-day team might sneak it just because they haven’t had fifteen pints the night before the match.  

All this is to say that Australia are going to win the series. I’d go as far as to say they will win comfortably, but they’re one of the worst Australian sides in living memory. That sounds promising for England, but bear in mind that for most of living memory they have been exceptionally good.  

The bookies have Australia odds-on at 1-3, and that poses a betting quandary for me. On one side, it is pretty much free money, and if you could get 33% interest at the bank then you’d be rich pretty quickly. However, it’s too short a price to be any fun. Above all, betting should be enjoyable and ‘risking’ £3 to win £1 is not.  

The best value option for me therefore, is the 5-0 scoreline which will get you 9-1. That has happened twice in the last four series in Australia, so it isn’t remotely far-fetched. They are better in pretty much every department and have home advantage. 

I’ve seen some media coverage suggesting that there is turmoil in Ozzie squad around their captain Tim ‘Dick Pic’ Paine resigning three weeks before the series. I don’t buy it for a second. He was only ever a stabilising stop-gap captain, and not a particularly good one. He was also the oldest and weakest link in the team, so if anything they’ve just got stronger. 

Looking around the individual bets, there are a few little tempters. The top batsmen candidates are obvious, but I’ll rule out Joe Root. I hope he makes me regret it, but in his two previous visits he’s been mediocre with no hundreds in nine tests. That suggests the fast, bouncy conditions just don’t suit him.  

The favourite in the market is Steve Smith but he wasn’t in particularly good nick during the T20 World Cup, so he’s bad value at 2-1. Labuschagne and Warner have similarly strong records to Smith at home so look marginally profitable at 4-1. The latter was in good form during the T20 World Cup, so I’d probably go for him and then hate myself for it. 

Just as an interesting wildcard, I’d be tempted to dabble on Cameron Green. He’s guaranteed his place in the top 6 of the Australian starting XI for the first test and averages over 50 in domestic cricket. He’s unlikely to be top scorer, but at 33-1 he offers juicy value. The added emotional benefit is that he can’t possibly be as big an #rsehole as Little Dave Warner.    

I can’t envisage any England player outscoring the Aussies, but you can back someone to lead the team. Rory Burns at 7-1 and Jos Buttler at 12-1 aren’t terrible deals. Over the course of five quick matches, it’s hard to imagine either being dropped and both have shown a glimmer of ability at this level. Buttler bats low but is theoretically in great form.

Bowling-wise I think the bookies have mostly got it right. Josh Hazelwood is super dependable and will take the new ball, so 11-4 to be the best Aussie is possible good value. None of the others stand out at all.

In the England camp, there was a clear mis-pricing that seems to have been corrected. Ollie Robinson was 7-1 to lead the way for England after a summer in which he was the obvious standout. If you can overlook some adolescent racism, he’s still decent value at 5-1. Robinson isn’t the quickest but that doesn’t matter nearly as much as the pundits suggest. Glenn McGrath was an angry dibbly-dobbler and he did pretty well. 

The bookies are clearly overvaluing the fragile Jimmy Anderson and the often-rested Stuart Broad, whilst also forgetting that they’re both historically rubbish Down Under. Maybe Ollie Robinson isn’t in line to play every test, but that would be a poor decision by England management. He’s earned the right to have first crack at those floppy green hatted b#stards.

Finally, as this is clearly a tipster piece, and that is out of character, here are some additional bits of Responsible Gambling advice: 

If you don’t care about cricket at all, or care loads about it, then don’t bet. Having a punt won’t enhance your enjoyment of the series either way.  

Don’t bet more than a tenner on anything unless you’re actually rich. A tenner should be enough to get the juices flowing without causing you any sleepless nights. Although if you’re going to stay up and watch you’ll be sleepless anyway.   

Never cash out in play. While the game is on, focus on enjoying it, not the money you stand to win. Besides, if you took the odds, it’s because you were happy with them – don’t settle for a worse deal just because you might miss out on a small profit. Cashing out will cost you 10-20% of the expected value of the bet, so the bookies are the real winner. 

Enjoy the ride. Win or lose, remember the highs you had cheering for your chosen team/player. That’s where the real value for money is.

The Problem with Squid Game

When it comes to TV, I’m usually well behind the masses. Sometimes I catch up, but more often than not I never get around to it. So I surprised myself recently by watching Squid Game just a mere few weeks after everyone else had already seen it.

It wasn’t exactly a binge watch – my girlfriend and I consumed it like an overcooked, gravy-less Sunday roast. It was slow progress with only the occasional mouthful of enjoyment.

The acting was annoying, the dubbed voices were almost unbearable and the direction was frequently weird and uncomfortable. But this isn’t a TV blog and all of those complaints are well documented elsewhere.

I bring the series up today because the whole premise is underpinned by gambling. Fair warning, if you haven’t seen the series it might be best to stop reading. I’m only talking about minor plot points and nitpicking on content. You either won’t understand it or I’m going to spoil it for you.

In truth, you see very little gambling in the Squid Game. However, it is made clear that the whole extravagant setup is funded by very rich people who want to bet on the survival of the human participants. It’s a very sophisticated operation, so the funding must be in the billions.

The competition is comprised of six rounds, each one inspired by a different children’s game. At one point it is revealed that the event has been running more than twenty years, so the organiser has had a lot of time to fine hone the format for his patrons’ enjoyment.

So why then, by my reckoning, are at least four of the games terrible for gambling on?

It kicks off with a giant deadly variation on What’s the Time Mr Wolf. Sure, I can envisage ruthless mega-rich billionaires getting into that. Later on, you could probably get a dollop of dopamine from deathdrop guillotine tug-of-war. But the others…

I can’t imagine Elon Musk wagering millions on who can cut out a fragile biscuit while cowering on a playground. It would be a rubbish spectator experience with very few interesting betting markets. No highroller is going to get excited by taking the under on 3.5 successful umbrellas.

Similarly, there’s no way Zuckerberg would dip into his pocket to watch people wander off in a maze of alleyways to play dealer’s choice marbles. It’s hard enough to follow lots of discrete simultaneous matches without letting everyone make up their own rules. The director would have a nightmare trying to cover the action and the commentators would be lost.

The glass bridge game had some potential, but the mechanics of it are governed by a simple binomial distribution. The first third of the participants had no chance, and the last third were guaranteed success. Therefore the relevant field was only the middle third of the players.

With so little uncertainty, the game has limited gambling interest. All of the action would be on who picks which jersey at the start, which is basically just a human tombola. I know Jeff Bezos has better things to waste his money on that that.

I won’t even pretend to understand the final Squid Game itself. It’s a bit like Kabaddi, but played on a court shaped like a house. The way it is presented though, it’s pretty much just an anticlimactic fight to the death in a sandpit. Not exactly in the same budget league as Hunger Games.

There is a bit of informal murderous action between the rounds too, but that’s no fun for the gamblers either. They’re not going to stay up 24/7 to see if anyone gets strangled in the night. You’re just adding ongoing uncertainty that destroys the main round-by-round narrative.

Imagine if you had money on Rory McIlroy to win the Open and he’s leading after the third round. You wake up on Sunday to cheer him on only to find out he’s been decapitated overnight by Patrick Reed. I think you’d be a bit annoyed.

I don’t imagine any of this stuff bothered viewers in the way it has bothered me. It’s a bit like how Harry Potter fans seem to accept Quidditch would make a legitimate sport when it’s clearly been dreamt up by someone who has never set foot in a stadium.

I’m aware that I’m being a gambling pedant, but it can’t be helped. This is what happens when you’re obsessive about a thing, and for all of my complaining, I really do love gambling.

The whole thing has got me thinking. If the industry’s big dogs are now lurking around content producers (such as The Athletic) as a means to diversify their business model (more likely to improve their reach and reduce the cost of acquisition), then why not consider creating their own Squid Game.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting they pick out their most vulnerable customers for the purposes of slaughter. They probably aren’t that evil. I’m saying there would be a market for a live Takeshi’s Castle style game as a purpose-built gambling event.

But rather than record it all and slap it together in a nice half hour of highlights, you’d broadcast the madness live every night and take bets on the action. Imagine booking Butlins for a week and inviting a thousand people to compete for £10K a head in a combination of Ninja Warrior, Krypton Factor and Total Wipeout. Add in some celebrity players and it’s a guaranteed hit.

I hereby allow any gambling company to take this idea and run with it, as long as I’m brought on board as lead game consultant and they promise not to harvest any organs.

Bobby’s Bets

It’s No-betsember. I won’t be gambling again until 2022.

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.