'Online gambling has been a boon for gamblers' claims Behavioural Insights Team researching gambling related harm

Posted On: 
22nd January 2019

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling asks questions about research into gambling-related harm.


The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) recently produced research in partnership with Gamble Aware which includes in the summary “This increased accessibility [to online gambling] has been a boon for the majority of gamblers who play safely”. This was also quoted in a subsequent press release.

Thesaurus synonyms of boon are blessing, godsend, and windfall. It takes extreme intellectual perversion to postulate that accessibility to online gambling is a blessing, godsend or windfall to gamblers. The boon has been to the operators of online gambling and all those acting in conjunction with them. 

Increasing accessibility to opportunities to lose is not a boon. This is especially so when remote gambling activities, whether online or mobile, are generally more dangerous than the same activities in bricks-and-mortar premises. Opportunities to win could be a boon, but remote sports and race betting operators use their data to weed out the winners and close or restrict accounts. Using skilled blackjack techniques such as shuffle-tracking and card-counting is not viable at remote gambling.  

While each transaction in isolation is a gamble, habitual gamblers are not really gamblers, just losers, as losing is guaranteed in the long term. There is still a cohort of winning poker players but, by definition, they are not gamblers – they have an edge over their opponents and are therefore winners. 

Gamblers generally do not become problem gamblers immediately. They transition through being at-risk. Whilst self-exclusion is being promoted as a tool for problem gamblers it is not being adequately promoted to at-risk gamblers. However, this is exactly the group that can benefit the most from self-exclusion, prior to the descent into problem gambling. At-risk gamblers are often shown in surveys as losing larger amounts, perhaps because many problem gamblers have already gone broke.

The message to at-risk gamblers should not be “Try to continue gambling by controlling it”. It should be: “Your gambling behaviour is showing symptoms that you are at-risk, so you should try to quit gambling altogether”. 

“The majority of gamblers play safely” is another pro-operator mantra. In any one year, the majority of gamblers may play safely, but this provides no insight into the level of engagement of those “playing safely” or how many will fall into unsafe play at some time in their gambling lifetime. Sadly, the majority of gambling revenues and profits is generated from the minority of gamblers who are habitually engaged and probably not playing safely!

The background to all this is fascinating. The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board (RGSB), which was not willing to advocate research into FOBT stakes, published a National Gambling Strategy resulting in research being commissioned by GambleAware. The 2015 Strategy resulted in PwC research into remote gambling with Phase 1 in 2016 and Phase 2 in 2017. It is rumoured that PwC refused to continue with the project, resulting in BIT being brought in. The current BIT research is Phase 3 of the PwC project, with Phase 4 in the pipeline. If we get that in 2019, it’ll be four years since it all commenced. Which is dragging it out to say the least.

GambleAware used to be called the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT), and was chaired by the Neil Goulden, who also chaired the Association of British Bookmakers. While it was the RGT, it advocated against FOBT stake reduction, including in a submission to DCMS in 2016.

Data from phase 1 of the PwC research found that 59% of losses online are coming from either problem or at-risk gamblers. So much for a “boon” for the consumer!

Interestingly, the recent BIT research shows that staking up and doing so erratically is the most relevant predictor of at-risk gambling. An analysis of the impact of the size of the stake in predicting gambling-related harm was notably absent from the RGT commissioned FeatureSpace study on FOBTs.

BIT is associated with the Cabinet Office and NESTA, which was an investor in FeatureSpace, whose CEO, David Excell, was willing to speak out against FOBT stake reduction. FeatureSpace claimed its algorithm could “predict problem gambling”, but this turned out to be entirely ineffective. The government of the day bought into the RGT and FeatureSpace spin, and FOBT stake reduction was delayed until Tracey Crouch and Matt Hancock recognised the bookies’ machines were a “social blight” and reduced the stake to £2 a spin.

Going by their track record, it’s no surprise BIT’s research into gambling-related harm is premised on the notion high speed, high stakes casino and slot games online has been a boon rather than a blight