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Is this crack cocaine for gamblers?


Derek Webb used to make £5,000 a night as a professional poker player in London and Las Vegas. After 15 years of smoky clubs and casinos, he moved from playing card games to inventing them, and proved so successful that he was able to sell his business for $23m.

These days, he finds himself on the other side of the table to the bookmakers. Webb, a significant Liberal Democrat donor and a shareholder in Vegas-based Galaxy Gaming which bought his company, is leading a campaign to curb the use of electronic versions of roulette and blackjack in betting shops.

These fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs, pronounced Fobtees) have become a political hot potato, with MPs calling for them to be restricted or banned. After bankers, payday lenders and energy companies, bookmakers are in Westminster’s sights.

Their gaming machines have been dubbed the crack cocaine of the gambling industry because playing them is said to be highly addictive.

Bookmakers are fighting a rearguard action to defend them. “We are on the back foot,” one executive admitted.

The problem for the bookies is that the machines form such a large share — about half — of takings in their high street shops. With betting on horse racing in decline, the FOBTs are picking up the slack. In total, customers lost £1.5bn on FOBTs in the year to last March, up from £1.2bn in 2010.

The biggest complaint about the machines is that they allow punters to pour in money wildly. Roulette players can stake up to £100 every 20 seconds. In theory, they could lose £18,000 an hour. Bookmakers counter that the average loss is £7.55.

Webb, 63, wants to see the maximum stake on FOBTs cut to £2, in line with other gaming machines, such as those found in amusement arcades. He wants casino-style games restricted to the casino.

Such a big cut in stake size could be devastating for the bookies. Research from the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) suggests that the £2 cap would put 7,880 betting shops and more than 39,000 jobs in jeopardy.

Stock market analysts have also calculated what such a drastic change would do to the bottom line. Credit Suisse suggests it would cut earnings per share at Ladbrokes by 118%. It forecast a 53% dive for William Hill, which derives a greater share of its earnings from online betting than its main rival.

James Ainley, a leisure analyst at Citigroup, said: “Reducing the maximum stake to £2 would lead to shop closures.” As well as jobs, this would also affect what bookmakers pay towards funding horse racing, he added.

Bookies are working hard to avoid this nightmare. They are preparing a new code of conduct on FOBTs, which will allow on-screen alerts for players when they have spent more than £250 or permit them to set spending limits.

Industry bosses are due to hold a meeting soon with Helen Grant, the minister responsible for gambling, and are expected to make further concessions. One possibility would be to slow the machines so that players can no longer gamble every 20 seconds.

Bookmakers argue that the fears about FOBTs have been overplayed, and that the scale of problem gambling in Britain remains low. The latest Health Survey for England said that problem gambling affected 0.5% of adults.

There is unlikely to be any clarity on the government’s intentions until the autumn, when a review of FOBTs is due to be published.

Whatever the findings, there is a risk that political expediency will result in some kind of harsh medicine. “The worry is that emotion, not evidence, wins the day because over-regulation can create unintended consequences,” said Richard Glynn, chief executive of Ladbrokes.

Ralph Topping, his opposite number at William Hill, said: “We’re very active on regulation and are looking to show leadership in the sector. We’re having meetings through the ABB and privately ourselves, and we’re feeling encouraged.”

The question of what should be done about FOBTs has become entwined with another source of concern, the proliferation of betting shops in some areas, particularly inner cities. This month Labour lost a Commons vote on a move to give councils more say over new openings.

Figures from the Gambling Commission, the regulator, show that there were 9,031 betting shops in Britain in the year to September, up from 8,822 in 2010 but a long way shy of their 16,000 peak.

Some parts of the country have, though, seen an explosion in numbers in recent years. William Hill won an appeal last week to open a site in Newham, east London, after being refused a licence. Opponents pointed out that the borough already has more than 80 bookmakers.

The largest chains have said they would be open to a change in planning rules that would make it harder to open outlets. This could mean reintroducing a demand test.

In the meantime, the war of words between critics and bookmakers will rumble on. The Campaign for Fairer Gambling, financed by Derek Webb and his partner Hannah O’Donnell, appears to have gained an edge over an industry that has traditionally been pretty savvy on politics and regulation.

Webb, who grew up in Derby but now lives in Las Vegas, and O’Donnell have put £500,000 of their multimillion-pound fortune into the campaign. That he made his money from gambling has added a degree of piquancy to the debate.

He insists the campaign group, which he started after finding a speeded-up version of three-card poker, a casino game he invented, on an FOBT, is about protecting and educating punters. However, some have questioned whether he also has a commercial motive.

He and O’Donnell sold Prime Table Games to Galaxy Gaming in 2011. They each took 1m shares as part-payment.

Webb vehemently denies any suggestion that the campaign will benefit him: “How could restrictions on FOBTs have an impact on the share price of Galaxy? It couldn’t. I have a small share of a company that is primarily USfocused. If FOBTs are removed, are all those players going to become casino customers?”

During his days in product development Webb tried to introduce gaming machines for casinos. Prime Table even applied for an American trademark, Vidiceo, for the devices. However, they failed to repeat the success of his three-card poker. This, he insisted, also had no bearing on the campaign.

Webb is disdainful of the bookies, and ominously suggests that the fight over FOBTs is just one stage in a much bigger battle. “I am in this for the long haul,” he said.

How I Made It: Jane Asscher, co-founder of 23red

How I Made It Jane Asscher, co-founder of 23red

THE rapid rise of Jane Asscher and Sean Kinmont in London’s adland left them wanting more. The friends had joined the Tequila agency in 1990, and in 10 years became chief executive and creative director respectively. But the moment had come to start their own venture.

“It was frustrating being part of a big group,” said Asscher. “We felt clients and brands needed a more holistic approach to advertising than the industry was offering at the time.”

Spotting a gap in the market for a so-called integrated creative agency, Asscher and Kinmont left their jobs and set up 23red in October 2000. It combines advertising, sponsorship, design, digital marketing and brand identity to help clients such as Bacardi and the Bluewater shopping centre to attract customers.

The business, based in King’s Cross, central London, recorded sales of £3.3m in the year to September 2013 and expects an increase to £4.5m this year.

Kinmont, 49, the creative director, named the agency after a winning bet on 23 red in a game of roulette in Las Vegas. Asscher wasn’t convinced at first: “I was worried clients would think we would gamble with their money. But it’s certainly memorable and has worked for us.”

The agency has led Bacardi’s responsible drinking campaign Champions Drink Responsibly (CDR) since 2008. It uses the power of celebrity to encourage drinkers to understand their limits. Ambassadors have included Rafael Nadal, the tennis champion who has won 14 grand slam singles titles.

CDR reaches a worldwide audience of 45m and has 1m ‘likes’ on Facebook. “Social media are critical to reaching young people,” said Asscher. “The champions have their own fan bases that we can work with.”

Her firm is also the creative brains behind public sector campaigns such as Stoptober, which challenges smokers to cut the habit for 28 days during October, and Be Food Smart, part of Change4Life, the government’s first social marketing campaign to tackle obesity in Britain. The schemes are designed around 23red’s marketing model “Do. Feel. Think.”

“We really believe you can get people to change their behaviour, and the way they think or feel about brands, by encouraging them to do something,” said Asscher, who is chairwoman and chief executive.

This includes her 45 staff, each entitled to a “cultural allowance” of £20 a month. “It inspires them to go out and experience culture, find interesting ideas and bring them back into the business,” she said.

Asscher, 50, was born in London and grew up in Cardiff with her younger sister Sophie. Her father, Sir William Asscher, who died in July, was a doctor and principal of St George’s Hospital Medical School from 1988 to 1996.

“My father was inspirational. He survived the concentration camps in the Second World War,” she said. “His ethos of hard work and never giving up has kept me going.” Her mother, Jennifer Lloyd, was also a doctor but “I was never going to be a medic”, Asscher said. “I spent time in hospitals with mum and dad but I couldn’t stand the smell.”

Asscher attended Radyr Comprehensive School in Cardiff. In 1980 she won a scholarship to study the international baccalaureate at the United World College of the Atlantic in Llantwit Major, Glamorgan. She graduated from Oxford in 1985 with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics before applying to a graduate recruitment scheme at the ad agency Ogilvy and Mather in London.

She rose to senior account executive before leaving to join Waldron Allen Henry & Thompson Advertising as an account manager in 1988. She moved to Tequila London in April 1990, rising to chief executive in 1999.

Asscher and Kinmont sold their shares in the agency in September 2000 and put £100,000 each into founding 23red. They rented their first office in Carnaby Street. “It was a shabby end-of-lease place but the location was perfect,” she said.

They are equal majority shareholders, with a small percentage divided among senior management. The third founder, Adam Wylie, left 23red in 2010 to set up the Formula One sponsorship firm Vivacity.

That year the new coalition government froze its £540m a year advertising budget and cut marketing expenditure by 50%. “This forced us to balance the private and public sectors, so we were able to focus on changing audience behaviour, which we have become very good at,” said Asscher.

The firm’s ability to adapt has helped it to grow. “There are a few dinosaurs in the industry still doing 30-second TV advertising, but I’ve found that to stay relevant to clients we have to evolve and change.”

Asscher lives in Chiswick, west London, with her husband Steve Barrett, 54, a property developer. They have three children Lucy, 20, Sasha, 18, and Dan, 11.

Her advice to entrepreneurs is: “Have a vision and understand what you are aiming for but make sure you continue to revisit it. And stay nimble and relevant.”

Advantage Gambling Play Returns – September 2014

September returns:

Betbright misc 131.17
Coral misc 15.49
Racebets BTT 7.73
Titan misc 22.37
Portland 21
PB/GB SOTD 21.86
Bet365 4/1 48.86
Betfred boosts shop 299.81
Ladbrokes shop 44.19
188bet 14.55
Dafa misc 52.88
WilliamHill shop 17.60
Bwin reload 9.58
Geoff-banks misc 48.73
Comeon ref 6.77
Betfirst ref 5.14
32Red fs 2.02 4.52
Betsafe ref 7.46
Misc losses (39.05)

Sportsbetting 449

Winner 9.90
WilliamHill 37.54
Bet365 (5.90)
Betfair SOTW (18.54)
Betfair fs 2.80
Misc losses (25.67)

Total £1,191.81

YTD: £16,823.39
MTH AVE: £1,869.27

A pretty poor month, including making 13p from Casino offers. The impending changes to UK legislation have had some effect and I have tried not to leave too much exposed offshore at this time.

Limited accounts are starting to restrict my options but hopefully there will be plenty of opportunities in the forthcoming months to keep things ticking over.

Scoop6 shows appeal of pool betting

Scoop6 shows appeal of pool betting

The Tote’s Scoop6 bet was not won yet again on Saturday, with punters failing to get as far as just the fourth winner in the six-race bet despite nearly £1.6 million being staked.

That shows how hard it is to find all six winners, but not every Saturday is going to throw up such difficult results and there is every chance that winners will be a lot easier to find next week when the feature card if the jumps finale meeting at Sandown Park.

With an estimated £4 million in the win and bonus pools, the rewards for finding all six winners will undoubtedly offer great value as even in the rare event of all six favourites winning there is enough “dead” money in the pool to ensure a bumper payout.

On the subject of pool bets, Betfred have been mightily disappointing since taking over the Tote. The lack of new bets has been surprising, given that the Tote still has a monopoly on pool betting, and the idea that British punters do not like pool betting – which has long been suggested by bookmakers – is laughable given the interest that is attracted when the pools are a decent size.

Surely the so-called “exotic” wagers such at the Scoop6, Jackpot, Placepot etc should be the ones that Betfred are keenest to invent, but there has been a deafening silence from the company on that front.

The lack of imagination is just frightening. Take the Grand National as an example. The one race of the year that is guaranteed to attract not just a massive British audience, but ten of millions worldwide, and the Tote offer nothing that is not available on any other race.

Why not have a pool bet that requires punters to name the first six home in the correct order and guarantee £1 million in the pot. That should get some interest. You could add some healthy bonuses for picking the first five, or even the first four home. Better still, link up with the National lottery to increase the reach of the bet, albeit that may require some government legislation, but as a one-off it has to be worth trying.

Even if it was won and the £1 million guarantee was not reached in terms of turnover – which is highly unlikely if the bet was properly promoted worldwide – it would still generate terrific publicity.

If it was not won, which is highly possible given how hard that National has been to predict since the modification of the fences, there would be a massive pot which could be taken forward to other big-field handicaps. Given that Betfred would be gaining around £300,000 for every £1 million staked, it is remarkable that this sort of bet is not being created, isn’t it?

Moore is the master

Ryan Moore followed up his valuable success on Grandeur at Lingfield Park on Friday with a treble at Kempton Park.

No rider can be successful without being on good horses, but what separates the top riders from the rest is not making mistakes and in that respect Moore has no peers either on the Flat or over jumps.

On all four of those winners it would have been quite possible to get beaten. Many riders would have gone for home too soon on Grandeur, Zurigha was hard to settle in the early stages and would have continued to race too keenly had Moore not found her cover, while both Sea Shanty and Queen Of Ice were up with the pace in slowly run races and could easily have been beaten had they been held up.

Moore always seems to be in the right place at the right time and is always unflappable, both before, during and after every race. He is not champion jockey, but that is solely down to his refusal to trek around the country to ride in low-grade races. Make no mistake, he is quite outstanding.

Ribbons has a royal date

It was a disappointing Saturday in terms of quality, but one horse that caught the eye with a view to the future was Ribbons.

She was really progressive last season and made a most pleasing return to action when a staying-on second to Zurigha at Kempton Park.

That effort was all the better as she was held up in a race run at a pedestrian early gallop, but in any case she is more effective over farther.

James Fanshawe, her shrewd trainer, said afterwards that the run was “a step to a race I love” which is the Windsor Forest Stakes at Royal Ascot. Those words will be well worth remembering come the middle of June.