High Stake

With a rise in online betting and a supercasino coming, should children learn about gambling?
(Jonathan Wolff – Source: http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,1963658,00.html)
It was February, freezing cold, damp and foggy. Yet my son was having a great weekend. He didn’t mind that he was being used as an experiment and as a cover for my own furtive activities. He was eight years old, in a Blackpool arcade; a plastic cup full of loose change in hand and a licence to spend it however he liked.I was watching children gamble. A shocking prospect, perhaps, but perfectly legal on both counts. This was part of my work as a member of the Budd Committee – the “gambling review body” – which was set up to consider changes in UK gambling law, and was part of the process that has led to the current law reforms.

At the end of this year, the Casino Advisory Panel will recommend which town or city will be the venue for Britain’s first supercasino. The internet and casinos are the hot issues now, but we were equally worried about the law concerning children: was it time for a crackdown?

The UK is the only developed country where children can gamble legally, albeit on low-stake, low-prize machines. As well as slot machines, this includes “pushers” and “cranes”. Pushers – also known as “penny falls” – are those enticing contraptions where you have to drop a coin on to a moving ledge in the hope of dislodging other coins. Cranes are glass boxes full of horrible pink teddy bears that you have to try to pick up with, well, a crane. This has a gambling element, for whether the machine grips long and tight enough is randomly determined.

Watching children in arcades was fascinating. After a few goes on a slot machine they soon realised it was a mug’s game, and moved on. The cranes rarely kept their attention when they were spending their own money. The pushers, by contrast, were spell-binding. These were treated by the children not as a way of possibly gaining money – anyone could see that you were never going to win much – but as an exciting way of spending time. The challenge was to make the money last. Eventually, most children drifted off to arcade-style games and away from the gambling machines. A lesson learned, some might say.

Holiday tradition

Some respondents to our consultation argued that allowing children to gamble was leading them into terrible habits that could damage them for life. This was counter-balanced by letters from seaside MPs arguing that small-stakes gambling was part of the traditional British holiday, and any ban would lead to the collapse of the UK holiday industry.

It was also argued that if children learn to gamble first under the supervision of their parents then they will develop responsible habits – rather in the way that French children are supposedly introduced to alcohol, which is said to be a protection against the binge drinking we see in the UK.

In contrast, we were told that one of the “risk factors” for later problem gambling is to have gambled as a child in the company of adults, and the younger you start the more likely you are to have problems later. Worrying. But what does this mean? Only that statistical correlations have been observed. Elementary theory tells us that correlation does not mean causation.

The absence of significant research in this area is staggering, and is only now beginning to be redressed, by studies jointly funded by the Responsibility in Gambling Trust – a charity funded by the industry but with a majority of independent trustees – and the Economic and Social Research Council. In the meantime, scraps of research are bandied about and you can find something to support more or less whatever you want.

It is an illusion to think that passing a law against a type of behaviour makes it go away. Other countries – the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia – report that the prevalence of adolescent problem gambling is higher than that of adult problem gambling, just as is claimed for the UK, so we have to be realistic about what laws can do.

Early on in our deliberations, we recognised that there are only two principled positions: either you ban gambling, or permit it all. Anything else will make arbitrary distinctions based on pragmatic, historical and political concerns. In due course, we made our recommendations to liberalise gambling in some respects, tighten it in a few others, and to simplify here and rationalise there.

The newspapers were only interested in what we said about casinos. On this, the government seemed at first to accept our proposals, and then veered off in a direction of its own. Political pressures have exerted their effects, and we have arrived at a position that is probably no one’s first choice. One – but only one – supercasino will be permitted.


This casino will be something we have never seen in this country before. It will be very large and will be chock-full of Las Vegas-style slot machines. Will this pull innocents off the street into the world of gambling? It is hard to know. Many of us walk past the bookie’s several times a day without the slightest thought of going in. If there was a casino there instead, would it make much difference? Would it draw you in, never to be the same again?

When I worked in an insurance office years ago, there was a group of boys from Essex who would go to the local casino together for a night out once every few months. This seemed unbelievably glamorous and dangerous. But they knew what they were doing. They would each get a little wad of cash, and the trick was to see how long they could make it last, expecting to lose everything except their cab-fare home. Now and again one of them would come home in profit; an occasion for cigars all round and slaps on the back. But they knew the difference between an exciting night out and an investment opportunity. Not entirely unlike young children and their pusher machines.

School of life

Should this lesson be taught to everyone, and, in particular, to school children, alongside education about sex, drugs and alcohol? Intuitively there is a strong case, but there are also reasons to be nervous. In all of these cases, there has been concern that what schoolchildren learn is not exactly what their teachers wish to teach them. The educational sector is starting to square up to the possibility that sometimes education can be counter-productive. Could it sometimes be better to let young people work things out for themselves in the secondary school of life?

The truth, probably, is that there are good ways and bad ways of getting a message over. The Responsibility in Gambling Trust has decided, after a great deal of consultation and trialling, to go ahead and provide educational materials for use by 11- to 19-year-olds. What effect this will have remains, for the moment, a matter of speculation. There is a great deal at stake.

Jonathan Wolff is head of philosophy at University College London and a trustee of the Responsibility in Gambling Trust

(from Casino-Bingo – Online Casinos in Britain – reviews…)

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