The old man and the FOBT.

It wasn’t the anti-social behaviour that first made me realise this job wasn’t for me. It wasn’t the person getting an ear bitten off, or the guy shitting in a bin. It wasn’t the drug dealers, the drug addicts or the drunks. For me it was a gambling addict, or rather, the wife of one. The drunks and smack heads I vaguely understand; the guy shitting in a bin, well, he really needed to take a shit, but it’s the hardcore gamblers that really get to you sometimes.

You can watch them sit at a machine for hours and hours, not eating, not drinking, not even taking a piss break; the stamina and metabolism of the machine gambler is insane. He’ll pump a thousand or two into the machine, and no matter what his return, it’s never going to be enough. Either they’ll keep going for that magic number in the back of their head — the result of arcane maths that takes into account wins and losses for that day, week, month, year, or Christ, even a lifetime – or quit in a rage, losing thousands and thousands, chasing that mythical number they’ll never reach.

But it was none of this that soured me on the job. What got me in the end was a little old lady. Short, grey hair, sweet little smile and the kindest eyes. She’d come in a few times before with her husband, a gruff, angry little man, who always talked to her like a piece of shit. He’d snarl at her for reasons unknown, wave her away whenever she suggested that maybe they should go home, and was generally a nasty piece of work.

One day I’m covering a break by New Street, when the lady and her husband pop in. She smiles politely and says hello and joins her husband by machine number one. He loads it with £50s, shoving them in the way my missus loads the penny pushers at arcades – with haste and with seemingly no limit. He’s limited by law to £100 a spin, and those spins keep a-coming, and those losses start racking up.

Finally, his bag of holding seemed to run out of £50s. He grunted toward the sweet old woman, and she came up to me.

“May I put £200 on please?”


I don’t care. She’s a grown up, it’s her money, this is nothing to do with me. A common defense mechanism for any bookie with anything resembling a soul.

Money goes on and is lost in a few minutes.

The man grunts. The little old lady approaches again, debit card in hand.

“May I have £200 please?”

“Of course.”

She heads back to machine number one, the money is lost.

The man grunts.

“May I have £200 please?”

And now I’m starting to feel it. That itch. Some customers think we don’t give a shit about them, which for 99% of staff I’ve worked with is just untrue. We’re just jaded after seeing so many people spin away their wages, or their dole money, or their wife’s money, or the petty cash. If you treat us like a human being, we’ll do the same.

“Are you sure you want £200? You don’t have to play, you know.”

I’ve heard differing things when it comes to how to deal with people machine-loading again and again. Some would have you think it’s none of your business and you should leave them to it. I can see that, but I still think we have a responsibility to step in and say something. If you worked in a pub and you’ve seen a customer drinking himself into oblivion, you’re going to say ‘okay, pal, you’ve had enough’. I have on occasion been discouraged to do the same. It was early in my time at Ladbrokes, so I decided to just take it easy for now.

“Yes, that’s fine. Please could you keep the receipts behind the counter?”

I agreed, kept them to one side, and started totting them up. It wasn’t long before she’d racked up a grand on her card.

The man has won a bit now, a few hundred, but then spins it away and that familiar grunt comes again. She approaches, now she’s looking a bit weary. She doesn’t want to do this anymore; I doubt she ever did. And because I’m a spineless arsehole, I whip out the card reader, ready to eat her card and her savings.

“May I have £200 please? Also… how much is it now?”

I quickly flip through the receipts.

“You’re up to £1,200 now.”

Her face falls a bit. She looks ill. She nods and puts the card into the reader and taps away another £200. She asks me to keep the receipt again, but before she goes back to the machine, she pauses and looks at me.

“You do see people win on these machines, don’t you?”

Oh God, that voice, those pleading eyes. If you could draw the image of a perfect grandmother, she’d be it – and I’m nicking all her money.

“Yeah, occasionally.”

“So you think we’ll win then?”

Shit. I don’t know. It’s random.

“I hope so.”

She smiles and walks back, looking relieved, maybe? The money vanishes, obviously. She takes a look back at me, nods and smiles that sweet little smile of hers. I hate when customers take out their losses on me or other members of staff, but now I want this woman to be angry, not sad. Just fucking shout at me, curse me, throw pens and slips around, just be anything other than nice.

He puts his last few coins in, loses, grunts, and they head off. She says goodbye, I try a smile, then she’s gone. The colleage I was covering for comes back and I head back to Paradise Forum. The whole walk back all I can think of is that woman and her money. I feel like I’ve basically dipped into her handbag and stolen her retirement money. I’ve nicked her grandchildren’s inheritance. Why didn’t I try harder to get her to stop? Did I even have to? Of course I did. Fuck the turnover figures, fuck the machine managers, I should’ve just refused to serve them, I should’ve said the card reader was broken, done something.

I didn’t, though, and I kept thinking about her for a week or two, before other customers took her place. Some spat at me, others screamed at me, one guy went insane and called me a white cunt over and over again over the tiniest of misunderstandings. Death threats, insults, complaints, nothing could really compare to that little old lady and the money I’d stolen from her.

Until that guy shat in the bin, anyway.


3 thoughts on “The old man and the FOBT.

  1. This is absolutely superb and about sums up how I feel about FOBTs and the proliferation of high street casinos with none of the membership requirements.

    I am an enthusiastic horse racing fan with a blog I’ve passionately written for 5/6 years. I used to regularly visit several bookies to bet on racing, sit quietly, maybe chat to other racing fans but in the last 5 years, the ability to do this as s social activity has swiftly declined.

    I honestly have little idea why anyone would go to a high street bookie to bet on racing. The environment has declined. I pity a lot of shop staff who have to deal with the FOBT crowd. In my local shops, it’s two distinct crowds. Me and a handful of racing fans that might stake £20-£50 in a session, probably losing half to two thirds of it. Then there’s the FOBT crowd whom the shop is geared towards. Commercially I understand why, my £1.25 each way trixies give me 20-30 minutes of fun for a tenner. An FOBT session for 20-30 minutes must earn a highly significant multiple on this.

    The proliferation of shops is only meeting the demand for FOBTs 4 at a time. Sadly my experience of those customers is as your own.

    I see regulars pumping hundreds in in such short periods of time. I, like you, try and calm my disquiet by hoping they’re successful local entrepreneurs with a taste for a gamble but wealth and control enough for it not to be an issue. I know that sounds ridiculous.

    I think there has to be much more serious change to FOBTs. These people cannot help themselves. Your metaphor of a pub advertising to alcoholics is spot on.

    I know Tom Watson the West Bromwich East MP is a big campaigner on this subject – He should read your piece.

    I’m glad your out. I share your view, this is exploitation by corporate bookmakers of vulnerable addicts. It is a social stain.

    Fantastic read. Thank You, Tim.

    ps I’m a Birmingham boy myself.


  2. Hi, Tim.

    Tom Watson has read and kindly promoted it on Twitter. He’s a nice chap, although sadly I believe he’s a Baggies fan, but we each of us have our vices, I suppose.

    I presume you know that Ladbrokes (I don’t think so much the other big companies) have a tactic of opening what we called machine shops. In order to get around the limit of 4 FOBTs to a shop, we’d open smaller shops, sometimes next door (as on Stephenson Street) or just a door down (the Bull Ring). One was planned for Corporation Street, but as you know, things aren’t going swimmingly at Ladbrokes at the moment.

    Anyway, I had the idea of opening up smaller shops where it was purely over the counter. Somewhere where the OTC punters who had drifted away, or gone online, could come and have a chat, a cup of tea, put their Lucky 15s on, and watch the racing in a pleasant, friendly atmosphere. You’d have football on a Saturday, you’d close on a Sunday, have normal trading hours, you’d call it Ladbrokes Classic, or something equally shitty. Staff would be specifically trained about horses, trainers, ground, what the fuck a rule 4 is (I had to explain to a manager once…), how to read form. Friendly, educated staff, in a stress-free environment.

    I also wish that I had a magic carpet and that Villa would ask me to be their new manager, but alas, things just don’t work that way. It would be cool though, innit?


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