The death of the Grand National

My two favourite days of working at Ladbrokes were the 2013 and 2014 Grand Nationals. It was the one time of the year where we could take a break from the machines and concentrate on promoting an actual horse race. For a week or so before the race you’d see new people — civilians, we’d call them — coming into the shop. You can spot a civilian a mile away — they’d tend to come in groups, they’d dress like a grown up, they’d be polite, and they’d all ask the same adorably inane questions.

The day of the National itself is a mix of dealing with hundreds of slips at a time — capturing, scanning, re-scanning, showing how quick slips work — and a dash of explaining to the civilians how bets work, how the National works. Get ready to explain to 1,000 different people what an each-way bet is and to tell them to go for an each-way bet.

It’s incredibly fast-paced, it’s exhausting, but it’s a rush. You need to coordinate your floor runner to watch for underage gamblers and to hand out quick slips to the newbies. You need to make sure the civilian has marked the right boxes. Make sure they know how to stake the bet. Make sure they don’t give you a plain slip with only the name of a jockey (I loved that guy).

2013 was a great National for me. It was my first and it was lots of fun. It felt like we were actually in a decent job, actually doing something. People were having fun. During and after the race they were screaming, singing, shouting, hugging, jumping, kissing. People who lost didn’t go into a rage and start spitting at me, or smashing a machine up. People who won took the money with a smile and a thank you and left, never to be seen again. It felt like a proper job.

Then 2014 rolls around. A few days before the National, we’re told to take down all the marketing. We’re going to be promoting a machine tournament on the day instead. I ask my manager if this is a joke, he shakes his head, and we spend the next 20 minutes furiously tutting. Down comes the marketing, up goes the posters for the latest and greatest slots tournament for Inca Hoots, or some other stupid slots game.

The day comes and goes. It’s okay. It’s not as busy as the year before. The rush isn’t the same. I ask a manager who worked in shops before the machines and he said the atmosphere just isn’t comparable. After the race the shop is dead. In a rare case of the company making a sensible decision, I’m asked to stay so the manager doesn’t have to single-man until close. With the greatest of respect to my manager, they’re probably the four longest hours of my life. No one puts any bets on over the counter. The shop is dead. The odd machine customer comes in, silently plays, loses, walks out.

I imagine what a shop without FOBTs would be like. I look at the figures and the massive pile of money we made today and wonder why it can’t be like that every day. The next day is like any other. Shitty virtual races, shitty real races, shitty machines. Same old customers, same old complaints, same old abuse.

But for one day in 2013, it was grand.

Project 50/250

I’m planning on writing about the study released about FOBTs by the Responsible Gambling Trust, but when looking into it I remembered a little promotion we had called Project 50. The 50, I presume, was the number of shops involved in the scheme, which was later upped to 250.

This thing always left me feeling a bit weird. It was a machine-focused promotion which aimed to drive customers to the machines, especially new over the counter customers. It also aimed to keep existing machine customers at the machines for as long as possible. First you have to fill in a personal profile in this massive red folder. You have to draw a picture of yourself, for some reason, which I refused to do, in a childish fit of rebellion. My area manager would come in the shop later and basically demand I draw the picture, in front of him, and he wouldn’t proceed until I drew it. This was one of the first signs that management at Ladbrokes had their priorities a little skewed.

Anyway, I draw my stick figure, write out a person profile using all of the Ladbrokes buzz words (Game On! Bold! Buzz! WINNERS!) and now it’s time to profile my customers. I need to get at least one customer a day set up for Project 50. I need to find out his name, his interests, and I need to find out what he likes to eat and drink. There is a whole section in the folder for this, it’s called something like ‘targeted refreshments’, or something equally complicated.

It’s suggested that on a Friday, when all the lads are around the machines, I should leave the shop and buy every one fish and chips. Is a machine customer hungry? Buy him a pizza. Does John like coffee? Don’t serve him that free swill we give to the peasants over the counter. You get your arse to Costa and buy him one of those vanilla bullshit things. I’m not exaggerating, my area manager got annoyed with me for not buying in fish and chips. I explained that we were in an area known for having smack heads and trouble-making vagrants, so I didn’t want to leave food around. I didn’t explain that I thought it was a bit weird that we were basically acting like a casino and trying to make sure the customers stay glued to the machines as long as possible. I was a pussy and needed to pay my rent.

There was a guide in there about how to attract certain customers. Are the lads placing their football accumulators at the weekend spending enough money over the counter? Reward them with £10 free credit on the machines. Women, it was suggested, would be attracted to Thai Flower, the game with a vaguely Asian lady and flowers. Because… women like flowers. And Thais. Oh shit, I should’ve ordered in Thai food and did a whole Thai Flower promotion. Hindsight is even-money, I suppose.

For a company trying to promote a community-friendly, responsible gaming image, it was promotions like this that just jarred slightly. Look at the Ladbrokes Life advertising campaign. The briefer we got for the whole campaign, and how to promote it, was that the Ladbrokes Life was “aspirational”; it was trying to get away from the image of a bookies only being for “lads” and getting away from “lad culture”. Now look at the fucking advert. It’s five complete dickheads, doing dickhead things, in the most laddy way possible. We did a cringeworthy promotion with a shitty Twitter account called The LAD Bible, for fuck’s sake. There’s something going on in Ladbrokes management, they try and be responsible, try to be different, then release a print advert for gambling with the slogan ‘once is luck, twice is talent’. No, twice is luck. ‘When you win it’s skill – when you lose it’s bad luck’. Get fucked. The ASA banned the posters with these slogans for condoning an “irresponsible attitude to gambling”.

The 4Tunes scheme came around the time we’d heard machine limits would be coming into place. It was a little piece of card that a cashier would stamp when a customer went over a certain time/money limit, I can’t remember which. It was another example of a weird dissonance in management’s minds. We need to be responsible! But… the machine numbers are looking a bit down. Give them pizza and iPads and stamp that little piece of cardboard disappointment. Sorted.

All this shit has been quashed now. Things are changing, but it was weird being there at a time of mental transition. When the left hand didn’t really know what the right was doing. I still think the company isn’t taking things seriously enough, that they’re doing the bare minimum, but until government steps in, they won’t. Why should they? No one’s going to be spitting in Dave Hammond’s face at 9.50pm on a cold Sunday evening. No one’s going to tell Nick Rust the story about how his wife has left him and could he please borrow some money, he’ll pay it back soon, please?

That was the Ladbrokes Life.

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?”

“Sure.”

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.