Andrew Williams explores the increased prevalence of – and motivation for – student gambling in an era of 24/7 betting
One autumnal Saturday, around three years ago, I joined a couple of flatmates in making the short trip from our Richmond Park halls to William Hill in Fallowfield. My friends were keen to place a few small accumulators on the afternoon’s football in a bid to spice up the day’s action; the biggest games of that weekend were taking place on Sunday, so a small financial stake in the day’s 3 o’clock kick offs would make those less illustrious fixtures that little bit more entertaining.
Having turned 18 just six weeks previously – my late August birthday making me the ‘baby’ of our year group – I had never really been given the opportunity to gamble. The lackadaisical attitude of certain football stadium bookmakers had enabled my underage self to stake the odd quid here and there, but this was the first time I had set foot in a traditional bookies. To my slight surprise, we weren’t the only ones looking to win big that afternoon.
With around half an hour to go until kick off, the shop was packed to the rafters with people – an overwhelming majority of whom appeared to be students – poised to compile their accumulators with bright blue, cigarette-sized pens hovering anxiously over a comprehensive list of the days’ football fixtures. After much agonising, most would attempt to justify their final selections to friends via commonplace platitudes; ‘I mean they really should all win – on paper’. At around 2.45, scores of testosterone-fuelled students began to drift back towards Owens Park clutching a hopeful wodge of betting slips. ‘I’ve got a good feeling about this’, would be the typical ante-triumphal cry.
That was the first time that I had seriously bet on anything (beforehand, I had never bought so much as a lottery ticket) and I found the experience far more exciting than I had suspected. Granted, I had lost a fiver, but it was worthwhile for the thought that with 20 minutes to go I was still in with a chance. After all, you’ve got to be in it to win it, or so the old adage goes.
This seemingly inconsequential event, I am afraid to say, went some way to altering my lifestyle for a short period of time. Within weeks I had joined the legions of students who couldn’t go a sporting weekend without having a punt on a football match or five. Reeled in by promises of free bets and cash bonuses, I signed up to several online betting websites and began placing increasingly sizeable wagers on increasingly meaningless fixtures and outcomes; I wasn’t completely hooked, but I could quickly see a hundred explanations for the explosion in compulsive gambling amongst students over the past decade or so.
There was a definite moment, around six months later, when I knew that I had to rein in my own gambling in order to prevent it becoming a problem. I had become a regular visitor to the aforementioned branch of William Hill, popping in almost every time I passed the shop on my way to Sainsbury’s – typically, between four and five days a week. As a result, I had got to know one of the members of staff sufficiently well to talk to her each and every time that I went in.
Jess Brownsword, then a student at Manchester Metropolitan University, was my over-familiar acquaintance. Three years working at William Hill to fund her studies gave her a sometimes shocking insight into the extent to which gambling had penetrated the student culture. “I think that gambling has definitely affected students”, she says with hindsight. “Just look at the amount of bookies near Manchester Uni – there are so many bookies now and they specifically target students. I definitely saw the downfall of students who initially would bet no more than £5 and within a year they were skipping lectures to bet on roulette machines in particular.”
The proliferation of these ‘roulette machines’ – also known as fixed odds betting terminals – is indicative of an industry which has changed beyond recognition in the past two decades. Until relatively recently betting shops were, to stray into the realms of generalisation, overwhelmingly working class haunts. At the other end of the spectrum, the altogether more glamorous sport of horse racing saw the wealthy converge on Cheltenham, Aintree and Ascot to part with chunks of their disposable income.
As with so many other aspects of society, technology changed everything. First, online betting websites allowed anyone with a bank account to bet previously unimaginable amounts on events as diverse as snooker and virtual handball. Where bookmakers once had a closing time, now the industry was 24/7. Can’t sleep? Stick a fiver on an NFL game. Trying to find ever more creative ways to procrastinate? There’s probably some third division football on in Turkey. Back in the day, a lackey with a chalkboard would stand in the high street bookmaker altering the odds with nothing more than a rubber and a stick of chalk at his disposal; this weekend, Ray Winstone will repeatedly shout live odds at us through our televisions, cajoling us to “BET IN PLAY, NOW.”
Simultaneously, betting shops were transformed into mini-casinos. A Labour government drive to deregulate the gambling industry saw bookmakers stuffed with as many fixed odds betting terminals as the physical square inches of each shop would allow. The machines allow punters to wager as much as £100 a spin – and face losing up to £18,000 an hour. It is no wonder, then, that these machines now account for the vast majority of turnover in UK bookmakers. In the first six months of this year, £12.5 billion was gambled via William Hill and Ladbrokes betting machines alone. By comparison, just £2.5 billion was wagered on over-the-counter sports bets in the same period. The total amount fed into machines across the industry could reach £46 billion in 2012.
“I remember one guy who came in on student loan day. He was just sat there feeding hundreds of pounds into one of the machines,” Jess recalls. “By 6pm his eyes were so red from playing roulette all day – he’d lost about £1,300 in cash and he’d made some card payments too. He said he was trying to make up for an accumulator he’d lost at the weekend. It wasn’t very nice to see.”
“You could always tell when it was loan day. There were actually few students that got hostile with me, but the ones that did lost a lot,” she says. There are, it seems, countless horror stories in a similar vein. Two years ago, a 19-year-old student placed £4,400 on Angola, 4-0 up with 12 minutes to go in their African Nations Cup match against Mali, to close out a seemingly inevitable victory. His potential return: a comparatively paltry £44. To his dismay, Mali staged an almost unprecedented fightback to draw 4-4. The student is alleged to have partly financed the bet using his student loan; the mistake is believed to have cost him his place at university.
In the same year, the tragic demise of a University of Leicester student made for even more shocking headlines. Qing Jing Mao was so hopelessly drowning in debt that he faked his own kidnap, in the hope that a £60,000 ransom demand would see his wealthy parents dig him out of a seemingly inescapable hole. Qing Jing Mao had made £10,000 on his first ever trip to a casino – perhaps the ultimate expression of ‘beginners luck’ – only to lose an astonishing £80,000 within just a few months.
Gambling addiction is estimated to afflict around 0.5% of UK adults, the problem facilitated by around 8,500 betting shops across the UK. It’s a figure that is on the rise amongst students, more so than any other demographic. Speaking to The Guardian, the help, support and advice charity Gamcare recently warned: “[Students] are in debt for the first time and wonder how to get out of it. They often see maths students – who understand the risks – and believe they can do it, too.”
But is gambling amongst students a problem per se? Whilst there are undoubtedly some who become excessively dependent on gambling, for many others it is simply a bit of fun on a Saturday afternoon. For some, it is simply an alternative lifestyle – a preferable one at that – and tidy source of income.
Tim Holbrough, 21, is a third year PPE student at the University of Manchester. On the face of it, he is not unlike your average male student: interested in his chosen subject, articulate if occasionally lethargic, partial to a pint and obsessed with football. One salient fact sets him apart from his peers: he spends an average of 50 hours each week playing poker, for sums of money that would make the undergraduate living on £1,200 a term wince.
Tim started playing poker for fun five years ago, during his GCSEs. He would return home at lunchtime after yet another exam to be confronted with that most dreadful of all student plights – nothing on television, or so he thought. Not to be deterred, he began to watch the World Series of Poker on Bravo; the game itself seemed relatively simple, and it wasn’t long before he decided to have a crack at it.
Yet it wasn’t until he arrived at uni in 2009 that Tim regularly began to play for serious money. Five nights a week, Tim sets off on a familiar journey to Manchester’s swish 235 Casino, just off Deansgate. “In a single evening, I always go out with £600 in my pocket. If I go through that £600 – and that’s happened a fair few times – I will say, how’s the game, is this a game where I can make this money back, is there an opportunity to still win money at the end of this? If I decide yes, then I might rebuy once more. If I decide no, I go home. Depending on how things are going I’ll stay as late as 6.30am.”
I put it to Tim that £600 is an enormous amount of money for the vast majority of students. If he can afford to lose that much in one fell swoop, he must surely have a sizeable bankroll? He refuses to disclose a figure, but is prepared to admit that losing, “upwards of about two and half thousands pounds would be a disaster. In the last two or three days I’m down £1,000, which I don’t think is a disaster. I think it’s a consequence of the games I’ve been playing in. This weekend was a £1,400 loss. It sounds like a lot, but given the games I’m playing in I can get £1,400 back.” To me, the casual loss of £1,400 is inconceivable; taking into account a four-figure overdraft, a similar disaster would render me literally penniless.
Poker is arguably the greatest winner of the gambling industry’s online revolution; the world’s largest online cardroom, PokerStars, boasts over 50 million players. Liv Boeree is a member of Team PokerStars Pro and, according to their website, “one of the most successful female poker players of all time”. A former University of Manchester student – she enjoyed “some of [her] best years” as an Astrophysics student here, before graduating in 2004 – Boeree has won well over $2 million in live games alone since she took up poker seven years ago.
Interestingly, however, she didn’t play poker once during her time as a student. “I didn’t start playing poker ‘til after I graduated. I didn’t play because I didn’t know anything about it! Had I found out about poker earlier I probably would have started then – I just didn’t know that anyone was playing back then. Online poker has made the game more accessible to the masses,” she tells The Mancunion. Her experience points to the fact that student poker is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Though miniscule compared to those of Liv Boeree, Tim’s lifetime winnings currently stand at an impressive £12,000. The lifestyle is not one without drawbacks, however. “The problem is that it doesn’t allow for very much socialising – I’m often asleep in the day and when I come to, everyone is having dinner. It used to get to me but it doesn’t bother me at all now,” he insists. “Because of the way that I am, I don’t like doing things that other people like doing. The conventional student night out is to have a shed load to drink, go out to a nightclub, have a shedload more to drink, spend £50, £60, wake up the next morning feeling terrible… I’d rather do other things.”
“In first year that was a problem, because then I was living with six other people for whom that was their thing. And I was a bit of an outcast on that score. It’s not easy to be the one out of seven people who is living an almost completely separate existence. But that’s not a fault of gambling per se. If you replaced gambling with going to the cinema, for example, you’d still end up with the same problem.”
Nonetheless, he maintains that he has a handle on his poker-playing exploits. For Tim, keeping his gambling in check is simply a question of controlling his state of mind. “It’s all about playing within your means and gambling money you can afford to lose. Gambling can become very addictive. It’s not a dangerous thing to do if you play within your means. If you don’t play within your means it’s the most dangerous thing you can do, because you will end up almost certainly going broke. It’s not the gambling itself, it’s the lack of control that’s the danger.”
A key tenet of Tim’s gambling is a determination not to chase his losses – something which he admits he has been guilty of in the past. “I’ve chased losses in sports and I’ve got lucky, by my own admission. I’ve put far too much money on games, and I’ve got there. I once put £400 on a basketball match. That was a ‘steam bet’ – they call it a steam bet because you’re not thinking straight. And I got lucky.”
Though he remains unscathed, Tim has witnessed his fair share of catastrophes at the poker table. “I’ve seen people go broke. I’ve seen people dust off the last of their money on tables. It’s kind of sad to watch, but the way I tend to view it is that short of putting these people on a leash, that’s exactly what they’re going to do. These are grown adults here – there’s a reason why only adults are allowed to do this.”
Despite this, Tim is clear that gambling is an entirely healthy past-time if approached with the correct attitude. “When students start upping their stakes to make money back, that’s very dangerous. When it starts getting in the way of essential things, when it starts to become the only thing in your life, that’s when it’s difficult. I like to think that now more so than ever I’ve got a balanced life. I think before there was a massive emphasis on going out and playing. It’s not the gambling itself that was the problem, it’s the fact that I was doing it all the time. My main advice to freshers gambling for this first time would be this: play within your means”.
Clearly, Tim’s story is an atypical one; few have either the means or the cojones to play at his level. He is, by his own admission, someone who prefers his own company, who eschews the caricature of student culture in favour of a lifestyle which he finds altogether more fulfilling. Yet he ultimately identifies, and in some cases embodies, a set of consistent themes which are illustrative of the pervasive nature of gambling across the student population.
We’ve all heard myths of ‘student loan roulette’ – the act of withdrawing your loan payment in cash, taking it to a casino and risking it on the turn of a wheel. Red or black? That is a thought which would never so much as cross the mind of 99% of the appropriately risk-averse among us. But for the impulsive student at the start of the semester – with hours of time to kill and a seemingly endless supply of disposable income – gambling is a temptress which he would do well to avoid.
Meanwhile, Tim and his contemporaries play on. It seems that he is having a bad week; two nights after we meet, he has lost again. His Facebook status: “sometimes the best play is not to play, to get up and walk away. Tonight’s game was one such time. There’s always tomorrow.”