The biggest spender in Slough's Roar betting shop on a slow Wednesday morning is a middle-aged British Asian man, carrying some belongings in a Sainsbury's plastic bag. He comes in with £180 in his wallet, which he feeds rapidly into the roulette machine and, within the space of around five minutes, loses.
He returns half an hour later with another £160. For a while it looks as if he might be winning back his earlier losses because a lucky spin inflates his first £20 stake to £176 on the screen. But he spins again and the cash drops to £146, jumps to £171, falls to £87, then to £55, and runs out. The machine sucks in a few more twenties, digesting the notes with a satisfying rattle. After a few minutes all the money has gone.
He says "Fuck" but without much anger and takes a chocolate Club bar from a plate on the counter by the cashier's desk. He lifts it questioningly, so the manager can see what he is doing, silently asking for permission to have it. He declines to have his picture taken in case his wife spots it, won't stop to discuss his £340 loss, and leaves the shop eating the biscuit.
At the table in the centre of the shop four older men, all white, mostly retired, observe how much he loses without surprise. "I see him losing all the time. Hundreds, " John Mulveny, one of the punters, says. He has a pile of coins in front of him, is studying the racing pages of the Sun, and thinking about where to lay his daily £3 stake. "The people who play the machines have a problem."
Naseem Khan comes in around midday, a half-smoked roll-up stubbed out between his fingers. He seems in a hurry, but takes a moment to inspect the screens of each of the shop's four roulette machines before selecting one in the corner and, hunched over the screen, feeds three £20 notes into the machine in the space of about three minutes. His playing style is relatively slow and cautious. For more aggressive players, the machine's design allows £100 to be staked every 20 seconds.
He is losing to begin with. He mutters and jabs angrily at the machine so that other punters twist their heads to see who is banging on the glass screen. He chews his nails, shakes his head, adjusts his underwear and says "Shit" and "Fuck that, man", but then another spin dispatches a simulated white ball rattling around the wheel and sends the electronic digits on the bottom right of the screen up to £72. He takes a printed-out receipt to the desk and cashes in his winnings. He is £12 up.
"That'll give you some money to buy nappies, " Annie Sheffield, the shop's manager says, laughing. She knows her regular customers well and Naseem comes in a few times every day. Last week he announced he had had a baby. He has described himself as a car salesman, but Annie doesn't think he has a job, remarking drily when he has gone: "Unless he works at night, when we're closed." Naseem doesn't laugh at the mention of nappies and rushes to the door. "I'm lucky to get out of here, lucky to get it back, " he says, one foot outside the door, anxious not to linger. "You always end up putting it in. It will always take more from you. You never win." He thinks he has probably lost £270 on the machines over the past week.Feeding the beast: a punter puts a coin in a roulette machine. Photograph: Alamy
Known as the crack cocaine of gambling, these roulette machines have attracted new interest this year after research showed there was a far higher number of the terminals in poor areas of high unemployment than on richer high streets. The Fairer Gambling research showed that in the 50 parliamentary constituencies with the highest numbers of unemployed people, there were 1, 251 betting shops, and punters gambled £5.6bn into the fixed-odd betting terminals (the industry term for the high-speed roulette machines, often abbreviated to FOBTs) every year. By comparison, the 50 constituencies with the lowest levels of unemployment only had 287 betting shops, with 1, 045 terminals (a maximum of four terminals is allowed in each shop under the 2005 Gambling Act) and only £1.4bn was gambled on them. Overall, £40bn was staked in the year to March 2012.
The study showed that more than £150m was spent on betting machines in Slough last year, the highest amount in the south-east. It also showed that Slough had 28 betting shops with 102 of the roulette terminals, more than in any other constituency in the south-east.
Slough's population has changed dramatically over the past two decades, so that there is a much higher proportion of people from eastern Europe, Pakistan and India. There is a stark generational and racial divide in the betting shop. Throughout the day the seats in front of the bank of flat-screen televisions, which are broadcasting live from the dog tracks and the horse races, are occupied by older men, mostly white, drinking cups of tea and passing the time of day as they make small bets on the races. The men who come to play the roulette machines are younger, eastern European and Asian. This reflects the British Gambling Prevalence Survey's 2010 findings that problem gamblers were more likely to be Asian or British Asian, to be younger adults, more likely to be unemployed and in poor health. Only one woman comes into the shop while I'm there, and she looks as if she is accompanying a friend and doesn't spend anything.
The government is uncertain how dangerous the machines are, stating in a review published last month that there was "no clear evidence" to prove whether the machines "had any significant effect on the level of problem gambling in Britain". The report concedes: "It is a statement of fact that some players are harmed by gambling on machines" and "it is indisputable that some people are at risk of spending far too much time and money on them". In order to gather some firmer evidence, a £500, 000 study has been commissioned from the Responsible Gambling Trust into the machines, but it will take 18 months to complete, and meanwhile campaign groups such as Gambling Watch say the machines should be banned from the high street.Biscuits and sympathy in Slough. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
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