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Jackpot and Might Bite: Why the gambling industry will always win

Rob Davies examines gambling culture; Patrick Foster charts his own addiction

One Thursday during the Cheltenham festival, Patrick Foster watched as a dream bet came good. He had placed a “Lucky 15”, a fabulously complicated wager featuring single, double, triple and quadruple bets, all of which must be successful to pay out. His stake was £2, a total of £30. The horse Storyteller completed the fabulous run in the four o’clock race. He won just over £58,000.

He felt disbelief but no joy, because he owed about £250,000 to various betting accounts, to friends, and even to the parents of his pupils from whom he’d borrowed to pay off “student debts”.

The following day, Foster placed a series of bets between classes at the school where he was, ostensibly, a well-regarded young teacher. He watched the Gold Cup on silent on his computer screen in front of his students; he had £50,000 on Might Bite to win. In a thrilling duel, his horse was edged at the line by Native River. Foster exited the screen, finished his class and then drove to a spot between Windsor and Slough which he had already identified as a place wher ehe might take his own life.

That Foster went on to publish an account of his descent into gambling addiction is, thankfully, evidence that the worst didn’t come to pass. But his memoir stands as a timely companion piece to Rob Davies’s deeply researched and conscientious presentation of the ruinous impact of Britain’s gambling culture on the lives of an unquantifiable number.


The prologue to Jackpot is a harrowing account of the last days of Jack Ritchie, a young Sheffield man who took his own life in Hanoi in 2017. Ritchie’s note made it clear that he couldn’t cope with his gambling problem. His parents, Liz and Charles, worked through their grief to try to understand the thought process that led him to this terrible juncture, and they set up the campaign group Gambling with Lives.

Davies reports that roadworks had diverted Ritchie from his usual moped route home and that he may have stopped at the place where he died on the spur of the moment. His parents believe that the impulse “may be illustrative of a dangerous mental state that can arise in the immediate aftermath of a gambling addict’s loss of control”.


The tradition and culture of gambling is inescapable to the millions who love a bet and almost invisible to the millions of others who are oblivious to its appeal. Davies, a Guardian journalist, wanted to better understand the huge apparatus behind the gambling signals and temptations that took hold of Jack Ritchie.

Jackpot is a painstaking and rounded attempt to understand the history, the appeal and the regulation of Britain’s gambling culture, from Henry VIII’s passing of the Unlawful Games Act of 1541 – the better to get Englishmen out practicing their archery – to the faltering steps to address the issue by the Blair government. Richard Caborn MP was given the sports ministry and it was suggested that he might look at gambling as part of the brief. “And I walked out,” he recalled, “not knowing anything about gambling.”

It is a bleak and fascinating story. In a moment of colossal ill-timing, the Gambling Act of 2005 was passed just before the smart phone became an indispensable part of everyone’s daily life. The classic British comedy moment in which Basil Fawlty wins and loses with the horse Dragonfly has vanished. The old rigmarole of going to the bookies seems quaint when compared to the evolving and sophisticated betting opportunities springing up online, which gave betting companies the power “to put a casino in every pocket”.

Now I wouldn't be so keen for my grandchildren to open an account when they reach 18 and be bombarded with enticements to gamble on the online casino

As Davies’s chapter on VIPs (Vulnerable Impressionable Punters) shows, betting companies are expert in quickly identifying and courting particular customers, assigning them personal managers, treating them to faux-celebrity complimentary packages and even gifting their accounts with free bets to draw them back. Tony Parente, one of the recovering addicts featured, details his relationship with Ladbrokes: free tickets to Arsenal, Royal Ascot box tickets, Fortnum and Mason hampers, constant texts from managers and a £5,000 bonus bet in a period when he was trying to wean himself away. Shortly afterwards, he bet and lost $60,000.


In a way, the potency of online gambling even caught the denizens of the trade unawares. Stewart Kenny, a co-founder of Paddy Power, tells Davies that 20 years ago he would have been quite relaxed at the thought of his children having an online account.

“But now I wouldn’t be so keen for my grandchildren to open an account when they reach 18 and be bombarded with enticements to gamble on the online casino and online slot machines. I unfortunately am being wise after the event.”

Patrick Foster’s first brush with gambling is evocatively described. His only previous experience was the annual Grand National fun at home, when the family would annually cut out the runners from the newspaper, choose a horse at random and their father would place a bet for each of them. He was a hungover student on the day in 2006 when he stepped into a Coral with college friends.

“It was a hub of activity, an eclectic and extraordinary mix of young and old, rich and poor, all there for their own reasons on a freezing morning in October, in the heart of the beautiful cathedral city of Durham.”

Foster didn’t understand it but by the time he walked out, he was already hooked. He had the misfortune to win £70 after chucking two quid into a fixed-odds betting terminal (FOTB). Davies devotes a full chapter to the pernicious lure of FOTBs. He found the buzz narcotic and, along with co-writer Will MacPherson, he lays out a decade which reads like something from the imagination of Martin Amis. But here, the despair is real, not fictive.


Foster grew up as one of England’s privileged. He excelled at cricket and briefly played professionally. His personality type facilitated his pursuit of gambling much as he had obsessively worked at his sport. But, of course, the game is rigged against the punter. And as his addiction or illness deepened, he lost all perspective. He was spending money he had borrowed by lying, and it was the deceit more than the debt which almost crushed him.

Foster’s memoir is a gripping account of what can happen to an unsuspecting person who is snared by gambling addiction. Davies’s book illustrates the workings of the machine which had Foster in its grip. He argues that he is not anti-gambling. The people he knows within the industry are “likable, moral, good people”. And it is a huge industry: the Coates family, who own bet365, are the biggest individual taxpayers in the UK, contributing £573 million in a single year.

Our minds have been altered by the jazzy advertising campaigns, by the psychological games of cat-and-mouse on which gambling thrives

Davies’s argument is that there is a gulf between the products offered by gambling companies and the power of those products to ravage the lives of their customers. In a way, it is a plea to legislators and to those within the industry as much as it is a warning to the public.

His fear is that society has already been changed in ways we don’t understand. He examines football as a sport which has been saturated in the language and symbols of gambling advertising. “The genie is out of the bottle,” he writes. “Our minds have been altered by the jazzy advertising campaigns, by the psychological games of cat-and-mouse on which gambling thrives.”

And this is just the beginning. There are unexplored frontiers; the American and African markets are vast and the rollout of 5G connectivity offers more and more customers the chance to lose everything, instantly, over and over, until nothing is recognisable.