One of the first things you’re supposed to do when you get to work is check the diary. I found the following entry from the night before and wasn’t fazed at all.
“Had to call an ambulance yesterday, customer got his ear bitten off.”
Welcome to the exciting world of the modern bookmakers.
I didn’t mind the early starts or late finishes at Ladbrokes. It was occasionally disheartening to have to leave the missus all snug and smug in bed on a Sunday morning, but it was a job and I was lucky to have one, so I didn’t complain much. It was the bus journey that was difficult.
What occupies my mind on the trip to work is, how shit can today possibly be? Who am I going to be working with? Which awful customers will I have to deal with? Depending on the shop that I’m working in, will I have to bump into customers on the way in? Will that aggressive psycho we barred the other day be walking around? Oh, yeah, there he is. Well, let’s try to keep out of his field of view. Oh, he just screamed at a woman and is now kicking the shit out of a bin. Could be worse, I could be the bin.
I help my manager set the shop up for the day, as a few people are already queuing up at the door, waiting to be let loose on the machines. It’s not an uncommon sight to have people walk in and spend all day on the machines. You would not believe the stamina and fortitude of the machine gambler. It’s not unusual to see a customer spend all day standing up, refusing food and drink, not even going to the toilet, just losing and losing for hours on end.
The FOBT. Standing like an evil neon, technicolour version of a monolith from 2001. It features surround sound, multiple high-definition touchscreens and is made up of B2, or casino games, such as roulette and blackjack. There will be around 10 variations of roulette alone, with some having the option to re-gamble winnings you’ve already gambled to win, before you can click that cash out button. The other games, B3, are your slots and scratch games.
The difference between the two is the stakes involved. The max stake on B3 games is £2 (although some B3 games feature B2 features, letting you gamble up to £30) and the max stake on B2 is £100. You can spin £100 every 20 seconds on roulette. You can load up to £200 a time via your debit card, and nothing is as disheartening and miserable as a customer trying to load money on again and again, getting declined, then searching his wallet for a different card. Sometimes they’ll rush to the cash machine to bring more offerings for the money monolith.
The shop I’m in at the moment is usually dead until lunchtime, so I go through all the stuff I have to promote today. Yet another new slots game (which is just a re-skin of an older, presumably underperforming game); a machine tournament on Saturday, something I can’t believe is even legal any more. For an industry that is trying to curb problem gambling, they do give away free credit on roulette and slots games quite a lot.
It’s like being in a pub and giving out free tasters to passing alcoholics.
The big bookmakers are trying to push responsible machine gambling at the moment, with limits on the machines. If you spend over a certain amount of time, or put in a certain amount of money, a message will pop up on the screen informing them of this. When we were trained about the mechanics and how all this worked, I was genuinely confused and a bit shocked. My area manager explained that customers would have a three-second, skippable “period of reflection”. Now, maybe my wits are slower than John who spends thousands of pounds and all his free time playing Key Bet Roulette (free tournament on Saturday, John, cup of coffee?), but I can’t have a period of reflection in three seconds. I can’t decide what to have for breakfast in three seconds. Do I have scrambled or poached eggs? It’s a Mr Burns, ketchup/catsup moment of reflection for me, so I don’t know how a gambler is expected to weigh up his finances, his state of mind and choose whether to stop gambling or not.
I raised this issue and I’m told that, yes, there’s a chance that the limit will be raised to 10 seconds. Some shop literature suggested it was later raised to 20 seconds, but this is skippable at any time. Customers who get a mandatory limit just click away the information in the blink of an eye. No one I’ve spoken to who works in shops can recall or find any information to suggest there’s even a three-second window at all. In the eight months or so that I dealt with machine limits, I saw hundreds of mandatory alerts. Not a single person I interacted with cared about them or wanted to know more. The customers who couldn’t speak English just wanted me to leave them alone. Several people swore at me for interrupting their game. A few angrily tapped the cash out button and walked out in disgust.
Customers who want help trying to control the amount of time or money they spend on the machines have a choice to put a voluntary limit on the machine which, when triggered, enables a longer, unskippable 30 seconds of reflection. I think that should have been the default for the mandatory limits, but I understand that in a world where customers can spin £100 every 20 seconds, this isn’t acceptable for the people in charge of machines.
Machine limits, the awkward, potentially dangerous interactions that cashiers are required to make, and the paperwork involved has nothing at all to do with “player protection”. It’s for the bookmakers’ protection. It’s a way to generate lots of stats and figures to show that, look, this shop interacted with X amount of customers today. Look how many people were signposted about how self-destructive they’re being.
I’m proud to say that 99% of the people I worked with tried to take the limits and the responsibility of working with the customers seriously, but it’s such a limp, pointless waste of time that in the end you just become jaded. In eight months, I saw one voluntary limit set by a customer, an Eastern European gentleman who didn’t realise what he was doing. When I explained why he was locked out of the game (he’d set a limit of £10, entered £10 and was, of course, briefly blocked from playing), he got confused, demanded his money back and stormed out of the shop. I’ve not heard of a single person setting a voluntary limit correctly and adhering to it.
I conducted a very unscientific survey with 20 cashiers and managers across the UK, across all the major companies, covering London, Liverpool, Leicester, Plymouth, Birmingham and Milton Keynes. I made sure not to ask anyone I’d worked with before, to try and make it fairer. The question was, “Has anyone ever seen a customer set a voluntary limit, and if so, do you have any positive stories?”
100% said no.
Ladbrokes has said that “mandatory alerts, while creating an opportunity for reflection, do not appear to influence many customers to stop playing”. That would be the mandatory alerts that I’d estimate make up a good 99% of alerts staff will deal with. “Voluntary limits appear to be an effective measure to help customers, with 78% of customers either stopping playing or stopping adding further money.” That looks great - 78% of customers stopped playing or stopped shovelling money in! 78% of what? Ladbrokes won’t say. Did those 78% of customers stop playing the machine they triggered the alert on? Did they play on another machine, that will set off an alert later? Did they move to one of the other 30-ish shops in the city centre?
A man called Peter from the Association of British Bookmakers explained: “From January, all machine players will be forced to choose whether to set a limit or not, as compared to now where there is an option to do so.” I think it’ll be interesting to compare how many people are using limits before and after this scheme is brought in.
Ciaran O’Brien, the corporate affairs director at Ladbrokes, told me that they “recognise the uptake of set limits was low but the impact when they were set showed effectiveness so we have acted to increase uptake”.
Don’t get me wrong, if these limits help one person identify they’ve perhaps got a problem, or show them a pattern that they may not have realised was so expensive or time-consuming, then good. That’s one less person addicted, or at least, someone given a chance to try and take control of their life.
Could we have done more, though?
It’s lunchtime and the shop is starting to get full now. Various factors could lead to me being left on my own, so now I have a shop to manage, a till to run, bets to verify, process, and pay out. I’ve got machine players to look after, making sure they’re dealing with the limits properly. I’ve got to make sure I’m maintaining our “think 21” procedures, I’ve got to get on the shop floor to tidy, offer drinks and food, and don’t forget to promote the machine tournaments.
The unwritten rule of most shops is that you’re going to deal with at least one dickhead every day, it just depends on what kind.
Today I might deal with the aggressive teenager who refuses to show me ID.
“I’ve been here before!” he screeches, the puberty almost palpable.
Then you’ve got the verbally abusive sorts who just won’t give up, won’t leave without having the last, nasty little word.
“You jobsworth prick.” Ah, jobsworth, an insult I’ve never really understood. If I fail an age verification test from the Gambling Commission, I could lose my job, be fined, the shop could even lose its licence. That’s not just my job at risk, it’s my colleagues. So, yeah, show me your ID, mate, you look 12.
“I’m gonna fucking stab you when you leave.” Okay, mate.
“Call the police, I’m going to fucking wreck this shop.” Coffee with that, boss?
One afternoon, the shop was dead and a guy came in. A guy we all knew because he was a bit, well, off-kilter. Something not quite right about him, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it. After a certain amount of time you develop a sense; when someone walks in you can usually tell if they’re going to cause you trouble, and this Spidey-Sense is seldom wrong. This guy worried everyone.
He wore a big, grey, heavy duffel coat, regardless of the weather. He was loud, constantly screamed the word “gaffer” at you, but was generally seen to be harmless. He comes over and asks for some prices on his doubles, while paying for another bet with his debit card with my manager. He doesn’t intend on paying for the doubles yet, but when I’ve put the prices on, my manager takes them and processes them anyway.
A mistake. A simple mistake. We try not to make them, but we’re human, and shit happens. It’s a mistake that could have been quickly and easily rectified. His reaction to this unexpected £2 charge? Unbridled rage. His eyes bug out and he starts screaming at me. I start to laugh, which in retrospect was possibly not the right move, but I was sure I could explain that it wasn’t my fault, that my manager had made a tiny mistake and we were going to laugh about this. We’d sort out a refund immediately.
“No, you fucking listen, you fucking white cunt.” The venom and searing racist hatred in his voice cuts right through me, killing my confidence and ability to control the situation. I’m caught off-guard because no one has ever got this mad at me and I can’t even understand what the problem is. Also, as a white man, I’ve never had to deal with racism. In retrospect it’s almost quaint. I try to explain, but he keeps screaming at me, at my manager; he’s almost frothing at the mouth.
This would never happen at Costa Coffee.
I keep trying to wrestle back control, but he’s just getting more and more aggressive, and I’m getting concerned for my safety and my manager’s. We tell him to leave, that he’s barred, and not to bother trying to collect his bet at this shop. The swears are getting increasingly aggressive and colourful. We tell him that we’re going to call the police, which seems to finally turn the little cog in his head that makes him think “oh, wait, this could be bad” and just as quickly as he snapped, he leaves.
There’s one other person in the shop, a guy playing the machines, as if nothing happened. He comes over to collect a receipt and asks for a cup of tea.
I go to the toilet and have a little cry.
Then I come back out and my manager sticks around while he waits for someone to replace him, as he’s due to go home and he doesn’t want to leave me on my own. I desperately want to hug him and say thanks, but he’s not a really huggable guy, so I just buy him a doughnut the next day. Food is the quickest way to a bookies’ heart.
Every single day I come to work after that, I’m looking for this guy. I see him all the time, walking through the shopping centre my shop’s in. I try and dart out of the way, avoiding his glare. I see him getting off a bus, screaming at random people. He gets on my bus one day, which ruins my journey and stresses me out. Is he going to turn around and notice me? Will he remember the incident?
He comes into other shops I’m working with, staring rusty daggers at me as I explain I’m not going to serve him. He stares at me and, just like that, with one customer, my entire 10-hour shift is ruined. He’s on my bus a few days after a draft version of this article is posted online. I have no luck.
When your day isn’t full of threats, it’s full of tedium. Again, depending on the shop you’re in, you’re going to be spending an awful lot of time doing nothing. It’s forbidden to look at your phone, for obtuse security reasons, so you just sit there, stare into the distance and pray for someone, anyone, to walk into the shop. You’ll be so bored you’ll start arranging and rearranging the change in your till. You’ll refill the pens, do some more staring, then go and check all the pens again, in case some of them spontaneously exploded.
There is no lunchtime or dinnertime. Your cashier left at 5pm and you’re working on your own until 10pm? Well, better make sure you’ve eaten dinner before then. Don’t eat food at the counter, that’s forbidden. Don’t leave the counter to eat food, that’s forbidden. Another fun game you’ll play is waiting for the lone customer in the shop to go away so you can use the toilet. Make sure to call out to your departing cashier to have an emergency piss, it might just come in handy.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Occasionally, when the moon turns a gorgeous shade of William Hill blue, a customer might treat you like a human being. They might say please when asking for a free drink. They may apologise for putting on a late bet. Don’t bet on it, though.
I do miss some of them, to be fair. I miss Graham, who was always polite and friendly. I miss Wayne, who got mad at me for not knowing what a Rule 4 was, then came back in the next day and apologised about a million times. I even miss Gaz, the guy who would con you the minute your back was turned, but damn it if he wasn’t charming and helped kill time with delightfully inane chatter. I miss Gary and the Chinese food he’d bring in. I even miss that mental bloke who’d dismantle his calculator and talk about aliens. I especially miss him.
I don’t miss the machine customers. Interacting with them tends to go one of three ways. They will be reasonable, but reticent to talk to you, they’ll ignore you, or they’ll be abusive. I talked to a customer about what goes through his mind when he plays the game.
“You tend to zone out when you’re playing. I try and work out how much I’m up that day, but at the end of the day, I’m usually down. I can go days without a win, even if I’m putting thousands of pounds in the machines. I don’t mean to have a go at you, most of you are good lads, but you don’t understand. Sometimes I’m putting my whole wages in there and I’ve got to go home and hide it from the missus.”
A lot of customers will talk about how the machines are rigged, how they’re stealing their money, how the cashier has a magical “lose” button they press to screw them over. I ask one customer – who often insists this goes on – why he continues to play.
“Because I’m addicted.”
Another customer talks about how he used to spend all his money on the machines, leading to him ending up “eating out of bins”. He’s unemployed and often goes without food all day so he can put a few extra quid on the horses. He’s lost friends after stealing money, he’s banned from various shops for being abusive, or trying to con staff. He’s actually one of the nicer customers I’ve worked with.
One customer who is barred for violent behaviour claims to regret his actions, but can’t control himself, or doesn’t seem to want to try.
“I can never quit. I don’t want help. I lost my wife, I don’t have a job, but I have to play. If I get kicked out of one, I’ll just go to another.”
There is another thing a customer can do to help control their habits, they can self-exclude. This involves filling out a form and providing a picture (which some won’t do) and requesting self-exclusion from up to five shops. They can do more, but they’ve got to provide a phone number and speak to a member of staff. You’ve got to hope they provide you with a good picture. I saw one self-exclusion form that had a massive black square for a picture. Others are so badly scanned it’s impossible to tell race, gender or even if they’re human.
Got the good picture? Make sure you file it away properly and make sure the shops get a copy. Then make sure to check the self-exclusion folder of every shop you work in and memorise every picture.
It’s pointless. The company can’t be held liable and if the customer decides he can’t be arsed any more, he’ll just walk back in the shop and there’s a good chance the staff will either not remember him, or not even know him. It’s all down to the self-control of the customer. If they do come in and you do recognise him, then ask him to leave? Well, there are at least 17 bookies in the city centre, so he’ll just go elsewhere. It’s toothless. There were 10,468 known self-exclusion breaches in 2009-2010. No one can come up with a solution and no one is tasked with trying.
It’s getting toward the end of the night. You’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re pissed off and you’re stressed. It’s almost time to close and then someone comes in to play the machines. You’ve already emptied all of them, but there’s nothing you can do. If you’re lucky he’ll only play the one, if you’re not, he’ll put something in all of them. You wait until you’re allowed to start politely telling them to do one, then it’s time to lock up. Make sure you’ve checked the safe. Make sure the door’s locked. Try not to be paranoid. Try not to worry about any dodgy customers waiting outside to stab you, as promised. I can only imagine the dread some colleagues have gone through after being told they were going to get raped when leaving.
You’re home dry, on the bus, and you smile, then realise you repeat the whole process all over again tomorrow. It’s a job, you tell yourself, it’s better than being on the dole, you repeat over and over again.
Some things aren’t worth the money or the hassle. Despite the 3,000 or so words of misery, it can be a fun job sometimes. You get tipped now and then, and I was lucky to work with some really nice, funny people. I’d heard horror stories about some managers, but my marketplace manager did the best with the shit he was dealt from above. Twenty years ago, I think this would have been an ideal job for me, but now it’s just not worth it. I didn’t want to end up like Andrew Iacovou, a colleague who was murdered in a Ladbrokes in south London in 2013.
He was working on his own. He shouldn’t have been.
A customer smashed his head in with a claw hammer over £300.
He lay dying behind the counter while a customer played a machine.
The member of security responding to his pressing of the panic button checked the cameras, saw nothing odd, and that was that. Andrew’s wife was interviewed by the London Evening Standard after her husband’s murderer was convicted: “He was once hit on the head and had to be taken to hospital. I was worried about it. He kept saying things were getting bad and that people had been threatening him. He has also been late home two or three times when the shop’s windows have been smashed. He shouldn’t have been left alone. If there were two people I don’t think it would have happened. There would have been someone to save him.”
Ciaran O’Brien assured me that Ladbrokes have “introduced keystroke technology and we are offering personal alarms to staff that they can wear them on their person. This is in addition to CCTV and the 24-hour central security team. We also carry out specialist interaction training including conflict management.”
It’s going to happen again eventually, but it’s not going to happen to me. I was working on my own a few months ago when a customer – another one I assumed was fine and had got along with fine before – decided to start screaming and swearing at me after I refused to refund his bet. He put his hands through the bars protecting me and threatened me.
I leave the shop, turning around every couple of seconds, making sure this idiot isn’t following me. I can’t get him out of my head and it ruins my day. It’s the last straw. I hand in my notice and have never felt better. It’s been a month since I finished and I feel happier, saner, healthier and safer.
Most important of all, I’ve still got both my ears.