There has been a lot of discussion recently about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) – or pokies – and their impact on society. Singled out as the “crack cocaine” of the gambling world for their easily accessible, action-packed offerings of games of chance, councils recently rallied together in an attempt to instil stricter restraints on the machines. A campaign to reduce the maximum bet of each spin to just £2 has been gaining plenty of traction, spearheaded by Newham council and recently backed by Tory MP Eric Pickles, but experts have suggested this may not be necessary. Instead, a simple form of therapy that explains to problem gamblers what they are doing wrong could be enough, according to recent findings.
The Gambling Treatment Centre at Sydney University is leading the way in a movement that is simultaneously ground-breaking and incredibly straightforward. The overall premises involves explaining the idea of chance or randomness to the patients, helping them to understand that every time they spin the enticing reels of the pokie they are relying on no logic or patterns, and that any such patterns are created in their minds. This, in conjunction with an explanation about the nature of FOBTs and how they work, is the extent of the therapy.
Every single person that we’ve treated who plays poker machines has come in with that belief. A belief that the more losing that occurs, the closer you are to winning” said Dr Anjoul, one of the leading figures at the Gambling Treatment Centre.
“So when you’re down you continue to gamble because you think a machine is due to pay. And when you’re up you continue to gamble because you think it will pay more.”
Naturally, this isn’t the case, and it is precisely this fact that Dr Anjoul aims to drum home when treating his patients. He doesn’t shy away from the fact that there will be winners, but instead tries to rationalise that reward in terms of the overall picture.
“[The machines] come with no predictability whatsoever,” he continues. “In other words, you’re playing the machine under false pretences.
“Yes it is the case that if you play a machine long enough you will eventually find yourself with a fairly big win. What’s missing from that whole proposition is, how long did it take you to get there? What was the cost?
“What you’ll realise is that across your lifetime, your losses far exceed anything you could possibly make in a discrete period.”
It is sound advice that many of us already know, yet Dr Anjoul believes that a thorough explanation of the fundamentals of gambling and chance may be enough to deter problem gamblers from committing too much of their money to the FOBTs. Furthermore, patients are not given a strict ban on gambling, but instead simply advised to keep it in perspective. This is in contrast to more traditional treatments which acknowledge gambling as an addiction.
Knowing that patients can leave without having to walk away from gambling forever may serve as a stronger incentive for those who don’t feel as if they want to quit, but simply cut down on their gambling. One such patient is Anthony O’Sullivan, who walked into the GTC on the back of losses in excess of $500,000 and now considers himself cured.
Speaking on his introduction to gambling, O’Sullivan said: “Dad used to hold the bag for a bookie and he used to give me $2 to put a bet on as a kid so growing up it was always part of me. It became a problem when he started earning money. I’d be going to the ATM at lunchtime, getting all my money out, putting it all through the poker machines or on the horses. It’d be gone by the end of lunch and I’d be back at work.”
Despite admitting to feelings of guilt and remorse he was unable to curb his habit, until he found Dr Anjoul and co.
“It makes you realise what you’re up against and you go, it’s not worth it” O’Sullivan concluded. “I’m feeling pretty good about myself.”
O’Sullivan is not an isolated success story, either. Rowan Burckhardt, a psychologist at GTC, claims that the success rate is not far away from the 100% mark.
“The success rate is really high,” Burckhardt said. “About 90-95% of my clients either stops or gets their gambling right down to a level they want to be doing.”
Once again, Burckhardt attributes this magnificent rate of success down to a fundamental and simplistic alteration in the mind-set.
“If we believe we are going to win, we get excited,” he said. “If we don’t believe we are going to win, we don’t get excited and it becomes almost boring.”
It is telling that the research is taking place in Australia. The country has a notorious issue with pokies, with $19 billion being spent on gambling per annum in the country. But the fact that the research seems straightforward, rational and incredibly successful is a positive sign for things to come. If the methods are proven to work over time then the option of expanding their scope across the country could prove very fruitful in keeping Australia’s problem gambling in check, and it would not be a surprise to see similar treatments quickly make their way across international borders.