For generations, Britain’s national pastime has been neither cricket nor soccer--but gambling.
Gamblers of all stripes have found the country a Mecca, with dozens of racecourses and dog tracks, thousands of bingo parlors and hundreds of thousands of slot machines.
Legalized casinos, card clubs and bookmakers have long been a feature of the British scene. Almost every pub in the land has a slot machine--called a fruit machine after the apples, lemons and oranges on the dials.
Further, there are about 9,000 betting shops throughout the country that will take a wager--not just on horses, dogs and sport contests, but on anything from the chances of your newborn child’s winning Wimbledon to whether it will snow in London on Christmas Day.
But in recent months the whole nature of betting in Britain has been changing, according to critics, gamblers and sociologists.
And it is all due to the spectacularly successful arrival of the National Lottery, which many involved in the gambling and gaming industry view as a national nemesis.
Since its inception less than a year ago, the National Lottery has taken in a staggering $4 billion, paying off prizes totaling about $1.7 billion.
“We had reasonable rules concerning gambling in this country,” says psychiatrist Emanuel Moran, chairman of the National Council on Gambling. “The government controlled gambling in a judicious way. The National Lottery--with the support of the government--has changed those rules fundamentally. It is very disturbing.”
Despite the widespread popularity of gambling here, it was generally a low-profile operation: Betting shops were subject to zoning laws, with the bookies on side streets. Entry was restricted to those 18 or older, and advertising was banned.
“The government played a discreet role and not an active one, as a neutral observer which concerned itself with preventing fraud and criminality and collecting taxes,” says Moran.
“The idea was that gambling was to be sought out, and not forced down the citizen’s throat.”
With the advent of the National Lottery, the British government has suddenly changed its role: It now officially supports a gambling game to reap profits from a weekly draw.
To increase that profit, the government allowed the lottery operator, chosen by the highest bid, to advertise on television and in newspapers.
The small screen has been covered with a blizzard of ads indicating that, for the price of a ticket--one pound, or about $1.60--anyone can win millions by hitting the lucky combination of six numbers, drawn from 1 to 49.
The government trumpeted that profits from the lottery would be funneled to worthy causes in Britain, clothing it in respectability.
Lottery tickets are sold in 65,000 outlets around Britain, usually at newsstands or candy stores frequented by young people--sites to which many gaming officials object.
The National Lottery is linked with scratch cards called “instants,” on which the purchaser rubs off six spaces over numbered sums. If three sums match, the bettor wins that amount.
“The problem is that scratch cards provide instant results,” says Moran, “and encourage the bettor immediately to buy another to see if he can hit. It is stimulated gambling.”
Brian Newland, secretary of the National Assn. of Bookmakers, argues that the sale of instants should be restricted to betting shops because “ordinary retail outlets [are] a wholly inappropriate environment.”
Casino operators complain that the government, by supporting the National Lottery, has become a competitor in the gambling business.
Tom Kelly of the Betting Offices Licensees Assn. says that 2,000 of the nation’s 9,000 betting shops could go out of business because of the lottery, costing 7,000 jobs out of about 40,000.
For many Britons, making a bet of some sort has become a daily habit: Many place bets on their favorite horses or with football pools.
Bookies are quick to make odds on politics. The Ladbrokes chain just lowered the U.S. presidential odds for Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. The two betting favorites now each have odds of 7-4, down from 9-4.
And the country has about 250,000 gaming machines, mainly in pubs, that are fed by an estimated $15 billion a year.
“There are very few Britons who have never taken a flutter of one kind or another,” observes Graham Sharpe, an official with the William Hill bookmaking chain.
But increasingly, bookmakers and casino operators complain that the gambler’s attention is focused on the one-pound-per-shot--on the National Lottery.
The lottery’s popularity has unexpected ramifications: London theater operators and some movie houses report a 20% falloff in business on what is normally their busiest night, Saturday--because the six winning lottery numbers are drawn on television at 8:15 p.m.
The country’s older bingo parlors, which number about 1,000, had received face lifts and were undergoing a revival, with 3 million people playing at least once a week and total stakes of about $1.3 billion a week.
But they have been hit hard by the arrival of the lottery, whose 30 million bettors spend about $100 million a week and $60 million more on scratch cards. The competition has driven the bingo business down 15% to 20% this year, according to John Beard of the Bingo Assn.
Similarly, London’s casinos, which last year saw wagers of more than $4 billion by about 12 million visitors, complain that the lottery is cutting into their business.
The nation’s 119 casinos, including 21 in London, are not allowed to advertise or even list their phone numbers in the yellow pages, and operate only in permitted areas.
Prospective customers from abroad must wait 48 hours before they can gain admittance after applying for “membership.”
The government, meanwhile, lavishes massive publicity on the National Lottery, the British Casino Assn. complains.
The association is striking back, pushing for the abolition of the 48-hour rule, relaxation of the ban on advertising, and permission to install more slot machines inside casinos and accept payment by credit card.
The sheer omnipresence of the National Lottery, particularly at newsstands and candy stores, is worrying people such as Moran.
“The places are full of children,” he complains. “They are introduced to the scratch cards and lottery tickets at an early age--even though they are not supposed to purchase them under the age of 16.”
His national council is not against gambling in principle, Moran emphasizes.
But now, he says, “the gambling industry insists on more and more freedom and the government seems to be going along. Where will it end? I think the government is going to rue the day it abandoned its traditional controls.”