‘Having worked in the casino business, the cause of his stress could be a betting thing. James served on a cross-party committee. The gambling lobby in Gibraltar wasn’t too thrilled about the Referendum result as it would mean the country would leave the EU. Most of their staff travelled in daily from Spain. So this crowd were giving James plenty of stick for his vote in favour of Brexit. But they’d talked about that often enough between them. Couldn’t be the gaming bunch.’

The above is from my book. James Harrington MP is a character in The Missing Activist and his wife Bea is trying to find the reason for his sudden moodiness and withdrawal from her.  The gambling lobby is a powerful set. It’s fiction. But in real life something similar is going on. The current row over Fixed Odds Betting.

Sports minister Tracey Crouch has just resigned over what she sees as a deliberate delay to bring forward a crackdown on maximum stakes for fixed-odds betting machines.

Gambling — whether it be the lottery, scratch cards, casino games, bingo, slot machines, Internet poker, or sports betting — is more acceptable and accessible than ever before. Dubbed the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling.

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An FOBT is a touch-screen machine that allows players to bet on the outcome of various games such as roulette. They are said to be dangerously addictive and currently allow punters to stake up to £100 every 20 seconds – and theoretically gamble away £18,000 an hour. Campaigners and several MPs have been calling for ages for this limit to be reduced to £2. The Gambling Commission wanted it set to £30 (which allows punters to gamble £5,400 an hour). Their side of it is that it’s entertainment and terminals generate more than £1.8bn in tax revenue (which goes towards public services required to treat the fallout of the addictions which are in the minority.)

But what is the cross over between entering a competition on the back of a cereal box to win a free plastic beaker and a FOBT? Everything. Start with involvement, anticipation, expectation. A little gambling is a satisfying recreational activity. It feels good to win. Anything! Getting something in the department store you expect to pay full price for at an unexpected discount gives a thrill. It’s the same sensation as finding something you’ve lost for years, like a pair of leather gloves buried deep in an old coat pocket. This is because it involves the ventral striatum, located deep inside the brain, which has been termed the brain’s reward centre.

Ditto having a play on a slot machine and having it pay out. But the problem begins with repetition. There are only so many pairs of gloves or house keys to lose, but there are endless bets you can place. And so quickly.  FOBTs don’t produce an evening’s entertainment (like winning in a pub quiz over several hours). They strip you in seconds. (Where did that go?) Or the opposite. In minutes you can be loaded. Then the more times you win £10, the less buzz you get from it. Only £20 feels great.  So you increase the stakes. And then there’s the loss factor.  If you start to lose, that “high” won’t come back until you’ve got every bit of it back. And more some!  And on and on, so it goes. Soon you are numbing the reward processing centre that made you feel so good only minutes ago and now you feel nothing at all. Speed is the problem. It’s not surprising that for somewhat starts out as a five minute play can result in a serious psychiatric disorder.  And even suicide.

Nothing tests a politician like their views on issues like this and it is unsurprising conservative minister Tracy Crouch has earned an outpouring of public respect for her principled decision to step down from office.  For more on what happens to James Harrington MP, read The Missing Activist.

The Missing Activist published by New Century is available at bookshops and online. Price £9.99. Ebook £2.99.