“I was suicidal… it took me six months to stop”. How betting on the World Cup may increase the risk of gambling addiction

Brazil’s 2014 World Cup is fast approaching and a recent poll by the Priory Group has revealed that the use of Roulette Wheel bets, known as Fixed Odds Betting Terminals or FOBTs, is likely to increase during the tournament.

The poll of 500 adults who have previously placed a bet in a betting shop during a major sporting event, showed that 60% of 18-24 year-olds had used a FOBT after placing a bet on a major sporting event, and almost 60% in that age range, thought themselves likely to do so during a major sporting event such as the World Cup.  These figures exceed any other age range and indicate that on the whole, young people are more attracted to FOBT betting when placing a bet on a major sporting event.

Immediate gratification

“I thought, this is a lot easier than betting on football - you get the results instantly.” Matt Zarb-Cousins had been a parliamentary researcher before gambling took over.  After losing over £16,000, he managed to curb his addiction, but gambling was almost the end for Matt; “I was suicidal, I had therapy and from then it took me about six months to stop.” 

Matt is now involved with the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, and is desperate to see a change.  As Matt highlighted, FOBT betting is easier and faster than betting on football and being in the bookies for a World Cup flutter may see punters tempted by the immediate results offered by a FOBT bet.

Gambling statistics


Limited restrictions

Bookmakers have been making headlines for the limited restrictions on FOBTs, also referred to as ‘B2s’ or roulette and the machines have been criticised by customers and others for potentially increasing the risk of gambling addiction. Though the industry is under guidance from the Gambling Commission, self-governance has had limited support as the way forward. 

Matt points out that the staff are in a difficult position: “To intervene if they believe someone is showing signs of addiction”, he says, “is counter-intuitive. They are trying to sell an addictive product and in many betting shops, bonuses and pay are linked to FOBT revenue”. 

How a flutter turns into a problem

Dr Gary Jackson, Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Director at The Priory Hospital Chelmsford, considers major sporting events a particularly risky time for gamblers:

 “The upcoming summer sports events and in particular, the World Cup, will see increased gambling across the board”, he points out. “Much of that will be temporary but for gamblers with a problem, that upturn in gambling may well continue”.

Dr Jackson highlights that all aspects of gambling need to be considered in trying to reduce the risk of people becoming addicted.  “From the accessibility of gambling sites to shop advertisements, to awareness campaigns about the risks involved and the availability of resources for those with a problem (or worried they may be developing one) awareness and proactive action is key.”

Gambling addiction statistics

Results from the Priory Group poll suggest that the London area was most likely to be vulnerable to FOBT gambling during a major sporting event. Wales came in at close second, despite the fact that the country will not be competing in the World Cup.  Scottish respondents, on the other hand, were the least likely to pursue FOBT bets after staking a wager on a World Cup outcome.

Regulatory issues

Adrian Parkinson previously worked for a major UK betting agent and he too plays an active role in the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.

Adrian says he could see responsible adults coming in to place a bet, and noted that, for some, the FOBTs encouraged more reckless gambling behaviour as a £2 bet turned into a £20 roulette spin.  What is more, he felt many of the customers were facing serious financial difficulty due to their increased outgoings.  Adrian believes that the increase of violence surrounding betting over the past 12 years and the upturn in the use of FOBTs are linked.

He stated: “We saw about 100 machines getting smashed up and a manager was murdered in London last year. Those issues didn’t exist prior to FOBTs.”

Additionally, the Priory Group’s research showed that the likelihood of being attracted to FOBTs having placed a bet during a major sporting event decreased, as the age of those surveyed increased. Whether this is due to the older age groups being more aware of the dangers of FOBT betting, or whether they are simply less attractive to those used to a traditional wager is unclear. 

Adrian Parkinson highlighted: “Because it was a completely new product within betting shops, the industry didn’t have any knowledge or understanding… the electronic gaming industry in particular had no electronic [FOBT] machine format so we were on a huge learning curve”.  This resulted in what Parkinson considers both the under-regulation of the industry and a problem that continues to grow.

A different perspective

A spokesperson for the Association of British Bookmakers [ABB] told us that “what is important is that people bet responsibly and only what they can afford, whether it be on the World Cup or on a machine.” 

This may seem obvious, but some players are tempted to step just one foot into the red to satisfy a craving for the thrill of gambling. The ABB told us that they have increased regulation, and that the threat of addiction is being tackled:

“Earlier this year, we introduced a tough voluntary Code of Conduct which all our members have signed up to. The code introduced mandatory breaks for all customers and customers can now set their own limits on gaming machines, no matter how small that limit may be. This has already had a significant effect, with 75% of players stopping play as soon as this limit is reached.

They recognize the concerns expressed by the responses to this survey, however, and remarked on the journey still ahead:

“We are committed to doing more and are in the process of reviewing, with Government, what additional measures we could take. A further announcement will be made later this year. Levels of problem gambling in the UK remain low, at 0.5 %, but as an industry one problem gambler is one too many, which is why we continue to work closely with Government.”


Playing roulette is a more solitary experience than a bet on the World Cup or another major event.

 “It’s not like having a bet on the horses where you stand and watch the race”, Parkinson told us, “it’s a very solitary experience.”

 Due to the high-stake, high-speed nature of the machines, players can potentially lose hundreds of pounds over a period of only minutes. But the odds are such that a 5p return on a £5 investment could in some cases, be enough to keep gamblers hooked.

Signs and symptoms

The thrill of gambling is linked to the natural high provoked by risk-taking.  The effect in some cases is similar to that of stimulant drugs. If you are worried that you or a friend or a relative has a gambling problem, Dr Jackson highlights the main symptoms and patterns of behaviour to be aware of:

  • Spending lots of time on internet gambling sites.
  • Loss of interest in other hobbies.
  • Increasing bets to recoup lost money.
  • Spending significant amounts of time in betting shops.
  • Constant interest in gambling articles and literature.
  • Unexplained debt.
  • Stealing money to enable gambling.
  • Mood swings.
  • Becoming more secretive and concealing time spent betting.

If you are concerned, Dr Jackson offers this advice to help those with a gambling problem:

“Help them by encouraging them to consider the downsides to their addiction”. And to the sufferer themselves, he advises: “Be open about bank accounts, consider handing over credit and debit cards to a trusted family member, manage finances with a family member and consider attending Gamblers Anonymous or seeking other addictions specialist help.”

If you have concerns about a gambling problem, for yourself or a family member or friend then please call: 0845 277 4679.