With the UK's 2005 Gambling Act coming into force tomorrow, and online gambling hugely more popular than it was*, is it time to assess the landscape of internet betting for British consumers? Computing Which? magazine says yes, and publishes the result of its painstaking investigation today.
The article lays out the implications of the Act for UK online betting operations, and charts the chilling story of Computing Which? scribe Terrie Chilvers' flirtation with gambling addiction.
"The name's Bond ..." says one of the headers. And sure enough, Chilvers does have a go at poker - just as 007 did in the latest flick.
(Bond dorks will have been spitting into their shaken martinis over the movie, of course; until then the dashing but deadly Commander was well known to favour baccarat. There are those of us, though, who'd contend that at least poker offers a more serious chance for skill to matter over time, especially for practical psychologists - when playing in face-space, anyway - and for those who know the odds of improving one's hand in the draw.)
However, the intrepid Chilvers also snaps up a few National Lottery scratchcards - as no doubt Bond might at the garage while filling up the Aston Martin. Or maybe not. She also crosses into completely un-007 territory by having a go at bingo, squandering literally dozens of pounds - hopefully on Computing Which? expenses.
Then it gets serious, as Chilvers has a flutter on the gee-gees and starts playing with the big boys at the high-stakes online poker table.
"Slightly lost track of time trying to win some of my money back from a player that's rinsing me of all my cash," she writes.
"Determined to show Wolfo what I'm made of ..."
A good rule in life is never play poker with a man named "Wolfo." Or "Jake the Hat," "Sharkey," "Riverboat Sam," "Billy Five Aces," etc.
Sure enough, Chilvers gets skinned.
"Chasing my losses is the death of me, and I'm left without a cent to my name ... after three days of playing poker, bingo and betting I've managed to blow £250 and I have nothing to show for it ... Personally, I think I'll stick to my Saturday night lottery ticket and my annual bet on the Grand National."
Phew. Close one there.
On a more serious note, the mag also tells the tale of Mandy ("not her real name") who had a terrible time with compulsive online poker playing. She suffered marital problems and "lost contact with most of her friends over a two year period." Not to mention losing contact with loads of cash.
But the demon internet which had ensnared the hapless Mandy was also her saviour, as she found her way onto the Gordon House website (www. gordonhouse.org) an organisation that provides help and treatment for addicted gamblers.
"The forums were an absolute lifesaver," says "Mandy," suggesting that she may have replaced her poker addiction with an equally life-stealing (though rather cheaper) forum problem.
As for the Gambling Act, it doesn't do an enormous amount, as (naturally enough) it can only regulate UK businesses. If you see a Gambling Commission logo on a betting site, it means the operation is licenced in Britain and includes certain safeguard options, including links to gambling-support groups and spending limits, self-barring etc.
Of course, the commission logo also means the operator is paying a 15 per cent UK levy: or more accurately its customers are. If you really like your gambling - enough that you do it a lot - an offshore operation could well be a better bet. There is also a voluntary good-practice badging scheme for the offshore betting biz, called GamCare.
In the end, though, for most gamblers keen or casual there isn't a lot of difference in the long run between a nice well-regulated bookie/casino/whatever and a dirty operation playing with crooked software. You'll still give them money over time and come away with nothing to show for it - online, offline; horses, lottery, bingo, whatever. The only difference is how fast it happens. These businesses are there to take money away from you, not give it out.
There's an apocryphal story about a gambler of sedentary habits who was once seen running down the street. When asked why, he said he'd heard of a casino where they were playing roulette without the zero - in other words, the house was making no money whatever from running the game.
When it was pointed out that this was still hardly a worthwhile activity - over time, playing on a straight roulette wheel with no zero, a punter will lose nothing, but also win nothing - he said:
"But it's the best game in town."
And that's the truth of most gambling - even in its ideal state the punter can't actually win.
One of the few exceptions to all this is poker. By dint of learning some basic probability maths and studying the habits of fellow punters, skilled players sometimes make money from the others - despite the fact that the house and the government are taking a rakeoff on every bet. But there are easier and nicer ways to make a living than fleecing rookies at poker.
And if you just like to play cards, you could always avoid losing all your friends by playing with them: so avoiding the levy, the operator rakeoff, and the chance of being skinned by a wandering professional. You can still do it online, too, if that's what you want.®
*Because now people have internet access, duh