An Ace In The Hole

If you’re a subscriber to this blog you’ll know that after teaching in mainstream education for 21 years I recently joined Exa Education, a business providing internet connections to thousands of schools across the UK. Part of my role is to promote safe, secure and appropriate use of technology.

As I gaze down into the street from my window in Exa’s new office building in Bradford, I see patrons frequent the casino opposite throughout the day. I had occasion to visit Napoleons Casino myself recently while investigating suitable conference venues. Having never visited a casino before, I found the experience quite surreal. I’ve never been attracted by the lure of gambling since logic dictates to me that I would inevitably end up with less money than when I first started.

In my attempts to understand a little more how the business world operates, I’ve recently attended some networking events of a different kind. Last week at one of these events called “Rise & Grind” in Preston, I learned about the darker side of gambling.

The speaker at this event was Paul Buck, a reformed gambler who spared very few details as he described his desperate riches to ruins journey. Paul didn’t need to resort to using jokes or amusing anecdotes to engage audience interest, as soon as he started telling us his story, we were all captivated.

Screenshot 2016-04-11 07.38.35.pngPaul told how between 2003 and 2011 he led what many of us would describe as an extremely successful professional life within banking and financial services complete with a model home life. However, deep below this shiny exterior, he maintained a secret gambling habit from his family and work colleagues. This sinister lifestyle regularly included trips to casinos in Las Vegas, Monte Carlo and extended to buying racehorses and greyhounds. He revealed just how corrupt the gambling profession is by describing various scams he was involved in to increase his winnings, in spite of this, his gambling habit cost him £4.8 million pounds.

Paul hadn’t fully realised the severity of his addiction until one morning in November 2011 when he read a newspaper article analysing the tragic suicide of sports celebrity Gary Speed. The article suggested a pathological gambling addiction as a possible motive that led Speed to take his own life. In the days that followed, Paul’s own life took a sudden and unpredictable turn. Following an aborted suicide attempt at work, he was compelled to admit his addiction to his close family. After admitting to a senior colleague that he had managed to steal £430,000 from the high street bank in which he worked to fund his habit, he was later convicted of fraud and spent 2 years 8 months in prison serving out his sentence. Pathological gamblers will stop at nothing to fund their habit.

Since leaving prison, Paul has managed to turn his experiences into a positive. Through EPIC Risk Management, Paul now advises organisations how to minimise the risk that work-related gambling poses to their business. He estimates that there are 500,000 problem gamblers in the UK, with 60,000 of these aged 11 to 15 years old. While drink and drug addictions display outwardly physical signs that family, friends and colleagues will spot, a gambling addiction is less easy to detect. Gambling related fraud is the fastest growing reason why people go to prison. This BBC News story reports a rise in the number of 18 to 35-year-olds contacting the UK’s leading gambling advice service  [].

I’ve personally seen a huge rise in advertising of online gambling over the last 3 years and observed the effects of mobile gaming on youngsters and adults. I wonder how much of a tendency there is for casual players of games like Bejeweled to develop into problem gamblers. One gambling addict told the BBC how he lost £400,000 on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) []. The gambling machines allow players to place up to £18,000 per hour in bets. [].

In my Computing classroom, I’ve been able to use a text-based programming language called Python to demonstrate how gambling algorithms work. Although FOBTs and online gambling websites use complicated algorithms to ensure the “bank always wins”, with my classes I have managed to demonstrate how a simple algorithm that mimics a pseudo random coin-flip, can be easily manipulated to ensure that the computer has a much greater chance of beating a player.

Some examples:

Some of the exercises I’ve asked my pupils to do:

  1. Build a model of a coin flip algorithm, eg. heads or tails
  2. Modify it so that the computer has a greater chance of beating the player
  3. What ethical and moral issues does this raise?
  4. Give examples where gambling algorithms like this might be used online
  5. Who might use these? (Caution pupils against naming individuals)
  6. What risks do these gambling sites pose to you, your friends and family?
  7. Who are Gamble Aware and what is their purpose?

I’d be interested to hear if anyone has tried something like this in their class, if you ever look at the risks of gambling and if you would be interested in developing this further into a set of resources. If you have any resources worth including, please suggest them and I’ll add to the list below.