How the Brits Gamble

To Americans, the British approach to gambling seems paradoxical. Their casinos—limited in size by regulatory fiat—average less than two-dozen table games, mostly roulette, and 20 slot machines. Casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, by contrast, average about 100 tables and 2,000 slots.

The result is a casino industry that is tiny by American standards. British casinos are far more niche than ones in Las Vegas or other places in the U.S. With a small spread of games, few slot machines and not much to offer outside of gaming, there’s just not much of a reason for a non-gambler to spend much time there. It’s the photographic negative of Strip casinos, which seem to be about everything but gambling these days.

But take a walk down any major London street, and you’ll run across one or more betting parlors before you reach the end of the block; there are more than 9,000 of them in the U.K.. These storefronts offer the chance to wager on a variety of sports as well as horse racing, and in recent years have come to feature up to four electronic gaming devices, which mostly feature roulette.

A few national chains that dominate the betting scene; William Hill, which operates 164 sports-betting locations in Nevada, is one of them. And according to the U.K.’s Gambling Commission, sports betting is flourishing with no obvious ill effects on the population or sport.

Betting shops, though, are just the tip of the iceberg. Since 2005, the British have been betting online and on their mobile devices in ways that would boggle even the most jaded Nevadan. There’s actually something that is best described as a roulette infomercial playing on not-so-late-night TV; it features a live roulette game that players can bet on from home using their mobile phones. That’s right: Roulette on TV; the closest anyone in the U.S. has gotten to that is those Player’s Club commercials from the 1980s starring Telly Savalas. Meanwhile, 12 percent of British betting is done remotely, while U.S. online gaming remains more concept than reality. This is gambling at its most liberated—far more in-your-face than even Nevada, where regulators have only recently approved mobile betting on devices such as Cantor Gaming’s eDeck in hotel rooms.

Casinos represent only 15 percent of the U.K. gambling market, compared with 60 percent in the U.S. Betting, chiefly on sports, is 52 percent of the U.K. total. In the U.S., where it’s legal only in Nevada, sports wagering is about one-tenth of one percent of the annual $100 billion spent on gambling.

It’s ironic that the form of gambling that most Americans believe is the most beneficial to communities—casino gaming—is stifled in the U.K. by size limits preventing the construction of Las Vegas-style tourist meccas, while sports betting— which the U.S. government treats as gingerly as toxic waste—is almost universally available for the British.

So while the small casinos suggest an overregulated market hindered by unnecessary restrictions, it’s actually much easier to place bets on sports or via mobile devices in Britain than it is in the United States.

While that suggests a regulatory model that missed the boat on casinos (the U.K. still doesn’t have its single legislatively approved “super casino,” which means something a little smaller than Downtown’s El Cortez), these restrictions might have paradoxically made it easier for Britain to move into the digital age. When players who really want to gamble can do it as easily on their phone as on a slot machine, it doesn’t make sense to invest in hundreds of machines for a casino. Britons who want to gamble—whether it’s on televised roulette, sports or the lottery—have ready access. In many ways, it’s a far more sensible solution than anything on this side of the pond.

U.K. casinos will never be one-stop entertainment shops like those in Las Vegas or Macau, or even Atlantic City or Biloxi. But there’s no reason that they should be. Modern U.S. casinos developed in response to the specific conditions of post-war America, which demanded the compartmentalizing of gambling in self-contained resorts. That those resorts have been successfully exported to Asia shows that the model works in other cultures, but Britain is proof that there’s more than one way to bet.

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