When the fun stops, stop.â€ This was the tagline of a recent responsible gambling campaign paid for by Paddy Power and its competitors in the UK.
It was an eye-catching initiative â€” but not half as eye-catching as the betting industryâ€™s constant press releases, carried as news by many outlets, about the lucky punter who struck it rich through dumb luck on a football accumulator.
Paddy Powerâ€™s online â€œpunting hall of fameâ€ is regularly updated with tales of gamblers who turned â‚¬1 into â‚¬38,000 with a lucky run.
The companyâ€™s spokesman, also called Paddy Power, told The Sunday Times in March that he was not selling a dream, just entertainment. For every â‚¬100 you bet he wants to take â‚¬10, and you will be happy for him to have it because youâ€™ve been entertained along the way. Itâ€™s all a bit of fun.
What he failed to mention was that if you start to take home a bit more than â‚¬90 out of every â‚¬100, the companyâ€™s risk management team may spring into action.
Todayâ€™s revelations in The Times showing that winning punters are severely restricted suggest all is not quite as fun as it seems in Power Tower, where pre-tax profits for 2014 reached â‚¬167 million. It is a business and its main activity is making money.
There have been high-profile cases of people losing it all, and more besides, by betting away their savings but the PR departments of large bookmakers do not seem as keen on these stories. When that happens, they do not comment on individual cases.
Gambling has insidiously turned from an on-track treat to part of everyday life. Through online services, punters have access to a tapestry of markets at every hour of the day or night. When there are no races left to run, you can put your real money on a virtual horse race, tennis match or football game.
If you want to get your entertainment by looking at form guides, statistics or track history, the bookmakers are less welcoming. Knowledgeable, or some might say responsible, gamblers can find themselves limited to betting in cents on a race.
In New South Wales, Australia, which like Ireland has a strong horse racing culture, bookmakers have been regulated. If you want to be a bookmaker there, you have to take a bet up to a certain limit on horse racing.
No one is suggesting that bookmakers are obliged to take every bet, but they should be required to take the same bet off every person. They should also be required to be transparent about the restrictions they place on gamblers. Basic questions we asked went unanswered. Specific allegations were responded to with general replies.
The companies claim they are protecting themselves against â€œinside informationâ€ and arbitrage betting, the practice of placing bets on all possible outcomes of an event at odds that guarantee profit.
None of the gamblers who spoke to The Times used arbitrage betting. Most of them were just people who fancied themselves as bright enough to beat the bookies.