Tim set aside $50 each week on an online casino, mostly playing roulette and blackjack. He won some; he lost some. Once he reached two hours of play or lost his $50, he quit until next week. It was a modest but healthy approach to gambling.
But on a Wednesday in March, Tim lost $50 and deposited $100 more, then another $100, losing $250 during almost three hours of play. Still somewhat modest, but the change set off alarms for the operator about whether the healthy approach is breaking down. Did he come into a windfall from his dearly departed aunt, or did he lose his job and is drowning his blues in blackjack?
Tim’s tale paints a picture of how gambling should work, where the potential to go from contented and healthy gambler to problem gambler can be stymied by a system smart enough to step up early in the game.
One of the latest buzz phrases in this end of the betting world is safer gambling, which speaks to a variety of efforts to ward off gambling harm or addiction. It’s about knowing the rules of the game. About setting limits. About working with casinos and sportsbooks—land-based or online—to keep harm at bay.
“Safer gambling is at the heart of everything we do as a business,” says Grainne Hurst, director corporate affairs, Entain PLC, who oversees safer gambling strategy in regions not part of the Americas.
Some would call that responsible gambling. The goals are pretty much the same, but the definition of each is nuanced, says Alan M.
Feldman, distinguished fellow, responsible gaming, at the International Gaming Institute, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“When talking to consumers, the difference between safer gambling and responsible gambling may be subtle. But in a public health context it’s quite substantive,” he says.
Responsible gambling is defined as being a shared responsibility among a wide variety of stakeholders with the individual like Tim at the center, Feldman says. That does not place the responsibility only on the individual, but the individual must be in control when it comes to decisions. “You cannot impose something on the individual he won’t accept or do. Individual choice is the fundamental part of treatment protocols,” Feldman says.
“Safer gambling places the individual alongside all other stakeholders equally.”
The challenge of that is that the individuals still must be in control of their own decisions about gambling.
“What concerns some is the potential to substitute safer gambling for responsible gambling, thus breaking with years of service,” says Keith S. Whyte, executive director, National Council on Problem Gambling. “Responsible gambling has taken 50 years to evolve. The vast majority of operators accept it as part of doing business.”
Martin Lycka prefers the phrase sustainable gambling.
“In a sustainable marketplace we have happy customers and healthy customers. Prevention and education keep them healthy and happy,” says Lycka, Entain senior vice president for American regulatory affairs and responsible gambling.
But despite good intentions—whether responsible, safer or sustainable— sometimes gamblers become a problem to themselves.
“As an operator, we work with a variety of organizations to ensure we can provide the best support. We apply a combined approach of tailored messaging and personalized interactions. As a result, 91 percent of those customers who set limits decreased their risk level while continuing to play—showing its effectiveness,” Hurst says.
Sustainable gambling looks toward divergence from the norm, Lycka says: from two hours of play to four hours; from $150 a month to $600. Data- based affordability checks give operators even more leverage to steer towards responsible gambling.
Spotting signs of risk. Interacting. Intervening.
“Should an individual make us aware of any problems they are having with gambling, or should we identify any issues, we will take a number of actions to mitigate further harm and ensure that individual receives the support they need,” Hurst says.
Last year, Entain rolled out the Advanced Responsibility and Care program (ARC).
ARC is a pioneering approach to customer protection, limiting exposure to risk at an individual level. The program relies on behavioral indicators, data science and analytics to assess risk in betting and gambling. ARC works behind the scenes to intervene before a problem develops, she says.
To develop ARC, Entain relied on insight from Harvard Medical School Faculty, Division on Addiction, and Dr. Mark Griffiths, a distinguished professor of behavioral addiction and psychology, as well as insight from individuals.
Making a Commitment
Entain is not alone in dealing with risk.
Most major gaming companies have a director of responsible gambling, who trains employees and uses data to collect markers of harm as well, Whyte says. These demonstrate responsible gambling performance, but also mitigate the rate of problems.
It doesn’t always work out the way it should.
“We know that risk for gambling problems increased by 50 percent between 2018 and 2021, during the pandemic and the expansion of sports betting and online gambling,” Whyte says. “It’s not possible to untangle how much each of those three things affected the increase. Risk is trending upwards, and it will create challenges.”
This is a national public health issue, Whyte says. Yet too many states have no funding for responsible gambling.
“We said 1 percent of gaming revenue would net a good baseline. The money is there. It’s a matter of will in public policy,” he says.
In the U.K., affordability checks have gained some momentum in making gambling more responsible, though even there it has its detractors. Affordability checks require patrons to prove they have the wherewithal to gamble and how much of that wherewithal they can afford.
“The U.S. won’t look to affordability checks,” Whyte says. “We’re on the free market system. Checking for credit worthiness is voluntary, as in extending credit for high-limit players.”
Affordability checks can be intrusive and a bit offensive, Feldman says. He prefers patterns, or what Lycka calls divergence.
If a bettor rarely shows up to place a bet midweek and only bets on big games like playoffs, and then bets on several regular season games on a Wednesday, that should be a flag, Feldman says.
“Someone should check on me,” he explains. “Make a note, put it in the file. If I bet $50 a week and it becomes $200 a week, make another call. Online companies can look at that.”
Online operators run something akin to an affordability check on players to see if they have the financial capability to play at a certain level. As a person gambles, online operators are gathering information on customer behavior, on sources of funds to assess their risk.
“If you identify the principles behind affordability checks, you see they are sensible. The customer is obliged only to reveal what is necessary,” Lycka says. “You try to achieve sustainable gambling with happy and healthy customers. The onus is shared between operator and individual.”
The individual makes informed decisions on the website when engaged. But operators see the data on the website and detect potential problems and advise about available tools, he says.
The online screen can show more than wins and losses and time spent. It’s reasonable to follow the advice of operators offered on the screen. If ignored, more drastic measures can be taken, Lycka says.
Making a Difference
In early March, Entain Foundation U.S., the nonprofit dedicated to responsible gambling, launched the second edition of Gamble Responsibly America. Funded by Entain’s gaming group, the edition features a mobile app offering practical tools, assistance, and advice to anyone facing potential issues with problem gambling. The information comes in English, Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin.
The improvements to the app focus on two areas: greater educational information about problem gambling, and more tools for users to access help and support. Discussions revolve around disordered gambling, behavioral markers of concern, establishing limits, frequently asked questions, and informative videos about responsible gambling, the website says.
The app also provides self-assessment tools, including a daily gambling diary, and includes a live chat feature and links to support services and organizations like Kindbridge.
Kindbridge provides access to online professional mental health counselors and specialized support services. Last year, Kindbridge and the Entain Foundation U.S. partnered with Game Quitters on the Mind Your Game campaign related to potential gambling harms associated with esports.
The app also links to My Wager Score, a platform designed to protect sports bettors’ financial health and minimize the risk of harmful play using real-time affordability data on how much you can afford. It was developed by former NBA player Charles Oakley and his business partner.
“Our goal with the app is simple: to educate users on safe gambling habits and provide the necessary tools and resources to allow users to access help and support instantly,” Lycka says.
Regardless of what you call it, gambling as a practice should be as safe as possible. Gamblers should be of a certain age, and able to afford what they are doing. Operators should have responsibility to ensure the process is safe from harm.
But it’s not so cut and dried, Feldman says. The biggest challenge is that addiction is a hidden disorder. You can’t see it in their behavior, you can’t smell it on their breath.
“People are incredibly skilled in hiding it,” Feldman says.
Casinos do not want gambling addicts or problem gamblers in their building. If there were some means to more accurately identify them, they would kick them out. They are not good customers.
“We want a healthy person who can afford this activity,” Feldman says. “It’s what any business wants.”
Any experienced gambler knows good bets and bad bets and can distinguish one being safer than another.
“The biggest advice is to set a budget and time limit and stick to both,” Feldman says.